The first time that José Hernández dreamt of traveling to space, he was a young boy living in Stockton, California, watching the 1969 moon landing. In August 2009, he made history as a member of the STS-128 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. That accomplishment made Hernández the first, and to date, only astronaut who can claim to have worked as a campesino — a migrant farmworker — before achieving his dream of touching the stars. The impossible true story is now the focus of A Million Miles Away, a biopic directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella.
"He wants to take his hands out of the earth and go far, far away. But then when he's out there, what he does is he looks down to Earth. It's funny how you come back to what's important — to you — and you can't escape that," says Abella. "I think that's a dichotomy in José’s story. 'I want to get far away from my origins, but I'm gonna achieve that because of my origins.'"
Michael Peña, who is no stranger to portraying real-life Chicano heroes — having played the title role in 2014's Cesar Chavez — stars as Hernández, who overcomes countless challenges and setbacks on his journey to becoming an astronaut. Ultimately, what gets him off the ground is the combined effort of his family — including a "recipe" for success passed down from his father, Salvador (played in the film by Julio César Cedillo)— and a refusal to give up on his dream.
With A Million Miles Away, Hernández has gone from the fields of California into orbit and back again: Hernández recently hosted a screening of the film for his friends and family in Stockton. There's a running gag in the film where Salvador says he has dirt in his eye every time he gets emotion. "I've watched it four times," Hernández says, "and I still get dirt in my eye."
José has told his story in an autobiography, a children's book, and a young adult novel — and there is so much to his story. In bring his life's story to the screen, what aspects did you want to focus on and why?
ALEJANDRA MÁRQUEZ ABELLA: I wanted to focus on the community being pivotal to the fulfilling of any endeavor. That was one of the things that mattered the most to me, because I think that's a very Hispanic, Latino trait. We are used to working in communal efforts and, to me, this was a big part of Jose's story — not only his family supporting him but also his partner. So, that was a very important thing. Success is not a thing that an individual can achieve by himself or herself. I think you need the whole bunch to be to be enabled to do whatever... The challenge was to fit a 50-year story into a two-hour film.
José, how involved were you with the making of the film?
JOSÉ HERNÁNDEZ: There were three script writers, Bettina Gilois and Hernán Jiménez and then our director. I spent time with each one and I sent recommendations. Once they selected the director, Alejandra, she got to know me via Zoom. I invited her over to come up to Northern California to meet my family, my wife, my parents, and she came. She did her homework, and she took that information with her and wrote and edited and rewrote the script and did a very nice job. When it came to filming, I was on the set. We talked about who was going to represent me, and I think everybody agreed that Michael Peña was the best choice. I was so happy that he said yes. Then Rosa Salazar played my wife. When I saw her on the screen, it was as if I was seeing my wife's personality! She captured the essence of her.
What was it like working with Michael Peña?
ABELLA: Michael is the most amazing actor in the world. He's such a hard worker. He had everything prepared, like, two weeks in advance. He was asking questions about what was coming, and we had a very nice relationship in terms of bringing ideas, one to the other. I think that's what you can do as a director for an actor. You not only take care of them, but also provoke things that are going to be playable and then tangible on the screen. So, he was very much open to play this game with me, and I'll be always thankful. He's an amazing human being.
HERNÁNDEZ: If you look, I make a cameo. I am the guy in the white suit, adjusting his helmet before he gets to the space shuttle. Just call me Stan Lee! That was me!
That had to be quite a meta experience. There you are adjusting the helmet of an actor portraying you in a movie about your life.
HERNÁNDEZ: The irony of it all is that when you train as an astronaut and while you're waiting for your flight assignment, you have a technical job. My technical job was to go to Florida and prep the vehicle two weeks before launch, and the very last thing I did when prepping the vehicle is wear that white suit, adjusting the helmets of the astronauts and putting them inside the shuttle. It was a job I had done for seven launches that I knew very well, so I kind of felt at home what I was doing there.
Alejandra, how did you choose to separate the film into chapters using the recipe for success that José’s father gives him early in the film?
ABELLA: That was something that we found while editing the film. That wasn't in the script. Hervé Schneid, who was the editor, and myself were talking and suddenly, we realized that the film had the same structure as the recipe. So, we decided to chapter it and to play with that a bit more. But it was a surprise like, "Ah well, we are doing that!" It's the soul of the film taking over.
HERNÁNDEZ: It was a complete surprise to me too! And I thought it was masterfully done, because in every conference, in every interview that I get a chance to, that's the first thing I rattle off: My dad's important five-ingredient recipe with the sixth ingredient I add. That is: Defining your purpose in life, recognizing how far you are, drawing yourself a roadmap so you know how to get there, preparing yourself according to the challenge, and developing a work ethics that gets you that. The sixth one, the one I add, is perseverance. Never give up on yourself.
There's a humorous scene in the film where José is mistaken for a janitor at the laboratory where he'd been hired to work as an engineer, and the actual janitor is a white guy named Steve. Did that actually happen?
ABELLA: That one actually happened to José on his first day at Livermore Labs! They had hired two guys: José Hernández and Tom Smith, or something like that. One was a janitor and one was an engineer, and of course, who do you think they thought the janitor was?
HERNÁNDEZ: And that's what creates that self-doubt, that imposter syndrome effect. You're the only one that looks like yourself. You don't see people of color, except maybe the janitors and gardeners. It's only natural that you have doubts. I wanted to make sure that that part got addressed, and Alejandra did a great job at addressing what I consider is an impostor syndrome. I told them that even as an astronaut, I had those doubts. Each time I had those, I would stop. I would do a safety timeout and say, "Hey, look what you're at right now. No one took those finals to get your engineering degree, or those finals to get your master's degree, or your graduate degree. No one flew the plane for you; you got your own license. No one learned a third language for you." So, I said, "Do you belong here? Hell yeah, you belong here! Don't feel sorry for yourself, just work harder." And that's what I did.
The way the film explores your struggles with impostor syndrome is subtle, but very effective.
HERNÁNDEZ: It's very subtle, and that's how we wanted to portray it. Because that's really how it happened. It was just something we go through in life, so I wanted that same feeling and to be reflected in the movie. I think people are going to be able to relate to it.
ABELLA: You have to overcome your own fears, which are probably making you not use your whole power. If you're unattached to your identity and your origins, you're not in your best situation. You have to be connected to what you are and what formed you and your work ethic and your family to be the best you can be.
The last question I want to ask is: José, what is your fondest memory during your two weeks up in space?
HERNÁNDEZ: I think it was when we were flying over Texas. At the time, my family lived in Houston, and we're able to call down anytime. I called home and we had one of those 900-megahertz wireless phones, and I told my son, "Hey, go outside." He went outside and I said, "Look up about 12 o'clock. Do you see something that looks a star moving?" He said, "Yeah," and I said, "that's us. Wave to me." That was my fondest memory. Then he called out the rest of the family outside and said, "There's dad!"
By Ivan Fernandez
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]