Since Jay Hernandez burst onto the scene opposite Kirsten Dunst in 2001’s modern Romeo and Juliet tale Crazy/Beautiful, he’s struggled to play against type, eschewing waves of offers to portray gang members or other Latino stereotypes in favor of meaty roles that highlight his acting abilities and leading-man good looks. So he recognizes the irony that his first role in a giant summer tentpole — a genre he’s tried multiple times to break into — is playing Diablo, a.k.a. Chato Santana, a hairless, tattoo-riddled gang member with pyrokinetic powers in Suicide Squad.
“To me, [Diablo’s] the exception to the rule, because we are constantly fed negative images of black or Hispanic people by the media,” says Hernandez, 38. “Diablo is the visual representation of everything we should fear, but he’s a human being. He has a history.”
When we first meet Diablo, he is living a hermit-like existence inside the Belle Reve prison for metahumans, scarred by the memories of his horrendous crimes. Like a sober alcoholic, he’s repentant and white-knuckling his present, not ready to use his fiery powers for fear he won’t be able to control them.
“Diablo has a very powerful and important position in the story; the thematics spin around his character,” says Squad writer-director David Ayer. “He’s a monk in a cave in the beginning, and by the end he has a new family that he’s willing to die for. It’s a big deal, and Jay killed it. I hope this gets him a lot of work.”
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Hernandez hopes so too. Just months before landing Squad, he was contemplating a career change, dabbling in real estate while writing and producing a low-budget horror movie. “When you talk about writing, there is a creative freedom you can’t have as an actor when your last name is Hernandez,” he says.
But he is seeing some progress in Hollywood when it comes to diversity, as evidenced by Diablo’s inclusion in Suicide Squad, which opened this weekend to an August record of an estimated $135 million. “I’ve been hearing for many years that change is coming. Ultimately, it’s about money and the viewership by Hispanic audiences is undeniable. It’s a clear sign that things have to shift when you have success with things that are ethnically diverse. This reality is the reason why I’m here. It’s not like, ‘Hey, let’s give this guy a shot.'”
Hernandez admits that this performance, plus his recent role as Mila Kunis’ love interest in Bad Moms, has improved the conversations he’s having in Hollywood. Still, he’s frustrated by the heat-metric game he has to play. “I’m no different today then I was last year,” he says. “As an actor, I haven’t grown. I’m the same person. I could have done this s— two years ago. I just want the opportunity.”
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly issue #1426, on newsstands now or available here.