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There are a lot of breakout performances in Chris Kelly’s directorial debut “Other People,” from Kelly himself, who wrote and directed the film, based on experiences from his own family life (and somehow managed to do it while also writing on “Saturday Night Live”) to Molly Shannon, who plays a wife and mother grappling with her fast-moving cancer and the knowledge she probably can’t fight it, to Jesse Plemons, who plays a struggling young comedy writer who must deal with his beloved mom’s impending death.
But amidst all these heavy themes and performances, there are often well-timed splashes of comedy (hello, “SNL”) and the shining light of 15-year-old JJ Totah, who explodes off the screen and delivers the film’s most purely comedic — and purely joyful — sequence. As Justin, the younger brother of a friend of Plemons’ character, Totah provides levity during some of the film’s darkest moments, while also providing David (Plemons) with a keen lesson on how to embrace your own individuality.
Totah has been working in the industry since he was 11, racking up roles on series like “Glee” and “Back in the Game,” and he’s now poised to turn his charms onto the big screen. With “Other People,” which opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival, finally hitting the big screen, Totah’s busy promoting the film and prepping for his biggest production yet: In an as-yet-unnamed role in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
IndieWire recently got on the phone with (a very peppy) Totah to chat about being a morning person, how he knew he wanted to be a performer and what we can expect to see from his big superhero turn (and, yes, he’s charmingly tight-lipped about it). Check out Totah in his own words below.
I am an old person, so I wake up early and I like to go to bed early. I am such a morning person, I’ll wake up in the morning and be like, “Hello! It’s 5 in the morning! Are you ready to get on our plane?” I could wake up at any time of the day and be ready to party. I can’t get more than seven hours of sleep, that’s not me.
I saw my sister in this production of “Whistle Down the Wind” — my sister was a really big theater kid — and when I saw her do that, I was so obsessed. Those were like my first words, I was singing along to the songs. From that point on, I did theater, and then I got into acting in film and television.
My family is so loving and so encouraging. Ever since I was little, it was implanted in my head — and my sister’s and my brother’s — that we could do anything our heart desired to do, and to not be afraid. We were able to explore reasonable option that we all wanted to explore. Our parents really, really helped us and gave us the opportunities to explore what we all love.
My entire family, we were obsessed with “Glee,” so when I got an audition, I was freaking out. But I knew exactly what to do, I had watched the show so many times. I knew what to do. It was so right. And then I went to the audition, and we had to learn a dance and then we had to sing two songs. I think I messed up on one of the songs, but I kept on going. That experience was so amazing.
On “Glee,” everyone was supposed to be teenagers, but they were all thirty or in their twenties. So it was really odd for me, because I was actually playing my age and no one else was playing their age.
In Chris’ mind, for whatever reason, he thinks I showed up late to the audition because I was designing my home. But I know for a fact that I have never shown up late to an audition. Wthin the five years I have worked in this industry, I have never been late one time, so I have no idea why he thinks that. But he tells that story every time. [Laughs] I was interior designing my home.
There was a foreign exchange student that stayed with [Chris’] best friend in real life, and that foreign exchange student performed an entire show [for them]. We were trying to base [my dance sequence] off that. It ended up turning out really well.
I think it’s really awesome and kind of scary [to make this film], and we all tried to portray the story Chris is trying to tell. The film is loosely based on his life — I think it’s really based on his life, but he says “loosely” — so it’s scary, you want to tell the right story. We want to get it right.
When we went to Sundance, that was the first time we all saw it together. We all laughed and cried.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” has an amazing cast and crew. Everyone is so nice. Tom Holland is such a good Spider-Man. I think Zendaya is so right for it.
I’m crazy about the ability to not feel like you’re alone with social media. What I’m crazy about is how you can feel like you’re welcomed into a community. Your outside, mobile life, you can feel alone, so [social media] is awesome [for that].
I would love to do a network television show, a half-hour comedy. That’s something I’d love to do.
“Other People” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 9.