The undervalued, overlooked influence of a brilliant mentor

I’ve been doing theater for 20 years. That sounds impressive, but it’s not. I don’t do it professionally – never have – and there were a few years in there that I hardly did anything. So, 20 years, on and off. I didn’t go to school for theater, as in, I don’t have a degree in that discipline. I learned from observing, reading, and from doing it.

My interest in theater goes all the way back to early high school, when most people discover the stage for the first time in the form of a high school musical (Little Shop of Horrors, in my case. I played the dentist, Orin). The reason that I continue to do it now is because of the motivation, knowledge, and inspiration that I received from my high school play director. Who, like all good teachers (in my opinion), continue to mentor and inspire long after graduation. My mentor/teacher, Sal, passed away in 2013. Strangely enough, he died the same day that one of my shows closed. A passing of the torch, maybe? I’m probably just reading too much into this. Second to my parents, he’s most responsible for helping to shape who I am.

He had a teaching career that lasted decades. I don’t know the exact number of years. He was well known – some may say infamous – within the school and throughout the community. I’m certain there are a few of his former students that grit their teeth at the mere mention of his name. This was his reputation, and that reputation was what I was expecting to meet upon starting high school in 1995. Sal taught Global Studies, a social studies class that explored the world and its people. As a 13 year old, I was convinced this guy knew everything. I’m still convinced he knew everything; he was a walking almanac and depository of theatrical knowledge and history. But, his reputation certainly preceded him, and for a kid like me – short, skinny, shy – having a guy like Sal was scary.

As a teacher, Sal had a rough exterior. He was an intense man. You didn’t mess with him. He had a huge personality, but one of his easiest lessons was learning that his compassion matched. He was intense because he cared. There’s no question I learned a lot about the world from his Global Studies class – most of the information I’ve retained, believe it or not, despite a poor grade on the final – but there was little in that curriculum that taught me how to be a part of the world and engage life (I don’t think the curriculum has changed much to that effect).

However, his greatest lesson came when he stuck me in the middle of an empty stage and shined a spotlight in my face.

In November of 1995, I approached him about wanting to be a part of that year’s show. I had seen the high school’s play the year before and felt inspired to be a part of something like that. I can’t explain exactly how I felt, or knew, but I just did. I asked about stage crew, run crew, and stage managing. Not acting. Following an informational meeting, he asked me to stay late with the guy who was cast as Seymour (the lead). He stuck a script in my hand and say “go”. I had no idea what I was doing. My “audition” was awkward and lacking any and all knowledge of how to create a character. To top it off, every other member of the cast and crew was standing outside the room listening. I found out afterward that some of these people were making comments about how I wouldn’t be able to handle the part. Of course, this is hearsay, but it motivated me nonetheless. Somehow, I got the part. I still don’t know how. Somehow, he saw something in me that I didn’t see. His talent was seeing talent. And it was at that point that I reluctantly agreed to appear on stage in Little Shop of Horrors. 

As I said earlier, I had no idea what I was doing. Acting was something totally foreign to me, though it felt natural. I was always a creative kid, and I enjoyed playing different characters around my house. Anytime we had company over, I would put on shows: magic shows, musical performances – even scene by scene recaps of famous movies (famous to an 8 year old) in which I played all of the characters. Even with babysitters I can remember using my entire house as the stage for The Wizard of Oz. I would assign parts to everyone, including myself, and “direct” the action. And believe it or not, this is the first time that I’ve ever made that connection.

It took a guy like Sal to see that I had it in me and take the chance to hone my talent into something that could be used in an actual play. Until that point, I was just a shy kid with an imagination. Shy being the key word. No one thought I’d be able to transform from that person into a sadomasochistic, drug-addicted, chauvinistic dentist. I was my biggest critic. He was my biggest advocate.

Fast forward. No need to get into the details about how it felt, because anyone reading this knows that feeling. We’ve all been there: the coughing of the crowd, the adrenaline rush, the spotlight hitting you for the first time, ever. Either it makes you or breaks you.

Following that show, I realized a few things: suddenly, I wasn’t as shy anymore. In fact, I bordered on arrogant (talk about zero to sixty). I had a new group of friends. And, most importantly, I had a new way to express myself. Theater became less of a new school activity, and more of a craft. I began to see it as something worth studying. I wanted to get better and challenge myself. It was less about the school and social aspect, and more about the art. The stage and the audience were all that mattered for the next 3 years of high school. My grades may have suffered a bit. But, my true education happened on that stage. Without the experience of standing in a spotlight, exposed, with nowhere to hide, I’d still be that shy kid who never had the foresight to realize his own potential. As a teacher and director, Sal taught me self-confidence. He taught me the value of self-expression. He taught me public speaking. He correlated theater to life, and through theater and his direction, I learned how to live in the real world while playing in the fantasy world of the stage. Without real life, there is no theater. I learned the true value of art at a young age.

Any performer that I’ve helped in the past and every performer I help in the future owes Sal a thank you. Without his help, I wouldn’t be able to help them.

And with that, his legacy lives on.

 

 

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