Callie Hernandez On ‘La La Land’ And How She Found Her Footing In Hollywood

Photographed by Amy Harrity. Dress by Zero + Maria Cornejo, top by A.L.C.

We caught up with the actress to talk about her latest projects

The following feature appears in the February 2017 issue of NYLON.

Callie Hernandez spent the better part of two years sleeping on other people’s couches. From 2014 until recently, the Texas-raised actress relied on the kindness of friends, who welcomed her into their New York City apartments. She also relied on coconut oil. “When you’re crashing with friends, you start to notice what you can utilize without feeling like a total leech, like coconut oil,” she says. “You can use it for pretty much anything.”

Hernandez’s laugh, which punctuates her endorsement, is as generous as her frame is slight, and helps explain why she was invited to stay in people’s homes for so long, even if she felt guilty about it. “You start to feel like you’re just infringing on people,” she says. At the time she was an acting student, then an acting-school dropout after not being able to afford tuition at the William Esper Studio in Manhattan. But a lot can change in two years. “It was pretty raw,” she recalls of that period while seated in a cabana chair in the garden of the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. She lives nearby now, in the hillside neighborhood of Los Feliz. “I mailed whoever let me live with them a key,” she says, “and was like, anytime, please.

Today there are billboards for her latest feature, La La Land, all over Los Angeles. The movie, a Hollywood Golden Age-style musical from writer-director Damien Chazelle, stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as two aspirational creatives who fall in love against a technicolor L.A. backdrop. Hernandez plays friend and roommate to Stone’s character, and shares an intricate musical number with her famous co-star. “I was definitely the worst dancer,” she says self-deprecatingly. She is currently filming another L.A. story, Under the Silver Lake, a psychotropic California noir written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, who is following up his 2014 horror hit It Follows. To prepare for the role, which Hernandez is keeping under wraps, she was advised by Mitchell to watch David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. “It was the only Lynch movie I hadn’t seen,” she says. “Watching it, I was like, this is the best Lynch, so no wonder!”

Before joining the cast of Under the Silver Lake and after shooting Ridley Scott’s top-secret sci-fi sequel Alien: Covenant, Hernandez spent several months wandering around Los Angeles, wondering how she’d gotten here so quickly after her meager New York existence. “I worked for a year and a half straight,” Hernandez explains. “I was going off of curiosity and intuition.” After Alien: Covenant wrapped, a project whose details Hernandez is sworn to protect, “that was the first time I got to step back, and I realized I was in a different place. It was kind of sudden.”

Photographed by Amy Harrity. Dress by Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, shoes by Chanel.

While couch surfing, she’d started booking jobs with the help of an agent. Her first major role came in 2015—a lead in the horror sequel Blair Witch, where it took 36 takes to nail her death scene. “That’s when I kind of lost my mind,” she says. Hernandez is also a regular on the Epix dramedy Graves, playing a “tatted up” muse to Nick Nolte’s former POTUS who is going through an existential crisis. “The show is about taking responsibility for being alive,” Hernandez says, referencing a quote from Joan Didion.

Just a few years earlier, Hernandez was “waking up every day feeling like, ‘I know there’s something I’m supposed to be doing that I’m not doing, and I don’t know what it is.’” This was in 2012. “I call it the lost year,” Hernandez says, laughing that laugh. “Because it was a bit wild.” Living in Austin, Texas, untethered to any commitments, Hernandez decided to join a friend, musician Jess Williamson, on tour across the Pacific Northwest. “It was really beautiful,” she says. “I got to accompany Jess on the cello for two weeks. It was just the two of us driving through these rainstorms.” When Hernandez returned from tour, something in her had changed. “I hate to sound like, ‘The universe decided for me,’ because I don’t think I’m that special, but by the time I got back, everything was gone, missing, stripped. And that was the moment that I decided I would do the thing that I buried for so long.”

That thing was acting, a vocation Hernandez wanted to pursue as a child, but an impulse which she quieted at a pivotal moment in her life. “I remember getting in the shower when I was about 12, thinking, ‘It’s selfish to want to try and be in the arts. I should just be a teacher and be happy with a simple life.’ And I convinced myself. It was so painful to deny that I wanted to do it all this time.”

As swiftly as she’d buried it, Hernandez recommitted to her unearthed childhood ambition. “It sounds so cheesy,” she says. “But it was like a now-or-never moment—I didn’t have anything else to lose.” And so came the move to New York, acting school, auditioning, an agent, going for broke, and finally, making it. “I do applaud myself on being a bit of a jumper,” she says. “If I feel something’s right, I just sort of put my blinders on and do it.” 

Hair: Kylee Heath at Starworks Artists using R + Co. Makeup: Fiona Stiles at Starworks Artists using Fiona Stiles Beauty.