I wish someone would have told me that happiness comes first. TV jobs can be grueling and I kept working one after the other because I thought they would get me to where I wanted to be. Before directing my own film or TV show, my goal is to be happy. So if a job does not align with my happiness, I take my exit instead of hoping the suffering will lead someday lead to happiness. It may lead to more money and a more impressive title, but it won’t make you any happier.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jasmine Leyva.
Just “Jas” to her friends — she is unapologetically an artist. With a Bachelor of Arts in TV, Film and Media and a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting, she worked as an associate producer on a NAACP winning docuseries entitled Unsung, and shortly after, was given the opportunity to write and produce on Being, a docuseries highlighting dynamic entertainers in film and music. She’s done court shows, casted for Food Network productions and made strides in front of the camera.
She went on to star in commercials and print ads for major brands like Nissan, Sony, Apple, Uber, American Express, Diesel, BlackPeopleMeet, Credit Sesame, Michelle Watches, Elle magazine and more. She also starred in the Lifetime show, My Crazy Ex, along with other TV projects.
Happy to be doing what she loved, but simultaneously unhappy about not telling her own stories, she decided to let go of her nine-to-five and focus on her own goals. Just Jasmine. No limits and no boss except for her own creativity.
Jasmine and Kenny Leyva produced their own feature length documentary, The Invisible Vegan, a film that chronicles Jasmine’s personal experience with plant-based eating. The film also explains how plant-based eating is directly linked to African roots and how African-American eating habits have been debased by a chain of oppression stemming from slavery, economics and modern agribusiness. They are currently in pre-production for a few projects.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Washington, DC and I would say my upbringing was perfect until the world made me second guess it. I was a public school attendee, raised by a single mom, and I wasn’t in the best part of DC — all things that carry stigmas, but these things never bothered me growing up because I had the best of everything. Not necessarily the best name brands, but love and intention went into every detail of my upbringing during my formative years. For example, my mom didn’t throw away money on expensive clothes and shoes, but she had money to send me off to Spain to get cultured and graduate from college without debt.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always loved film and theater since was little, but not in a typical way. I used to try to create my own films and critiquing the films that I watched by really analyzing what I could have done to make them better. Then, when I was in grade school, I was scouted for a “Gifted and Talented” program for children who showed above-average creative abilities. It was in “Gifted and Talented” where I was given my first script.
At the time, the older kids were doing Shakespeare plays and I was too young to participate, but the teacher made an allowance. She gave me the lead role in “The Taming of the Shrew” and my performance made it to the front page of the Metro section in The Washington Post, DC’s premier newspaper. I loved it so much I started acting in plays every year and my mother put me in an acting studio workshop on the weekends.
Naturally, the next step was creating my own plays and movies. As early as fourth grade, I wrote and produced my first musical for our school’s Smithsonian program, and once again, I landed a huge feature in the paper. I always shined in this space early on and I always loved it, so it was fate.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I got my first job in “the industry” I was ecstatic but I was yet to realize artistry and “the industry” do not always walk hand in hand. I remember working on a documentary series and wanting more of a creative role on the project. The executive producer kind of chuckled and I could tell he didn’t think I was ready to be a writer. It was at that moment that I told myself to stop waiting for other people to give me permission to do what I love. So I quit my job and immediately began working on my first independent film, “The Invisible Vegan.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started work on my first film, I thought my friends would be the cornerstone of my operation. I had these young and idealist thoughts about how easy the process would be. “I don’t need studio backing me because I’ve got friends.” This was true in the sense that my friends came through with helping me as best they could, but they also had their own hustles and dreams that needed tending. Oddly enough, when I put my dream into the universe strangers conspired to help me get my first film completed by donating money, offering free help, recommending me to people and organizations that could help, etc. I learned the importance of not putting too much work responsibility on my friends and creating new communities that affirm different aspects of my life.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Since “The Invisible Vegan” highlighted health and animal welfare, I am constantly hired for speaking engagements where I spreading messages of health, social justice, and compassion. I am also on the producing team for VH1’s Behind the Music and independently working on two other self-produced, food-related documentaries. The most exciting part of where I am career-wise is that I am genuinely proud of what I do. I am endorsing messages that make my mother proud, I get to be creative on a consistent basis and I am staying true to 8-year-old Jasmine, who always wanted to do this.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
1. When you create worlds where large groups of people don’t exist, that world becomes a damaging and ugly lie that creates less sensitive and less interesting people.
2. I used to do national commercials and more times than not, the set was full of white men. I still remember the first commercial when I finally saw black men on the crew. It hurt me that they were only there to move furniture. It hurt me that the people they hired to do my hair did not know how to style black hair. It hurt me that I would go on sets with make-up artists who had 50 shades of beige, but only a few shades of brown leaving me unhappy with the way I looked. The lack of diversity hurts the people who are not represented. It leaves us feeling frustrated, not as worthy, and hurt.
3. Diversity in film is important because it gives the next generation of minorities hope. If certain groups are not represented in film spaces they will start to feel like that space is not for them. But it’s time we start pointing out the flaws in these spaces and deliberately making room for people who deliberately left out.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. I wish someone had explained the specific reasons why college is beneficial to people interested in film. A lot of people give children the general “go to college” speech without personalizing it. I approached college like I approached high school. In my teen years, I was not making it a priority to really get to know my teachers because they were “the adults.” College professors are people who are active in the industries they teach about and great connections for students breaking into the industry. I wish someone had taught me the importance of getting to know every single one of them. I also wish someone would have taught me the importance of interacting with my peers because making films is so much easier when you have a team.
2. One of my mentors told me “don’t break the rules, just casually act like they don’t apply to you.” When you are constantly trying to be an acceptable version of yourself and do things in an accepted way, you dull the qualities that make you and your work unique. There were times when I worked in TV production when I didn’t stand up for myself or what was right because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I kept my head down and I did my job, but now, I don’t humble myself for anyone, not even my bosses. I am unapologetically myself in all situations and that inspires people.
3. I wish someone would have told me sooner to start looking at what I have instead of paying attention to what I didn’t have. I completed my first independent feature at age thirty. I would’ve done it sooner if I wasn’t waiting around for 500,000 dollars and some studio executive to give me a chance. In the past I told myself, there is no way I can afford broadcast-quality cameras. The present Jasmine just says use what you got and make it work!
4. I wish someone would have told me that happiness comes first. TV jobs can be grueling and I kept working one after the other because I thought they would get me to where I wanted to be. Before directing my own film or TV show, my goal is to be happy. So if a job does not align with my happiness, I take my exit instead of hoping the suffering will lead someday lead to happiness. It may lead to more money and a more impressive title, but it won’t make you any happier.
5. I wish I had spent more time producing my own content when I was younger. At the start of my career, I was overly worried about getting known shows on my resume, but I didn’t produce that much content independently. I wish I would’ve made that my number one priority. Currently, I still work TV jobs to eat, but not if they come at the expense of independent creativity.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I am very picky about the jobs in my field that I take. When I start hearing language like “fast-paced environment” and “willing to work weekends and nights,” I run for the hills. For me, it’s just not worth it. I rather make less money, live in a smaller place, and have time for the people I love and my own art projects than being stressed out over someone else’s vision. I am very candid in job interviews about the value I place on work/life balance because I know how I feel inside when I don’t have it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to inspire a humanity movement. Because of how capitalism is set up, so many people focus is on making ends meet and they are mainly worried about themselves and their immediate family. If we inspired a movement that shifts people’s focus from the individual to the community and from apathy to empathy, so many areas of aspects of life would improve.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mother and my boyfriend are the two people I credit most for my success. Growing up, so many people criticized the path I was taking while my mother just sat in the stands, cheered me on, financed my decisions including the bad ones, and built me up. That is what I needed; just someone to build me up. My man helped me in a similar fashion. When I wanted to do my first film, he told me he would support me financially while I put all my focus toward my film. There will always be people that want to point out every obstacle in an effort to discourage you from making your own decisions. My mom and my man never talked to me about obstacles. They only offered help to move them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nike’s “Just Do It” really hits home for me. It might not be the most profound quote to others, but it’s relevant to every part of my life. I remember when I was putting my first film together and I added up the tab of how much things were going to cost. I needed at least 50,000 dollars to finish this film and I told myself “just do it.” I didn’t worry about how I was going to make it happen I just told myself to make it happen. And by approaching my work with that energy, I always received everything I needed. People around saw what I was putting into my work and the universe conspired to help me.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This is where I am supposed to put Michelle Obama or some celebrity activist I admire, but my friends and family are the only larger-than-life figures in my life. My mother, Patricia Anne Perry, lives in DC and I live in CA. If I could have lunch with anyone, I would go to DC and take her to a cute cafe.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can check out my Invisible Vegan website at www.theinvisiblevegan.com and my handles are listed below.
IG: @theinvisiblevegan @Jasmine_C_Leyva
FB:The Invisible Vegan, Jasmine C. Leyva