Picture Shiloh Fernandez, at age 15, posing on New York City street corners in various stages of undress as American Apparel founder Dov Charney snaps away with his camera. Fast-forward eight years to Fernandez at 23, and he's making movies alongside Adrien Brody and Beyoncé Knowles.
The latter scenario was for Fernandez's forthcoming film, Cadillac Records—a movie about the Chess brothers' seminal Chicago record label, which put out albums by artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. On his first day of shooting, Fernandez had to take Beyoncé aside and explain to her that their characters had a prior relationship—of a sexual nature. "I was like, ‘You know, we've been together before,'" Fernandez remembers all too vividly. "And Beyoncé said, ‘Been together where?'"
Cadillac Records is one of seven films that Fernandez currently has lined up. He also appears in The United States of Tara—a TV series written by Diablo Cody, based on an idea by Steven Spielberg—which revolves around a mother (Toni Collette) dealing with her family as well as her multiple-personality disorder. So when does this guy sleep? "Often," says Fernandez, with the humor of an actor who has known what it feels like to go without work.
Fernandez's career is hardly the product of careful calculation and/or parental micromanagement. At 19, the Northern California native dropped out of college at the University of Colorado at Boulder and moved to Los Angeles to be with his then girlfriend. "She broke up with me before I got there," he says. His old pal Charney gave him a job working in an American Apparel stockroom. "Worst job of my life," says Fernandez. "That's when I got serious about acting."
Fernandez's Hollywood track, though evidence of a quick study, has not been without its missteps. He found a manager, lost her, stumbled through some auditions, and nailed a few others. He guest starred on TV's Cold Case and Jericho in 2006 before landing roles-some of them leads-in indie films such as the suspenseful drama Red with Brian Cox and the thriller Interstate.
Of all the actors in Cadillac Records' star-studded cast, Fernandez was particularly taken with Brody. "It was different to see [Brody] not memorizing his lines until it was time to shoot, being super free and open, and seeing how other people reacted to him and how he could react back," he says. Fernandez is also learning to be more discerning in his choices. "I read an interview with Mark Wahlberg, and he was like, ‘I might read a script and love it, but it's all about the filmmaker.' I think that's a good lesson for me."
It makes sense that Fernandez is looking to Wahlberg for career wisdom. Like Fernandez, Wahlberg worked tirelessly early in his career, taking any roles that came his way, educating and positioning himself—and when you go back far enough on his résumé, there's even some male modeling.
John Ortved is a New York city-based writer.