It takes more than raw talent to make it in today’s entertainment industry. The recipe for success calls for hard work, determination, unrelenting drive and a sprinkle of luck. Most of all, it takes a passion to create. A first generation Chinese-American actress, Jona Xiao caught the acting bug early in life and has been working toward making her dreams reality ever since! From comedy to drama, she can do it all and continues to turn the heads of fans and Hollywood decision-makers alike! Instantly recognizable from her scene stealing role as Julie Yang on AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” this vivacious beauty is now taking her considerable talents to the big screen. She will next be seen flexing her comedic might in 20th Century Fox’s “Keeping Up with the Joneses” opposite Zach Galifianakis and Jon Hamm, slated for release on October 21, 2016. Most notably, it was recently announced that she had joined the all-star cast of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Guaranteed to be one of the biggest event films of 2017, the story focuses on a young Peter Parker as he begins to navigate his newfound identity as the world famous web-slinging hero. With so many irons in the fire, she shows no signs of slowing down as her star continues to rise! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jona Xiao to discuss her unique career path, her upcoming roles, the challenges she has faced along the way and much more!
Jona, it’s great to speak with you. You have so much going on! Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get involved with the arts?
Well, when I was 12 years old I was forced to take a drama class in middle school. Our class did a rapping version of Rumpelstiltskin called “Rapinstiltskin.” It was a comedy and somehow I ended up playing the female lead in the production. That soon became my favorite time of day with drama class and rehearsal. When we perform, just making the people feel and hearing the people laugh was the best thing. It just felt amazing and I knew it was something I wanted to do for a very, very long time. I knew it was something I wanted to do professionally someday. That’s how it all began!
Was there a moment, later on, where you decided to follow that dream you had at 12 years old?
It was shortly after that, maybe six or eight months later, when I heard a radio ad about getting an agent. Unfortunately, it was one of those scams that didn’t go well! But I had made the decision to want to do this professionally, at a pretty young age, so I knew I wanted to get out there at some point and do some television and film.
Were there reservations about taking the plunge and going full steam ahead?
For me, not really. For my parents, absolutely! [laughs] Being young, I wasn’t much older than 12, I thought it was all really fun. I was also always really stubborn too! I would get into arguments with my parents about all sorts of things from my messiness to my career. My parents are very traditional Asian parents. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. I know it’s because they wanted me to have a good life and a stable life. So, they were really scared of me going into acting. I remember my dad at one point saying, “The thing is there aren’t any Asian actors. There is only Lucy Liu. If you were white, maybe I would support you!” At the time there weren’t that many but there was Lucy Liu! [laughs] I thought, “If someone can do it, why can’t I?” I think that’s been a really helpful mentality that I’ve had throughout the years I have been acting. Why can’t anyone become what it is they want if they are willing to put in the work that it takes to do it?
Did you have anybody behind the scenes giving you the extra push when you needed it?
That’s a great question. I actually studied the business side of the industry and I actually started working on the business side. I worked in the casting agency and producing side of it, so I really got to learn and understand the business side, which was helpful because I had been so clueless early on and was scammed because I didn’t know so much. I think a lot of the mentorship I received was from working on that side of the business, as well as managers and agents that I’ve had over the years who have been really supportive and great teammates. I think that has been really helpful.
Who inspired you over the years?
Currently, I really respect the things that people like Constance Wu are doing. She’s being so vocal and using her success and her platform as a way to talk about issues around Asian Americans and the film and TV industry. That is something that very much inspires me. As I mentioned about growing up, seeing someone like Lucy Liu or Jackie Chan, who had my skin color on television and in film, was really inspiring for me. When it came to my family, their friends and their kids, none of them wanted to be artists or actors. They had different interests and I was kind of the oddball. Just seeing that it was possible was very inspiring to me.
You have a tremendous amount of great stuff happening at the moment. Let’s start with your role on AMC’s “Halt & Catch Fire.” What can you tell us about being a part of that project?
It was a great project to be apart of. I shot about half the season on the show, which was season three. The series is set in the 1980s during the computer boom. There are a lot of different storylines and things going on with the show. I play a character named Julie Yang, who is the first female coder to join Team Mutiny, so she is a woman among men. [laughs] She has to be tough and hold her own, which she does! It was so much fun because of all the ridiculous things I do and say! I remember one of the first episodes I appear in, there is a brawl at the office because me and some other people are newcomers to the team and we are not getting along with the other coders. There’s a fight that is about to break out and I decide to go in throwing punches and accidentally punch my boss! [laughs] As a character she is very strong, doesn’t want to be a pushover and can hold her own. I say so many crazy things and deliver all sorts of ridiculous insults! It’s been a really fun character to play and everyone is welcoming. I felt like it was a family on set!
What did you bring to this character that wasn’t on the written page?
When I first auditioned for the part, there wasn’t as much physical action written. I feel very comfortable with doing physical comedy with what I call awkward confidence! [laughs] By that I mean I will say things or be completely ridiculous but I do with such conviction and an attitude of, “This is the way it should be!” I think that quality really supported the storyline and is part of the reason I was brought onto the show because that really helped support what the writers intent was. So, I would definitely say the physical comedy and awkward confidence is what I brought to the character! [laughs]
You will also hit the big screen in “Keeping Up With The Joneses” opposite Zach Galifianakis and Jon Hamm. What can you tell us about the film?
“Keeping Up With The Joneses” is an action-comedy. I was just at the premiere this past weekend and it was the first time I had seen the completed film! I was laughing out loud at the screening so many times. It really took me by surprise! The cool thing about it is that there are funny moments and then dramatic moments and then BOOM! — action and gunshots! [laughs] It was a total roller coaster of emotion! The movie is a really fun and entertaining time with some good heart to it, so I am really proud to be a part of that project!
The movie has a great cast. Did you pick up anything from watching these other people work? You seem like the type of person who always has their eyes open and is taking it all in!
I do! I love to call myself a learn-it-all as opposed to a know-it-all! I’m always soaking in what I’m seeing! There are so many actors that I got the opportunity to work with and who I respect so much. One of the things I noticed was that Zach Galifianakis would never stop. The director, Greg Mottola, was so great about letting us improv afterwards. Zack was one person where you could just keep the camera rolling forever because he would always have more things he could add to continue the scene! I think he that it was great that he was always on his toes and he didn’t stop at the scripted ending of the scene. If there was more left to pursue or explore, then he would! I thought that was really cool that he did that. Everyone was so committed to being part of the project and making it really great! For instance, Jon Hamm, I actually helped him a little bit with his Mandarin since he has a few lines in Mandarin throughout the film. I was coaching him on that side and he kept practicing and practicing. He would keep asking if a certain line sounded OK. He took it so seriously in wanting to make sure he did the best job he could with the limited time he had to learn Chinese. I was very impressed by that!
What can you tell us about your role in “Gifted” with Chris Evans, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer?
“Gifted” is about this very young prodigy who’s a whiz at math. She is the daughter of Chris Evans’ character. The film is about how she is portrayed to the world. Does she live a normal life or does she stand out and possibly encounter the issues that come with standing out, especially as a kid, and the dangers that can be involved. It was very much a drama and I play an MIT student who, without giving away too much of the plot, stands up for what I believe is right and kind of question authority. I play a character named Lijuan. That film is coming out in April of next year!
The biggest news came when you were cast in the highly anticipated film, “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” How did this role come about?
My agents and managers have been absolutely incredible! This film was an opportunity that definitely came through them. I’ll addition for it and then was very surprised to find out that I had booked it! There are some auditions you feel really good about and some that you feel really awful about. The audition for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” I felt was okay! I was like, “Well, that wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. I didn’t embarrass myself!” [laughs] I was really surprised to find out that I guess it went way better than I thought! I can’t say who but, I guess, one of my favorite actors was actually involved in selecting me for the role! That added a whole other level of, “Holy crap! That’s amazing!” And a lot of gratitude as well! I can’t disclose anything about my role or the storyline but what I can say is if anyone has seen “Captain America: Civil War,” that is the version of Spider-Man that you get to see in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” I think a lot of fans will get to see some recognizable pieces and story components from the cannon, along with a lot of surprises that Sony and Marvel threw in the mix. I think those surprises will impact audiences in a good way!
Did you encounter challenges with that role?
I was very lucky in that I don’t feel that I encountered too many challenges while filming. The whole project was very secretive in terms of the information that would come out. We would get the call sheets in the trailer at the start of filming each day and then would return them at the end of the day. That part was an interesting adjustment in not having things electronically sent to me. It was really different! Even with things like lines, it would be through the phone and being told shortly ahead of time. That was definitely a surprise but not something I would say was a big obstacle.
Were you a fan of comic book culture before you joined the cast of the film? In a way, it’s kind of hard not to be these days!
Yeah! I was never super into the comics but I always loved superhero movies of all types, along with the action movies. From age 7 to 12 or so, I wished for superpowers for every birthday! [laughs] I didn’t care what kind of superpowers, I just wanted superpowers! Before I wanted to be an actress, I saw Belinda The First Lady of Magic in Chicago with my family. I thought that type of stage magic was real so for a while I wanted to be The Second Lady of Magic! [laughs] There’s always been something appealing to me about being able to help people using unique gifts. I think that’s what has always drawn me to the superhero genre!
You have done comedy, action and drama. What’s the role you are most eager to tackle in the short-term?
There’s two and they are pretty different. I love comedy and drama, but I feel comedy comes a little bit easier for me. I’m going to be on BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” which is a dramedy and my character is more fun-loving and comedic. The first dream role for me would be being a series regular on a multi-cam sitcom where I placed someone who seems to have everything together but my life is a total shit show! [laughs] It would be this fun ridiculous character who tries to keep it all together and fails miserably. I think that type of character is someone I relate to personally on many levels. Sometimes I feel people have this perception of me that I have it together. Sometimes I do but sometimes I definitely don’t! [laughs] That would be fun! Several that I would love to do is a project similar to “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of The Rings” that is set in the fantasy genre. I would love to play a kick ass character in a show like that!
You have seen the world of entertainment from both sides. Do you see yourself branching out in the future in a writing or directing capacity?
I personally feel that I am a terrible creative writer! [laughs] I do think anything can be learned by anyone as long as you learn the tools, strategies and get the support from people you need. I did direct one time. I directed a friends web series and it was really challenging. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not cut out to be a director!” I think if I were to pursue writing or directing it would be in the future, not within the next few years. On the producing side, I have produced here and there. I produced a feature that actually did a lot better than we were all expecting. We had some nice distribution and the film was called “A Beer Tale.” It was a bro-mantic comedy I helped produce years ago. That was a fun process and an interesting journey, so it’s something I would consider doing again in the future if I were to branch out in another area.
How have you evolved as an artist since starting out and what are best lessons we can take from your journey?
I’ve always been a very independent person. I always felt that I had to rely on myself and not other people when it comes to my career because when I started off my parents were very much against me being in the entertainment industry at all. I think that’s the mindset I had going in and that if something was going to happen I had to make it happen. I have a very hard work ethic, so I think that helped to a certain extent. There is a quote that says “successful people do it themselves but never alone.” I think my evolution as an actor has been asking for help, being willing to seek help from other people and to trust my agent, manager, coaches I’ve had, acting teachers, peers and friends. I have won so much from so many different people and having that support network has been tremendous for me. I think that has been a big shift. I’ve realized that this journey that I’m on has so much more meaning because I have so many more people I get to share it with and I’m really grateful they have been part of my journey. That has been a definite shift for me. Another thing that stands out to me, and maybe I got this from my Julie Ying on “Halt and Catch Fire,” is this kind of fuck it mentality. I have a friend, Angelica, who recently booked a series regular on a new show. She said, “Before going out the door for an audition, I imagine pouring a cup of fuck it into my coffee or bottle of water and chugging that thing!” [laughs] She said, “I don’t need to be in my head. I just need to have fun and entertain. If it goes well, great! If it doesn’t it wasn’t meant for me.” I think it has been helpful for me to adopt her philosophy. I actually got cups of fuck it made where it literally says, “Fuck it!” [laughs] To have the freedom and remind myself that this is fun has been amazing. If I’m really, really stressed and desperately wanting this audition to go well, it’s never going to go the way I want it to! No one will be having fun! It’s going to be painful for me and everyone watching! So, I think that philosophy has been really freeing for me as an artist. There’s no right or wrong so I might as well do what I want to do and have fun with it. If someone wants it to be adjusted, they will let me know but playing it safe rarely ever works, I find.
I think a lot of that speaks to the second part of your question about what can be learned from my journey. Asking for help is a big part of what I’ve learned. If there is something you don’t know, ask someone or Google it! [laughs] Just find a way to learn how to do it or how someone else did it. I think that’s one thing coupled with the fuck it mentality. If you don’t like to curse, it’s whatever works for you! Whatever helps you be free and acting in spite of fear! Even when I’m scared I find new ways to challenge myself because everything that you want is on the other side of your comfort zone. If you’re always living in your comfort zone you’re never going to achieve the results you haven’t in the past and you will just keep staying in the spot you’re in right now. That will really stunt your growth. I think those are the things I’ve been developing.
I always like to ask if you’re involved with charity work or important causes we can shine a light on.
Sure! For a few years now I’ve been supporting causes relating to Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve had people close to me in my life that had Alzheimer’s and have gone through that terrible illness. For a few years now I’ve played in a charity flag football tournament. It’s an all women’s tournament for the Alzheimer’s Association. That is something that has been very important to me. Supporting that cause has been a part of who I am for a few years now!
We will definitely help spread the word on that and everything you have going on! Thanks so much for your time today. You’ve been amazing and I’m sure we will talk again in the future!
Absolutely! Thank you so much, Jason!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.