Joe Hernández-Kolski ’96
Step 1: Just admit it.
My name is Joe Hernandez-Kolski . . . and I am addicted to the arts.
Yes, I have always been addicted. I started acting professionally in Chicago when I was 12 years old. I decided to attend Princeton because, well, it’s Princeton. I knew that I would get one of the best well-rounded educations in the world, and I found the theater and dance programs to have a solid foundation of talented professors. Every aspect of my Princeton life, from my classes to my professors to my extracurriculars to the late-night conversations, all had a profound effect on my career as a professional actor and writer.
I majored in history with certificates in theater and dance and African American studies. I grew up in Chicago and attended Whitney Young Magnet Public High School on the Westside, one of the best high schools in the country. Whitney Young is predominantly African American so when I arrived at Princeton, I had a certain level of “culture shock.” I didn’t fit in anywhere and so I did what I always do—gravitated toward the theater community.
It was during my first week at Princeton that I told myself, “Joe, you were so over-involved in high school. You’re at Princeton, for crying out loud, just focus on your studies. Most importantly, do not get involved in theater. I repeat, do NOT get involved in . . . wait a minute, what’s that flyer? Is that an audition notice?”
I had been on Princeton’s campus for less than two weeks before I was already in my first play, Larry Shue’s The Foreigner. It still stands out as one of the best shows that I’ve ever done. I learned so much from the director and the other cast members, most of whom were upperclassmen. I worked very hard on my character, and my performance was received very well, something that definitely helped break the ice for a young kid from Chicago who didn’t really feel at home anywhere but in the theater. At the time, little did I realize how this show would help me professionally down the road. The director of the show, Alex Woo, is now a television writer (Showtime’s Sleeper Cell); one of the actresses, Vanessa Taylor, is now a writer/executive producer (Jack and Bobby, Alias, etc.); and another actress, Melinda Paige Hamilton, is flourishing as an actress, from Desperate Housewives to Cold Case. It’s important to create these relationships in college because the entertainment industry can be difficult at times and it’s great to have the support of friends.
I was very involved in the Princeton theater and dance communities, from acting to directing to dancing to choreographing. I was learning my craft from professionals who had spent their lives in the New York theater and dance worlds. I’ll never forget the evening that I spent sitting in a campus café with the world-famous opera director, Peter Sellars, reading him my poetry. Those opportunities were always present.
But what was most important about my education at Princeton is how my non-arts classes directly affected my work. I grew up influenced strongly by black culture, from my friends to my childhood church to my high school. When I got to Princeton, I immediately applied for Nancy Malkiel’s freshman seminar, “The Civil Rights Movement in the United States.” That was the first class to have a strong impact on me. I continued to study under the guidance of several African American studies professors of national prominence such as Cornel West, Gayle Pemberton, Paula Giddings, and Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison. You can’t get that type of education anywhere else. I found myself learning more about the African American culture and, at the same time, these professors unknowingly helped me learn more about myself as a multicultural American. By the time that I left Princeton and prepared myself to move to Los Angeles, I already had a strong opinion on the world. I believe that’s the most important tool that you can have as an actor. You have to bring a perspective to your work.
I continue to audition for other people’s projects but the most important part of my career—which I believe makes me unique—is that I write a lot of my own material, from my hip-hop spoken word solo show “You Wanna Piece of Me?” to the television show that I host and helped write for Sí TV to national commercials to films. So much of my work is influenced by my studies as a history major and my one-on-one interaction with Nancy Malkiel, Cornel West, and Toni Morrison (to name a few). Their fingerprints are all over my scripts and poetry. For example, how many other performers out there are dealing with their love for Justin Timberlake’s latest CD by analyzing chapter 42 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale”? That’s a direct result of studying under Professor Morrison. And if you watch my performance on HBO’s “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry,” you’ll see how every aspect of my Princeton life continues to affect me.
Step 2: Do not be afraid.
I remember how many consulting firms and investment bankers spoke to seniors
as we prepared to graduate. I remember thinking, “Is that what I’m supposed to
do?” I remember how intimidated I felt when I first arrived in Los Angeles in
my beat up, rusted out, ’87 Chevy Celebrity that I inherited from my
grandfather. I walked into the grocery store in a pair of old army surplus
shorts and a Billie Holiday T-shirt and everyone looked so glamorous . . .
in the grocery store! But in the end, the arts are not about any of that. I am a blessed man to be able to perform words that I’ve written in front of an audience. Words and emotions expressed that come directly from my heart. I am proud to be an actor, one of the oldest and most dignified professions. It’s also one of the toughest. I take great pride in knowing that it’s my job to have the courage to reveal myself either in front of a live audience or in front of millions of viewers. I know in my heart that I would not be the performer that I am today without the experiences, both positive and negative, that I gained while attending Princeton.