As busy as Jona Xiao's acting career is these days, you'll be seeing her in Spiderman: Homecoming this summer, she also uses what she's learned about the business side of acting to help other actors succeed as she has. We spoke with Jona about her acting, Hollywood and her company,Career ACTivate.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Outside of being an actress and entrepreneur, I'm passionate about working with children and also women with eating disorders. To stay active, I really enjoy playing adult dodgeball and I'm a quarterback in flag football. I'm on a traveling women's flag football team named She-Unit and it's been so great to be around these talented athletes and strong women.
What was it like growing up in St. Louis?
I'm glad I grew up in St. Louis, but I was one of only about five Asians in my graduating high school class. I did experience some racism growing up --for instance, one of my good friends was asked by classmates why he hung out with chinks. That later inspired me to become an advocate for social justice. In high school, I founded my school's first Diversity Alliance and it took several months to pass because some of the school administrators weren't supportive of the inclusion of LGBTQ, which I was adamant about including.
You started acting in middle school. What drew you to it?
I loved making people laugh and feel. Having seen and experienced adversity throughout my childhood, I loved being able to put a smile on someone's face. When I was in 6th grade, I took a drama class and played the female lead in "Rappinstilksin," the rapping version of Rumpelstilskin. Drama class became my favorite time of the day.
What has been your favorite role to date? Why?
One of my favorites has to be Julie Yang in AMC's critically acclaimed Halt & Catch Fire. She was the first female coder on Team Mutiny and definitely holds her own with all the guys she works with. What I love about her is she's so ballsy, confident, and very quick-witted in her comebacks. I was also able to bring my "awkward confidence" and physical humor to the role, which was a blast.
With all the talk about "white washing" in Hollywood, have you found it harder as an Asian-American actor to find lead roles?
Yes, I feel Hollywood is still a little hesitant to trust Asians in leading roles. That being said, I've seen and personally experienced a shift in the industry, where productions are much more willing to see Asian actors audition for leading roles. I'm grateful for the awesome opportunities I've had to read for and play some very rich characters.
Do you feel like things have been getting better for Asian-Americans in the entertainment field?
Yes, I do! I think it has to do with the diversity push in entertainment right now. Also, it's so encouraging to see so many people on social media being vocal about what they do and don't want to see in TV and film. For instance, there was a version of Disney's Mulan script that was leaked and there was quite the social media uproar against having a Caucasian male protagonist coming in and saving the day, so the writers ended up updating the script to make Mulan the central heroine in the story.
You're an accomplished actor, but you're also CEO of Career ACTivate. What is Career ACTivate and how did you come up with the concept?
Career ACTivate provides information, tools, and resources to help actors master the business side of show business. When I was an aspiring actor growing up, acting was a VERY expensive hobby for me and I was scammed as well, so I always felt very protective of my fellow actors. It wasn't until I started working in casting, agency, producing, etc. that I learned the crucial business side and that's what helped me breakthrough in my own career, so I wanted to share what I learned with other actors to help them save money and time along their journeys. A big part of my mission in life is to empower people to achieve the things that they formerly thought would be "impossible," and Career ACTivate is one outlet for me to carry out my mission.
What has been the most challenging aspect of starting your business? The most rewarding?
The most rewarding by far is seeing the transformations people go through. As great as it is to hear about the awesome bookings our actors are getting (which is VERY awesome indeed!), it's even more fulfilling for me when the people we work with share with us how their lives are changed for the better. I literally get teary-eyed and my heart swells when I see so much growth in these amazing artists we've been so fortunate enough to work with. The most challenging part of starting the business was my own self-doubt initially. When I first started teaching years ago, I was worried I wasn't credible enough to teach. Luckily, within a couple minutes of me talking at any event, I would see actors of all ages scribbling down notes furiously and realized that I had a lot to offer.
Is there a favorite childhood memory that you think shaped who you are today?
When I was in high school, I was to help represent my school at a leadership retreat. I think we all went into it excited to figure out what we could do to motivate people to make positive changes in the world. Little did we realize that the first half of the program was about analyzing ourselves and figuring out how we were unconsciously contributing to the lack of social justice in the world. Because all of us leaders would've classified ourselves as advocates for social justice, it was really challenging for a lot of us to admit to ourselves that we were part of the problem and that change starts with us. As a result of going through the program, I ended up starting the first Diversity Alliance at my school. Nowadays, I try to exercise as much compassion as possible for people with vastly different beliefs (political, spiritual, etc.) and focus on what I can do to make a difference first rather than what everyone else should be doing.
What advice do you wish you had before you started acting? Before starting your company?
As an actress, I wish I would've learned the business side of the industry sooner and also understood the importance of bringing as much of "Jona" as I could into every role. I used to go into auditions focused on what "they wanted" (the casting director, producers, director, etc.) rather than bringing my own unique perspective to the world that the writer had created.
One piece of advice I would've given to the young entrepreneur in me would've been to bring on a team of people I trust earlier on so I wouldn't have had to do everything on my own when I was starting out. I'm so grateful for the incredible people on my team team that have really helped grow and expand Career ACTivate.
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