After speaking to J.J. Totah, it’s almost hard to believe that his career in the entertainment industry began about five years ago. The young actor speaks with the intelligence and observation of veteran actors three times his age. In fact, his resume is comparable to those as well.
In the beginning of his career, J.J. starred in various shorts before moving into television. He starred in recurring roles on popular series’ like FOX’s “Glee” and Disney Channel’s “Jessie”. It was last summer when J.J. was able to turn his attention to film.
J.J.’s first film Other People, written and directed by Chris Kelly, has been the talk of the town since its premiere at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film follows a gay comedy writer [Jesse Plemons] who returns home to be with his mother [Molly Shannon] after a health crisis.
“It’s been awesome! It’s been so cool,” J.J. says of the praise following the film. “It’s my first film that I did, which is insane because I’ve been primarily doing television the past five-ish years and then I finally did this film. So, it’s just been insane. Already the first film that I’ve been a part of is having such great feedback.”
Chris Kelly won the audience award for Best Narrative Feature at the recent Nantucket Film Festival and J.J. has continued to wow audiences with his performance.
When Deadline referred to J.J. as a “breakout star” and Vulture called his performance “star-making”, the only thing he had to say was that it was insane.
Dubbed as a “scene stealer” by audiences and critics alike, J.J. says, “I wasn’t expecting that at all!” He recalls going to the festival just to have fun and see the film. “Everyone in that movie are award-winning actors. Like Molly Shannon is so awesome and Jesse Plemons,” J.J. breaks for a minute to gush how he was in “Friday Night Lights”, “Breaking Bad”, and, as J.J. says, so many awesome and really cool shows. “I was just looking up to them! I was just like, ‘Thank you so much! But they’re really amazing!’”
Though J.J.’s scenes are few in the film, his talent shines through to make them memorable. That also might have to do with the unique set-up that accompanied his filming process for the movie.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says. “I had been filming another film throughout the summer,” he explains, the second film he’s done, “so they had to fit my schedule and had to squeeze it into one day or I wasn’t going to be able to shoot the film.” The talented actor recalls how the crew shot all of his scenes in one day in the desert. “My scenes were with John Early [Gabe in the film] and Jesse Plemons. And they were so nice but it was so dang hot that I almost died.” J.J. remembers the day being well over one hundred degrees and that they weren’t able to use air conditioning. “And I had to do dancing over and over again for like five hours straight! It was literally insane.”
But J.J. didn’t leave the film with a bad taste in his mouth. He still thoroughly enjoyed his time, albeit short, on set. And he especially enjoyed taking on his character Justin.
“My character is basically someone that’s a beacon for people who just want to express themselves and not have to label themselves,” J.J. says of his character. “Justin doesn’t label himself as far as gender or sexual orientation – he just does what he wants to do, [he] just has fun. It’s really freeing to see that and I think a lot of people will have a lot of fun watching it.”
A lot of what audiences will see on-screen of Justin, when the film hits select theaters on September 9th, came from J.J. himself.
“Originally in the script, Chris [Kelly] had written that my character Justin was obsessed with Celine Dion,” the teen says. His enthusiasm for this fact didn’t live up to the director’s expectations who then told J.J. that they could change that. At first, he politely declined, allowing Chris to have his creative control on the character, but the director insisted, asking J.J. if he liked the world renowned Canadian singer. J.J. had responded with, “‘Well I mean, I’ll listen once and a while to like ‘My Heart Will Go On’ but like, you know, not very much.’” Chris, satisfied with J.J.’s honesty, simply said okay and that they’ll change that.
Pleasantly surprised and pleased with this development, J.J. told Teenplicity that he incorporated the one thing he was obsessed with at the time into his character instead.
“The one thing I was really obsessed with at the time, because I was renovating my house, was a marble,” he explains with a small laugh. “And this is so odd, it’s called ‘Carrera Marble’, and it’s a marble that I just put everywhere in my home. And I talked to [Chris] about it and so we incorporated that.” J.J. cites this as one of the biggest aspects he worked into his character, before adding, “The name!”
J.J. tells the story of how in a Disney pilot, his character was the nickname of his cousin Justin, whom commented on that fact. “I wanted to annoy [my cousin] even more and made my next character his actual name!” he laughs.
Other People has a strong focus on family, which is why J.J. believes that audiences will be able to relate to the story. He adds that though it is a sad movie, Other People is, “Outrageously funny and will make you literally laugh out loud in the theater.” Audiences and critics across the film festival circuit that the movie has been shown at are great testaments to this statement.
“Our storyline is a really awesome storyline,” the actor gushes. “It’s about acceptance and how a family comes together in these crisis’. And I think a lot of people just relate to it and they’ll take away that, you know, life is too short to not be who you truly are, and accept your family and spend time with your family. That’s what you really should be doing every day – spending time with people you love.”
The teen’s talents aren’t limited to what is in front of the camera. J.J.’s enthusiasm jumps through the phone as he says he wants to do everything!
“I feel I’m interested in all aspects [of the entertainment industry]. I’m actually writing right now,” he spills. He says in further detail, “[I’m] working with people with scripts that I’ve written and making them into projects that I’m hoping to come out very soon. So it’s really awesome that in this industry, you get to play around in a whole lot of stuff. I don’t get bored!” J.J. reveals that if one morning he’s been reading a lot of scripts, he’ll decide to switch it up and write one instead.
Perhaps it’s his passion and talent with the pen that has given J.J. a new skill in perceiving which scripts are the best ones for him.
“Being an actor in this industry, the worst part of it is falling in love with a script,” J.J. says, admitting he does so often. “Like every time I get a script, whether it’s funny or sad, I will cry when I read it because I think it’s amazing; I’ll cry because, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing, I want to be a part of it!’ And then falling in love with a script and dreaming about the script.”
But the actor dishes that one of the things he’s learned about himself in the past year is the ability to break down a story, fall in love with a script, and learning when to put a script down, accepting that it might not be for him.
“I think just falling in love with scripts is the hardest part and it’s also what you’re supposed to do as an actor – fall in love with the screenplay and the story and be able to portray that story,” he explains. Getting past it, and learning when a part is best for him or not, is something he takes pride in learning.
“I never get usually upset over missing out on a project or something because it’s not right for you, but it’s always, ‘Such great scripts’ and ‘Gosh, I could totally see myself doing this!’ So learning to be like, ‘Nope, this is not it but a better one will come,’” is what he’s gained.
For all the talent, shining personality, and creative juices just overflowing from J.J., it’s hard for him to think up a dream role.
“Oh, that’s so hard!” he exclaims with a laugh when Teenplicity asked him to describe it. “I don’t think I know what my dream role is yet.” He pauses for a moment as he thinks of what to say. “[My dream role is] something that will touch all of my skills and all of my capabilities, and something that is definitely different and out there and unique but also that can show a range of emotions.” He laughs as he apologizes. “I don’t know; I’m speaking very vaguely. I just want something that’s going to challenge me. As an actor, that’s what you want – to be challenged.”
His dream role might just end up being as part of the Spider-Man reboot movie series. Just days prior to his interview with Teenplicity, it had been announced that J.J. signed on to join the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming¸ already heralding the names of Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Robert Downey Jr. to name a few.
“It was a very lengthy process, and so amazing!” says J.J. of getting a role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. “I’m so happy and honored that I get to be a part of such an awesome film.”
As with most things Marvel, most the film so far has been kept entirely under wraps; it took months for the company to confirm Zendaya’s role of Mary Jane in the movie. While J.J.’s lips are sealed, he does say, “I can tell you that I met with the director in January and over the course of six months, after those six months, I found out that I was going [to be a part of it], so it was very lengthy.”
Three days before getting the call, he remembers being told that he was going to get an offer soon. He recalls saying, “What? That’s insane! So am I getting an offer?”, to which his team replied, “Oh, well we don’t know for sure but we think you’re going to.”
J.J. says that three days later, he waited all of Monday to receive a call but to no avail. It wasn’t until he was sitting next to his best friend Sarah watching television, sometime after five, that he got a phone call that said he was doing it. “It was amazing! I freaked out! I screamed for like ten minutes. It was just insane.”
While fans will have to wait at least another year to see him in Spider-Man: Homecoming, J.J. has no shortage of projects coming their way.
“I think [fans] can expect projects, hopefully, that I’ve started from the ground up,” the actor says of what’s to come for the remainder of 2016. “I’m working on something right now and I really hope that people get to see it. And it should be an awesome thing and something that everyone will hopefully want to see finished.” He comments that his whole heart has been put into it.
In addition, J.J. says that fans will get to see his second film Time Toys. “We’re still working on distribution and finding out where it’s going to be exactly but it will be coming out.” That’s not all. His next project, a Netflix film called Handsome, is due out on the streaming service in December. “Hopefully [fans] get to see all that stuff so I’m excited.” Other People was also bought by Netflix and should be available to watch soon.
The excitement that exudes from J.J. as he talks about what his fans can expect does not stop and eventually translates to the topic of their support.
If he had one thing to say to them, he’d thank his fans. “I love them all so much.” J.J. reveals that although he has a support system with his far, he didn’t have a lot of friends. “And I think all the people that follow me, I don’t really think of them as fans – I think of them as my family and friends.” So much so in fact that J.J. talks about how when he sees some of them at Disneyland, they’ll go on rides together, amongst the other adventures he embarks on with fans. His happiness is so clear in his voice as he can’t stop expressing his adoration. “I just love them so much, “ he says, before speaking directly to his fans. “Thank you so much for supporting me and letting me do what I love.”
Before the call ends, J.J. says, so sincerely and with so much love, “I hope I can help them do what they love one day too.”
Other People is out in select theaters starting September 9th.
*ABOVE PHOTO CREDIT TO LUKE FONTANA