Career & Life Vision Conversation with Joe Hernandez-Kolski ‘96

"There is no such thing as bad. There is simply perspective."

Emmy Award-winner and two-time HBO Def Poet, Joe Hernandez-Kolski '96 is an actor/poet/comedian who is constantly in demand, known for his live performances that are hard-hitting, truthful and incredibly funny.  Originally from Chicago, Joe now lives in Los Angeles. He graduated from Princeton University in 1996, where he worked closely with respected academics Dr. Cornel West and Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison. He recently returned from studying at the famed School at Steppenwolf in Chicago. 

Read and watch to learn about Joe's journey to entertainment, his surprising superpower, the good that came from his Princeton suspension, and the hilarious experiences he had interning at the White House by day and dancing in a house club by night.

1. What lead you to a career in entertainment?

Two things occurred my senior year. One, a friend of mine accidentally called looking for my roommate, when I was in 121 Henry Hall, and she said, “I live in Los Angeles now, if you ever need a couch to crash on you can crash on my couch.”

Second, an actor came to work with Latino students at Princeton and he said “I am an actor. I work with Edward James Olmos. I used to be a civil rights attorney and I moved into entertainment because it is a more powerful form of social change.”

Bam, I was sold.

I had always grown up with this duality of a political family in Chicago and also knowing the importance of the arts. When Danny said that I was like, “Bet. I got a couch to crash on and I got a job possibility.” I got in my grandpa's ’87 Chevy Celebrity, moved to Los Angeles, and immediately started doing as much theatre as I could do. Out of that, I fell in love with the Spoken Word community, because it combined many aspects of what I love: Social consciousness, hip-hop culture, and, as a Leo, my desire to be on stage alone.

2. What happened next?
I then got cast in a hip-hop theatre production called The Bomedy of Errors, which was a Hip-Hop version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. One DJ, four actors, over 20 characters, 72 costume changes, and we rap the whole show. We took that around the country and around the UK and Ireland. That was my first break I would say, because any artist knows that it is not one big break, per se, as much as it is numerous little breaks.

That break came five years after moving to LA. It forced me to resign as the, I kid you not, hip-hop culture instructor/finance manager for an arts and literacy-based after school program for middle school kids. So that was the last full time job that I had. I got hired to do The Bomedy of Errors, and then created several solo shows and short films. Each one of those has helped me take another step in my career as what I call an actor/poet/comedian.

My instinct has always been to continue to develop myself as an artist and to continue to find new ways of self-expression.

3. Tell me more about your “numerous little breaks.”
I won an Emmy for outstanding youth programing. I was the producer and host of a show called Downbeat Showdown, which was a televised version of Downbeat 720, the open mic that I’ve been running for high school kids for over 14 years. It was like American Idol for high school performers and it was a lot of fun.

I was on season 4 and season 6 of HBO Def Poetry. That was another one of the numerous breaks that I got. That opened me up to performing at colleges and universities for a living.

4. Any tips for freelance artists taking their shows on tour?
One little tip is when people ask you “What’s your quote?” If you can avoid giving them a quote and see what they say...That’s worked for me on several occasions. I would have highly under-quoted myself if left to my own devices. Always shoot for higher. All you can do from there is come down. I’ve probably lost some jobs because my quote was to high, but I do my best when I reach out to schools and say, “I'm always willing to work with your budget.” I rarely turn down a gig. I’ve only had to turn down a couple because they barely had any budget and they didn't realize that I was in Los Angeles and they were in Georgia or whatever.

5. What’s your superpower?
I work hard at letting you see who I am, if that’s a superpower. My superpower is visibility as opposed to invisibility. You can see exactly who I am and I’ve worked very hard at that.

6. If you could clone yourself and lead two separate lives in what other field would you work?
That’s easy. Government and entertainment. If I could clone myself I’d probably return to Chicago and pursue a career in politics. Politics comes with every career and every craft, but government. I’m half-Mexican half-Polish. There’s no reason I should not be a representative of the city of Chicago. That’s as Chicago as you get. I would probably run for Congress and get back to DC. My other passion is government and representing people in that way.

7. What would you tell a recent graduate about to start a career in the arts?

If you’re graduating from Princeton University and you want to pursue a career in the arts, first thing I would tell you is, “Sweetheart. I know mommy told you you were special. That's great, and maybe that’s gotten you to join overachievers anonymous like the rest of us. Now that you’ve graduated from Princeton, all that matters is the work.” There's a reason why a former drug addict is now a massive stand-up comedian known as Russell Brand. He let go of that and started doing the work. It's not because he deserves it. That's the difficult thing I had to accept when I first moved out to Los Angeles. I never paid attention to the work aspect of it, I just paid attention to the ‘I’m special’ aspect of it. When I got out to LA and I started hitting wall, upon wall, upon wall, I don’t think I was aware enough to realize that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and you just have to keep banging on the door.

8. One reason you became an entertainer was because it was a powerful force of social change. If you could make an impact on one social issue what would it be?
Higher education for students of color, absolutely. Our educational system has always been one of my most important issues. Arts and education are critical to me. It’s why I’ve worked in after school programs for years. That's why I continue to teach performance poetry workshops. There's something to be said for students believing that their voice has value and that expressing it serves them. I don't believe that homophobia, sexism, and racism would have as much power in our culture if people spent more time evaluating their own lives.

Unfortunately, it's easier to point the finger.

9. How about work that does not have a social impact?
I mean well I just shot a Subaru commercial. I don’t know how much of a social impact that’s going to make. It’s going to make it easier for me to make a living. I have had numerous experiences in my life where I’m not quite sure where something is going and it eventually leads to exactly where I wanted it to go.

10. Can you give me an example? Tell me about a time something unexpected changed your path for the better.
So it was the middle of my junior year. I was so over-involved. I was one of the leads in a production of The Misanthrope, I was choreographing for BodyHype, and I had just gotten done directing Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at Intime. I was so over-involved that I started a major term paper at midnight that was due at nine the next morning. I came up with a solid thesis for the paper and then went to support it by finding books and was like, ‘This supports what I’m saying, this supports what I’m saying.’ To this day I do not believe I was consciously trying to get away with something, but I did not cite sources, I threw chunks of book in and I just turned it in. I got suspended for a year for plagiarism. At the end of the Honor Committee I went home, I had just found out that I was going to be suspended for a year, I cried. I got into my running clothes. I ran down to the lake and had a legitimate epiphany. I realized that there was nothing that could stop me. Here was something that an Ivy League University was throwing at me, and this is one of their worst punishments possible, and I was going to turn it into something very real and something very positive. That is something that I truly believe about life in general. There is no such thing as bad. There is simply perspective. Which is why this tattoo is on my arm, which is the Chinese word for crisis. Crisis is made up of danger and opportunity. I really believe that that within every crisis lies opportunity.

So I went home, I cried, the next morning I just happened to have a White House intern application that I had asked for several months prior sitting on my desk. I was going to apply for a summer internship, well why don’t I turn it in and try to apply for now the winter internship instead. Not only did I get accepted, but a top speechwriter for the President named Jason Solomon found my internship application, liked my educational policy analysis, called me up and said, “I'd like you to come work for me in the healthcare war room.” I arrived at the White House of Clinton three days prior to him announcing at his State of the Union Address that he was going to fight for universal health care. I spent the next six months watching the President speak words that I had written. There’s nothing more amazing than being able to predict what President Clinton's just about to say, because you helped write it.

11. How did you support yourself while you worked as a White House intern for a year?
Well, it didn’t pay a lot. I needed a part-time job. So I started working as a club dancer. Some people still don’t know this. It wasn’t anything lude or crass. I wasn’t a stripper-this wasn’t ‘Magic Mike,’ but I got paid to jump up on a box and dance from ten-thirty at night until two in the morning. And I could do that because I was young enough to do it. I literally would dance until two in the morning, go home, sleep, and then be at the White House the next day. It was the best time of my life. I was at the White House during the day and I was in a House club at night. 

12. It's amazing that you made "White House by day, house club by night" work.

One of the big lessons I learned working at the White House by day and as a club dancer by night, was that it’s important to stand behind who you are and what you do, but you don't go bragging about it to the world. Unfortunately, I thought it was cool that I was working as a club dancer and I would hand out little passes to all the cute little interns at the White House.

Well, word got around and eventually my boss was like, “I'm hearing things that are not good.” She had heard from some Congressional staff member that I danced naked in a cage. I was like, “But that’s not true,” and she was like, “I don’t care if it’s true. In our world, perception is reality.” She was like, “You're going to have to quit this dancing job. Joe you’re an adult if you can’t make this compromise, you’d better get ready because things are going be tough.”

That was a big lesson for me. If I had kept it quiet I probably could have kept working there. So I had to quit my dancing job. That hurt.

13. If you had the chance to talk to yourself as you were graduating, what would you say?
I would say to myself, “Go for it! Freaking do it!” Absolutely. We need more artists in the world. You’re going to have moments where you’re going to feel the grip of what you’re supposed to be. Don’t pay any attention to it. Just put that away and do not be afraid to knock on doors over, and over, and over again. You're not supposed to walk into a difficult situation feeling like, ‘I got this.’ You very often should go into it thinking, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ My “worst” experiences in of my life have been the most critical, eye opening, and life changing moments. Anytime you try to avoid the darkness, you’re avoiding life. It's not as though ‘You need to have the bad to appreciate the good.’ No, you need the bad to create the good. Darkness does not only come before the light. Darkness creates the light.

14. Can you talk about an experience you had where “darkness created light”?

My mom's death. That shifted my life. A person’s death is not so much an experience in their own life as much as it is an experience in those who those who they leave behind. A person's death is just the end credits. My mom's death, that was just the closing credits. For me, that's the major act shift. That was something that happens and moves my character in a completely different direction. So for me to go, ‘Omg, I cant believe shes gone,’ that misses the point completely. But when I go, ‘Okay, what do I do with this? How do I learn from this? How do I let this experience make me a better person and a more authentic person?’ That’s what’s real. So when people have bad experiences it's their choice what they choose to do with it.

My suspension from Princeton was a critical moment in my life. It taught me that I did not have to be the perfect child. I was not the golden boy. And it was a freeing experience for me that I was able to live more for myself and not live for the accolades of my family.

15. What would success look like to you?
I mean success is a constantly fleeting experience. For you to make a living as an artist... First of all, you have to believe in yourself beyond anybody else's wildest imagination. You have to believe in your voice.  I consider myself very successful. I say that while slightly questioning, because I do think there's something to be said for an artist never truly being satisfied. Now I don't know if that's just artists or that is humanity in general. What is it that drives us to continue to work towards something? But I do feel that there is something that is still in here that has yet to find its form of expression, and that's something that I am continuously searching for. That to me is success.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13