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Suddenly, Expectations Are Being Heaped on Him

TIMES STAFF WRITER

June has been a bittersweet month for 21-year-old Jay Hernandez. He should have been celebrating the launch of his first film, Touchstone’s “crazy/beautiful,” which opens Friday nationwide. After all, it was only a few years ago that Hernandez was attending a community college in Walnut, broke and without a car. Now he’s making million-dollar deals to star in movies.

But just as he was celebrating his movie premiere, his manager and mentor Howard Tyner, the man who discovered him at a chance meeting and had navigated his career for the past three years, had a heart attack and died last week after lying in a coma for two weeks.

“There are so many things going through my mind,” said Hernandez, trying to relax on the Disney lot on the day Tyner fell ill. “I keep hearing his words in my head. He has been more than my manager--he is like part of my family.”

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Hernandez now feels a bit rudderless at a particularly crucial moment in his career. With his performance in “crazy/beautiful,” Hernandez finds himself at a turning point. Scripts are flowing in. Pressure is mounting for him to become the next teen sensation and the next great Latino heartthrob. He is where Freddie Prinze Jr. was after his movie debut, suddenly on call to do one teen romance after another.

“Howard . . . has single-handedly given Jay a Hollywood Survival Guide 101,” said “crazy/beautiful” director John Stockwell. “I think after this film the floodgates will open for Jay. He just has to be very smart about what roles he picks and who he chooses to work with.”

Tyner had been instrumental in shielding Hernandez from the pitfalls of stereotypical casting. He scoured scripts for roles that would not show Hernandez as the gangbanger. Finally, the part in “crazy/beautiful” came up in which Hernandez’s character was a straight-arrow kid from a working-class Latino neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles.

The story revolves around Carlos (Hernandez) who is bused to a school in the affluent Pacific Palisades. In high school, he meets Kirsten Dunst’s character, Nicole, the child of a dysfunctional family whose father is a wealthy local politician unable to cope with his daughter’s wild side. While Carlos works hard to avoid the temptations of his neighborhood--like joining gangs and doing drugs--Nicole seems to relish finding trouble, getting drunk and hanging out with losers.

For once, said Hernandez, he could play the role of a Latino who had something to teach.

“I got sick of reading roles that said ‘gang member No. 1,’ ‘crack dealer No. 2,’ ” said Hernandez. “Finally, here was a character who was positive and had goals. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. All the Latin roles are so negative, and finally here was one that wasn’t.”

The fact that the film avoids most stereotypes seen in movies depicting Latino life is no accident. Stockwell said he did intensive research in Los Angeles’ predominantly Latino working-class neighborhoods to try to capture the true essence of life there. Based on his research, he made several changes in the script.

For instance, the original script included scenes with mariachis and lowriders; with Dunst and her friend driving through the Eastside in their BMW, scared that they would get mugged or their car would be stolen. Stockwell got rid of the mariachis, lowriders, the girls’ Westside paranoia and the BMW.

“It’s a culture-clash story but not about race--it’s about upbringing and class and worldview,” said Stockwell, who was a struggling actor before jumping into directing and screenwriting. “I found there was a lot of cultural disconnect between the [different ethnic] groups.”

Stockwell also insisted on having Carlos’ mother speak Spanish in the film--without translation. The result is a more authentic glimpse into the world of working-class Mexican Americans, where the children speak in English and the parents in Spanish.

A fourth-generation Mexican American himself, Hernandez fit this description well. And it appeared as though Hernandez was bound to lead a working-class life--until one day, four years ago, when he was spotted by Tyner while riding on an elevator in a Hollywood office building. As Hernandez and his parents boarded the elevator, Tyner stuck his hand in the door and stepped in. He kept staring at the young man until finally he said that classic Hollywood line: “You have a great look. Have you ever been interested in acting or commercials?”

‘A Guy Trying to Do the Right Thing’

A few weeks later, Hernandez’s mother suggested he give Tyner a call, thinking maybe he could earn some money to buy a car. They set up a meeting, at which Tyner explained he would send Hernandez to acting school, get his picture taken and send them out to casting calls--at no cost. If he made it, then he could reimburse Tyner.

“I figured, why not?” said Hernandez.

Hernandez had only been cast in a handful of commercials and some television shows when he was given an audition for “crazy/beautiful.” Although Stockwell and his casting director auditioned hundreds of young Latino men in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles--even Spain and Mexico--they decided on Hernandez.

“He was, to a large degree, the character we were asking him to play,” said Stockwell, who also co-wrote the screenplay. “There was enough in his own life that paralleled the Carlos character’s journey. [For instance,] his own struggles to stay on the right path. Others in [Hernandez’s] family had fallen off the path. Here was a guy trying to do the right thing in a world where that was sometimes difficult. There is something inherently very decent about Jay.”

Hernandez acknowledges that the character was not a far stretch for him.

“There could not have been a better role written for my first film,” said Hernandez, whose smile is as dazzling off-screen as it is on. “I could draw from my life in terms of motivation--I didn’t know what I was motivated about, but I was. I have friends who have gone down the wrong path. I could relate to it. I have seen a lot of bad things. It’s not like I had to watch a movie to see what gang members were like--I grew up around that.”

Hernandez had seen that turmoil growing up in Montebello. Though one older brother is in the Navy, his other brother has had some brushes with the law, according to Stockwell.

Though Hernandez declined to talk about his family life in too much detail, he said he didn’t realize how instinctive his acting had been until he saw the entire film on the big screen.

“It was strange; when I saw the movie, I realized that a lot of things I did . . . were inspired by my life,” he said, referring to his character’s actions and motivations. “There were a lot of things I didn’t think about that related to certain parts of my life--a lot of deep stuff. [Like] some of the pain in the movie, I could relate to it.”

Stockwell knew he had his leading man when he put Hernandez and some real-life gang members in a room together to ad-lib some scenes. Stockwell found the gang members through Father Greg Boyle’s East Los Angeles ministry and cast them in the film. When Hernandez and the guys began shooting the breeze, Stockwell was convinced.

Disney executives were intent on finding a new face--a new Latin face--for the part. Buena Vista production chief Nina Jacobson said she knew they had a winner watching Hernandez in the dailies.

“I could see that he was growing into the part,” she said. “He was very strong but vulnerable, and he has a sweetness about him. . . . He has shown up on a lot of radars around town.”

Disney cast him opposite Dennis Quaid in “The Rookie,” scheduled for release next year, and hopes to cast him in another feature film soon. However, with Tyner gone, Hernandez is trying hard not to let the celebrity pressure cooker get to him. In particular, he doesn’t want the weight of the Latino entertainment world on his shoulders.

“If people look up to me or something positive comes from what I’m doing, that’s fine, but I’m not going to add more pressure by saying the whole Latin community is watching me,” he said. “I’m proud of who I am and where I come from, but that is about it. It’s about doing the right films and the right roles.”


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