In this Netflix Latino dramatic series, Gabino returns home to Spain after having lived and studied in Mexico for 10 years. He surprises his family by arriving with a Mexican male ballet dancer in tow. The dancer, Lázaro, is played by Isaac Hernández, in his screen acting debut.
Hernández was born in Guadalajara, Mexico where he received ballet training from his father, Hector. He continued to study at Philadelphia’s The Rock School for Dance Education, with Stephanie Wolff Spassoff and Boris Spassoff, and has danced with San Francisco, Dutch National, and English National Ballets. He is currently a Lead Principal Dancer at English National. I was able to interview Hernández via Zoom.
Toba Singer: “Alguien tiene que morir” feels like it was custom-made for you. Where/how/with whom did the project originate?
Isaac Hernández: The idea came from a close friend Manolo Caro, who had a successful series called “House of Flowers” for Netflix. Mutual friends included Cecilia Suarez who plays Amparo in the series. She saw one of our shows at English National Ballet and became interested in the dance world. Manolo wondered, “What if one of the main characters is a dancer? That would allow us to raise a number of issues that are controversial in Mexico.” These included men in ballet and homosexuality, with the added benefit of bringing classical ballet onto a broad-based platform such as Netflix. We were on tour in Chicago when Cecilia Suárez sent the script. She’d worked with Carmen Maura. She had asked about me.
The character they had in mind has a personality similar to mine: he’s curious, and has a strong sense of his own intentions. When Manolo asked me whether it could work, I saw that it was a role I could play, and said to him , “I think I can do it.” I didn’t know who the cast was on the first day of work when we had our first table session, and then I had about a half an hour to memorize my lines before we shot a scene I was in. On the second day, I got a better idea of who else was in the cast. Since I wasn’t an actor at that point, and had come from the dance world, I had worried that I’d be treated as a guest or an outsider, but they treated me as an actor right from the beginning. We built scenes together. I think it helped that I invited the whole cast to see me dance in Akram Khan’s “Giselle” at the Teatro Réal in Madrid and they loved it.
TS: Obviously, a good classical ballet dancer has to be a good actor, but I’m wondering whether you had acting lessons apart from those that come with ballet training?
I never studied acting. I saw this as a good opportunity to give it a go. I won’t watch it until I have grandchildren [laughter.] There wasn’t time to take proper acting classes. I was fortunate to have actor friends who helped me. I put myself through an emotional journey the day before shooting so as to arrive confident with intention for the scene that was scheduled to be shot, often out of sequence, on any given day. By the third week, I was in shape to begin playing with the character. I did this by trying to reach for difficult moments with the requisite emotional distress.
That process has changed how I have danced. I now can go directly there out of nowhere. Take the ballet “Romeo and Juliet, for example. It’s like going straight to Romeo being devastated in the final Act. I can reach that kind of emotional endpoint more efficiently. I try to interpret a dance role closer to its theater version. It’s often the case that the public doesn’t come to see a story ballet because they prefer to keep the stage version in mind and it’s different. We want to push classical ballets out there, but audiences can’t always understand gesture, which is our way of communicating important subtleties. How you enter a scene and walk, offer a window onto the character’s intention. In ballet, we make this two or three times bigger than one does in film. Manolo decided that he wanted more theatrical moments but would have me turn down the flame to make it camera-sized.
Most important was the emotional journey. Someone who reads the script has the whole story before him or her, but you and your character don’t. He only knows what is happening to him, and has no knowledge of what’s happening with the other characters. This protects against anticipation of, for example, the next scene, or even the next beat in your scene. It’s helpful to experience how each interaction builds the character and his relationships. In real life, you are never the same with the different people you interact with. That’s how I had to create the close relationship with Alejandro, who plays Gabino.
Ernesto Alterio, who plays Gabino’s father, is a serious Method actor, and even remains in character off set. It’s “Listen, understand me, and react.” Onstage in ballet, it’s my task to wait for the ballerina to initiate. But if you bring that expectation into the film medium, you run the danger of what in acting they call “anticipating,” and you miss the organic progression that lends truthfulness to the scene. I learned that you shouldn’t be afraid to take time. In ballet, we are so aware of time that finding the natural rhythm of every scene felt logical. If a scene is well written, the logical response will come to you out of the writing.
TS: Can you give readers some background on the historical period during which the story takes place?
IH: The story takes place in 1954, in Madrid. Franco is in power, though his name is never mentioned. Instead, a door is opened on a conservative family, clearly under the influence of fascism, with the father running the prison system. It touches on subjects that might offend those in Spain, especially with it coming from Mexico and raising such matters as how artists were viewed and homosexuality. These same issues are beginning to surface more prominently today in Mexico. In various parts of the world, wherever you find oppression, there are always similarities and correspondences. It was a very brave thing to put those subjects out there, basically to pick a fight in 19 different languages [laughter.]
TS: What aspect of Gabino’s personality motivates Lázaro to remain his friend through thick and thin? Does he even attempt to reconcile that sense of loyalty with his feelings for Gabino’s mother?
IH: It will make sense in third episode. It comes down to the love that both Mina (Gabino’s mother, played by Suárez ) and Lázaro feel for Gabino. With Cayetana, the character Gabino’s family has arranged for him to marry, Lázaro doesn’t know how to react, so he plays along, but then steps back from her advances. In the case of the mother, his responses are compassionate.
TS: What in your experience corresponds to his?
IH: I’ve been in situations in my personal life where social or professional conventions and personal feelings are counterposed or at odds. That very dissonance can push you to put so much freight on the personal relationship that you abandon your priorities. There’s a price to pay, like it, or not. Sometimes it feels easiest to take care of someone and their needs, rationalizing by thinking, “If I don’t do this, who will?” Then midway into the situation, you can suddenly come to understand that a price has to be paid for triangulating the personal, the professional and becoming one with the story of someone you care for.
Lázaro is caught by surprise. He walks into a situation where the other characters have either secret longings or secret resentments, some connected to their social class, which they project onto him. Does he realize this? He comes from a different social stratum and ethnic background than they do.
TS: Why does Lázaro endure the indignities that the others heap on him?
IH: Yes, you see it happening clearly, right from the start, with grandmother’s opening salvo. He forgets all his manners. All the Mexican can think of are the Spanish conquistadors. Clichés hang in the air, just waiting to define the character. Maura has that power, with the gravitas she brings to the role, to throw the otherwise well-positioned Lázaro off his game.
TS: Did the director have to restrain you from dancing your way through the fight scenes? How would you compare the experience of being directed through a filmed fight scene with one on a ballet stage?
IH: It’s very subtle because Manolo knew what he wanted for the scene. His eyes are everywhere. Now I see how important a skill that can be: to connect that moment you are shooting with next thing in the story. He was so easy to work with. We became closer friends, but when it came to tell the story, he couldn’t have been more precise in his coaching.
TS: What did you find most challenging? What came easily to you?
IH: To be completely honest, getting naked in front of everyone was very hard for me. I was not used to it. We’re physical in dance, grabbing and pulling from anywhere. Still, this was different. I felt very uncomfortable with the whole cast, the crew, and everyone who was involved.
TS: Did they send everyone off set except for those who needed to be present?
IH: Yes, they provide as much privacy as they can, as compared with the privacy you need. Even with excluding those not involved in shooting that scene, still there were about 30 people remaining! The other thing I found challenging was shooting the end of the series on the third or fourth day. It required putting myself through a lot of emotions to arrive at a place for which there was no lead-up, based on the order in which the scenes were shot. Manolo helped me tremendously with meeting that challenge.
Easiest was the dancing because everyone wanted to see me dance. This was the scene in the shoe factory with homophobic characters making me dance and then beating up on me. We waited all night for an early morning shoot. Even though it was 3 C/36 F degrees in Escorial, and the set had a perilously hard floor, it still felt exciting with the lights, and it being my first time shooting as an actor playing a dancer.
TS: Wow! Did those averse conditions affect your dancing? How many takes until you felt satisfied with it?
IH: We did three full takes; Manolo knows enough about dancing to see when I’m off balance. He had found Baryshnikov’s character and performance in the film “White Knights” particularly satisfying, and decided “I want Isaac!” Of course, then had to sell it to Netflix. When we saw the first take, and that the lighting was right, the buildup right, we were ready to go with whatever happened.
You end up thankful for such a good opportunity to reach a massive audience with a ballet story like that, and have it be the controlling argument of the story, knowing it will be controversial and an entirely new experience for the viewers.
TS: Assuming COVID goes away eventually, what projects–acting, dancing or other–do you envision in your future?
IH: We have ambitious intentions at English National Ballet, working on digital and live programs starting in mid-November. It will be difficult. I’ve been offered a series to shoot next summer, and am developing an original idea that has been on my mind for some time.