José Hernández & Alejandra Márquez Abella Interview! We recently had the chance to speak with director Alejandra Márquez Abella and NASA flight engineer José Hernández, whose life is the subject of the film A Million Miles Away. A Million Miles Away is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
INTERVIEW José Hernández & Alejandra Márquez Abella talk A MILLION MILES AWAY movie
We stand with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
About A MILLION MILES AWAY
Inspired by the real-life story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández, A Million Miles Away follows him and his devoted family of proud migrant farm workers on a decades-long journey, from a rural village in Michoacán, Mexico, to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, to more than 200 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station. With the unwavering support of his hard-working parents, relatives, and teachers, José’s unrelenting drive & determination culminate in the opportunity to achieve his seemingly impossible goal.
INTERVIEW José Hernández & Alejandra Márquez Abella
José, your story has been out there for a while and people have tried to make your story but it was just never the right time. So what was it about this time that made you say yes?
José: It was all about the people who wanted to make it. The folks that approached me [were from a] film house called Select Films, run by Mark Ciardi, executive producer of our movie. They had just finished doing McFarland USA, they had done Million Dollar Arm, and Secretariat. So they had a nice pedigree of doing films that were inspirational. That’s when I realized this is the film house where my story can be told the way I wanted it to be told.
How closely did you work with Michael Peña? And what was that like? Were there things about his performance that you would have chosen to do differently? Tell us a little bit about that.
José: Well, you know, Michael [Peña] is a true professional, and when it was known that he was going to portray me, he reached out to me. Unfortunately, it was during the pandemic. So we did what we a lot of Zoom calls, and he got to know me over Zoom. And, and I think he got the gist of what I was about with respect to my personality. And, he did a masterful job at portraying that on screen. And he did a great job.
I mean, he’s a great actor, and he was our first choice. So I was tickled to death when he said he would want to do it. And, you know, I had seen him in the Martian with Matt Damon. And so he already had experienced being an astronaut. So he didn’t need additional training. And so it was great that he did it. But yeah, he did a masterful job and accurately portrayed my character.
How surreal was it for your family to see themselves play out? I love that the actors were reaching out and doing these zooms with you all because just you could feel it. You could feel that family bond in it.
José: I agree. You know…Rosa Salazar, I think she was a scene stealer in the movie, in certain parts, because I’ll be honest with you, when I first saw the movie, and from a personality perspective, I was seeing my wife up there. I mean, she nailed my wife to the tee. And she did her homework. She called my wife. She did Zoom with her. They cooked together over Zoom. Della taught her some recipes. And so she got she got my wife’s personality to the tee. And then I didn’t realize that Rosa was just studying her in the Zoom, cause she thought oh, she’s just a friend. And she wants to be nice. But she was studying because it showed on the screen.
They’re true professionals. They did their homework. And they did they did it right. So I’m very grateful that they took the time because they didn’t have to do that. They could have just said, “Okay, I’m assuming this is how José is and I’ll interpret it this way.” But they took the time and met with us and got the gist of our personalities.
In the movie, there’s this really wild training montage sequence. Obviously, you did all those in real life. I’ve done a few of them. At the NASA Training Center in Huntsville, Alabama, you get to some of those that they show in the movie, what are the ones that you enjoyed the most in real life when you were training to be an astronaut,
José: I think I think the ones I enjoyed the most was, when you got on the motion-based simulator, it’s like this, it has four seats, and you get in and then it does this goes erect. And then you perform a launch simulation, and then they throw the kitchen sink at you—failure after failure, and you’ve got to respond correctly, you know, they’ll fail an engine, they’ll fail an electrical line, they’ll fail an auxiliary power unit, landing gear goes bad, you know, all kinds of stuff that, that where you have to put the landing gear manual and all kinds of stuff that they do. And you practice that. And at first, you know, at first, you know, you die a couple of times, and then after that, after that you you get the gist of it. And you start, you start surviving and start doing very well. So I thought that that was because we did that hundreds of times.
It wouldn’t be a movie about becoming an astronaut without a training montage. Did you also work with NASA? Was that an actual training ground?
Alejandra: No, we built a set. We shot the whole film in Mexico around Mexico City or in Mexico City. We went to this humongous pool in Mexico City and we recreated the whole training. Which was more than challenging because we had to actually have people who could, you know, arrange that stunt and actually do that as they would do in a military facility. [It’s] a very sophisticated piece of training. It was fun, challenging, and long.
José talked a little bit about how some of the actors reached out to the family, and they did Zoom calls and whatnot to kind of get to know a little bit more about the people that they were portraying in the film. And I’m wondering if you were involved in that process at all, or if you had any input and what that was like?
Alejandra: [Michael Pena] is like the biggest Mexican-American movie star. But the rest of the cast was fun, it was a fun activity to choose them to talk to them to see how they play together.
I think Rosa Salazar is just the most amazing actress in the world. And she’s all light and when she comes into the film, she lights the film. I think Julio Cesar Cedillo and Veronica Alcón who play Jose’s father and mother, such such talents. Bobby Soto. I mean, I don’t know, I was so lucky. And I feel so privileged because it’s easy to do your job when you come to set and you know, everything is done.
Was it always the plan to have José cameo in there? And were you undecided about where to put him and then it just kind of fell into place? Or how did it come about?
Alejandra: We knew he had to be on the film somewhere. And we wanted to choose the perfect cameo for him because we wanted we wanted it to be symbolic, you know, and honor him in a way so it was a nice thing to have him as a close-out engineer.
Obviously, José is an astronaut. Michael has played an astronaut more than once before this. How closely did you work with, or did you work with, other NASA or technical advisors on the accuracy behind the scenes with the training and shuttle launches and that type of thing?
Alejandra: We worked very closely with NASA. Michael and I got to visit NASA and do the artist training, which is a special training they have for actors who are going to play astronauts. We got to speak with a bunch of astronauts, visit the facilities. I think super important to have that, and we had José, a text away. So any doubts, I used to text Jose, and ask, “How should we do this? What would you know? What would an astronaut say in this situation?” so I was lucky.
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