Interview – actor and teacher Philip Hernandez

Helping people do what they love is my way of creating exponential happiness.
– philip Hernandez

Philip Hernandez, perhaps best known as the only man in Broadway history to play both Jean Valjean and Javert in Les Miserables, is a professional actor and teacher who has been in the business for over 30 years. Most recently, he can be seen in a recurring role on Fox’s Gotham as the Medical Examiner. His longevity and credits are impressive, but what I find most remarkable about Hernandez is his passion for the art of acting. His personal website is full of flattering testimonials from his students, and it’s clear from the answers below that he genuinely enjoys what he does and is willing to share it with others. The following interview is not only a glimpse into the life of a successful actor, but also is full of advice and lessons for anyone interested in the performing arts.

  • THEATERIFIC: I read that you didn’t start acting until college. How did you get into your first show, and were there any indications of talent or desire at a young age?

PHILIP HERNANDEZ: I got my first show by helping my college roommate run lines for his audition.  I tagged along and got cast.  The play was Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I played Big Daddy, he played Brick. I was always musical, sang in high school choir and I sought out a voice teacher in New York City and started lessons at 16.

  • Are there any teachers or mentors that you’ve worked with, or continue to work with, who had profound effects on your development as an actor? What lessons or wisdom do you carry with you today as a result of your work with them?

I had a third grade trumpet teacher, Peter Cerillo, who told me I was talented and that I would be a leader of men.  I never forgot that.  Ed Pixley, my college play analysis teacher, opened my eyes to the depth of writing in great plays and taught me how to instinctively find a point of entry into that world. I had a voice teacher in Dallas, Texas, Anne Jackson, who gave me the foundation of my vocal technique when I was starting out after college.  Larry Moss, my acting coach for several years in New York, showed me a way into myself and helped me learn to share my truth. Every time I work with a student I joyfully repay a small part of the huge debt I owe these great teachers.  By taking the time to be a positive force in my life they inspire me to be my best by following their example.

  • Kiss of the Spiderwoman was your first Broadway production. What was the path to Broadway like? What steps did you take and what personal milestones did you achieve before you were cast in Kiss?

I graduated from college. I moved to Dallas. I never stopped studying. I waited tables. I got experience working in theatre, commercials, industrial films, dinner theatre and as a singing waiter for a time. I got burnt out on waiting tables and worked as a roofer. I got my equity card. I moved to New York. I waited tables. I found a great acting teacher. I found a great singing teacher. I never stopped studying. I read plays, worked scenes and monologues and learned roles for which I had not yet been cast. I worked as a choral singer. I decided I would rather starve than wait another table. I worked Off-Off Broadway for no money. I worked Off-Off Broadway for a little money. I got cast in a national tour. I got cast in another national tour. I got cast in another national tour. I did readings. I did workshops. I got cast in a workshop production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. It closed. I went on a European tour. I got a call in Europe asking if I would like to audition for the out-of-town tryout of Kiss of the Spiderwoman in Toronto. I left the European tour right before Milan (ouch). I auditioned for Kiss. I got the role (Thank God!). I went with the Original Cast to Toronto for six months. I went with the Original Cast to London for six months. I opened on Broadway as an Original Cast member! I was an overnight success!

  • In addition to acting, have you produced or directed theatrical productions before? If so, how can you compare the experiences of being responsible for yourself on stage, and responsible for the whole production off stage?

I have not sought work as a director.  I have directed hundreds of scenes in class and I did have an opportunity to direct one professional production in New York which was great fun and was very well received.  For several years I was the Executive Producer of an award-winning Shakespeare Company in New York.  It was eye-opening.  As an actor you’re only responsible for yourself.  As a producer, I was responsible for everything from securing rehearsal and performance space, renting sound and lighting equipment, coordinating load-ins and volunteers to grant writing, fundraising, publicity and more.  I realized what a luxury it is to be an actor and I knew something in me had fundamentally changed the day an actor approached me asking if I could change the time of the tech rehearsal because his parents would be in town.  He had no clue how many hours of preparation and coordination of time, schedules and equipment that went into making a tech happen.  I politely said no, turned around, rolled my eyes and muttered to myself “Ugh, Actors!”

  • How did you land Les Miserables, which was (and still is) a hugely popular production? In addition, how did you get the opportunity to play both Jean Valjean and Javert?

Two weeks before Kiss of the Spiderwoman closed on Broadway I got a call to audition for an opening for Javert in the road company of Les Miz.  I prepared the material, went in and did well but the director said he thought I might be a Valjean and asked me to come back and sing for that.  I told him I needed some time to get that role into my voice and he said to come back when I was ready.  They called a couple weeks later asking if I was ready to come back in.  I was working my tail off preparing the material, but I wasn’t ready to nail it yet so I said no.  When they called a week later I still wasn’t ready and I said no again.  A week later they called again and I couldn’t say no again so I crossed my fingers, went in, and got the part.

After I had played Valjean, an opportunity to audition for Javert came up and I went in for it. I did well and I got that part, too. That was cool because no one had ever played both roles before.

Philip as Jean Valjean
Hernandez as Jean Valjean
  • What were the challenges of playing 2 different parts in the same play (in Les Miserables)? How were you able to make each role unique despite being so familiar with the production?

“The Confrontation,” when Valjean and Javert are talking to singing at the same time was a little mind blowing at first.  Making each character unique was easy.  They’re very different men physically. They’re flip sides of the same coin.  Both men are very pious but the lens through which they see the world is very different.  They’re like Old Testament and New Testament.

Philip as Javert
Hernandez as Javert
  • Also, since you joined the cast of Les Miserables a decade after it opened, how did you avoid falling into the trap of simply copying the actors that came before you? How could you be sure your characters were special and memorable?

I see kids looking up performances on YouTube and imitating them and it’s a terrible trap.  I never approach a role based on what someone else has done.  I don’t know how to play that.  I read what’s in the text and listen to what speaks to me.  How do I see their passion, their need? How am I like them?  How am I different?  How can I come to understand, empathize with and appreciate our differences?  I can only tell my story.  That’s the show I create.

For instance, there’s a moment in the prologue when Valjean is roaming the countryside for the first time after having being in prison for 19 years. He comes upon a stream reaches down takes drink and says “Drink from the pool, how clean the taste. Never forget the years the waste nor forgive them for what they’ve done.  They are the guilty, everyone!”  The transition from “how clean the taste” to “never forget” was interesting to me.  It was so strong and sudden.  What was the event that prompted the switch from cool, clean water to wasted years?  In rehearsal, I imagined myself drinking from a pool of water and  I suddenly realized I could see my reflection in it.  I saw a dirty, hardened, middle aged man of 40 looking back at me when the last time I had seen my reflection I saw a young man of 21.  I touched my face.  Shock, sadness, then anger flooded over me.  It was a huge, personal moment and I understood the transition.  The director said he had not seen a Valjean see their reflection in the pool before.  Had I not taken the time to explore that transition, I would not have made it my own.  I never stopped asking questions and exploring things in the text and score.  Seemingly dissonant interval leaps or interesting word choices were clues to what I was thinking or feeling.  I also stole everything I thought was great that worked for me.

  • Sometimes when people try to pursue their passions for financial gain, the concept of “work” takes over and some enjoyment is lost. How do you find the balance between doing something professionally and still maintain the passion that attracted you to it in the first place?

I have been a professional actor and teacher for many, many years and I’m still passionate about this craft, sharing what I’ve learned and passing it on to whoever cares enough to learn it.  I’m lucky to be in a business where we have the power to change people’s lives with our work.  It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.  Every performance I do onstage could be someone’s first time seeing live theatre.  Every time I work with a student could be a breakthrough session or one in which they discover something new about themselves or learn something that helps them land a career changing role. It’s hard not to love being part of that.  Helping people do what they love is my way of creating exponential happiness.

  • What do you consider to be the major differences between stage acting and screen acting, and how do you adjust your technique appropriately for each?

Everyone worries they’ll be “too big” on camera so they’ll often choose to play it safe, keep things really small, speak in whispered tones and don’t seem to have a point of view or care about much of anything in particular. It’s a big trap.  Think of the variety of great film performances you’ve seen. Great performances come in all sizes.  What they have in common is that they are all intensely human and humanity can be loud, side-splittingly funny, obnoxious, aggressive or intimate too.  The truth is the camera can handle a life-sized performance as long as it’s genuine.

Acting is acting in both mediums. The moment to moment work is the same.  You must know who you are physically and emotionally, where you come from, what your specific, personal relationships are to the people you encounter and talk about, what your dream is, what you are willing to do to get it, etc.

There are technical differences, of course.  Knowing the parameters of the size of frame you’re working in is just like adjusting your physicality to the size of the house you’re playing in live theatre.  You don’t work a close-up like you’re in a long shot and you don’t work a 100 seat house like you would a 3,000 seat house.  Oscar-winning actor, Michael Caine, describes it this way:  “Working in theatre is like doing surgery with a scalpel.  Working in film is like surgery with a laser.”   Other differences are in film you must hit your marks to be where camera or lights need you to be and you must match action from scene to scene.  Onstage, you perform straight through while, in film, you wait a lot and shoot scenes out of sequence and from different angles.  There is also the luxury of multiple takes or, if you’re on take 15, the difficulty of doing multiple takes.

Philip on "Gotham"
Hernandez on “Gotham”
  • Having been a professional actor for so long, how do you feel about the craft now? Do you notice any changes in the level of dedication or motivation of people trying to break in now compared to when you started?

Like any business, some people get it and others don’t.  Overall, when you reach a certain level everyone gets it or they’re not around very long.  Generally, the ones who work their butts off, do their job very well and are kind to everyone they meet will have longevity.

  • What are some of your favorite credits, and why?

I usually say my favorite show is the one I’m working on now.  On stage, doing both roles in Les Miz, of course, was quite special, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, my first Broadway show, was an amazing experience as was doing The Capeman and working with Paul Simon. On television my role in Gotham is great fun.  This season, doing a scene with Edie Falco and Tony Shaloub, two wonderful veteran actors, on Nurse Jackie was a real treat for me.

  • What are some of your favorite plays to watch and/or read, and why?

There are so many.  I’m a sucker for great plays.  I saw Kenneth Branagh do Hamlet in London when I was there doing Kiss of the Spiderwoman and I was amazed how fast the show was paced.  Almost like a speed through at times but I hung on every word and three hours flew by.  In no particular order, I love Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (my first play), Our Town still gets me every time, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I love Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson and I’m a fan of Nilo Cruz and Octavio Solis work as well.  I also did a very beautiful play recently at Syracuse Stage called Scorched by Wajdi Mouwad. There are just too many plays to list. I’d be remiss not to mention the musicals Man of LaMancha, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George, A little Night Music, Gypsy and West Side Story.

  • What is the best piece of advice that you can give to someone who wants to get better at acting but isn’t pursuing it professionally?

Act as often as you can.  Act for free.  Act for fun.  Read plays, work on them at home, take a class, then act some more. Repeat.  Check out my blogs at philiphernandez.net for lots of free information I’m sure you’ll find helpful.

  • What is the best piece of advice that you can give to someone who wants to get better at acting and is pursuing it professionally?

I wrote a blog recently on this subject!  “Every day do at least one thing for your business and one thing for your art.”  The blog gives you 10 things to do for each.  When you’re done reading this, check it out here http://buff.ly/1yxLrYQ1113_Philip_Hernandez-115-XL[1]

  • What are you up to now?

I have a 9 month old daughter and a seventeen year old daughter heading off to college in the fall.  They keep me pretty busy.

I’m also very active teaching private acting, singing and audition technique here in New York and on Skype to students across the country.

I just finished two concert performances and I’m now back to work on finishing my second album that I’ll release later this year.  You can check out a bit of the first one on the music page of my site.

Life is full and beautiful.

 

To find out more about Philip or to read his blog go to www.philiphernandez.net

Follow Philip on Twitter @philip24601

Instagram @philiphernandez24601

On Facebook at PhilipHernandezMusic

 

Hamlet’s advice to actors

Hamlet’s speech to the players in act 3, scene 2 of his eponymous play is very sound advice. I don’t need to go into details here, but a prince that is using actors to try and catch his uncle in a lie about killing the prince’s father probably wants those actors to be at the top of their game. Also, it was written by Shakespeare, and he’s Shakespeare. Reading and understanding Hamlet’s words is like a mini master class in acting. Also, it’s written in prose, which pretty much tells you how they felt about actors back then (low class).

As you read it, pay special attention to how he recommends the actors speak, use their bodies, and avoid overacting. It should be read to every cast before every performance – and that’s something I may start doing. Enjoy.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,
trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do
not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all
gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say)
whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a
temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to
tatters, to very rags, to split the cars of the groundlings, who
(for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb
shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing
Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

****

Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your
tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with
this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of
nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing,
whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as
’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his
form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though
it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious
grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance
o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I
have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to
speak it profanely), that, neither having the accent of
Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s
journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated
humanity so abominably.

*****

O, reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns
speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them
that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren
spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villanous
and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go
make you ready.

Take away:
1. Stay in control of your movements and avoid overacting.
2. Speak clearly. Enunciate.
3. Every action should be thought out and suited to what you are saying, and vice versa. Nothing extraneous.
4. Be as truthful as possible. Hold that “mirror up to nature”.
5. Don’t go for the cheap laugh. No mugging or any other kind of technique designed to force comedy. Don’t do a poor job of imitating humanity.
6. Stick to the script. Don’t set out only to make yourself look good.