Jona Xiao is one busy lady. The raven-haired beauty puts her many talents to work in Gifted, opposite Chris Evans, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer. Also coming up this summer for Xiao, is Spider-Man Homecoming. We talked shop with the gifted artist.
HYDROGEN MAGAZINE: Where do you call home?
JONA XIAO: I was originally “Made in China” but I grew up mainly in St. Louis, Missouri. Right now, I’d consider Los Angeles my home, although I’ve filmed a lot in Atlanta the last couple of years, so I’d consider that my second home as I have close friends over there as well.
HM: Why acting? When did your love of performing begin?
JX: In 6th grade, I took a drama class and ended up playing the female lead in the class play “Rappinstilskin,” the female version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved making people laugh, think, and feel and drama class became the class I would look forward to every single day.
HM: Who are some artists that have influenced your craft?
JX: Lucille Ball and Jimmy Carey’s quirkiness and ability to be extremely expressive with their faces and bodies was very inspiring to me while I was growing up. I’ve loved using physical comedy in my work and it’s helped me book roles, for instance, playing the comedic relief character of Julie Yang in AMC’s HALT & CATCH FIRE.
HM: Hollywood is a tough place. How do you navigate the industry in terms of expectations and the pressures that come along with it?
JX: For a long time in the beginning of my career, I was too concerned about my weight and felt there was this expectation that most Asian actresses needed to be skinny. I remember one casting director after seeing me perform told me, “You are going to hate me for saying this…but…drop 10 pounds. Or gain 20.”
She verbalized my fear, that my weight was putting me in a category that made it more difficult for me to book work. Ironically, when I was at my heaviest weight, I actually booked more TV shows during that period than any period prior. What I came to realize was that I needed to stop focusing on what I didn’t have and focus on what I do, and what I can bring to the table Also, having a strong team of support (coaches, mentors, community), etc. has been so vital to me and my career.
HM: Let’s talk about your new film, Gifted. Chris Evans plays a single man raising his niece, who is a child prodigy. Tell me more about the film…
JX: It’s a powerful and uplifting film for the whole family. Not only does it have a lot of heart, but audiences have been surprised at how much humor is in the film as well. You see Chris playing an imperfect father who is doing his best to help his niece live a normal life while his mother wants her to be thrust into the limelight and to be recognized publicly for her gifts.
It’ll raise a lot of debate on the nature of family and also parenthood. I also appreciate that the film highlights a nontraditional family. Not only does it have an incredible cast (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Mckenna Grace), but Marc Webb is the director. Fun fact: his film, (500) Days of Summer helped me get over a cheating boyfriend when the film first came out. I’m grateful to him on multiple levels!
HM: Tell me about the character you play…
JX: I play a smart MIT math student named Lijuan. Through my character, the audience gets to witness just how gifted Mckenna Grace’s character truly is.
HM: What was your approach to playing her?
JX: One of the main things I worked on was her values and principles as a character. Also, I didn’t want to be a stereotypical “smart Asian math person,” so I made sure to highlight more nuances.
HM: You worked with Chris Evans, the very funny Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer. What was that experience like?
JX: I mainly got to work with Mckenna Grace who is wise beyond her years. She’s like a 25-year-old woman in a kid’s body. I think too often we underestimate children and they are often way more intelligent, intuitive, and observant than we give them credit for. Chris was very professional and charming and surprising…even more attractive in-person than he is on the big screen! Didn’t think it was possible, but he made it possible! I didn’t film on the days that Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer filmed, unfortunately.
However, at the premiere, I saw Octavia striking up conversation with the Girl Scouts that were in attendance and man, she’s got a heart of gold and is so humble!
HM: You are also in the upcoming summer flick, Spider-Man: Homecoming. How much fun was that to shoot?
JX: I had a blast. One of the actors I got to work with was Marisa Tomei, who I’ve respected for so many years, so it was like a dream come true to get to work with her. She was so supportive and she shared really nice feedback about my work.
HM: You have a recurring role this season on the BET hit drama, Being Mary Jane. Tell me about that…
JX: I play the ambitious, yet party-gal Natalie Wu. I’m a morning news show correspondent that works with Gabrielle Union and things get a bit competitive between us during Season 4.
HM: What has the experience been like working with Gabrielle Union?
JX: She’s a class act through and through. She’s so on top of everything and the first scene we ever worked together, the production schedule was running a little behind and she turned to me and asked, “Are you cool with just going straight into shooting this without the rehearsal?” And I was like, “uh…yeah let’s do it!” And luckily it went smoothly.
HM: Let’s talk style. How would you describe your personal style?
JX: I tend to gravitate towards fun, bright patterns and also material that makes clothing pop (ex. Lace).
HM: Designers you are digging right now…
JX: I wore a Fabiana Milazzo dress to a charity gala recently and fell in love with the designer.
HM: Three closet must-haves…
JX: Cute hair piece (ex. Metallic hair piece), black boots, well-fitted pair of jeans.
HM: If you could raid one celebrity closet, whose would it be?
JX: Ellie Kemper. I love that she doesn’t shy away from wearing bold colors and patterns, she rocks it!
HM: When you get a chance to get out of town, where’s your favorite place to escape to?
JX: Santa Barbara has been a nice getaway that’s only a couple hours away from where I live, so that’s been fun to sometimes visit.
HM: Hidden passion…
JX: I love quarterbacking in flag football. I’m one of the few female QB’s in co-ed flag football and recently put together a traveling women’s competitive team as well. I’ve been so impressed by how often the women I’ve been lucky enough to call teammates have been able to match up with some of the most talented men on the field. It’s one of my favorite recreational activities and ways to stay active.
HM: What’s the master plan?
JX: One of my goals has always been to be a series regular on a TV comedy series. In addition, I see myself traveling around the world as a speaker. Down the line, I could also see myself having a talk show that shares empowering messages and actionable strategy to help improve the lives of those around the world.
The last few years, I’ve had several people call me “a female Tony Robbins,” and part of my mission in life is to support others in creating breakthroughs in their lives. Also, I would love to build a foundation that empowers children as leaders and also an organization that supports women through eating disorders.
‘GIFTED’ IS IN THEATERS NOW.
JONA ON TWITTER: @JonaXiao
JONA ON INSTAGRAM: @jonaxiao
JONA ON FACEBOOK: @officialjonaxiao
PHOTOGRAPHY: RICKY MIDDLESWORTH