The actor Jay Hernandez is not really a horror dude. But he recently found himself sitting at a publicist's dining room table with a bunch of horror dudes who were asking him horror questions about his gross new horror film Hostel, like "Is there anyone that you'd want to handcuff to a chair and torture with a power drill?" Hernandez looks around and smiles. "No," he says, "I don't really, like, hate anyone."

Hernandez was "discovered" in an elevator at a bank right after starting junior college. He did some heavy petting with Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful, played some sincere high school athletes in The Rookie and Friday Night Lights, and raced on motorcycles with Ice Cube in Torque. In Hostel, he's mixing it up a little; instead of a nice guy getting the girl in a feel-good story, he plays an asshole frat boy getting physically abused by mean Europeans. "It's a real departure for me," he says. "My character Paxton has an arc, though. He's kind of a jerk and so it's good to let him break down in the hardcore scenes. And then at some times in the movie he's a strong guy, you know, making power moves. I was a little worried before shooting that people wouldn't follow him, but I saw the final cut with an audience and they were very into the big payoff at the end. The vengeance aspect is pretty satisfying."

Set in Holland and Slovakia and shot in and around Prague, Hostel is loosely based on the real-life story of an escort-type service that, for $10,000, will supposedly kill someone for you. "I think it's scarier that it's about real people doing sick things, and not some mutant you have to shoot 50 times to kill," Hernandez says. After a leisurely build-up of bodacious ta-tas and Amsterdam jokes, the movie becomes a series of gnarly torture scenes. "Filming that part was torturous," Hernandez recalls. "By the end I was having dreams and everything, being in a hole, seeing a light and all that stuff. It was basically three days handcuffed to a chair in a bombed-out mental hospital, begging for your life. [Co-star] Derek [Richardson]," who plays Paxton's "bro" Josh, "had to do his scene first, and it was really intimidating for me because he came out of it all hoarse and bruised and, like, moody."

Hernandez looks younger than he did when Crazy/Beautiful came out in 2001, and he says he doesn't mind taking college- and high-school-aged roles. "When I'm all old, I'm not going to be able to play young. So I may as well do it now. I'll have plenty of time to be old." Top-billing in the number one movie in America might be a sign of a career changing gears, (his last project was a direct-to-video Carlito's Way prequel costarring Mario van Peebles and Diddy), and Hernandez has the busy schedule to prove it. First, with his Hostel press duties mostly over, he's on his way back to Kazahkstan for reshoots of his enlarged role in The Nomad, an 18th century sword-fighting/horse-riding epic that was recently acquired by the Weinstein Company. And after that he'll go back to the set of Oliver Stone's mysterious and as-yet untitled World Trade Center project, in which he plays a Port Authority cop.

"That's an interesting set, a little bit nutty," he says. "I've been having a lot of really deep conversations with Nicholas Cage between takes. It's challenging, though. Just because it's Oliver Stone, it's not a conspiracy theory story or anything. It's about the human side. We've talked with some of the real people that the story follows, and I think maybe it's been cathartic for them."

There is some hesitation to say any more about the plot. "It's like Hostel," he says. "It's best to go in knowing as little as possible; I want the audience to be in that place. You don't want to give too much away, but if you don't give a little away then no one would see it at all."

Hostel is now playing at theaters nationwide.

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