‘Gossip Girl’ Star Johnathan Fernandez on Afro-Latino Representation

Johnathan Fernandez can currently be seen in the Max Original series, Gossip Girl. New episodes begin streaming Thursday on HBO Max and the show has already been renewed for a second season. The actor is also known for his role in Lethal Weapon.

I had a discussion with the actor about how he likes to use his platform, the fan reaction to Gossip Girl’s diversity, his career and how the industry has evolved, Latino and Afro-Latino representation, what he looks for in projects, and much more. Keep reading for everything he shared!

Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

I’m really excited to have this conversation, so thank you for being the one to want to take the time.
Fernandez: No, of course. I’ve been doing this for a while, acting that is, but Lethal Weapon was like my first real like big network, regular thing, and it was nice to kind of get a crash course on what it’s like to be on a show regularly and what the public relationship part is like. I did a couple of PR campaigns, like private ones, maybe three, I forget, and just going to the parties and all that stuff. Then after the second one, especially, I was just like, “I don’t care about any of this.” It’s one thing to promote the show specifically, I really love doing that. I love doing interviews, I love being a ham in front of the camera anytime I have a chance, but I think after those couple of experiences of something that I’m very fortunate to have experience with, you know, parties, swag, branding stuff, and all that, it’s obviously cool, but it just felt really hollow after a while. Then moving into Gossip Girl, I was like, I won’t say no to promote the show ever, but in terms of not doing private PR, I was like, I’m not trying to be the most popular person ever. That’s never been my interest. I just want people to be able to like see me in something and be like, “Oh, that guy was pretty good.” I’ll take that.

And so, as things have kind of shifted to just like, “Well, what do I want to talk about? What do I want? What do I care about,” the fun stuff has definitely been a little more specific where it’s like, I’m only going to do it if it’s something that I really do, like motorcycling. I motorcycle a lot of time and I have a few bikes, so it’s like any kind of PR situation where I can mix that in is great, obviously, because I really do that thing, I’m not just like posing on a bike and that’s it. And stuff with some fashion, like that kind of thing, whatever, but in terms of everything else, it’s like the things that right away I’m like, “I want to post about this,” it’s always some kind of like social issue or something that’s just like, “Do people know about this thing? Or do people know about this event that occurred wherever?” Like I run out of pictures of myself to post. It’s already gross, I already hate it, I’m only doing it because people generally want to see that. After that I’m just like, I don’t care about any of this stuff, I just want to talk about and post about things I think about all day long.

I live in Brooklyn, and just now I was walking by the Gowanus Canal and this dude threw his plastic bottle or whatever he had over the bridge into the canal. At first, I was just like, “Man,” like, he was with another guy and I’m not going to get into a whole thing and be like, “You can’t do that.” It’s already done, and who knows what the situation could escalate into and stuff like that. So, I didn’t say anything, but then after a beat of thinking that I was just like, if that guy felt like part of this society that he’s in, if he felt like he could participate in it, because the society also cared about him then he wouldn’t do that, you know? But it was like, he doesn’t give a shit about society, because he feels — I mean, I don’t want to speak for him, but from the situation, you get out what you put in. And if you don’t feel that from the other side, then you’re just like, ‘fuck this place.’ Like, fuck all this, like any of the institutions, any of that stuff, and that’s what a lot of the problems are in our society where they just want to react only with crime or whatever. It’s just like, no other engineering situation, would you be like, “Alright, the building is leaking. So instead of figuring out where the leak is coming from, let’s just tear down the building, and let’s just put the building in jail. Let’s just put the building in building jail,” and no other situation is like that. You’re always like, “Well, let’s figure out where the leak is and let’s try to prevent it, so it doesn’t happen later.” But that doesn’t happen anthropologically too much in our society.

It’s very interesting to me, because you have a platform and it sounds like you’ve realized what you want to do with it. Even in regards to you choosing who to do interviews with based on the conversations you want to have. That’s so important.
Yeah, of course. I don’t have a million followers or anything, and the only time I’ve ever wanted to have more followers would be when I’m posting about some dude that’s on death row that shouldn’t be and has been on it for like 20 years or whatever. It’s like, now all sudden, I care about how many followers I have, because I want to post and I want a million people to look at this thing. Otherwise, the other stuff, I don’t care about the growth. I don’t care about what it looks like or any of that stuff. So, it’s like kind of a weird, catch-22 because it’s like, I want to have the followers so I can post about stuff like that, so that a massive amount of people care about it, but I don’t want to do what it takes to build the following because that’s really annoying.

Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

We previously got to speak on the Gossip Girl red carpet about being part of such a diverse and inclusive show. Now the show is out, what has it been like seeing the reaction from viewers who feel seen with the show?
I want to say that like, it’s been interesting, it’s been really cool. I’ve been very fortunate with this show and Lethal Weapon as well, so like back-to-back shows, especially with Lethal Weapon at the time because it was on the cusp of being possibly the most diverse show on television before there were multiple shows that were like that and that’s only a few years ago. Now, you have a lot more shows that have more visibility. By no means does that mean that diversity is solved, but it makes me feel really good to be part of a show that I could easily point out and just be like, “Well, look, what this show is doing, this one that I happen to be a part of.”

Kind of what the funny thing with Lethal Weapon was that I would get recognized if I go to like a NASCAR event. There everybody would recognize me from the show because that show was really, I mean, it’s a network television show and it had a really Middle America audience. With this one, it’s really nice to see the different types of people that have come up to me from recognizing the show, whether it’s like a Latino person, African American person, white person, Eastern European, or whoever. A lot of different types of people watch this show, and I know so much of it is because of what it looks like. There’s this bad sense in Hollywood, where certain creators don’t want to make shows, movies, or whatever, where they have non-white leads, because they’re like, “Well, how are white people going to relate to this?” And it’s like, “Well, everything’s been white forever and how do you think non-white people have been relating to all these people forever?” I don’t read Peter Parker comics and be like, “I don’t get this guy cause he’s white.” It’s so racist, so myopic, and just an ignorant view of things because they expect everybody else who’s not white to do it, but then not in reverse. That’s what happens.

It’s like saying, “No white people saw Shaft or Black Panther,” which obviously, was a big, recent example. But so, it’s really nice to see in the real world, who has reacted to Gossip Girl, people from all walks and all countries, especially since it’s already an internationally known property. Recently, it just started in Italy, it started in England a few weeks ago, and it’s big in Brazil. So, it’s really interesting to see what types of people are gravitate toward the show, and it has to absolutely be partly because they see themselves, they see people who look like them on the show and they can now really just care about character, which is what you’d want out of any show.

I feel like a show directed towards teens is really powerful to do it with as well because those are some of the most difficult years when it comes to identity and finding yourself. Do you feel like that’s part of a learning experience? Because I feel like it could help a lot of people watching.
Yeah, that’s something that, I mean, that’s why so many people were so devastated by the Cosby revelations, because everybody’s like, “Dang, he was like a surrogate father for so many people.” Shows have so much of an imprint to your upbringing, whether you like it or not. If you consume it, it’s a part of you, because you spent hours, hours, and hours watching this stuff. So, all of that stuff really matters. The conversations I’ve had with the writers on our show and the producers of our show, they’re definitely very careful and cautious with what they put out there because if it either doesn’t ring true or it potentially pushes on a narrative that can be dangerous, that has real life consequences. That’s why this stuff with Netflix, Chappelle, and all that, it’s like, all that stuff matters. You can’t just go willy-nilly with that. And you’d know about this as well with journalism specifically, that bothsideism stuff is really dangerous, because there’s certain things that are black and white, one part is moral and the other one is not. And just because you want to have this integrity of like, “Well, let’s show both sides,” it’s like, you have to have a point of view because otherwise you’re saying that these things are the same, which they’re not.

So, like our show, I think thus far has done a good job. It’s not perfect, obviously, but it’s done a good job of just being like, this is kind of the whole situation what’s happening. Ultimately, it’s a teen drama, the teens are fighting or whatever, but it’s done through a lens where you at home can watch it and you know who’s right and who’s fucking up. You know who’s skirting the line and who’s like, “this is the person you should be backing in this,” because everybody has that inner moral compass, you know? Or something like Euphoria as well, it’s like, you’re not rooting for everybody or anybody because you know that’s all wrong and that’s not why you’re watching it. But if you comment on it and show what the real-life consequences are, then that’s a good way to go about it so that you’re not just glorifying things that are not great.

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Do you ever think back to your career before Lethal Weapon, then booking Lethal Weapon, and now being part of Gossip Girl as well as seeing how the industry, your career, the audition process, and everything else has sort of changed and evolved over that time?
Yeah, I mean, like I was saying before, I’ve been very fortunate with having any kind of career, let alone one that sustained itself for a little bit, and not having had a day job or survival job rather, for many, many years now. So it’s interesting to go from Lethal Weapon, which ended in 2019, and then in 2020 was when Gossip Girl happened. So, I’m super fortunate for that.

But even then it’s wild to hear, from a third party perspective, stories about what fellow actors are going through with pandemic auditioning and all that stuff. My friend told me that some places are even paying actors to come in real life for like a second, third round audition or whatever. And that part has been potentially rough and potentially a boon for certain people because I know for me — like, I swear, I’m not the greatest actor, but when I go in there, the part that I’m strongest at is before and after the audition and being able to chat with producers or stuff, like a normal person, then do the acting part, and afterwards be normal again, being someone who you want to be around for 14+ hours in the middle of night or whatever. So, with a pandemic changing that, it’s like, I don’t want to just be submitting self tapes, because for me, that feels pretty clinical, pretty sterile.

That being said, Lethal Weapon I got from self tapes, so part of me is like, “Well, I don’t like that. However, it’s been very good to me.” But it just makes it even more sterile, even more like a more disconnected way to get into a job. Then at the same time, auditions can be terrifying and they can really ruin people’s days, weeks, months, years, whatever. So part of it is also good, potentially, because then you can possibly live wherever you want, you know? Like, you don’t have to be beholden to any of the hubs, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Vancouver. You can be wherever, submit your tapes, then go to the job and come back. So that’s something that I know people really enjoy as well, because they want to be able to live in Montana or whatever. But it’s a strange time with all that stuff.

We’re in a place now where people are a lot more vocal about wanting representation in the media, but it definitely wasn’t always like that. I thought back on how I felt growing up recently, while I was talking to my friend, I realized I only felt represented on one show. Wizards of Waverly Place was always my favorite show and I never realized why until I made that connection; I felt seen with Alex Russo and Selena Gomez. It’s amazing to see people wanting that now and embracing it when its given to an audience. It’s a very interesting change and obviously, we need to do more, but it’s just interesting to look back and see how far we’ve come.
Yeah, because that’s something that you see like, I remember thinking how I was extremely proud of Lethal Weapon, especially at a time where I was just like, “Man, some kid that looks like me is gonna watch this and be like, ‘Oh, it never occurred to me to be a medical examiner, and maybe I might not be one, but I still know that it’s possible,'” you know? But otherwise, that’s something I credited a lot to Matthew Miller, the creator of Lethal Weapon, and I was just like, “Dude, it was really cool for you to hire someone that looks like some goofball hipster to be this scientist, that is good at his job. It’s not a joke.” All of his flaws are from behavior and personality, but not because of his intellect nor how good he is at his job or not, you know?

And Gossip Girl is the same way. All this stuff between Nick Lott and Zoya Lott, his daughter is very strong and has super, really great, grounded values. People need to see that stuff because they see a lot of the opposite. It’s rare to see really grounded character work in that way and I lucked out too, because all the other Nick Lott stuff is very natural, and natural for me to where it’s just like, he’s very realistic. People could say, like, “Oh, that’s something my father, who I think highly of, would say,” or that idea of what a father would say, if I don’t have that, or haven’t had that, you know? So it’s important to see that and reinforce those ideas, because, like you just said, people watch it and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that that was a thing that was out there.”

Something that has not changed with your previous question is that aspect of the Black Latino side of those things, that has not changed at all. That’s something that the amount of times I’ve gone in for some auditions, especially commercial auditions, and they’re like, “Why are you here?” And I’m like, “Porque yo hablo Español.” They’re like, “Whoa, what?!” Then I do it and they’re like, “Oh, well, this can’t happen.” I didn’t actually audition for this but there’s a Latino character on Clarice on CBS, and I remember reading that pilot, and I was like, “Hey, let me audition for that.” Then, right away, there was friction, where they were like, “Well, I don’t know, they’re looking for different…” And it’s like, I know what you’re saying. What you’re saying is that they want Ricky Martin, which is the quintessential like, that’s who gets a play Latino roles, any version of that.

Speaking of Selena [Gomez], we’ve been watching Only Murders in the Building, and that dude, who plays the tie dye hoodie guy, people who look like that, these are like, light skinned Latinos who’ve looked like they don’t have any African blood in them at all, even though in our countries, you see all sorts of people and many of them are Black. So that’s the one thing that I haven’t seen that change at all. And many of them that are on television, myself included, you would find out after the fact, you’re like, “Oh, that person is Latino.” But it’s rare, if ever, that you see them play a character that is known for the character that they’re also Hispanic.

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There is a thing to where, you know, Joanna Hausmann is a friend of mine, and she is really pale; she was born in Venezuela but she’s like paler than you even. And so then there’s that reverse thing to where she can’t — like she’s such a Latina, she speaks it, and she’s so clearly like Venezuelan as well, so much of her content that she makes is about Latin America too as well as our cultures and our language, that people now know that that’s her main thing, basically. But if she was trying to be more of like a straight up actress, she also would not get hired to be a Latina, because of how white she is. So if there’s a casting breakdown, that’s like, “we want a Latina,” right away, they’re like, “Alright, she has to look like some version of Sofia Vergara.” So it’s like that complexion, probably, that good looking, and if she is not, it has to still be on a spectrum of that, whatever that beige is like a light, light, light, light mocha. Because otherwise, you could be easily too white or too Black for that thing, and it’s the worst. So then people Gloria Estefan, I saw the thing on her talk show, they had some like Afro-Latina on there and she was like, “I can’t go out for telenovelas,” basically. And like, Gloria and the people were acting like they were hearing this information for the first time, and it’s like, come on, man, this is not news.

It’s like you need to check a box and if you don’t check that box, you can’t fit that role. That’s not the way it should be. We don’t all look like one person. We’re all different.
And it’s a slippery slope because something else that — both Gossip Girl and Lethal Weapon did this — where people are from where they are, we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to talk about it because a lot of times in real life, you don’t do that. You’re never talking about how Latino you are all the time. So it’s a really slippery slope and a very fine line between doing something for the show, like character wise, story wise, where you know where they’re from, but not because they are unnaturally talking about this thing over and over because you ultimately want a society where people can just be who they are, and then as you get to know them, then you’re like, “Oh, this is what your culture is,” or whatever. But not because they’re jamming it down your throats all the time, where it’s like, this is the Latino character, this is the African character.

When I worked with my friend Noel years ago, I found out where he’s from because I asked him once, but otherwise, we didn’t talk about how African he was all time. That’s not a thing. If it came up in conversation, then yes, of course, but a lot of times in shows, unless it’s specifically about a Latino family or an African family or something like that, it still has to come up organically in a way. I feel like no place, no show, no movie, in my eyes, gets Spanglish correct. A lot of times in movies and TV shows, they only speak Spanglish when it’s an exclamation of some kind, and it’s like nobody in my family talks like that! It’s like, yeah, the Spanglish will always come out where my mother will in a sentence, it’ll be like half English, half Spanish, like a regular sentence, not like, “Oh, now, I’m specifically only thinking of Spanish.” None of them have gotten that correct, and there’s a show that me and my friend Aaron are trying to sell, where it’s about my family, basically, my Honduran and Colombian family. That’s something that we will have in there. We’re just like, “Sometimes they’re speaking Spanish, and you know what, we’re not gonna do subtitles. It doesn’t matter.” You don’t need to have this like, constant thing. If it’s written correctly and visually represented correctly, you don’t need the words.

I mean, it’s one of the many things. First of all, we want Black Latinos in there. Second of all, we want to have an immigration story in there that’s not like border crossings. Most people in this country don’t get here from crossing over — this is Mexicans too — don’t come over from just like crossing the border. Many people do, obviously, but there’s so many different types of immigration stories, and the ones of my parents are nowhere to be found. My grandfather was a Merchant Marine, from Honduras, and he basically facilitated the entire family, and then some to come to this country. Then my mother’s [side], one of her distant aunts was already here, and then got them all jobs, got all the paperwork signed, and all that stuff. A lot of times, you’ll see snippets of that, but those stories are generally reserved for non-Latinos. So, you’ll see that from someone immigrating from France or Asia, especially because it’s like the model minorities always do everything the “correct way.” And so, you’ll see those stories are very reserved for non-Latinos, especially, because a lot of Latinos origin stories are unfortunately, rooted in either Cuban or Mexican stories only. The rest of Latin America, which is huge, two continents, basically, it’s massive, and then everybody wants to treat it, like it’s all one story.

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When I watch my shows and films, the one thing I hate is when a character’s story is just about them being Latina and they can’t be an actual human being. And yes, I want my characters to have that identity, but I also want them to be treated just as a human being I can relate to.
Yeah, because in your day to day, how much is your behavior rooted in just human behavior and how much of it is rooted in like cultural, something more specifically to your culture? And even as like Americans, there’s things that like when you wake up, go somewhere, do work, and come back, how many things you do that are distinctly American, like a developed country or like overly developed western country? You don’t do many things that are like specific to that.

Most of the stuff you’re doing, it’s like you’re working, everybody works, you’re eating, everybody eats, you’re sleeping, you’re in shelter, hopefully, like all those things. If it was my grandfather coming home from work or whatever he’s doing, the only way you know that he’s not distinctly American, outside of his accent, is because of the food he’s eating at home, the decor at home, but not because he’s in your face, constantly speaking Spanglish, or constantly saying like, “in my country,” using broken English, or these things that are just like, look at how otherized this person can be. Nobody does that, it’s not realistic.

I feel like when we have our media reflect how diverse our world is that could be a step closer to audiences being more inclusive. TV and film are such powerful ways to give messages to the world.
Yeah, I mean, part of it too is just when you travel across this country, see how big it is, or watch any news, so much of what’s really kind of irritating about this country specifically is that it’s hard for a lot of people in this country to be empathetic to somebody or experience empathy for someone who they’ve never met, which is bananas, because I don’t need to know homeless people to feel like some kind of emotional connection to how awful that situation is. But for for a lot of people, though, it’s just like, “Well, I don’t know any Muslims.” And it’s like, so that means that you all automatically don’t need to care about any of these people?

The reason I bring that up is because we can make all the Gossip Girls we want or even Fresh Off the Boat, stuff like that, but people in Middle America, even if they consume it, because of how this country is built, they’re so quick to tokenize these people to be like, “Well, they’re specific. This is either TV and it’s curated,” or, “I do follow this celebrity, actor, actress actress, and I know that they’re like this, but not the person in my on my block. They’re different.” Plus, they don’t even have that person on their block. So they still know that this person, these people that they’re seeing on television is separate from any that they may or may encounter in real life, but then they also don’t encounter them and realize it’s this perpetual thing of just like, “I don’t know any Muslims, and I’m being told that they are terrorists. So I automatically just going to assume that because of the way information is being disseminated to me, and I don’t have to worry about it cause I’m never gonna see if I don’t try. I’m never gonna see a Muslim person in my life.”

I mean, you want to say it feels like human nature, but it’s so obvious in this country, that it’s not this. There’s something about — I mean, I’m speaking for America, just from my American experience and living on the coasts, living in big cities, but here, it’s just like the separation and segregation that still occurs is just fertile ground for otherizing people and not having to care about them, especially because you you’ve grown up with that within your community, you’ve grown up with seeing it on television. So then all sudden, you see or hear about some police shooting, some Black guy gets killed, you’re like, “Well, whatever. He had it coming to him,” all that stupid stuff that you keep on hearing over and over again, or to people at the border and it’s like no one has any idea. If you’re willing to push your child across the border and be like, literally good luck, do you know how bad it has to be behind you? Nobody is willingly going through these situations because they think it’s gonna be a walk in the park. If you’re in this “caravan” coming over, things have to be so bad where you’re like, “I’d rather risk everything to go to a Trump infested place that’s being [at that time] led by Trump.” And now, it’s not like the situation is any better, the situation in particular hasn’t really changed at all.

But that’s the one thing where it’s like that lack of empathy doesn’t put people in those shoes to be like, “What is the situation where they’re coming from, that would have to be so bad, that they wouldn’t want to come here and be put in cages, not accepted, put in jail, not seeing your kid for the rest of your life?” Just like forced adoption or force clemency, that won’t be for you, that’ll be for your child. People really have — not a hard time understanding that, they don’t understand it at all. They see it on the news and they don’t give a fuck. It’s just kind of like, “Well, they shouldn’t be here in the first place. Why don’t they do it like everybody else did it? Why don’t they do it like my immigrant parents did it?” And it’s like, “Dude, you don’t have any idea what desperation is and you’re not willing to even think about what desperation is.”

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Is there something you look for when it comes to a script or projects you are part of?
Yeah, I mean, that’s the one thing about acting is that a lot of times, unless you’re someone who’s really popular, it’s next to impossible to choose what you want to work on, it’s a double edged sword, because if you’re lucky enough to not need a survival job, that’s great but then you’re not popular enough to be able to choose the kind of thing you do. So sometimes you try to control that, many times, you can’t. I’ve been super, super, super fortunate, I can’t underline that, bold that enough, where the major things that have in my career lately have been characters I can really stand behind and shows I can really stand behind. But where I can exercise a little more power, a little more privilege is in the film arena, because there I could read a script and be like, “I don’t feel this or whatever.” And it’s not this major studio movie, obviously, it’s an independent feature.

Now, this is not unique to me at all, because many actors just want to be able to show that they can do more than one thing, obviously, and so I’m always looking for some kind of character I haven’t played before, or if I have already, what’s a different version of this character that I could play? I don’t really gravitate toward, even though I came up in comedy, I came up at UCB, I performed at UCB for many, many years, doing a lot of sketch comedy there, but these days, I can’t be in a straight comedy anymore. That doesn’t interest me. I love things that are way more like real life, where sometimes things are really funny and sometimes things really suck, you know? Sometimes things are terrible. and sometimes you have long stretches of either, but to me, that’s always the best story where you feel both sides of the spectrum and somewhere in between and it isn’t just this goofball comedy, because to me, it just feels like it’s not realistic to have that, except for when the main character loses everything and has to get it back or become the wedding crasher again. It’s hard to find that stuff because a lot of people, like earlier you mentioned ticking boxes, but people want to do that with stories they’re creating as well.

My favorite example is Life Is Beautiful, where I mean, this is about a guy shielding his kid from the horrors of the Holocaust, and there’s times where you’re laughing out loud, that it’s like this movie is so funny, even though it’s in this horrible situation. To me, that’s like the perfect kind of thing. It doesn’t always have to be as extreme as that where it’s like if the backdrop is one of the worst things that have ever happened historically, but it just feels like much richer if — I want be able to read a script, and Nick Lott is this thing, where it’s like he could be dramatic, he could be angry, he could be charismatic, he could be a goof and a total corn ball with his kid, and also flirty; all those things, whether it’s a comedy, drama, or somewhere in between, I’m always looking for as much versatility so I could do as much of those things as possible within one character. So that it’s not just like, I’m only gonna be angry for 90 pages or sad for however many pages, or whatever. Besides the obvious things, where it’s like I’m looking for truth and looking for blah, blah, blah, I’m usually just like, “I want to be able to hit as many notes as possible,” which is hard. It’s not usual to come across those like that.

I agree with you, because I like watching things that are grounded in reality and what people go through in actual life. I want to feel like I’m on a rollercoaster of emotions with my shows.
Yeah, like ones that are truly compelling will have that, because obviously, I have my favorite comedies like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and stuff like that. But you wouldn’t call those like some compelling thing that you were with the whole time. It’s super funny, super interesting, but for me, it feels like that stuff is kind of covered. I have many comedian friends who would say the opposite of what I just said. They want to be like Ron Burgundy, “I want to be the funniest possible version of this thing and that’s all I care about.” Or the dramatic side of things where it’s just like, “I just want to be like dialed into something emotional,” but for me, it’s just kind of always been in the middle because I think that’s what’s most interesting to me, personally.