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Exclusive interview: Lethal Weapon’s Johnathan Fernandez scores as ‘Scorsese’

Johnathan Fernandez
Johnathan Fernandez is Lethal Weapon’s secret weapon as Bernard “Scorsese”

Funny, fit and ready for prime time is the best way to describe Johnathan Fernandez, the secret weapon of Lethal Weapon on FOX.

His character Bernard “Scorsese” is so good that he eats scenes up when paired up with the main cast, and he has added a quirk and energy not unlike what Joe Pesci did for his original Leo Getz character from the original film.

UCB alum Fernandez can also be seen on TV series Bull and Adam Ruins Everything.

But his turn as Scorsese on the buddy film-turned-TV series that features cops Riggs (Clayne Crawford) and Murtaugh (Damon Wayans) is one with which he is making a real name for himself.

Riggs and Murtaugh are caught off-guard when they discover their moonlighting medical examiner has a serious case of the Hollywood-itis and has penned a killer script basing one of his characters on Murtaugh.

We spoke at length to this rising star, who makes Lethal Weapon one of TV’s must-watch current series:

Monsters and Critics: Scorsese! You’ve created a character who’s energetically infused so much to Lethal Weapon. Can just tell me how Bernard was conceptualized and how it was explained to you, and then how you were brought into the Lethal Weapon family?

Johnathan Fernandez: It was crazy because it’s one of those things where Lethal Weapon was one of my favorite movies of all time. I know the first one verbatim and we watched it a million times at my house.

The VHS we still have but the heads are practically broken from rewinding them so much, so when I eventually got the notice for the audition, I was like ‘dang, really?’ I’m also a huge nerd and I consume a lot of media. At first, there was that skepticism…man there’s so many movies that are being adapted to television, few of them work, what is this going to be like, don’t ruin it.

I didn’t have the luxury of reading the whole script, because sometimes in pilot seasons things move so quickly that you only get access to your sides of the script and that’s it. Then you work on the scenes and hopefully knock it out of the park and eventually if you do book it you can ask to read the whole script and go from there.

When I did the scene, it was like me and my wife and we did the scenes at my apartment in New York.

I did it as a self-tape, and at that time I didn’t know what the status was. I didn’t read the script, I didn’t know what it was really about or what they were doing in terms of the movie, and all I knew was the way [Scorsese] was described was just a dry-toned pathologist…not necessarily moonlighting as a screenwriter, but he had gone to film school.

Somehow his path diverted and now he is a medical examiner within Los Angeles. That’s all I knew, and when I did it, there were a couple good gags in the pilot and I had some fun with it. What I do for every approach to any scene of any kind of character, is to just have fun.

Even if it’s a super dark thing or a very straight thing like the Scorsese side or scenes were — just have as much fun as possible. I did my thing and then just kind of forgot about it, because that the fortieth audition I had in three weeks because pilot season is so crazy.

I had five auditions on that Wednesday, and so [my agent] called me late that afternoon on Tuesday and she’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a self-tape for Lethal Weapon. If you can do it, you’re probably gonna want to do it tonight, because you have a crazy day tomorrow.’

Wednesday was a crazy day and I had an audition for that show Bull. At the end of the day, I hop off my motorcycle and I had all these missed calls from Los Angeles. I listened to them and they were from my agents in Los Angeles, ‘Hey, Lethal Weapon video, the casting director really responding to this, she really likes it, can you hop on the phone with her to talk about putting together a second tape?’

I was like, ‘yeah, of course.’ It’s unreal to be in that position to be talking to a casting director like that. Usually-unless you’re super chummy with them, that doesn’t happen, ever. Then to be on a conversation with this famous casting director in Los Angeles. I looked her up beforehand on IMDb and I was like, ‘oh, you have basically cast everything I’ve ever cared about being on.’

She didn’t say it in so many words, but was insinuating that it was already down to the wire and it was between me and one other dude. And it just happened…it wasn’t even fully 24 hours yet. I ended up giving them like 10 tapes…it was two scenes, I did five takes for each scene doing like…’hey, this is if Scorsese loves his job, this is if he hates his job, so this is just like a run-of-the-mill procedural, this is if he’s a goofball, this is if,’ whatever the other difference was and I was improvising various things at the end.

I think ultimately when they saw those tapes, essentially that was the test right there, because they would have done all those things with me. They would have said, ‘All right, throw the sway more, or act like he likes his job this time,’ or whatever.

I kind of put it on a platter for them and gave it away and forgot about it; although, when I was shooting it, I was already so fried from that day that all I wanted to do was sit in front of the television and just kind of vegetate for a while.

And so when we were maybe 70 per cent done my phone was blowing up from my agents and managers and they were like, ‘Where’s the tape, where’s the tape?’ I was like, ‘yo, you guys told me to get it done tonight.’ And they said, ‘Well, they’re literally waiting in Los Angeles for the tape, for end of day, today.’

I did all the takes, sent it to them and then my agents were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize that you were making all these different takes. We didn’t know why it was taking so long.’

I submitted it and that was Wednesday, and then Thursday night, east coast time, I got a phone call from them saying that they really like me and they wanted to book me. And I was just like, ‘what?’

That’s when they told me that Damon Wayans was gonna play Murtaugh and I was floored, obviously, because you can’t do comedy and not think of him as an icon for yourself. My wife and I were huge Rectify fans, and so I knew Clayne [Crawford] already and I was like, ‘what? Clayne?’ And then even Jordana [Brewster] was in it and Kevin Rahm also. These are all people that I’m really big fans of.

That was Thursday, I flew out Sunday, and then Monday was our first table-read. Monday was the first time I was meeting Matt Miller, and McG, and Jordana, and Damon, and Clayne, and all those people.

I made them laugh in the table-reads…then in the second day we had a table-read with all of the Warner Bros. top brass and all the top brass at Fox. I’ve been on read before, but not like this. This was like 35 people, maybe more, that were in the room.

They were all chairman of this, and president of that, and VP of whatever. And I talked to Damon and Clayne about this afterwards, but it was such a positive reaction.

Damon at the time said, ‘Unless this skit is really funny, in a sitcom you don’t usually get reactions like that.’ And Clayne, who’s like Mr. Drama, was like, ‘I’ve never had a…usually in dramas, the table-reads, everybody is quiet as a mouse.’

M&C: How would you describe the show overall?

JF: The action is serious and funny at the same time, and you have a lot of comedy in it, and then you have a lot of drama with a lot of emotion as well.

I think that’s the reason why the show’s been successful, because it hits those three notes so well — it has something for everybody. So we walked out of there and I improvised at the table-read a little bit, which I was really happy of, because a table-read is another way to show people you’re actually supposed to be there, and you want to show off your personality.

People are always asking me, ‘well, how does it feel creating this character?’ I didn’t have any of the pressure that Damon and Clayne did, because everybody was like, ‘All right, cool. Let’s see how you compare to Danny Glover and Mel Gibson.’

I was able to just come in fresh-faced and let me just fit in, however I can, and it’s really cool to be able to be the comic relief in a drama and just make the procedural aspect a little more fun. Because every scene I’m in, I have my own little game.

It’s not just about, ‘oh, the bullet went through the left ventricle and came out through the carotid.’ That stuff is all there because it has to be, but the fun moments are that Scorsese always has some other thing that’s happening.

M&C: Scorsese is the chaotician in the scene?

JF: He’s trying to derail the whole scene, basically. And Miller always really leans into those things and he gives us a lot of free rein with that stuff. And the writers are so excellent, and get our essence really well, that a lot of times it just opens us up to be able to put some think on it, so that it does feel so fresh.

M&C: When you first watched the original film, who did you lean towards?

JF: Martin Riggs is just the…as a male fan, I think Martin Riggs is the ultimate male character. There’s a famous scene where he’s talking down the guy from the roof, and they have the handcuffs on and they both jump off together. And that’s when Murtaugh [Danny Glover] goes to chew Riggs out, but he’s like, ‘Dude, what are you doing, you can’t be doing that. That’s not okay.’

And then you have Riggs just show how hurt he is, and he’s like, ‘What do you want me to tell you man, that I think about killing myself every day and if I have a bullet that I think this bullet I have in my fingers right now is the instrument in my possible self-inflicted demise.’ That scene I have played in my head so often, because I think it’s like a master class in acting.

You see Mel go from crazy to bored in like a second. He’s like crazy, crazy, crazy and as soon as the moment’s over and he’s like, ‘All right, I’m gonna go grab some pizza,’ or whatever, and walks out, and he was just about to shoot himself in the face.

Murtaugh was like, ‘Man, you really are crazy.’ And I think about that all the time, and so I’ve always really liked Riggs, but then also as I’ve grown as an adult and thought more about race relations and where racism is in our country, and how people of color are represented on television and stuff like that, I became really proud of Lethal Weapon, the movie, because just the fact that you saw the Murtaughs…they’re a black family in Los Angeles and they were just what you would consider being an average, middle-class family.

M&C: It was a seamless chemistry.

JF: Yeah, and they were just normal people…the problems that they have are problems that all people have that are very relatable issues, and to see a character like Roger Murtaugh be front and center in a way…he’s fallible for very relatable reasons and he shoots the big bad at the end. You don’t get that very often.

I haven’t met Shane Black, but it’s something I would tell him immediately, where I’m just like ‘yo, I’m proud of you dude,’ for showing a black family specifically, and a black patriarch, be there in a way that’s very powerful and not at all like the butt of a joke, not at all demonized in any way.

Then you have Riggs who’s fallible for many reasons, but it’s just like they were models in a way that you haven’t really seen before. I like to think I’m a little bit of a blend of the two because Murtaugh is just trying to do the right thing, but then also you know we want to fly off the handle sometimes, and that’s why Riggs is there.

M&C: Now, with your UCB [Upright Citizens’ Brigade comedy troupe] training, have the writers given you leeway to add to your script, or change phrasing, or kind of hone it that works for you?

JF: We’re blessed with really great writers, so we don’t always come into conflict with them about directions that are in the scene or what direction the scene is actually going in.

But what’s nice is that Miller also told me this from the beginning, ‘This isn’t exactly like other shows. We give you guys a long leash with what we want you to do, it’s the reason you’re here because we chose you to be here, we want you to do your thing.’

It’s cool to be in that scenario and it’s not at all stifling because we get to feel very collaborative, whether it’s with the director or with the writers, we’ve been like, ‘cool, you guys did a great job writing this,’ I think about it a little differently. What if I improvise something at the end of this, or whatever?

They’re really open to that, I think that’s why the show comes off really natural because you can’t tell when it’s improvised and when it’s not.

Usually, we improvise at the end of the scene…but on whether they keep it or not, it depends greatly on what’s going on with the overarching story, because you don’t want us to be all loony tunes at the end of the scene, and then the next scene you see Riggs eating his father’s face.

Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to keep improvised moments, like recently there was a scene with me and Murtaugh and Bailey, where we are figuring out the conspiracy theorist or seeing what’s going on with the Elvis, the changing of the names and all of that stuff, with the hacking of the computer.

At the end, Bailey and I have a mini little argument about where the moon landing actually took place, because she still lives in Burbank and you find out that I thought it was in West Covina. And then, we went back and forth a little bit in its own way, but that was all cut out and mostly for time.

But when you’re watching the whole tale unfold, that’s when the smoking gun kind of happens and they smash cut to what’s going on next, because otherwise, it kind of like drags out the situation too much.

Sometimes as much as we want to improvise all day long, it doesn’t always make sense for them to keep it, but we have to give them those options and they’re…even in 206, the bone fall off scene in the morgue, this surfer who got the blade from the boat hit him in the head and that’s how he was deceased, or killed rather — those are all improvised moments that they were able to keep because it just really made sense for that scene.

It’s cool to be able to do that, because like you were saying, that’s why I went to UCB. That’s why we had been doing improv and sketch shows for the last eight years and lived for that. When you are in that scenario you don’t think about life, you just do it.

M&C: We’ve stalked you a little bit on Instagram. You are shredded like lettuce! How do you avoid the siren of the craft service table, dude? You’re not eating any carbs. You’re the Bruce Lee of Lethal Weapon.

A1A Beachfront Avenue— — — — #shredded #fitfam #igfitness #trainhard #instafitness #motivation #physique #muscle #muscles #dedication #fitness #getfit #fitnessmotivation #aesthetic #fitlife #calisthenics #workout #abs #ripped #cut #healthy #fit #sun #beach #santamonica #sand #playground #ocean

A post shared by Johnathan Fernandez (@jthanprime) on

JF: That’s hilarious. Michelle Mitchenor who plays Bailey had on her Instagram story one day, she was pointed at crafty [craft services – the food service department in TV production], and had a big red X over it, and said, “Crafty is not your friend.” And like, yeah, dude. It’s one of those things where you just kind of, like, for me it always boils down to, I guess, what do I care about really?

Do I care about having this Twix right now, or this licorice or cookie, or these creamy potatoes, or whatever, or do I care about what I look like? Those little things like that, I’ll have a cheat day at some point during the week, and then I’ll go crazy and then I’ll have like a bunch of stuff, but in this moment in time, this random potato is not worth it.

Unless someone was to say, ‘yo, this potato the best potato you’ll ever have in your entire life’, then I’ll consider it strongly, but for the most part, it’s just like, I don’t really care about this potato like that, or this burger…I’ll just wait to have the burger of my dreams on Sunday.

A lot of it is just the ebbs and flows of trying to be consistent and balanced so that you’re eating well at least 80 per cent of the week. Then the last 20 per cent won’t be a complete nightmare, because your body will balance out. What’s crazy is when we go on location the craft service is even crazier. There’s a sundae stand, like a build-your-own-sundae situation, and there’s smoothies, and there’s all these cakes and stuff, and all these cascading mountains of ice cream…

I mean, the first season, my wife and I were very new to Los Angeles, and it’s a big ice cream town and we tried all of the ice cream places of repute, and they were great. And then as soon as 2017 hit, we were like, ‘all right, we’ve gotta get back on track.’ Now especially because I’ve been trying to get into more of the fitness world and fitness competitions and stuff like that.

M&C: Any last words about Scorsese, where your character’s going, what’s doing for you, now that you’ve got another season announced?

JF: It was really cool to find out more about what Scorsese’s up to in 208, and I think there’s going to be a Bailey episode coming up soon, which I’m really excited to see also because Michelle is so great. I think now the two dudes are so well established, which is great, and they are the show. We’ve now gotten a glimpse into Avery’s past, and see what Trish is up to, and Jordana as well, so [I’m] waiting to just get a little more personal with these people. And just find out more of where…not just what Scorsese is doing in his spare time, but also what is he doing when he’s not writing either.

Where does he live? I don’t even know where he would live — where the studios are, just because he can thinks he can siphon off their cinematic energy into his brain. But just the little things like that.

I think people just thoughtfully want to know how did you become a medical examiner? If film is such a passion of yours and you went to film school, how did you take another 90 degree turn into a completely different direction?

Wait, how did you do all those things? I think that’s what everybody’s kind of wondering now. It’s like just a little more backstory of where these people come from.

Lethal Weapon returns tonight, Tuesday, January 2, at 8/7c on FOX.

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