BEVERLY HILLS, California — Jay Hernandez is supposed to be promoting next month's grisly thriller "Hostel," in which he uncovers a terrifying subculture that thrives on mutilation, torture and killing, but he's got another topic on his mind that is far more grim — and far more important.
" 'World Trade Center' and 'September' are some of the things that I've heard, but I don't know exactly what it's going to be," the 27-year-old actor said of a few possible titles for the controversial 9/11 movie he's currently filming in Los Angeles. After years of avoiding the topic, Hollywood is now making what promises to be the most high-profile movie to ever deal with the subject. "I like 'September' — it's one word, you get it, there's an automatic connection."
The project hopes to form a similar connection with audiences still stunned by the terrorist attacks of four years ago. It will star Nicolas Cage as Port Authority police officer John McLoughlin, who, along with William J. Jimeno, were the last two men rescued from the collapse of the World Trade Center. Michael Peña ("Crash") has been cast as Jimeno, with Hernandez and stars like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Nicholas Turturro portraying others touched by the tragedy. Continuing along the fearless path that has always defined his career for better ("The Doors") or worse ("Alexander"), director Oliver Stone is overseeing the film.
"It has nothing to do with conspiracy theories; I know a lot of people are mentioning that because it's Oliver Stone," Hernandez grinned, referring to "JFK." "[This] is all about honoring these people and their families."
"Working with Oliver is huge," he continued. "We did some work in New York; we talked and did a lot of research with the Port Authority officers down there. These are real characters, it's a real story. It's a little bit of a sensitive subject, but I know Oliver is trying to make it as real and as honest as possible."
The film focuses on the officers' attempts to stay alive as rescue workers sort through the rubble and their family and friends wait for any indication of their survival.
"I play [Pena's] best friend that died that day," Hernandez reveals, admitting that the coupling of the lifelike set and one very special on-set adviser has kept things as honest as they are emotional.
"Will Jimeno is actually on set with us, advising, telling us that this happened and this didn't. He's bringing that element of truth to it," said Hernandez, softening his tone with reverence. "He can't live in that moment, Will — this is what I gather, I don't want to speak for him — so he detaches himself from it, but at times there was a couple moments where he just really broke down; it was really tough for him. Especially being out [in L.A.], because he doesn't have his family with him. ... It's a really, really emotional thing."
Like most of the other actors, Hernandez has extracted motivation from Jimeno rather than seeking out the real-life family members of his deceased character. "I spoke with everybody else but the family," he said, "just to respect their privacy and their space. Obviously it's a very difficult thing to go through, and his wife and kids have been left behind, so I stayed away from that."
The heartfelt results are due in theaters later this year, and Hernandez said Stone is intent on making it his most personal film yet. "He's working really hard, and he really wants this film to be great," the actor said. "He wants people to respect what he's doing, and not criticize it. He's really putting a lot of himself into this film, and he really cares about it."
While admitting to the enormous pressures of portraying a still-healing national wound, Hernandez said the actors' respect and appreciation for the heroes of 9/11 have fueled every line they've delivered. "It's an honor for me to be involved in it," he said, glancing down, "and to try to respect the dead by doing as good a job as I can."
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