BWW Interviews: J. Hernandez Discusses His Work on the Shakespearean Stage
This is the second interview in a six part series for Shakespeare Spotlight featuring players of Shakespeare.
J. Hernandez never really expected to become a professional actor. "Personally, I didn't think I was very good at it," he laughs. Fortunately, others disagreed. Tonight, he opens in FROST/NIXON at New City Stage Company in Philadelphia. For Hernandez, who specializes in classical theatre, it marks a significant transition. It is his first role in a contemporary play in five years. Since earning his MFA at the University of Virginia in 2008, Hernandez has been in steady demand on the Shakespearean stage. He will return to that familiar territory later this season in the role of Mercutio for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's ROMEO AND JULIET.
DC: As a Hispanic actor, how has your ethnicity affected your career? Has it helped you or limited you in the classical theatre?
The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that you can be any color, age, race, really anything. You can play anyone on the Shakespearean stage. I think that's one thing that drove me to the classics. I can play a king if I choose because there's nothing in the play that says that Henry V has to have blond hair and a fair complexion.
The only [requirement] we have that Shakespeare has set down for us is the words. The text is the most important thing. And if an actor has the facility to make those words known to an audience in a clear, concise way, they've already won the battle.
DC: You have played several of Shakespeare's villains, most recently Iago for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. With which Shakespearean role do you most identify?
Probably Romeo, which is going to sound hilarious because I've never played this guy. As far as J Hernandez in real life, I'm more of a Romeo guy. Everything is just too much for me. However, you get me onstage and I can play the Machiavell like nobody's business.
With Iago, I knew I'd love to play the role but I didn't think anyone would ever cast me. I saw myself as more of a Roderigo. But I got a call from a friend of mine, [Tony Award nominee] Forrest McClendon. He said, "Look, love, we're looking for an Iago and I told the Artistic Director, 'You've got to look at this Hispanic cat.'" And I was like, "Iago? Do you really think you have the right guy for that?"
I was in pre-production for Iago from November until February then in actual rehearsal from February to March. The production ran from March until the end of May. Every day was pure Iago work. It was incredibly rewarding, but it was tough. It really does take its toll on you. I found myself doing a lot of things that I wouldn't normally do in real life. I found myself eavesdropping a lot, even on the most mundane [conversations]. It was just interesting to me as an outside party to listen in on what someone was going to have for dinner that night. And my green-eyed monster just came out of the core of me.
I haven't been cast in a lot of Shakespearean comedies. I would love to give somebody like Touchstone (In AS YOU LIKE IT) a shot. But if you look at me, you'd probably say, "That's a total Jaques." But I like to have fun! Of course, Jaques can be a laugh riot depending on delivery and the journey that the director wants Jaques to take. But there's so much nimble fun in somebody like Touchstone. That's something that I could definitely use after playing somebody as heavy as Iago.
DC: Your availability for the roles in Philadelphia occurred because of the cancellation of North Carolina Shakespeare Festival's season, due to a funding shortfall. What is the status of your involvement with NC Shakes?
I've been working with the company since 2009. Right now is a tumultuous time because one of our main contributors backed out. But North Carolina Shakespeare is persevering. Rather than close the doors, we've refocused on what we're trying to do for the community and the state of North Carolina. The stage productions for this year are on hiatus, so we've directed all of our attention to education.