Montse Hernandez Talks ‘Student Body’ Slashing Its Way Through Expectations

If there’s anyone who knows the industry inside and out, it’s Student Body star Montse Hernandez. When her mother, a Mexican former ballerina, first moved to the United States, she wanted to ensure that her family would still always retain their artistic sides, so Montse was encouraged to pursue creative endeavors virtually from the moment she could walk. “I was in ballet. I did modeling.” Growing up in those programs planted the seeds for a deep love for the craft, but most of what Hernandez remembers from that time was simply how much of a blast it was. “I honestly didn’t really know what I was doing. All I knew is that I was having so much fun, and that’s really where it started. I was just having fun.” Of course, moving up to the professional world as an adult has brought more responsibilities and challenges, but she still hasn’t lost that sense of amusement. “Even if the character is super intense or the set is super stressful, I’m always having fun at the end of the day. I love to do it.”

Hernandez’s big breakout came on the first season of The CW’s Jane the Virgin, the telenovela satire hailed as a touchstone moment for Latina representation on television. As Teenage Jane in the show’s frequent flashbacks, Montse worked alongside Ivonne Coll (grandmother Alba) and Andrea Navedo (mother Xiomara). “It was really cool to see people who resembled my mom and my grandmother on TV like that, and how I was able to just be myself and interact with them as I would with my normal family.” A major source of Jane the Virgin’s acclaim was its tender and realistic depictions of family life, and it sounds like the naturalistic performances came easily due to the writing. “I love this representation because I just feel like I’m at home.”

Jane the Virgin also brings its trademark warmth and wit to conversations about sex, particularly those within Catholic households. The titular protagonist is the daughter of a single teen mother, and the series itself kicks off when the devout Jane, who is waiting until marriage for sex, becomes miraculously pregnant by accidental artificial insemination. For Montse, the writers’ frank discussions of those topics were refreshing, because those discussions weren’t anything she’d grown up with. “Sex and women are not really ever talked about at all in Latino communities. Even pregnancy. It’s so weird. Latin women are like, ‘We want you to have babies! We want you to have a family! But don’t have sex.’” These were fairly new topics (but no less important) to fifteen-year-old Montse when she joined the series, but she remembers thinking, “‘This is interesting, because I feel like these are talks I should be having at this point in my life, and I’m not.’” Of course, the show (a rom-com first and foremost) never took its topics overly seriously, and Hernandez especially appreciated how the writers incorporated light-hearted comedy into the scripts. “I hope in the future, we can look back on it as Latinas and see how that’s not that big of a topic. It’s not that taboo. It’s something that can just be talked about.”

Near the tail end of her run on Jane the Virgin, Hernandez starred alongside Demián Bichir and Eva Longoria in Lowriders, a gritty drama about self-expression in the East Los Angeles lowrider community. For Hernandez, working with those two stars was a dream come true. “My mom I love [Bichir] so much. Even beforehand, we love all the work he’s been in.” Montse was familiar with lowriders from growing up in Dallas, where that community has also developed a large pocket, and though she hadn’t been exposed to it as much as her parents were, she became fascinated with diving into this unfamiliar facet of her culture. “You have ballet folklorico, you have the lowriders, and it’s cool to see how big, depending on where you go, the types of things Latinos are into and what’s big in the culture.”

Montse has also spent a lot of time in the studio as a voice actor for various animated series and video games, such as League of Legends, The Last Kids on Earth, and Elena of Avalor. Between all those various series that have bookended her live-action projects, she named Ben 10 as the one that has stuck with her most. “I really got a family out of that.” Over the series’ five-year run, Montse came of age along with the characters, and she still feels as if her fellow cast and crew watched her grow into her own as a performer and as a person. Many animated projects isolate the cast members while recording, as it makes it easier to edit and mix one voice at a time rather than a room full of people. However, Ben 10 took a braver approach and invited every cast member to the recording studio at the same time, so that the chemistry between the characters could be more natural. “We just bounce off each other, we improv, we do all sorts of crazy things! Nobody can stop us! Well, they can stop us, technically, but the sky’s the limit when we’re all together.” Of course, this more fun and collaborative environment bled through on screen, and it bonded the actors together even more. “They were with me through every major life event… It’s kind of where I started to discover the different kinds of voices I can do, test my abilities in voice acting, and really explore without judgment.” As she began to explore writing as a new form of artistic expression, they were there for her to champion her work and cheer her on. “Everyone was always just so supportive in everything… I miss working with them so much.”

Slasher films, once all the rage in horror, are starting to make a comeback this decade. The Scream and Halloween franchises have returned for popular new installments, and new terrors are being unleashed in original series like Netflix’s Fear Street. This year, Hernandez is set to dip a toe in the gory trend with Student Body. The film follows a high school student (ironically also named Jane) who is struggling with all the usual high school problems like fitting in… until a male teacher oversteps his bounds and things take a dark turn when Jane and her friends decide to take punishment into their own hands. Montse highlighted, “I love horror. That’s my favorite genre, so to have my first lead in that genre was really, really cool.”

However, Student Body is looking to stand out from the rest of the slasher resurgence with its brutal yet honest look at the life of a teenage girl and how inherently “scary” that period of life is. “You have male teachers, and you have cliques and being self-conscious, feeling like you don’t fit in or you’re not good enough, but also dealing with people, specifically sometimes men in power, and how they treat you differently because you’re a younger woman.” Hernandez was careful to avoid spoilers so that viewers can be surprised by the film’s shocking twists and turns, but she praised writer-director Lee Ann Kurr’s careful hand in crafting Jane’s story of rebelling against victimization. “I would not recommend what my character does in the film, at all, to solve that issue. But I do think: Finding friends who believe you and who you trust is an important thing to get out of the film, if we’re focusing on that side of it.” As Jane goes on a journey to discover her own power within the movie, Montse hopes the teen viewers at home will be encouraged to do the same. “Being a woman and being intelligent should not be something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.”

One of Montse’s first “days” on set in Georgia was a long night shoot, virtually from sunset to sunrise. “By the end of that scene… I don’t want to spoil anything, but I just felt like I could do anything. It was unforgettable.” She recalled being on her way back to the hotel, drenched in blood (of course for reasons she wasn’t able to divulge) and admiring the sky, saying, “It’s that morning when it’s still blue. I look to my right, and I see a deer in the forest on my way back, and I was like, ‘Wow…’ I’m already feeling like I can do anything, and it was quiet in the van, and it was just me. It was nice. That was my favorite night. It was just very calming.” She joked, “Drenched in blood, it was calming!”

In the future, Hernandez is looking to step behind the camera to produce more of her writing, beginning with her horror script. “I’m actually working in collaboration with the producers of Student Body… I don’t know what more I can say about that, but we’re working together, and we should be shooting by the fall.” It sounds like that team will be a perfect fit for the project, as the film is a sort of spiritual companion piece to Student Body. “Being a teenage girl is very scary. In my film, we talk about how being a twenty-one-year-old Mexican woman is very scary.”

On the other hand, Montse isn’t slowing down in front of the camera either, as she has also wrapped another lead role in Solidarity, which is “about how the life of a Mexican immigrant and the life of a Lithuanian immigrant come together in a really weird way in Los Angeles.” Shortly after filming was finished, the producers helped put together the First Annual Street Vendors Market, a new event in Los Angeles created to host a space for the often-harassed street vendors to work and thrive without any stressors. When they asked Montse to speak at the event, her first feeling was intimidation. “Public speaking is usually like, ‘No thank you.’” However, when she considered the horrific stories she’d been hearing of robberies and violence against innocent vendors who only wanted to sell their food, she knew she had to step in. “With everything going on, I figured: I have a voice. I need to use it. Just being a part of it, I knew I was helping make a difference… When I see street vendors, I think of community, and that’s what I always grew up with, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I need to come, and I need to say something. I’m anxious, but I need to put that aside when it comes to defending what is important to me.’” The event was a success, and Hernandez feels proud of her participation and the way everyone was able to preserve the vendors’ safety and careers. Solidarity still doesn’t have a release date, but Montse highlighted, “I’m really proud of it… It’ll be out sometime this year. I hope, I really hope.”

All in all, Hernandez is grateful for the hard work all of her peers have put into their projects, and she can’t wait for viewers to see the results, particularly with her upcoming writing project. “I have a great time who believe in it and believe in me, and I’m so grateful for them. I cannot wait to bring it to life and share more with everyone.” We can’t wait to see it either, and we’re sure that this is only the beginning of hearing the name Montse Hernandez (whether in front of the camera or behind).

Student Body will premiere on video-on-demand on February 8 and is available for pre-order right now.

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