When we think about actors, acting, and the business of making TV shows and films, we tend to see only the glamour and glitter of the entertainment world. We read in the tabloids about Hollywood marriages that have shorter shelf lives than your average gallon of milk…follow box-office grosses as though our very lives depended on it….wait breathlessly for the next big film from Jackson, Spielberg, McTiernan, and Lucas…and pretend we don’t care about the sex lives of Jennifer Anniston or Jude Law while we peek at the tabloids in the supermarket checkout lines.
The reality, of course, is that the show-biz world we all know and love is merely the tip of the iceberg, and that for every Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, or Heath Ledger at the pinnacle of the thespian world, there are hundreds of actors like WakingUp in Astoria’s TJ Martini, a 30-something New Yorker who is struggling uphill to get parts in everything from radio commercials to hit television series but getting nowhere fast, much to the dismay of his wife Karin.
Written and directed by Juan Carlos Hernandez and produced by Adria K. Woomer Hernandez, Waking Up in Astoria is the bittersweet story of, as the director puts it, “an actor and his family, and their struggle to keep insanity from exceeding its moderation.”
Shot entirely on location in New York City, Waking Up in Astoria starts on a somewhat comical note: TJ (Hernandez) is appearing in a commercial for one of the Big Apple’s most needed essentials – a tough deadbolt lock. As Martini recites the sales pitch, the lock comes apart, component by component, in his hand, leading the viewer to believe that Astoria is going to be a slapstick comedy.
But just as there are tears behind the smiles of every clown, there are layers of disillusion and frustration as TJ, his wife Karin (Adria Woomer Hernandez) and their son Dino (Anthony James Hernandez) have to live with Martini’s prevalent inability to get parts. He’s always late for auditions, muffs lines in rehearsals for radio commercials, and is so naive at times that his cynical agent Bernie (Steve Arons) impatiently asks TJ, “What f – -ing planet do you come from?” Even his standup routine a la Seinfeld at the Astoria Comedy Club is marred by indifferent audiences and sarcastic hecklers.
In one of the best scenes in the movie, TJ seems to be clawing his way out of this actor’s nightmare when he’s being interviewed by the executive producer (Linda Hetrick) of a hit TV series reminiscent of the late and lamented Third Watch. Martini has obviously done a great line reading and the producer is gushing about how wonderful he did, but then TJ – a guy who obviously has never heard the adage “discretion is the better part of valor” – tells “Miss Venom” that he’s never even watched the show.
In this sequence, Hernandez’s eye for both detail and dramatic flair are obvious; the way he captures the producer’s mood shift from gushing backslapper to outraged and slighted is extremely effective, especially how he focuses on Hetrick’s facial expressions, which go from warm-and-fuzzy smiles to milk-curdling “you’ll never work in this town again” scowls as her dismay over TJ’s ignorance about her Emmy-winning cops-and-firefighter series flares into anger.
But the true wonder of this independent film is Hernandez’s depiction of TJ’s family life, and his scenes with Karin and Dino ring true, as do the sequences when the stressed-out and hapless thespian is trying to cope with his downward-spiraling situation by hanging out with his more hard-bitten and cynical friend Pablo (Orlando Pabotoy) and seeking psychiatric help from Dr. Weiss (James Woomer).
Hernandez, who has not only appeared on TV ( OZ, Guiding Light,Law & Order, and 100 Center Street) and various films (Against the Ropes, High Crimes), here shows his range as both actor and director, getting you to laugh at the “falling apart lock” scene that opens the 90-minute film with that effective “hook,” then making you care about the characters, especially TJ and Karin, whose love for each other is threatened by the instability of a struggling artist’s life and his apparent descent into desperation.
As an actor, Hernandez is equally good at handling humor and drama, while as a director he gets strong performances from his cast, especially the luminous Woomer Hernandez, who as Karin is the glue that holds her family together.
Waking Up in Astoria: Major Credits
Produced by: Adria Hernandez
Written and Directed by: Juan Carlos Hernandez
TJ Martini……Juan Carlos Hernandez
Karin Martini……Adria Woomer Hernandez
Dino Martini……Anthony James Hernandez
Radio Announcer…..Danyon Davis
Miss Venom…..Linda Hetrick
Dr. Weiss…..James Woomer
Casting 1……Ana Skorwider
Heckler 1…..Janey Delaney
Heckler 2…..Linda Delaney
Video Clerk…..Michael Adzjavic
Video Girl…..Tara Petruzelli
Store Owner…..Anwar Sadiq