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September 2004
Friday Night Lights: An Interview with Jay Hernandez and Derek Luke

Friday Night Lights: An Interview with Jay Hernandez and Derek Luke

By Todd Gilchrist

Derek Luke has spent much of his career as the breakout star of ensemble casts, including "Biker Boyz" and "Antwone Fisher", and the upcoming "Friday Night Lights" is no different; as Booby Miles, a prodigiously talented running back for an Odessa, Texas football team, he stands out as much with his physical dexterity as he does with his larger-than life personality. Nearly opposite is the case with actor Jay Hernandez, a reliable ensemble performer whose chief ability is to bring out a group's strengths without necessarily calling attention to himself; both "Torque" and "The Rookie" benefited from his dexterous enhancement of the cast's overall cohesiveness. Together in "Friday Night Lights", the highlight headliners and bring out backgrounds, and Luke and Hernandez recently spoke to blackfilm.com about their experience on the film, which also stars Lucas Black and Billy Bob Thornton.

If you are not obsessed by football how hard is it to get into a movie like this. Were you both obsessed with football before?

JH: I wasn't obsessed with football before this. I was into the game. I grew up in LA. I sort of watched the Raiders play and that sort of thing. But in film you always watch situations or stories that you really have no relation to. A lot of times just because there's no personal connection doesn't mean you can't connect with the film or the characters in the film.

What about playing the game for the cameras? Does that make it easier or harder when you are not as into the game?

DL: I think it can make it further from the action. It can make the action more choreographed but less involved, less research can be less informative. Handicap you.

Jay, with this and "Ladder 49", you're in two big ensembles. Can you compare the experience of this ensemble of "Friday Night Lights" to Ladder 49's?

JH: Two very different experiences. For "Ladder 49" we went to the fire academy and stayed there for, I don't even know how long, but it was a good amount of time we spent training and doing everything that the firefighters do. And then after that we rode with the fire trucks and stayed overnight, went out on calls, and experienced how it is to be a firefighter and that was a very interesting experience. I gained an appreciation for firefighters especially that they had a lot of the lime light after 911and what happened to them. I gained a new appreciation and this was a totally different thing. It was Texas football, something that I didn't really know how intense it was. I'd heard about Texas football and how much of a religion it is, but to go to Odessa and experience it first hand is something different than just hearing about it.

You both have sports movies on your resume with "Glory Road". What do you bring differently as actors to this movie as an actor and as athletes.

DL: A couple of three pointers. [Laughs] Well I think there is a balance because athletes are dependant on the actors for a leveling field. When he says "okay you teach us how to act and how we should respond, and we'll teach you guys things that we don't see." So it kind of evens it out which is really cool.

As an actor you are now in athlete conditioning. Are you keeping in better shape?

JH: Well a lot of times with acting you do things you've never done before. Whether it's sword fighting or throwing a ball or martial arts or something, the range is really endless. All the people in those fields have something to teach us. It's like we're the students at that point. Although they may feel awkward in front of the camera, we sometimes feel awkward doing the physical things that they do very professionally. So it's just kind of a learning processes. We teach them a little bit. They teach us.

Derek, I'm curious about your own athletic background... Were you a high school athlete?

DL: Is that like a direct question? I was mentally athletic. I had to work. No that's not true. I always wanted to act to tell you the truth. The only time I act athletic was when I was around guys who were athletic, you know what i'm saying, because people go "black man you don't play no ball" I'm like, "man what ever." I always knew what I wanted to do because in the world of what I wanted to do I can do what you do great for like four months. But I didn't say that to them. Was that the question?

Well the answer is no.

DL: It's one of those direct questions huh.

Pressure of 16 and 17 year olds/ glory days of high school.

JH: I think Brian, my character, has done pretty good with his life. He went to Harvard and studied and became a lawyer, actually came back to Odessa. He left a small city and something about that city drew him back to his home town and he now has a law firm out there and he's doing pretty good for himself.

DL: My character, Boobie that I portray, sometimes I get angry, sometimes playing him because I felt like it wasn't fair because he had this God-given gift. But at the same time he had this gift, he was pushed out there to perform like a man but he really didn't have the ingredients to nurture his talent. You can't just nurture your talent on finding out with like weights and theatre class. You've got to nurture it with character. Without character it will burn a hole in your talent, eventually. You know what I'm saying. That's not going to give you longevity (unintelligible).

I noticed in one scene you were standing next to the real Boobie Miles. How did that affect you?

DL: Awkward. Hard. Mostly every scene that I had was like a major scene mostly done in Odessa. What happened that the real Boobie Miles lived and was also on set almost every day. I looked up and go "Man, where is Denzel at?" The only reason why I said that is that Denzel played so many real-life characters and on "Antwone" a lot of things he told me just kind of ran off my back. I didn't know why he was saying "I'm going to give it to you the first couple of weeks without Antwone Fisher present." But when Boobie was there it was awkward, but at the same time Coach Gaines played by Billy Bob he was giving those speeches. I was reacting to Boobie's reaction because the camera was panning back and forth. I saw him getting emotional and sometimes he would leave the room .So it made me look at the character in a new perspective. He's a big boy.

In between shots did you guys get a chance to throw the ball around at all? Pick up games?

JH: A little bit. Throwing the ball around I mean. But no pick up games, those guys were too big.

DL: They're like 320. You know we were the pick up game. (laughs)

What was it like shooting in Texas - Odessa - heat...

JH: Yeah it was hot at times, and it was cold at times - very cold. I remember when we were practicing, we trained for about six weeks, you know football camp, and getting there in the morning it was freezing cold and we had to throw the pads on. It was pretty uncomfortable at times but it was good shooting in Texas. A lot of the people were very exited about the film. We had a great crew and I think going to Odessa was pretty important because you can read about it, you know I read the book, and you can hear about it but to actually go there and to see how small the town is and then see how committed they are to the game of football . I think it helped all of us. Just to see the stadium itself. To go there and to see this multimillion dollar stadium in this tiny little town is pretty impressive. Can you guys relate to how these kids were seen as celebrities in this high school town?

DL: I felt like at a point there was nothing wrong with being pushed to excellence. But being pushed to excellence without enjoying a childhood is a little something different. That's the only thing that helps remind me. When i'm looking at mentors asking questions, to continually be me no matter what the movie has done- will do at the box office. Again, how they perform on the filed. That's the only way I can compare it, because everywhere we went in a town in Odessa everybody knew this character of mine and they talked. They talked about the game with intensity. I was like "wow that's amazing." This is cool and the kid's dream of being pushed at sports not academics as much. I felt like that was pretty interesting.

JH: I think this is a lot of pressure on these kids. We are a little older. We're not in high school anymore and we've had a little more life experiences to help us better understand what were going through in terms of stardom and recognition. And these kids were 17/ 18 somewhere around there and they had a lot of pressure. They had this whole town pushing them to succeed and to win and if they didn't win they were failures and were just forgotten as quick as that and that a lot to have on your shoulders. How are you going to concentrate on academics when you have all this pressure? I mean it's pretty impossible. But it's part of their culture and the small town of Odessa. They didn't have much more to sort of uplift them so when you go there you kind of understand why there was so much pressure to succeed on the field.

Do you think it has changed? The situation in Odessa. The team hasn't done very well.

DL: That's changed.

JH: Yeah, that's changed. They haven't done as well. But it's still a small town and they still love the game so I don't know.

Can you talk about working with Peter the director how he worked with you on a physical level and how you worked on such a big ensemble?

DL: Peter was intense man. There was never a loose moment a loose ball that he didn't count, you know on camera I mean. Every time that I would come in and I would have my objective about Boobie Miles, for just that day, he would always intensify it. Even if I was just standing on the sidelines he was like "no, it was more than that it's Football. It 's war, it's war!" [JH joins in: "war"] I'm like "no we're not man we're playing football." No i didn't say that, but he was so intense and he would have one end of the field -- he would have me and Garret, our characters, he would have us fighting and then as were fighting we were getting into it he was like "shut up, shut up, shut up" then he would pan down tot he rest of the field. I was like "yo man, hey man, I'm method I'm getting into the fight" he was like "look man, I got the shot I'm moving on." So it was intense.

JH: Yeah, he answered it man. Peter is pretty intense and the thing is he's an actor so he has a different perspective than somebody who is behind the camera their whole career. He'll kind of just throw things at you and keep the camera rolling and say "now do this" and you kind of do it on the fly and I think it keeps it sort of raw and real and that's I think what he he was shooting for on this film. That's the story, it's raw.

Supporting characters - do you find either one more challenging?

DL: I prefer the lead role. Well, And this is about being honest it's because you are in the business where millions of people want to pursue it and the extra work, people are just happy to get extra work or a role in speaking. Honestly I think that when I did the supporting role it took a minute to actually put the same amount of work into it and not doing something arrogate and trying to "Man, what's happening? No this can't be I need to be back at i'm like 'Denzel I see Antwone 2.'" So I definitely like the responsibility I like being in the front and I never considered supporting and I never thought anything was wrong with it. But I just love jumping of that plank without nothing to catch me.

JH: I think in the right situation the supporting role is just as good as the leading role, but obviously you want that you know. I think when the story is all about you, you can delve into the character. It's always a little meatier when it's you and it's your story. I think it's good to be the lead guy. Who doesn't? What actor doesn't want to be the lead?

How was the work out sessions/ training? DL: Mine was that we would do two a day. In the morning you had to put heat pads on your knees and your body to get warmed up because it's cold outside. And then after three or four hours we would have to go and have lunch and come back for another. So we would have to -- in the beginning of the day we would have to put heat pads on. At the end of the practice you would put ice on your knee. When you come back from lunch you put heat pads on your knee, and the thing about it was it was so cold outside your walking around with tapes of ice around your knee. So I was acting like a baby and I was looking at the other football players to see whether I should say something. Everybody just seemed cool. "This is just Texas."

What attracted you to the character?

JH: I read the book initially. I just connected with it I though it was a unique story. It was based in reality so it wasn't like it had to be worked on. It was truth already. So that and then after meeting Peter and understanding what he wanted to do with it and how he wanted to make it as real as possible and just how it all came together. It seemed like a good role for me. Brian Chavez was the kind of unique character, I think, because everybody seemed to be hurt in some way by the football Phenomenon out there, all the players on the team, and he was the one guy who was able to see beyond football and able to achieve a higher level of education and really do something with his life, not that the other guys didn't. But for him there was more to life than just football and I thought that was cool.

DL: I was not as interested in playing Boobie because I thought like it was a tragedy. And I talked to my wife about it and asked for her perspective and she was like the reason why -- as I read and as I started listening to Tina, it's not like they had to pull my teeth to play it. It was just I wanted to understand more about this character so I can sink my teeth into it the way i'm supposed to. The number one reason why I wanted to play Boobie Miles is that I just felt like one- you make come from the worst situation in life but life still holds your responsibility for your character, still holds your responsibility for your talent and you may not have an adult, you may not have a race or color of whatever to guide you but you still held responsible. When you go to court you get in trouble you still responsible for your own life and I felt like that part of the story I wanted to be involved in and I wanted to show that it's okay to be talented but look and make a choice of your own as far as some of the things you should and shouldn't do.

Did either of you take any hits?

JH: I took all my hits.

DL: You got hurt.

JH: Yeah, I got hurt. I was I think the only one. Oh you kind of got a knee injury. One of the biggest guys out there, this guy O.J, he just -- I don't know what happened. It was kind of a scuffle that took place after a play and he fell on my leg and I heard a big pop. I thought it was broken because this guy was just massive. And I ended up getting x-rays and it was alright -- just had a pretty bad sprain. But I did take hits too and give a couple of hits. It was hard when it was 5am you've been waiting for so long that I fell asleep so they woke me up I ran to the set we were trying to get this shot off before the sun came up and it was kind of painful.

Did anybody see stars?

DL: I did. But it was only when I fell by myself.

JH: You know what that turf was so hard. The turf is horrible to run on.

DL: It's like asphalt. I was running and I thought I was making this great play and there was nobody bothering me and I felt there was like a ditch in front of me, "whoop." The ground and me met, Face-to-face. And that was the hardest hit I ever had since we were on the field.

These two characters have an entire town on them about their performances on the field. How do you think acting would change for the two of you if you had that kind of pressure on the both of you for each performance to be perfect? Or do you feel that kind of pressure in such a competitive business?

DL: I believe that pressure and intimidation is always present. I think how you yield to it is something totally different. I believe not pressure is healthy, but I believe responsibility and a commitment is healthy when you commit to a part. What does that mean is to give your whole heart as the people that are watching on screen that I admire, and I see what these guys have done in these movies and the hundred percent I put in it wasn't just contract or grades. I mean they actually kept the love for it, a hunger and all that other stuff that parallel. It makes you realize that pressure is just optional as far as yielding to it it's just like a force.

JH: For me I think that I don't like feeling pressure from outside sources. I'd rather put the pressure on myself and push myself to do it as good as I can.

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