If fans of the exuberant "Ted Lasso" character Dani Rojas wonder whether art imitates life, a conversation with Cristo Fernández quickly reassures them that's the case.
“My grandma and my mom used to say, ‘Cristóbal only speaks, breaths, talks, dreams, everything fútbol’ — soccer was literally my life,” the Mexican actor told NBC News, speaking about his teen years before his life-changing breakout role, where he's known for his signature saying, "Fútbol is life!"
Like so many young men around the globe, Fernández dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. In his case, Fernández says he's "living it" — playing one on TV. "I’m doing everything I love: fútbol, comedy, acting.”
Fernández was 15 when he was playing for Guadalajara Estudiantes Tecos Club in the Mexican League. Unfortunately, a knee injury shattered his ambition to play professionally.
The transition from sport to the world of film wasn't easy, Fernández said, requiring a discipline he learned through sports. He enrolled in screenwriting classes at the University of Guadalajara and when the time came to make movies, “nobody wanted to act in my videos, so I had to do it myself. Then, I ended up acting in everyone’s videos and I thought, wow, this is cool!”
He completed his studies and moved to England, where he obtained a Masters in acting. In London, “there was no role for a Mexican — the only professional job I booked before 'Ted Lasso' was playing a Mexican wrestler on a TV commercial, so I had to think about script ideas involving a Mexican living in the U.K.”
He would film videos with friends while working as a bartender at a Mexican restaurant in London, using the bar as a location. “I just used what I had,” he said.
The work paid off; he built his actor's reel out of his indie projects, which ultimately helped him land his "Ted Lasso" audition. He said he heard from the show's creator, Bill Lawrence, and its star, Jason Sudeikis, "that when they saw those scenes I did with my friends from the university, they saw my comic side on my reel and that got me an audition.”
For those wishing to pursue acting, Fernández's advice is to use “all the resources” available. “In the beginning, no one gets paid for doing what we do," he said. "We just have to work hard."
In an age of dark comedies and anti-heroes, the Apple TV+ show, currently in its second season, stands out as a heartwarming and feel-good story that shows it’s cool to be kind. In season one, coach Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) is a source of joy despite real conflict and struggle, and Fernández's character serves as a reminder and reflection of that joy among the supporting characters.
The first season of "Ted Lasso" garnered 20 Emmy Award nominations, make it the most nominated comedy series this year, as well as the freshman series with the most nominations in Emmy history.
Season two deepens the challenges faced by the team, whose optimism is tested yet again by difficult situations. Fernández lends an authenticity to the role of a soccer player with plenty of skill and cheer to spare. Rojas is "in a state of 24/7 extreme happiness," Fernández said. "I cannot be like that all the time."
In the first season, the show introduces an extremely happy version of Dani Rojas that “reminds us of that inner child we all have,” Fernández said. In season two, a different side emerges.
“I am grateful for the second season, because this version of Dani feels more like a real human with real problems," Fernández said. "I’m very excited to see how people react. It’s all about the way you face those problems and how you overcome them, and the people with whom you surround yourself."
"In stressful times, it’s good to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what brought us here," Fernández said. "Dani’s a free spirit, so passionate about games, life — that’s something we can take from him.”
Bringing 'Latino' to a global audience
"I wanted to play the most Latino/Mexican football player," Fernández said, adding he was grateful the show has allowed that space, "because around the world people are getting to know who we are.”
Fernández describes the show as a collaboration, with the creators and writers embracing and encouraging improvisation from the cast. In a scene in season one, the script had Rojas leaving the locker room, “but I thought if I’m leaving the room, let’s bring something else, so I started singing in Spanish and they loved it!”
Fernández said it was a "dream come true" to work with Sudeikis and co-star Brendan Hunt, who both come from the improv world and know that good ideas can come from anyone, something he's learning.
"Hopefully, I will know how to do it too with my own projects," he said. Fernández owns Spectrum MX films, which is currently developing a rom-com titled, "Do You Speak Love." He said he would love to one day work with Oscar-winners Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican director, and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, as well as other Latinos "with a different last name."
As Fernández reflected about his character, he said he embraces Dani Rojas' level of optimism — and the show's lessons.
“Although we might be doing what we love, sometimes we get stressed out, and that’s normal," he said. “It’s important to look at ourselves and realize that regardless of the circumstances, we can always be kind with each other — without expecting anything."
"You realize this when fans not only congratulate us," Fernández said, "but also say how important the show has been for them, because of the times we’re living in.”