I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jona Xiao
Actress Jona Xiao can be seen in some of the most talked about projects in TV and film. Currently, she voices Young Namaari in Disney’s celebrated animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon. Later this fall, she will recur on Starz’s acclaimed crime series, Hightown, as the bubbly yet edgy Daisy opposite Luis Guzman. Previously, she appeared as Lijuan in Fox Searchlight Pictures film Gifted, opposite Chris Evans, Jenny Slate, and Octavia Spencer. Her credits include the role of Gina in the action-hero pic, Spider-Man: Homecoming; as Stacy Chung in Twentieth Century Fox laugher, Keeping Up with the Joneses, opposite Gal Gadot, Zach Galifianakis, and Jon Hamm. Among her many television credits, Jona recurred as Natalie Wu on BET’s hit Being Mary Jane; and as female coder Julie Yang on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. When not on-set, Jona hits the field as a championship Quarterback on the women’s flag football international circuit.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
JONA: I was originally “Made in China,” and when I was really young, my family and I moved to Upstate New York, where we lived in a trailer while my father studied at Cornell.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I took a drama class when I was in middle school and we performed Rappinstilksin’, the rapping version of Rumpelstilksin. I fell in love with acting and LOVED being able to make people think and feel.
I think we live in a very divided world of us vs. them. Film and TV has such a powerful ability to show us new perspectives and increase empathy. That’s why I’ve committed myself to being an actor, to help in the fight for unity.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This is awkward…but here it goes: I was auditioning for a print job where they really stressed that person had to be ethnically Chinese. They even said, “Casting director is Chinese and will know if you are not Chinese.” Luckily, I’m 99% Chinese according to my 32 and me. When I walked into the audition room, the casting director looked at me and said, “You aren’t Chinese.”
I have never been told that in my life and was so surprised. I then said to her, “Actually, I am Chinese, I was born in China, and I speak Mandarin.” She just stared at me and I knew I wasn’t booking this job. And surprise-surprise, I didn’t.
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?
One of the early TV shows I worked on was FOX’s BONES and I was SO stoked to work with David Boreanaz. I had grown up watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel after all…
In addition to being a lead actor on Bones, David was also a producer, so having to juggle so many things on set. During our scene, he would say different dialogue than what was scripted which wouldn’t work with what I would say next. So, not knowing any better, I gave David the correct line and was so nervous afterwards that all through the lunch break, I was worried I was about to get fired. I didn’t, and also learned that there was a script supervisor on set that could’ve handled the lines situation.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am currently filming a popular action TV outside the country. I also play the antagonist Young Namaari in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.
I am also grateful to be playing the sweet yet edgy role of Daisy in Starz’s Hightown Season 2, coming out later this year.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Yes, keep in mind if you are trying hard to avoid failure, you are also avoiding success. The most successful people in the world have “failed” many times, but in all of their bios, it’s just focused on their wins and successes. So remember, no one will remember your failures, but if you are willing to be bold, put yourself out there, and fail, you’ll achieve those wins as well.
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?
Representation is so necessary. I’m so thrilled to be a part of Raya and the Last Dragon, which features a primarily Asian cast and introduces the world to the first southeast Asian Disney Princess. It’s so important that children and adults everywhere are able to see people that look like them in the media.
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. There’s nothing “broken” about any of us, we all have everything inside of us necessary to accomplish our goals, we just sometimes need help accessing those resources inside of ourselves.
When I was in college, I struggled with both a food addiction as well as gambling addiction. I saw myself as “broken” and was constantly looking for ways to “fix myself.” I ended up taking a class on NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and learned tried and true strategies to change behavior and thought patterns and it was SO empowering. It really helped me tap into the power I already had within myself.
If there’s something you want that you don’t have, it just means there’s something you don’t know. If I can do it, you can do it. If she can do it or he can do it, so can you. You have all the resources in side of yourself you need to succeed, sometimes the access is just cut off and it’s okay to ask for help and support. There are some great free resources for actors onwww.careeractivate.com
2. Care more about what you think and less about what others think.
3. I love sharing with actors what I see as the “Guaranteed Formula for Success”, and it’s as simple as ABC:
A= A-Game Mentality (staying persistent, not taking “rejection” personally, treating this business as a marathon and not a sprint)
B= Business Know How (understanding how to market yourself, how to partner with the right team to help you accelerate, networking, etc. that gets you the acting opportunities).
C= Craft (your training + talent).
I strongly believe that if you are strong in all 3, you are going to INEVITABLY find success.
For half of my childhood, I grew up in a trailer park in a tiny city in upstate New York. I was clueless about the business side of the industry, was scammed at age 12. Also, early on, I only focused on craft and training, which helped me really develop as an artist, but I didn’t have the business know how so really struggled to get reps, get consistent auditions, etc. I felt like acting was a very expensive hobby. Then, I started working on the business side of the industry (casting, producing, etc) and saw what the top 1% of working actors were doing and finally implemented those strategies myself, I started booking recognizable TV shows and films.
4. Stop caring so much about weight and looks.
I would sometimes obsess over my weight (especially when I would gain weight) and feel self-conscious in front of the camera. However, in reality, there wasn’t a correlation between weight gain and less acting roles. In fact, when I was at my heaviest weight, I actually booked more TV shows during that time than I had years previously.
5. “Put more eggs into one basket.”
One of my college professors years ago saw that I was trying to juggle different potential career paths (I was pursuing acting, an online dating startup company, management consulting, professional poker player, etc.) and told me to “put all my eggs in one basket.” This really resonated with me because what I realized was, I was doing all these different things because I was so afraid of failing so by trying different paths, I figured I had a better chance of succeeding at least one of them. But the opposite was true, I wasn’t truly investing effort into what I cared about the most. Since cutting out a lot of other potential career paths, I’ve been able to focus more on what matters the most and see results in my career much faster.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make sure you have passions outside of your chosen path. For me, I love playing flag football and being a quarterback has allowed me to improve my communication and leadership skills, as well as given me another outlet for stress relief.
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. 🙂
Somehow having people commit to practicing more empathy in our every day lives.
When dealing with people who do not share the same values or do not see eye-to-eye with you, the temptation is to be spiteful and angry and lash out. As with any disagreement, this approach rarely works and I always believe in leading by example. We can practice empathy without agreeing or condoning what someone is doing or what we see as a twisted perspective.
An example of this could be, rather than thinking “wow, this guy is an asshole,” you take a step back and ask yourself, “if he’s NOT actually an asshole, what else could this mean? Where could he be coming from that I can relate to or empathize with?
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?
I’m grateful to SO many people who have helped me personally and professionally throughout my life. Writer Adele Lim, who I worked with on Raya and the Last Dragon for several years, has been an amazingly positive influence in my life. She’s an incredible role model who has not only achieved tremendous success through working hard and overcoming a lot of adversity as an Asian woman in entertainment, but she’s incredibly humble and thoughtful and INCLUSIVE. I find that it’s very common in the business for people to want to be exclusive and very clique-y, and she is the opposite.
She’s exactly the type of leader we need in this world, championing for so many people whose voices aren’t heard and really elevating the representation of Asians in the media.
Also, when I was voicing various characters during the development stages of the movie, she was so complimentary and encouraging towards me, and it gave me a newfound sense of confidence in my work as an actor.
Also, I suspect she and some of the other creatives of the project really pulled for me to end up in the final version of the beautiful movie, and I’m SO grateful I got to voice Young Namaari.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky
One of my loved ones told me that my superpower in life is taking action. And I think this quote from Wayne Gretzy really encapsulates my mindset when it comes to taking bold action and putting myself out there.
Ironically, for both the current action TV show I’m filming right now, and for my role in Hightown, I had considered not auditioning for those roles because I initially thought, “wow, this role seems really far from me, I don’t think I’m what they are looking for.” But, I decided, “Ya know what, let me just have fun with it and just showcase my take on this role.” And I ended up booking both 😊
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. 🙂
Shonda Rhimes. Not only do I love the television shows she’s created, but love the boldness she lives life with. Her “Year of Yes” where she said yes to everything that scared her for an entire year is incredibly inspiring.
Fun fact, we both grew up in the Midwest and attended USC (Fight on!)
How can our readers follow you online?