“My teacher [said something] the other day, that I thought was brilliant: ‘comfortable is suburban,’” says Callie Hernandez. “What he really means is that comfortability in yourself is not interesting.”
The 21-year-old actress, who broke out in “La La Land” and “Alien: Covenant,” might be seated rather comfortably — reclining on the couch of her room in the Smyth hotel — but playing it safe is not exactly her forte.
The Austin native enrolled at UT Austin at the age of 16, changing majors “every semester,” she says. “Then I studied abroad in Barcelona, dropped out of school, lived there, fell in love, didn’t want to come back, came back with my lover, went back to school, changed my major again.” Got all that? “I did a lot of circling. It’s just circling the thing you know you have to do. It’s like, ‘I don’t wanna look at it!’”
“It,” of course, being acting.
It would take a bit more for Hernandez to take the plunge. After losing her job, her apartment, her boyfriend, getting into a car accident, then finding a new apartment over the course of 24 hours, she knew she had to make a change. “I was sitting on this bed that wasn’t mine, and it just felt like my life wasn’t mine. It was the first time I’d asked myself, ‘OK, what do you want, Callie?’”
The answer — acting — sprang from half-love of the craft and half-circumstance. “’I don’t have any money, I don’t have anywhere else to go, I don’t have anything else to do, I don’t have anywhere else to be. Why the f–k not?’” she recalls. “‘I can’t not do it.’”
Hernandez must have done something right. After a breakout role as Tracy, one of Emma Stone’s roommates in “La La Land,” she switches gears to sci-fi in a role alongside Michael Fassbender and Katherine Waterston in “Alien: Covenant,” which debuts on May 19.
“Ridley Scott offered me a job and I said yes, blindly,” she says. “I don’t even know what part I’m playing, I had no script, I had nothing to go off of.”
After all the success of “La La Land,” there’s a lot riding on her next move. “I didn’t know it’d go that big,” she confesses of “La La Land.” “But I had a feeling, just the way everyone was moving through the process of filming it. It was so lucid at the time. That sounds so lame; you hear everyone [say], ‘we just knew it was gonna be a special movie!’ and you’re like, ‘There’s no f–king way!’”
Her career success is still taking time to sink in. “I remember calling my mom, and I was like, ‘I just feel like I’m kind of OK, or maybe I’m bored,’” she says. “And she was like, ‘I think you’re just happy.’”
For most, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land would be considered a beautiful work of fiction, but for Callie Hernandez, she is living out her own real-life version of the Hollywood story after landing a main role in the film. Before she played Emma Stone’s sassy, spirited roommate, Hernandez was couch-surfing and eating vegetables out of cans as she studied her craft in New York, struggling to fulfill her deep, lifelong desire. Hernandez decided to start her acting career in her early 20’s, after she had hit rock bottom and all that was left was the faint ember of a childhood dream. With no job, no place to live, and nothing to lose, Hernandez stoked those hopeful flames and pretty soon, they caught fire and flourished into a full-blown career.
Since La La Land, Hernandez has landed several other major roles. Currently, she stars opposite Nick Nolte in Epix’s Graves, a political satire where she plays a liberal waitress who ends up sympathizing with a former, guilt-ridden GOP president. She’s also starred in Blair Witch (2016), a new story that takes place in the same movie universe as the iconic Blair Witch Project (1999). And now, after wrapping up another starring role in the modern-day noir crime thriller, Under the Silver Lake, Hernandez awaits her featured release in one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2017: Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Hernandez stars in the core ensemble cast opposite Michael Fassbender, James Franco, and Noomi Rapace in the prequel to the original Alien (1979). Alien: Covenant is set to release on May 9, 2017, where Callie Hernandez will fly into the star-studded reaches of outer space, just as she begins to become a star herself. Dancing and singing in a fire-engine red dress in La La Land seems to be a bold, outward reflection of Callie Hernandez’s inner, burning passion to perform. It’s a poetic Hollywood ending, or rather, a beginning to Hernandez living out a life doing what she loves.
I heard you played the cello growing up. As a kid, what career did you originally envision for yourself?
Well, what’s weird is I always wanted to be an actress. I kind of forgot. When I looked back at first grade and kindergarten [written] things of “what do you want to be when you grow up,” they would all say the same thing: “I want to be an actress and a singer.” I went to college when I was 16 and I was in a soft cello band. I majored in film music composition for about a year, and I realized it was all math. It was not going to serve me well at all. I was an art major for a semester and found out I was a terrible visual artist, and then I was an interior design major which I was even worse at. I finally got my major in photojournalism. I tried every creative avenue possible, except the one I knew that I wanted to do. The most frightening option was the one I saved for last. I remember having the thought of, “This is the last thing that I haven’t tried, this is the only thing I haven’t tried.” There’s a reason for that.
What was the moment that changed your mind?
I was working at this shitty clothing store in Austin. I had already graduated college. I was just in this lost year of my life. And I remember waking up every morning and feeling like, “I know there’s something I’m supposed to be doing, but I don’t know what it is yet.” Then I was playing cello for a good friend of mine who just put out a record, Jess Williamson. We went on a little two week tour, and to be completely frank, I lost my mind a little bit. It was the first time I stepped away from Austin and got some perspective. It was just this jolt of a revelation, where I was like, “I’m miserable” and I didn’t even know I was so miserable. When I came back from the tour, I was ready to pull some chords out of the wall. And I did. I broke up with the person I was with, I moved out of the house, then the next morning I got fired from my job. I got into a car wreck in the same day. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anywhere to live. I remember going to my parents’ house, getting on a computer and frantically looking for a new job. Then I just stopped and I remember asking myself a bizarre question. I don’t know where it came from. “What do you want?” And I heard a very clear answer. It surprised me too, which was being an actor. I was terrified and I also knew I didn’t really have another choice, and I didn’t have anything left to lose. So I went for it. That was the pivotal moment.
Tell me about the moment when you first heard you landed your role in La La Land.
I was shooting something in Vancouver, and I put a tape down and then they asked me for another tape and I couldn’t believe it. Then they said, “Okay, you have to go to a dance callback,” and I said, “You have to be kidding me.” I’m a notoriously horrific dancer. I had to go to a one-on-one with Mandy Moore, who’s the choreographer. I had one day to prepare, and I went to a dance studio in Los Angeles and I took every class I could get my hands on all day. Then I remember walking into the callback and thinking, “I’m not going to try to convince them that I am a dancer, I’m not a dancer. And maybe I can use that with the character.” So I just went in there and didn’t try to dance well. Just normal cringe-y dancing. When I received the phone call that I had somehow gotten the role, I had actually flown to Texas and I was sitting on my friend’s porch in a rocking chair watching her braid her horse’s hair. My manager was very calm on the phone, and said, “You got it.” And I hung up the phone and started screaming into a field of horses. That’s how it felt when I got La La Land, it was a very surreal moment. There are roles that you get excited for, but that one felt really special.
In Alien: Covenant, did you come across any challenges similar to dancing in La La Land?
Oh yeah, trying to look like you know how to drive a spaceship, or know anything about being in space is challenging. I owe a lot to Amy Seimetz, who really broke it down in simple terms for me. First I was like, “Okay, you have to get in this mindset of being in outer space,” and Amy had a very simple approach to it: “Just do it like you’ve done it a million times.” And then you think, “Oh, okay. Right, that’s easy!” Although I don’t really know if I ever felt comfortable doing it, but that’s part of it too.
You’ve described Graves as a show about forgiveness and a shifting of consciousness. As you’ve grown in this industry, has your role in Graves mirrored a shifting of your own consciousness?
That’s a hard question. Well, I’ll say this. When I began acting, it was kind of a blind impulse. I didn’t know what it really meant. I didn’t quite know what I was going to find, but I remember going into my first acting class and the walls come down, and then you realize it’s about people. It’s about understanding what it’s like to be human. So I guess when I started acting, I was learning the human side of things, and it was something that I felt genuinely that I wanted to learn more about. It made me love people a lot. It’s spiritual in a way in that it has nothing to do with you. It’s human and it’s grounded, you live on earth, you’re not better than anyone else. We’re all part of the collective unconscious, all part of the same thing. When you realize that art has nothing to do with you, it’s really freeing, and you can really experience people. I really love being able to do that openly.