Interview: Johnathan Fernandez on ‘Lethal Weapon’ and the Self-Taped Audition That Got Him the Role

Actor Johnathan Fernandez

“I’m learning a ton, and the character is evolving a bunch, and I feel like I learn something new every time I learn a new script.” – Johnathan Fernandez on ‘Lethal Weapon’

It’s hard to take a beloved film Lethal Weapon and turn it into a TV show that’s fresh and fun. But the cast and creators of FOX’s Lethal Weapon, now in its second season, have done just that thanks in part to one of its stars, Johnathan Fernandez.

The UCB alum, who plays medical examiner, Scorsese, opposite Damon Wayans (Murtaugh) and Clayne Crawford (Riggs), told me that he got the role from his self-tape audition. From his apartment in New York City, he submitted 10 different tapes, “because it was two scenes, and I did five takes for each scene,” he said. Two days later, he found out he booked the part and was flying to LA soon after for his first table read.

I talked to Fernandez about his audition, creating his character, working with the cast and how it feels to be a full-time working actor.

I’m a huge fan of the original Lethal Weapon.

Johnathan Fernandez: Yeah, same.

When I saw they were coming out with this, I was like, “Hm, uh-oh.” But after watching it, I liked it a lot. It’s like you guys created a Lethal Weapon but from a different universe. You know what I mean?

Johnathan Fernandez: Thanks. That’s a big compliment. I was the same skeptic, dude, going into it, just being someone who watches a lot of movies, and as a nerd, has a nerd’s critique for a lot of things. I know that if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d be like, I don’t know about this, dude. The movies are amazing, and making it for television? Who knows? But somehow, all the stars aligned and Matt Miller’s a genius and Damon knows what he’s doing, and was not interested in regurgitating the stuff that people had seen prior in the movies, which I think is the main reason why it works.

The other day I was actually likening it to doing plays, where … Movies are kind of interesting, because when there are reincarnations or different iterations of the movie, people generally just keep on saying something about the original. But with a play, you never do that. If you’re playing Macbeth or something, you’re not trying to do the same thing as the previous ten thousand Macbeths. You’re trying to do literally the opposite of that. And nobody really gives you flak for doing that. They’re like, “We want to see the new Macbeth, and see how the play is, and how different it is from other things.” But movies and TV shows don’t really get that luxury. I think that’s why it’s worked. We’re like, here’s the source material, and let’s do our own thing so people get something fresh.

Yeah, exactly. Your character, he’s a completely new guy. Tell me about your audition, because I read where you were booked right off the self-tape.

Johnathan Fernandez: Yeah, which was kind of hilarious, because I think every actor thinks their self-tape just goes to the deepest, darkest dungeon somewhere, never to be seen by anybody who matters, ever.

I think mine end up that way, yeah.

Johnathan Fernandez: You email it, and you are using software that lets you see the views, and your heart flutters a little bit when you see those views go from just you and your agent to, maybe, 3 or 4 people. A friend of mine always jokes about the fact that when she sees her views go up into the twenties, it’s like “Oh, then, this is really being passed around.” It’s like a mini viral element in your personal little world.

I think that it was really interesting to experience this whole audition process for this show in particular through a self-tape. I started taking it really seriously at some point, I guess, around pilot season. I was just like, “No, I’m going to really make sure this is the strongest tape possible, make sure that the lighting is good in my super small apartment in New York.” And I guess it worked, because when it got fired off to the powers that be, I got a phone call the next day from agents in Los Angeles who I’d never met, at the time, saying, “Hey, they really responded to your tape. Can you do another tape tonight?” And I was like, “Sure.”

Then I spoke to the casting director, which never, ever happens! To have a phone call with Anya Colloff, who cast a lot of major comedy shows that I would have loved to be a part of … To be all of a sudden having a conversation with her on the phone, and her giving me direct notes, and saying what she liked about the tapes, and saying that it was between me and another dude, at that point, and I’m really different from him, so “we want to highlight your particular strengths.” And as I’m listening to this, I was like, this makes no sense. I don’t understand how I’m in this situation, especially because I was preoccupied at the time with the fact that I had a million other auditions that week. It was smack-dab in the middle of pilot season. I was definitely, like, “This is cool, but I have to memorize all these lines for tomorrow, before something else.”

So, just the fact that this one seemed all of a sudden to be taking off, and she was like, “Hey, do your thing.” I ended up submitting 10 different tapes, because it was two scenes, and I did five takes for each scene, doing a lot of different permutations on the character. One was pretty straight, like if it was a procedural; another one, as if he hated his job; another one as if he was a goofball; another one with a lot more improv in it. I think that’s ultimately why it worked out. Actually, I should ask Matt Miller about that.

Did you just do that on a whim?

Johnathan Fernandez: Yeah, I did it on a whim. The inspiration came from Anya, because … I can’t remember exactly how she said it, but in the notes she was, like, “Hey, there’s this thing that you did in the first scene, and that’s great, if you want to play with that more, you can send me different takes and I’ll watch them all.” So I took that on face value, and I was just like, “Well, screw it, I guess I’ll just do as many takes that make sense, and just send them all.”

I think, ultimately, that’s why it worked out, because if I was in the audition room testing with all the bigwigs in the room, like McG and Matt Miller would have asked me to do all those things anyway. Play with the character a little bit, change it a little bit so that he feels this way or that way. The fact that I kind of just took the bull by the horns and did that automatically … I can guess that they were impressed with it, but I don’t know. It probably seems insane, but then two days later when I found out, I was like “Oh, I guess I’m really glad I did that.”

You were pretty quickly on set after that?

Johnathan Fernandez: Yeah, it was Tuesday, first self-tape; Wednesday, a call back, self-tape; Thursday night I found out I booked it, and then Sunday I was flying out. Monday was our first table read, with just us. Tuesday was the table read with the president of Warner Bros. Television and the chairman of Fox… every single suit was in this conference room. Wednesday was my first day of shooting. It was ridiculous!

That’s crazy.

Johnathan Fernandez: Yeah, and also I was in the first scene on the first day of shooting. There was no time to really think about anything.

Wow! So your heart must have been racing! You were like, “Oh, don’t screw this up!”

Johnathan Fernandez: One thing that people don’t really understand with how this stuff works is that you’ll sometimes hear glorified tales of Hollywood, where there’s months and months of casting, and months and months of working on scenes, and chemistry tests, and all this stuff, and people hang out to see if they’d like to work with each other. That doesn’t really happen. All of a sudden, you’re flying out, and you’re sitting at a table with Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford and Jordana Brewster and Kevin Rahm, and you’re just dying to tell them all how much of a big fan you are of all of them, and how you’ve been idolizing them for the last million years. Instead, you can’t do any of those things, you have to keep your mouth shut and just do your work, because you don’t want to sound like some psycho.

What’s funny about that, too, is that as you’re jumping through the rings of fire, you’ll have little moments of … There’s tons of downtime when you’re shooting anything. When we were shooting the first scene of the pilot, it was me, Damon, and Clayne, and after a few times we were just sitting around in the set chairs, talking. I told Damon, “Me and my roommate in college, we quoted the hell out of Major Payne. We talked about that movie all the time!” And Clayne was kind of teasing me, too, like “Oh look, the kid is fanning out,” or something like that. There’s moments like that that make the whole thing very, very magical.

It’s just so fast! Everything happens so quickly, because time is money, and we don’t have the luxury of having a shoot schedule for, like, a film, even though it’s making a movie every week. There’s a very limited time for it to sink in, to just look around and be like, “Wow, this is crazy that this is happening.”

I’ve played medical people before, and learning the terminology is the worst thing, I think. Not only learning it, but being able to say it like you’ve said it a million times, and saying it believably. Do you have that issue, as well?

Johnathan Fernandez: For some reason, I always gravitated toward medical and anatomical language. The most hilarious part is that I was going to go to school for forensic illustration, and then the path changed ten thousand times. Through there was criminal justice, and just forensics, and illustration, and all these things. As a kid, in elementary school we had a teacher who would let us choose our own vocabulary for vocabulary tests. Me being ever the show-off, I already had anatomy books through my mom, for some reason, and I would choose from there. I always was fascinated with the human body, and drawing it, and learning the different parts, so for some reason I’ve always had a penchant towards that kind of terminology.

That being said, learning it is one thing, and saying it fluently is another. For me, the hardest thing is to not just make it sound like you’ve said these things a million times, but being able to improvise around those things and come back to them. I’ve done lot of comedy, and our shows are pretty funny in general … especially the Scorsese character, who always has a game in the scene. Whatever is the overarching plot element is taking place, obviously, but whenever Scorsese is around, he always has an ulterior situation happening. Being able to have fun with that, and also give the business, and say whatever’s happening with the cadaver, and what I’ve found in the body, but then also go back to joking. Then Damon says something funny, and Clayne improvises, and then I improvise and have to come back to saying, “Oh, well, the gunman and the entry wound,” and all this stuff.

That’s the hardest part for me, is just making sure I’m keeping to the lines, as I’m also improvising around it.

It sounds like the writers know what they have with you coming from UCB and with Damon Wayans, and they’re totally cool with you guys improvising?

Johnathan Fernandez: The writers are so good. I can’t love them enough. They are just so on it. Especially now, in the second season, I feel like there are so many lines in there that I have where I’m like, “I would say this in real life.” They also are very cool with the collaborative aspect of things. Miller especially has told me, “You have a lot of free rein on the show to do your thing.” They don’t want just some other procedural show, they want it to seem like this is real people talking, and real people having fun, mostly.

Through that, that’s where you find these moments to improvise, and that’s what makes it seem so casual, even when things are dire. It just seems like it’s a slice of life, however extravagant the life is. It’s nice to be able to work in an environment where you’re allowed to improvise. Sometimes they use it, sometimes they don’t, depending on the story they’re trying to tell. That’s obviously the best part, because nobody feels stifled at all. We go to work, and we just feel like we’re having fun at all times.

How does it feel, after running around from audition to audition, to be a full-time working actor?

Johnathan Fernandez: It’s super odd, because 99% of acting is auditioning. That’s your job. So when you do actually have a gig, especially a gig that lasts as long as Lethal Weapon, where we shoot basically 9 1/2 to 10 months out of the year, it’s weird to… I don’t want to say that the job is easier at all. It’s just that auditioning is different scale in and of itself, because you don’t know what the person on the other side of the camera wants, and they don’t really know what they want. You’re just trying different characters, and you’re just really trying to find this whole thing.

It’s a completely different story to be part of a show where you’ve co-created the character, essentially, and then made it come to life. Especially going into the second season, where there’s a lot of groundwork laid already, and a lot of momentum, so you don’t really have to … It doesn’t seem like you have to figure out as much, but the reason I’m so hesitant in saying that is because I’ve learned so much in the last year of doing this, especially now going in the middle of the second half of the second season of shooting. I’m learning a ton, and the character is evolving a bunch, and I feel like I learn something new every time I learn a new script.

I guess it’s two very separate things, but it’s obviously nice to know you have a job. That’s probably the best part. It allows me to not really worry so much about what’s going on in terms of booking, or making sure you have enough auditions, all that stuff. It’s funny, I’ve had that question before, but I don’t think I’ve really tried to answer it as specifically as I am now. I’m realizing right now that it’s very challenging to do so.

It’s crazy. It’s just very different from auditioning, and having a show, and being able to learn so much is all so incredible, just because you can’t really learn a lot of things that you do on the set until you’re there as a regular. When you’re going co-star to co-star, or guest star to guest star, you’re there in a very limited fashion. You show up, you do your job, and then you leave. But when you’re part of an ever-evolving cast and show and character, no acting class in the world is going to teach you that. The experience has been really crazy.

What has been your worst audition?

Johnathan Fernandez: My worst audition was for the reboot of In Living Color, which eventually became Friends of the People, that sketch show on what was it, TruTV or Spike or something? I forget the channel it was on. My friend Jen Bartels was in it, and I think Jermaine Fowler was on it, and some people like that.

It’s that classic thing of, nobody knew what the show was going to be like. They just knew that Keenan was back, and they were going to find new people, and it was going to be on Fox again. When I showed up … I told Damon the other day, in fact, “Yo, dude, I went out to that show, and my audition was horrible!” They wanted me to do some impressions and some characters, but they also were very strict with the timing of it. So they were like, “You get to do 3 characters, each one is a minute, and then when the minute is over, we’re going to stop rolling.” They were super strict. I was ready to go in there and play around a little bit, and have my character obviously down pat, but also maybe improvise around the end. That really took me by surprise.

I also had a microphone that was connected to the camera, and a lot of the characters I was doing were pretty physical, and they were being moved around a lot. I had this Sméagol/Gollum impression, who’s a creature who jumps around and is crazy. As soon as they put the wire mic on me, I was like “Oh, no, I can’t really move around.” And I asked them about that, and they were like “Well, we want to make sure you can be heard.” And just automatically everything just derailed. My characters weren’t coming under a minute, so they were all cut off. By the time I got to do Sméagol I was not feeling it at all. I had a whole Lenny Kravitz thing I was going to do, I had sunglasses in my pocket that I was going to throw on. But at that point I was so over it, I didn’t even do the Kravitz thing. I was like, “Thanks for your time, I’m out of here!” It was terrible.

Weeks later, they said they were looking now for more storytelling, and more stand up type jokes, so they asked me to come back and tell a funny story and do some stand up stuff, and I was like, no, man, I don’t think the universe wants me to do this. And I didn’t go back. I think about that audition all the time, and what I would do very differently if I was in those positions.

Lethal Weapon airs on Tuesdays at 8pm on FOX

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