This Is Who We Are: Peter Jay Fernandez

Amanda Breen
January 11, 2021

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making during a pandemic. Here, we talk with Assistant Professor of Theatre Peter Jay Fernandez about COVID-19’s impact on film, theatre, and his teaching; the inspiring projects that excite him the most; and the importance of empathy and patience for the artist. 

Still from New Amsterdam

When Assistant Professor Peter Jay Fernandez and I begin our conversation, we are 3,000 miles apart, connected via Zoom, the well-known video conferencing platform that has come to define the COVID-19 pandemic for so many: working professionals, students of all ages, and anyone who wishes to interact with family and friends during this time of uncertainty and isolation. As a professional actor and theatre professor, Fernandez has become very familiar with the new technologies necessary to audition for roles and teach his classes. 

Like many industries since March, film and theatre have required flexibility and reimagination from those who work within them. Before the pandemic, the audition process was relatively straightforward. An actor could expect to get a call from his or her agent about potential roles. The next step would be to go to a casting director’s office and read for the part. The audition tape would be reviewed and discussed, and in the best of circumstances, the actor would receive a call back or an offer. 

“That has all shifted in the time of COVID,” Fernandez says. “It had started to shift before then, but it's really shifted now in that in-person auditions are gone. So what you now do is submit a self-tape. People record themselves on their phone or through a computer, and you forward a tape to the casting directors. Then, the casting directors and the producers look through tapes and sometimes they will do an online live audition. Or sometimes they'll make their decisions on the tapes."

With the pandemic well under way, Fernandez was in Atlanta with his wife, who was shooting a film there, when he received a call from his agent. At the time, many film productions were resuming, albeit with stringent requirements and modifications, and Fernandez’s agent had heard of a couple of projects he thought might be a good fit. One of those projects was the NBC medical drama New Amsterdam

Fernandez submitted a self-tape to the casting director. He uploaded it through a platform known as Actors Access—it was his first time using the program. Fernandez laughs as he recalls this, noting how this shifting technological landscape is more difficult for some than it is for others. “The younger people are really on top of it,” he says. “For us older folks, it's oh my God, more technology.” 

A week after he submitted his audition tape, Fernandez got a call about his availability. He’d been offered a role as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. He accepted the role, completed his two-week quarantine, and the pandemic-altered filming process began. 

"Of course testing is involved with all of this stuff,” Fernandez says. “Test before the costume fitting, then they booked my days of shooting. I think I shot four days out of eight, and I must have had seven or eight COVID tests. Any time you work you're tested. [There is also] PPE on set: masks, crews all wearing shields and masks, which slowed the process down, but also sped the process up because they don't want to keep people in large groups for any longer than they have to; the shooting process is picked up, using more cameras, shooting from more angles all at the same time, a lot of moving parts. So it's like getting on a moving train. Television and film has always been that way, but even more so now. The shooting days are shorter, which means they try to pack more into less time, less contact with individuals."

Fernandez also accepted an offer for a part on ABC’s drama For Life, which is based on the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., who was wrongfully convicted of a crime. Wright Jr. became an attorney while incarcerated and proved the innocence of 20 of his fellow inmates, eventually overturning his own conviction as well. Fernandez plays a prison warden on the show. 

COVID-19 continued to impact Fernandez’s experience on the ABC production. “After I'd gone to the makeup trailer in the morning to get my makeup on, they would give me a little plastic bag, and in the bag was a powder puff, makeup applicators, oil blotters, the whole thing. They said ‘This is your little kit that you will take to the set when you go to shoot.’ Because they don't allow us on set to do last minute touch-ups. ‘If we can get to you in your dressing room before then we will, but if you think something's off, you do your own touch-up.’ Which is almost unheard of, but that keeps more people off of the set, so you're only there with the people you absolutely have to be, which are the camera people, the director, maybe the script person, and everyone keeps a distance with full's a different world."

While film production has been able to resume in this modified form, theatre production remains stilted and uncertain. Fernandez has been cast in Ma-Yi Theatre Company’s production The In Between. He says, "Without giving the whole story away, it's about two individuals on an island and their interaction with the nature on the island, the actual plants, and how they come together. And all of the plants are from different areas, the people who deal with the plants are from different areas, so there's a real mash-up of cultures. And there's a love relationship in the middle of it. And it's how that thrives. It's a metaphor for the world that we're living in.”

“And hopefully that will be on its feet later in the springtime,” Fernandez continues. “But again, because of COVID, we just don't know. Whether there's an actual physical production, I don't know. It may end up being something online."

Still from For Life

The pandemic has also affected the acting classes Fernandez teaches to second- and third-year Theatre students. "It's a big shift. I normally teach scene study, which is two people doing a scene, in-person, together. It's all about exploring the energy between two individuals who have competing agendas, what's the story that's released in the room. [Now] we're not in the same room together, so whatever space you're in, the energy of that space is either going to add to or take away from the collective energy that you're exploring together. [Many students are] in a house with their parents and siblings, they're in a room that is constantly being interrupted, or there are sounds coming in or say for instance, they're in a tiny room, not a lot of space to move around, that room is going to draw energy away from the work in front of them, so balancing all of that, just to begin with, is quite tricky.”

Over the course of his decades-long career, Fernandez has had roles on- and off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and in film and television. Most recently, he played Roy Wilkins, Shoeshiner, and Aaron Henry in a Broadway production of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way. Ferandez has acted regionally at Long Wharf, McCarter, Hartford Stage, Seattle Rep, ACT (Seattle), Milwaukee Rep, Arena Stage, Alliance, Cincinnati Rep, Old Globe, Cleveland Playhouse, and Intiman theatres, among others, and some of his many film and television credits include Luke CageBrawl in Cell Block 99Blacklist: The RedemptionShades of BlueGothamElementaryThe Good WifeLaw & OrderLaw & Order: Criminal IntentDamagesCosbyNY UndercoverThe Prosecutors, Funny Valentines, and The Egoists

A role Fernandez has found particularly inspiring is the one he played in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From the Wars, a trilogy of plays performed at the Public Theater. The plays use a modern sensibility to explore the Civil War era. It pulls from Greek theatre traditions, but also utilizes contemporary clothing and language, even incorporating hip hop. Fernandez played the Oldest Old Man, who is a father figure to the lead character and is approximately 140 years old.

Fernandez says, “The play's message was timeless and timely, again you feel the roots of Greek theatre in there, but then you felt the rhythm and the resonances of the hip hop world, and it explores elements of race, the larger culture, what's the notion of love, romantic love and familial love, the scope of the play was huge. It was a huge hit, won a number of prizes, but most importantly affected and cultivated a whole new audience. When you're involved in pieces like that, that really impact the world that we're living in in a very positive and profound way, those are exciting. Sometimes what we basically do is entertainment—and there's nothing wrong with entertainment—but when you're involved in a project that actually attains the level of art, and high art, that's pretty exciting, and I would say that's one of those."

As our interview comes to a close, Fernandez shares some advice from his seat in front of a large bookshelf (of particular interest to me as a Writing student). Though Fernandez and I work within different creative disciplines, his words are as applicable to the writer’s craft as they are to the actor’s, or to any aspiring artist’s. Fernandez wants his students to know the value of work ethic, empathy, patience, and real-life experience. 

“Stay inquisitive, stay imaginative, develop strong work habits, invest in life. The stories that you can observe in the street are the things that will ultimately go into your creative tank. I tell my students all the time: It's nice to sit at home and do some work on the computer, but get out and engage with life. That's the thing that's going to fuel your creative tank. I take a notebook, and I write down the things that make me laugh, the things that shock me, the things that make me go hmm, I write them all down, and at some point in time, they make their way into our work. Cultivate empathy. You can't be an artist without empathy. And empathy is intimate knowledge, which means you have to get out and mix it up with people. You don't know someone until you know them intimately. And that means letting your guard down, convincing them to let their guard down, so you convene in that place where humanity really resonates.”

"You're in it for the long haul,” Fernandez continues, “This is a lifelong journey. We're in a digital world now where everyone's looking for results and can get results very quickly. If there's something I really want today I can order it through Amazon and probably have it this afternoon. That's not the world of the artist. The work never stops. You never achieve perfection; it just doesn't happen. The joy is in the work, is in the doing. The learning never stops.”

Read more from the "This is Who We Are" series