CALLIE HERNANDEZ AT THE LIBRARY BAR AT THE HOLLYWOOD ROOSEVELT IN LOS ANGELES, OCTOBER 2016. PHOTOS:WILLIAMS & HIRAKAWA/ART DEPARTMENT. STYLIST: ANNINA MISLIN/WALTER SCHUPFTER MANAGMENT. HAIR: NIKKI PROVIDENCE FOR FREE YOUR MANE/FORWARD ARTISTS. MAKEUP: NATASHA SEVERINO/FORWARD ARTISTS. STYLIST ASSISTANT: FIONA PARK.
Callie Hernandez was in her early 20s when she decided to pursue acting full-time, and though she might describe herself as "late to the game," it didn't take long for her to catch up. Raised largely in Texas, Hernandez's first film job was on Terrence Malick's long-awaited Weightless. Within six months, she had an agent and was studying her craft in New York. Since early autumn, she's been reaping the fruits of several years of non-stop work: first with Blair Witch, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival; then with the new Epix series Graves, in which she plays a free-spirited waitress working in the hometown of a former hardline Republican president played by Nick Nolte; and, as of Friday, with another TIFF film, Damien Chazelle's La La Land, in which she sings and dances alongside Emma Stone as one of Stone's struggling actress roommates.
Things aren't about to slow down, either. When we talk to Hernandez over the phone, she is back in Los Angeles having just wrapped Under the Silver Lake with Andrew Garfield and Riley Keough. "I couldn't have anticipated just how right I felt on that set," she says of the project. "I felt very connected and in the right place, which doesn't always happen." Then, of course, there is Ridley Scott's Prometheus sequel/Alien prequel, Alien: Covenant, for which she spent two months filming in Australia. While she can't divulge anything about the film's plot or her character, Hernandez is generous with stories of her co-stars. Michael Fassbender, for example, has "incredible posture"—"I've never seen anyone eat chicken wings with such a straight back," she tells us—while Danny McBride was the most frequently recognized. "We couldn't take him anywhere," she says, laughing. "It was just a bunch of mostly dudes running down the street yelling ‘Kenny Powers.'"
HOMETOWN: Austin, Texas. I moved to Austin when I was 16. I moved quite a bit, actually, growing up. We lived in New Orleans; we lived in the Midwest; we lived all over Texas. I was in San Antonio for a lot. I think I had to create my own creative environment, but I was always involved in stuff like that as much as I possibly could be.
MUSICAL TALENTS: I sang as a kid. I started playing guitar when I was 12. Then, when I went to high school, I decided that I wanted to start playing cello. I was a bit late to the game. I'm usually a little late to the game. But I just walked by the [orchestra] room and I heard them warming up and I walked in and said, "I want to play the cello." They said, "If you can teach yourself over the summer, then you can join orchestra." So I did. I had some help—knowing how to play guitar really helped—but by no means do I play conventionally. I was never quite the same as everybody else. I used to play in some bands in Austin. A friend of mine named Jess Williamson just put out a record, and we used to play together a lot. It was kind of this farce feminine folk band—she played banjo and I played cello. But I don't play as much anymore. I want to. I'd like to start again.
EARLY AMBITIONS: I was just talking to someone the other day about, "Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?" It's weird, I went to my mom's house, she was getting rid of a bunch of stuff and was like, "Can you go through your elementary school stuff and see what you want to keep?" Every single thing that I was opening that had, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" on it, it all said that I wanted to be an actor and a singer. And somewhere along the line, I think it got a little bit buried. I do remember watching The Rocketeer, which is a Disney movie with Jennifer Connelly and she plays kind of a 1940s siren, and then I started taking singing lessons. Then I remember seeing Catherine Zeta-Jones in [The Mask of] Zorro and of course I started taking fencing lessons. I only took one or two. Then I saw Legends of the Fall and I wanted to take horseback riding lessons. I didn't really realize that I wanted to be an actor—I always knew it deep down, but I didn't really come back to it until a couple of years ago.
REDISCOVERING ACTING: I had kind of a lost year where I wasn't sure what I was doing. A lot of my friends used to refer to Austin as the "velvet rut" because it used to be—not anymore—pretty easy living: cheap rent, pretty laid back. I went on a two-week tour in the Pacific Northwest with a band that I play with, and it all hit me at once that I was quite miserable. It was a really strange series of events that led up to being stripped away from everything that I had at the time. I got fired from my job, then I got my car wrecked, then I broke up with my boyfriend and moved out of our house. This sounds so cheesy when I talk about it, but I sat down and for the first time in a really long time, and asked myself what I wanted to do. I just knew it was a weird "now or never" moment and I decided that I was going to do the thing that I had avoided trying to do for so long. Coming from Texas and being like, "I want to be an actor!" is kind of weird—especially because I was late in the game; I didn't really study theater, I studied photography. It was kind of out-of-the-blue-seeming. But I think I repressed for a long time. After that two-week tour, I came back and my life completely changed. Within a couple weeks I got my first job on a Terrence Malick movie and then got on a Robert Rodriguez film. From there on out I've sort of had tunnel vision in pursuing this.
FIRST STEPS: It was a really strange intro; people ask me, "How do you get an agent?" and truth be told, I have no idea. I started photographing weddings for money. Then I was just watching films morning, noon, and night; looking up schools; reading books. After I got my first job on the Terrence Malick film I was like, "Okay, well I'll just see if I like this, I don't even know." [laughs] And I went on set and I was like, "Oh, there's Holly Hunter. There's Natalie Portman. There's Ryan Gosling. There's Rooney Mara." It felt immediately—not because of any of those things—[but] it felt so inherently right that it just gave me the go-ahead to keep going. At the time, of course, I didn't realize that it was a pretty amazing intro into the world of film. I had kind a blind confidence in the beginning, as a lot of people do. Some part of me just knew that it would work out. Now is when certain human emotions like doubt come into play—after you start working.
LA LA LAND: Nobody told me that I was going to sing! I called my manager and I said, "I sing, did you know that?" And he said, "Well, it's a musical. I assumed." I was working in Vancouver on Blair Witch and I just put down a tape. I got a callback right when I got back into town where they said, "Can you dance?" And that was the part that I was like, "No. I'm not even going to pretend that I know how to dance." I'm a notoriously terrible dancer. So I thought, "I'm just going to use it with the character. I'm not going to pretend to be a dancer, I'm just going to be an actor dancing." I was definitely the worst dancer out of everyone, but I worked really hard, and I loved being able to sing. I joke a lot that all my lip-synching to myself in the mirror as a five-year-old little girl finally paid off.
ALIEN: COVENANT: I didn't know anything [when I auditioned]. I was shooting Graves in Albuquerque; I had just gotten there. I had no one to read with since everyone was working, so I called a friend of mine and I said, "Can you just record these lines with spaces in between them into your phone, and I'll film it in my hotel room on my own." That's what I did, and I remember watching the first tape going, "Oh my God, this is ridiculous, this is hilarious." Then, within, like, three hours of me sending in the tape, they called back and they said they wanted to see another tape. So I called another friend and I did it again. Then I came to L.A. and I met with some people and that was that. I had no idea what character I was playing—no idea what the script was like—but I knew it was Ridley Scott and I knew it was an incredible cast, so it was a no brainer.
When my manager called me and told me I got the role, it was the quintessential crying, screaming. I was sweating for some reason. I was like, "Okay, what role am I playing?" And my manager jokingly said, "You're playing the Alien. No one told you?" All we knew was the name of my character until maybe a month before going to Australia.
ENSEMBLE CASTS: Pretty much everything I've done has been ensemble. I was really surprised with how much we all hung out in Australia [while filming Alien] and how much we all went to get dinner. There was a moment where I was sitting around, I was like, "Okay, hi, Billy Crudup. Hi, Katherine Waterston. Hi, Michael Fassbender. I did get cast in this somehow, so I somehow deserve to be here." I've been pleasantly surprised at how welcoming everyone has been and so open and warm. That sounds like a crock of shit, but it really has been pretty amazing. I worked with Danny McBride quite a bit on Alien and he's just the best. So it wasn't really that isolating. I think the most isolating experience was shooting Graves because it was in Albuquerque and my character has all these tattoos, so I was either in a trailer getting tattooed up, or I really only worked with Nick Nolte and Skylar Astin, and they worked more than I did.
GRAVES: With Nick Nolte's character, he's kind of facing death—not that he's on his deathbed, but he has a close call with some health issues on the show and he's despised and it hits him. The interesting thing about Graves is that it looks at human guilt or regret, and whether or not it will hit someone like Donald Trump, or other political figures. It's just interesting to look at forgiveness. The whole show is about Graves desperately trying to right his wrongs, and whether that's enough or not, I'm not sure. But I thought about that a lot when we were filming, and how my character could approach someone who has done some horrible things. It is about approaching guilt and trying to do something different and have a deeper understanding of where it went wrong and where you can admit that and change it. It's really about shifting consciousness, I feel.
A PRESCIENT PILOT: It had been a year since we shot it and all of the sudden we were in the midst of this insane election, and I remember turning to the writer and going, "Did you know that this was going to happen? Did you have some crazy foresight?" And he said, "No, I didn't know. I had no idea." So there's some kind of really bizarre, incredible timing with the show. You can get to the heart of the truth I think quicker with comedy.
WORKING WITH NICK NOLTE: I can't say enough kind words about Nick Nolte. I walked on set expecting this Easy Rider kind of tough-guy, and he's incredibly open. I keep saying open and warm, but it's true; those are really the adjectives I would use. He's incredibly authentic. I remember my first day on set I was a little bit nervous, because I had never done TV really and I wasn't sure what the hell I was doing. I guess he could feel my nerves from across the room and he came over to me and said, "Just remember, I'm not going to kill you." [laughs] That kind of stuck with me for the rest of the time.
PICKING PROJECTS: I'm sure I've driven my agents nuts just because I go on a gut feeling, I go on intuition. It's kind of frustrating, even for me, because I don't know why something feels right or doesn't feel right. But I will say with every job I've taken, I've had some kind of feeling one way or the other. And you learn as you go. Some experiences were surprisingly amazing and some were more difficult. I don't really think in terms of creating a career or making movies strategically—I just go on a feeling. I've only been working for maybe two years now.
THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT: Has working in film made me happier? Absolutely. I felt like there was something really missing before. It comes with a whole slew of emotions; it comes with so many different things. Part of you thinks, "Oh, now that I'm doing the thing that I always wanted to do I'll be happy." And you're not happy everyday, but am I more whole? I can't imagine what else I would do. Nothing else quite feels right.
GRAVES AIRS SUNDAY NIGHTS ON EPIX; LA LA LAND IS OUT NOW IN SELECT THEATERS AND WILL CONTINUE TO EXPAND THROUGHOUT DECEMBER; ALIEN: COVENANT IS DUE OUT MAY 19, 2017.
For more from our "Faces of 2017" portfolio, click here.