"When I first started acting it was strange," Hernandez, 27, says. "The exercises were strange. I had a moment in class when I played a heroin junkie and something about going into that emotion was challenging. I felt changed. Then I started digging it."
Hernandez knew that an acting career wasn’t going to be easy. When he finally began getting work it was mostly small roles on television shows such as "Hang Time," a teen ensemble show. He also appeared on MTV’s "Undressed," but it wasn’t until he booked the role of Carlos Nunez, starring opposite Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful, that acting became more than a diversion.
In his latest film, Hostel, Hernandez plays Paxton, an American-born college student who goes on a European backpacking vacation with a friend. They get sucked into an ordeal that becomes more gruesome by the minute, complete with jaw-dropping torture scenes directed by Eli Roth, who also made Cabin Fever. Quentin Tarantino served as executive producer.
"I found the script exciting, intriguing and different," Hernandez says. "It really pushed the envelope and it’s a nice contrast to everything that I’ve been doing. I knew I couldn’t lose if Quentin Tarantino was involved."
Hernandez knew that making a horror film at this point of his career was a risky move, considering the good-looking actor has played mostly sweet-natured guys.
"I’ve established myself as a certain type," Hernandez says, "but it would be great if people could see more of my range."
In 2001 Hernandez portrayed a teen from East Los Angeles with good grades who falls in love with a wealthy troubled girl (Dunst) in Crazy/Beautiful. In 2004 he played another good guy as a football player in Friday Night Lights, starring Billy Bob Thornton.
Last year things began to change. Hernandez appeared in a film that allowed him to go beyond the wholesome guy next door. In Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power, co-starring Sean Combs and Mario Van Peebles, he played Carlito Brigante, who becomes the heroin czar of Harlem. The film had a brief theatrical run, but it was a chance to show a different side.
"Anytime you can challenge yourself and surprise people I think is really great as an actor," Hernandez says. "I’d like to keep branching out by trying new things like comedy."
While his comedic chops still remain to be seen, Hernandez continues in search of dramatic parts. He recently completed filming Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Hernandez portrays a real-life port authority officer who tried saving lives on 9-11. The film is scheduled for release in the summer.
"Oliver Stone has a very different approach," Hernandez says. "He’s got this deep spiritual take on things. These characters deal with life and death and it’s touching. Oliver goes to very deep places."
Hernandez, who was born in Downey and raised in the L.A. suburb of Montebello, knows he’s benefiting from all those actors who came before him because many directors see him able to play more than Latino characters. In Hostel, which was written with a white lead in mind, Hernandez plays Paxton and in Stone’s upcoming film he’s Italian.
"Playing a New York Italian is totally different than the world where I come from," Hernandez says. "But obviously they saw that I could pull it off. I’m proud to have landed the role."
Soledad St. Hilaire, who played Hernandez’ mother in Crazy/Beautiful, said that people still ask her about working with Hernandez even though their film was released several years ago.
"When girls find out I played his mom they talk about how cute he is," says St. Hilaire. "They ask for his number or ask if I can introduce them to Jay. He has a lot of fans."
Hernandez’s fan base was a bonus for Roth, who was thrilled when he realized the actor showed interest in playing the lead in Hostel.
"I flipped out," Roth says. "Jay Hernandez classes up a project. He puts it at another level. He’s a fine actor with a superb reputation."
"Jay is an incredibly good-looking guy and has leading man looks," Roth continues, "but you feel like he’s a real guy that you know or someone you grew up with."
Hernandez still goes back to his old neighborhood in Montebello to visit friends.
"I lived on a block where everyone knew each other," Hernandez says. "They think it’s great that I’m making films. There’s a lot of love from the fans, too, and that is a really cool thing."
© 2006, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Hostel is currently in theatres.