There’s no question that there will be a lot of people watching Magnum, P.I. pretty closely when it premires on the evening of Sept. 24, and more than a few of them are likely to be skeptical. Which is not really surprising when you consider how beloved the original Tom Selleck version was during its 1980 to 1988 run. And if anyone understands that particular pressure facing everyone involved, it’s actor Jay Hernandez who has assumed the Thomas Magnum character from his predecessor.
“It’s really kind of surreal,” Jay laughs during an interview at San Diego Comic-Con. “I watched an episode of the original Magnum, P.I. probably a month or two before I started shooting. It was a scene where he’s in a surf skin in the bay in Hawaii, and two months later I find myself doing that very same thing. But when I was watching the original episode, I had no idea the opportunity was going to present itself. And when I told my mom I was doing Magnum, P.I., she was hoping that Tom Selleck was going to be Magnum again.” He shakes his head, acting disappointed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, mom.”
All joking aside, he does admit that there was definitely a feeling of trepidation before he first came to the set. “And a sort of intimidation,” says Jay. “You know, you want to get it right. Tom Selleck kind of put the Red Ferrari on the map. The show is aired in, like, 150 countries around the world, so it’s one of those properties that people are very aware of. And stepping into an iconic role — think about the Joker or Batman — there’s always going to be built-in criticism regardless of the casting choice. That’s just the nature of people, especially on social media. They have their idea of what the characters should be or what casting decisions should be made. Everyone has an opinion, which is fine, but my job is to win everybody over. And once I got there, I started to feel comfortable. Just being in the clothes, being in Hawaii and getting into that mentality and driving the car — it all felt very comfortable to me.”
That comfort has been a long time in coming, considering that Jay’s career has spanned the past 20 years. Born Javier Manuel “Jay” Hernandez on Feb. 20, 1978, in Montebello, CA, he got his start as Antonio Lopez on NBC’s Hang Time from 1998 to 2000. From there he made recurring and guest appearances in shows like Six Degrees, Last Resort, Nashville, and co-starred in season seven of Scandal. On the big screen, film roles include Friday Night Lights, Hostel, American Son, Quarantine, Suicide Squad, A Bad Mom’s Christmas, and Bright. Magnum, P.I., of course, could be his biggest gig to date.
The show is a modern take on the classic series centering on Thomas Magnum. He’s a highly-awarded veteran from Afghanistan, where he served as a Navy SEAL, who, upon returning home, repurposes his military skills to become a private investigator. Described as a “charming rogue, an American hero, and a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan,” Magnum has taken up residence in a guest cottage on Robin’s Nest, the luxurious estate where he works as a security consultant to supplement his P.I. business. The “majordomo” of the property is Juliet Higgins (Perdita Weeks), a beautiful and commanding disavowed MI:6 agent whose second job is to keep Magnum in line — with the help of her two Dobermans. It’s from the producers of the Hawaii 5-0 reboot series, and they’re promising a crossover at some point.
One of the challenges Jay says he faces is capturing the sense of levity that Tom brought to the character: “He was able to walk the line where you have moments where people are getting shot at or hit by a car — just crazy stuff going on — and then, a couple of scenes later, he’s got to charm his way into the coroner’s office. Very few people can pull that off, so that, for me, was the intimidating, tricky part, because it’s a tonal thing. He had that in spades, and he was what made the show. Hopefully, I embody some of that.”
Helping him deal with all of that has been Justin Lin, executive producer and director of the pilot episode. “It was actually a big discussion,” Jay explains, “and ultimately they landed on the fact that they wanted it to be very distinct from Tom Selleck, because you cannot replace him. So the last thing they wanted to do is cast somebody who looked like him or had the mustache or even the Hawaiian shirts, which they were really reluctant to do. But the great thing is that it’s become an evolution. So the pilot is establishing the world and all that, and there are all these little Easter Eggs peppered throughout it, but there’s also stuff that’s going to happen that I’m really excited about. One is that we’re going to bring the Hawaiian shirt in, but it’s in an earned moment. It’s not off the bat. People who are fans of the original TV show are going to be a couple of episodes deep and will see that moment, which makes it special. So I think they’re doing it in a really smart way, honoring the past and respecting the fans of the original, while also bringing a whole new generation of fans under our wing.”
One big difference from the original is that the action quota has been upped significantly. “I’m like the Tom Cruise of television,” laughs Jay. “In the pilot, I did a skydiving thing attached to wires, which was pretty sweet. Obviously there’s lots of car driving and I get my butt kicked…” He pauses for a moment, as though allowing the memories of his physical ordeals to flood back to him before continuing, “Like jumping from the car to the helicopter — that was really cool. I actually had to shoot off this platform and catch the bottom of the helicopter — and it was a real helicopter, though it was stationary. I was still very sore the next day.”
Of the show in general, Jay closes, “We wanted to take the spirit of the original, but make it feel fresh and new. And I think we’ve done that.”