November’s Ladybrille Man of the Month is none other than the inspiring, handsome, very talented and generous Hollywood based Haitian actor, Jimmy Jean-Louis. Ladybrille’s Shana Peete reports.
It was on the television series Heroes where I first learned Jimmy Jean-Louis’s name, but I knew I had seen that striking countenance before. After some digging, I learned that he had been the face of some heavy-hitting fashion houses including Gianfranco Ferre and Valentino. When he is not modeling or acting, he is hard at work with Hollywood Unites for Haiti, a nonprofit organization he started two years ago to bring attention to the beleaguered Caribbean nation he calls home. Earlier this year, the White House recognized his efforts, honoring Jean-Louis with a humanitarian award. The Cannes International Film Festival joined the chorus, awarding him its humanitarian award, which is to be presented to him by Sean Penn. From his hotel in Monaco, this Man of the Month fought off jetlag and the clock (it was nearly midnight in France) to talk with Ladybrille about his life and career.
Jimmy Jean Louis, Uncut
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Ladybrille.
Jimmy Jean-Louis (JJ): My pleasure.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are currently in Monaco, Where has your work taken you recently?
JJ: I have been in Cannes three to four weeks. I went to Paris this week to do another French movie. I came down to Monte Carlo, Monaco for a TV festival, and then I will return to Ghana to finish the movie I am working on.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Whew! That’s quite the schedule. Is there anything you can tell us about the movie you’re shooting in Ghana?
JJ: It’s a piece directed by Leila Djansi. It’s a psychological thriller between a couple—a relationship psychological thriller. We are shooting the whole movie in Ghana. It’s an American/Ghanaian project. The crew is American, while the cast and director are Ghanaian. There will be a theatrical release in the states of probably a 100-150 theaters.
LADYBRILLEmag: Do your travels inspire your work?
JJ: Definitely. That’s where I draw the most inspiration, from my life experience because I’ve traveled and I’ve lived in many countries—Paris, Spain, Italy, South Africa, and England. I am pretty comfy in a few countries and a few languages. In each place I got a different kind of experience, seeing different social classes from the poorest to the politicians to the richest people. That is how I go about embodying a character because somehow or another maybe I have met that character in my life.
LADYBRILLEmag: What was it like to grow up in Haiti?
JJ: Simple. Normal. Casual. My house did not have electricity or any running water. We made use of and got very comfortable in nature. Life was pretty nice, but we didn’t have too many worries. We may not have had everything we wanted, but at the same time I was very satisfied with what we had. We were able to create our own games instead of being fed what to do. It was pretty good for the mind.
LADYBRILLEmag: When did you leave Haiti?
JJ: I was twelve years old when I went straight to Paris. My mother had gone there working for a family as a maid. Eventually, she sent for us one by one. Over the course of seven years she brought, my sister, me, then my brother and father over. The adjustment was pretty harsh. I went there without any warning. I only knew the day before that I was going to France. Try to picture a kid living in a place where there’s barely electricity or running water and then you find yourself in one of the biggest capitals of the world with all the advanced technology that comes with it. I just felt completely lost. I managed to adjust by strength of character. You just take the experiences that come and try to do the best.
LADYBRILLEmag: Is that where acting came into play?
JJ: Yes, as a young man, I was pretty much homeless in Paris. I had to go out at night to find a place to sleep. That was when I started hanging with artists. Unfortunately, as a Black man in Paris, you don’t have too many opportunities. Now, that was when I was there. Maybe now, there is change in some areas, but I don’t think there has been much change in [the] film [business].
LADYBRILLEmag: Are you close with your family and are they proud of your success?
JJ: Very close. Yes of course, they are proud but we are all extremely realistic in the sense that it is what it is now, but tomorrow everything could change. They are proud of my bringing good things to the [family] name.
LADYBRILLEmag: Is it true you were discovered at a nightclub?
JJ: That’s a big word “discovered” but I guess you could say that in a way. From a nightclub in Paris, I was cast in a Coca cola commercial.
LADYBRILLEmag: So you parlayed your dancing skills into a modeling career?
JJ: From that commercial, I realized that the money wasn’t bad at all. Based on that, I figured I needed to have one, two, or three modeling or acting jobs a year, and I’d be set. Getting that job inspired me to keep on modeling dancing or acting. Then, I got no work for another year [laughing].
LADYBRILLEmag: [Laughing] So after your big Aha! moment…nothing?
JJ: Oh yeah, it’s always like that. Just when you think you’ve arrived… But, it was still good. It gave me hope and inspiration to keep fighting.
LADYBRILLEmag: When nothing else came your way, how did you know acting was for you?
JJ: I didn’t know acting was for me. I just followed my inspiration, my heart, my spirit. When nothing came through in Paris, I decided to pack my bags and move to Barcelona.
LADYBRILLEmag: You appeared in La Belle Epoque in Spain, right?
JJ: Indeed. It was musical theater.
LADYBRILLEmag: You have vocal talent as well?
JJ: [Laughing] I can get by. I would come up with enough to make a living. It was more about expression, learning to dance, and moving my body. I did that for about 2 yrs in Spain. Then I was in South Africa for a couple of years, London for a couple of years, and now LA.
LADYBRILLEmag: Looking back do you find that the importance of your work transcends these national boundaries?
JJ: On some level, yes. Slowly I am starting to realize that. I take a little of my experience in the work that I do and because I have had a little success, I think I am aware or wise enough to take that success into many depressed places and many markets. Why not take my success in Hollywood to France, Africa. Asia , India, the islands?
LADYBRILLEmag: Do you think you’ve opened the door to the next generation
JJ: It gives hope to next generation to know that [my] story is possible. It stops us from putting limitations on ourselves and our possibilities.
LADYBRILLEmag: That brings up an interesting point. Have you dealt with self-doubt in your life and career?
JJ: The nature of the career is all about doubt. You are never 100 per cent sure about what you’re doing no matter how successful you are. But at the same time you still have to do what you believe is right. You have to persevere.
LADYBRILLEmag: Are you confident in your abilities as an actor?
JJ: Yes. I definitely feel confident right now. Because of the fact that I came from pretty much nothing and when given a chance, I have been able to use it and bring something to the table. Much more than people thought I could bring. It’s because I have been able to mix with all types of cultures and that produced something different. I have realized that I DO have something special. It’s not an accident.
LADYBRILLEmag: What do you consider your life’s work?
JJ: I don’t know. I am someone who is stuck in the present and doing that as well as possible. And I take that into the future—whatever that future might be. For example, I have played a Haitian Hero on TV. That makes me play the role in real life. It puts you on the spot. You ask yourself “What are you going to do with it?” Do you shy away from it? Turn your back? Or do you take full responsibility and face the monster. I face the monster by following what I believe is right. One action defines the next one. I don’t know what is going to happen or why I am doing what I am doing; I just do what I believe is right and what my heart tells me to do.
LADYBRILLE: Who is your biggest influence to know the difference between right and wrong?
JJ: Myself. You know, you feel it. At the same time, I would say my family. They were not privileged but they installed [in me] a basic respect for others.
LADYBRILLE: You have worked tirelessly to improve the lives of other Hatians back home even before the earthquake?
LADYBRILLE: Why do you feel it’s important to do this?
JJ: I am in a position to help. I have put a face on Haiti. That is a pretty big responsibility. If I choose to do the right thing, I can encourage others. If I can be the ambassador to Haiti or represent the face of this struggling country in need of desperate help, then yes I’ll do it. I’ll speak up. I’ll scream.
LADYBRILLE: Do you have a lot of family in Haiti? Were they affected by the quake?
JJ: My mom, dad, and most of my family are still there. I still have a lot of property there, too. My parents were okay after the quake. But we lost my house, my parents’ house, my sister’s house. We lost some extended family and friends.
LADYBRILLE: I am sorry to hear that. How have you all been able to move forward?
JJ: It’s the only thing we can do. That’s life. You move forward. You find strength and a way to move forward. It’s difficult. It’s painful to see your own country in such a situation.
LADYBRILLE: How has the work you’ve done in Haiti since January affected you as a person?
JJ: I had to stop everything to go back home. I started Hollywood Unites for Haiti about two years ago and it is actually in the country–Haiti. At the same time, we just had to keep working. How did it affect me personally and professionally? I don’t know. I didn’t think too much. I just reacted. I needed to connect with the country and help as many people as I could. I needed to speak out about the country. I tried to mobilize and centralize people since the earthquake. I will keep doing it till people understand that Haiti will need help for ten, fifteen, twenty years to come in dealing with the effects of the earthquake.
LADYBRILLE: You’ve been very successful in getting others in Hollywood involved in Hollywood Unites for Haiti and your cause. Does that make you proud?
JJ: Yes, its good to know that you are moving forward. But I always remember there are more things to do. It is a step-by-step process. You do what you do now and a year later you see that what you have done was great. And you aspire to keep doing it. That is what we want to do.
LADYBRILLE: Tell me about the humanitarian award you received at the White House.
JJ: It was great. It was great. It was during the Haitian Flag Day. A couple of weeks before that, they called to see if I was interested in receiving the award at the White House. I was like “Heck yeah!” [laughing]. How many times am I going to be invited to the White House and given an award? It was sensational. Being at the White House was extremely special, though the reason behind getting the award still makes my heart bleed. But, it was so nice to be recognized for the work we had done.
LADYBRILLE: Without looking too far ahead because I know you don’t like to do that, what other things can we expect from you in the near future?
JJ: I shot a documentary in Haiti about the earthquake. We are in the process of editing it. I hope that should come out soon. I am working on a few big projects in the months to come and in a few months we hope to see the results. The Ghanaian and French films I mentioned. I am working on a few big humanitarian projects in the months to come. It is keeping me busy. I hope to see the results in the next few months.
LADYBRILLE: Do you identify with Black cultures all over the world?
JJ: Personally yes, I am a lucky one who can identify with all Black cultures because of my life experiences. I feel a kinship with Black people from the Caribbean, Africa and its many cultures, Europe, which is full Africans from all over the continent, and Black Americans in my twelve years in America. Recently, I was reflecting on the same thing. I was able to play a French [person] in France, a Ghanaian in Ghana (Sinking Sands), a Nigerian in Nigeria (Phat Girlz), Guadalupean in Guadalupe, a Haitian in Haiti. It demonstrates how I can identify with one culture to the next.
LADYBRILLE: I am so excited that you will be our Man of the Month . . . !
JJ: I am glad to be part of what our brothers and sister are doing all over the world. That is the reason I am connecting with filmmakers in Ghana, Nigeria, all over Africa. We Black people who have a bit of power have to go back to reconnect with the homeland to share, to give strength, and help in many areas. And as far as the movie business is concerned Nigeria is third biggest in film production behind Hollywood and India. But the quality is an area for improvement. If we do, we change lives of thousands.
LADYBRILLE: But in America, while the films may appear to be of a higher quality, Black people are not telling our own stories so much of the time. It seems that we lack the…
JJ: Depth, yes.
LADYBRILLE: Do you think that Nigerian films have the upper hand there?
JJ: Not yet. The depth is not there yet, and that is why we need to collaborate on both sides to improve and strengthen [ourselves].
LADYBRILLE: Perhaps in a few years that is what we’ll say about you? That you bridged the gap between the African and American film industries.
JJ: Hopefully. That is the goal. We are hoping to get more exposure in the festivals and exposure in the States and we can see more of what the filmmakers are doing in Africa.