Casting Jimmy Jean-Louis in the lead role of the Haitian revolutionist was a no-brainer to the producers of the French 2, two-part film Toussaint L’Ouverture. Born in Haiti to a poor family, and moving to France at the age of twelve, Jean-Louis ambition and talent persevered amidst struggling to find work as an artist in the streets of Paris. A fluent multi-linguist in French, Creole, English and Spanish, Jean-Louis is the Founder and President of Hollywood Unites for Haiti, a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to the aid of the citizens in Haiti (visit www.hufh.org for contribution info).
Jean-Louis started a career in film doing independent work in L.A. after having traveled throughout Europe as a successful model. In the past decade, he’s had significant supporting roles in Tears of the Sun, Derailed, Phat Girls and Monster-in-Law. More recently, Jean-Louis had prominent roles in the French comedy Coursier and in the Ghanaian drama Sinking Sands.
His upcoming roles include the Chris Rossi ensemble drama Lives of The Saints, alongside Meg Ryan, John Lithgow, Kat Dennings and Esai Morales. Jean-Louis also shared exclusively that he will be traveling to New York in a few weeks to shoot a film opposite Isaiah Washington. You should hear more about that project as soon as details are confirmed.
Toussaint L’Ouverture will make its stateside premiere at the Pan African Film Festival this month. Jean Louis will be honored on tribute night of the festival with the The Africa channel Diasporan Award on February 10th.
In our interview below, Jean-Louis talks about the challenges and pressure of embodying the revered Haitian leader on screen for the first time.
S&A: How did you become involved in the Toussaint L’Ouverture film?
JJL: I was simply contacted by the producer Angelou Moncheau and we organized a meeting in Martinique for the first time. Then we met again at the Cannes Film Festival and they offered me the part.
S&A: Did you audition?
JJL: No, I didn’t. They knew about my work and because of the character. he’s very, I should say, close to me in the sense of being Haitian, and the Toussaint L’Ouverture was a story that I knew very well. When the producers were looking for an actor to play the part, they spoke to a number of actors, but I think they also wanted an actor with a Haitian accent if possible. I speak the language.. French, Creole. They made me their obvious choice.
S&A: Did you feel any pressure to make sure you did a good job in the part?
JJL: I have to say it was very difficult because this is a movie that people have been trying to make for many, many years. I knew Danny Glover has been trying to do it for 15-20 years. I knew this movie would be the reference for years to come, so yes, there was some pressure.
S&A: How did you manage the pressure?
JJL: I think I was sort of ready for that you know? I’ve been dealing with pressure all life long. Coming from a very poor family in Haiti, moving to Paris, a new place, a new culture, a new language. I used that pressure to adapt, to do better than everyone else, and I moved around quite a bit as well.
S&A: How did you research L’Ouverture in order to embody the character on screen..look, mannerisms, etc.?
JJL: First of all, I had to do a lot of physical research and activities. I didn’t know how to ride a horse before. It took me a couple of months to become a good horse rider and then I needed to learn how to sword fight, and all those physical activities I had to be very precise with. So, that was on element of his personality. Then we’re dealing with someone that was first a slave, then free, then he became a governor. So with the different stages of life, is like playing four different characters. I just tried to be as precise as I could with every single character. In life, I also had many changes from growing up in a place where there’s no electricity and running water to doing what I’m doing now. I was pretty much forced to deal with many social classes. My own experience helped me to understand what his character was going through. I tried to use my life experiences to inject life into his character. At the same time, I had to make it his, because I had to forget about myself and try to understand his state of mind.
S&A: I’m sure that through your research you were able to have a better understanding for his motivations.
JJL: Yes, exactly. I researched him quite a bit. I watched a few documentaries, read a few books, spoke a lot about him to members of my family and with people in Haiti just to have a complete sense of what everyone knew of him. I can then make the best analysis on what to give to the audience.
It was challenging. When you are a man of power, your decisions affect so many people and sometimes it can appear to be extremely evil, when really you just have a specific goal to reach. I had to understand that state of mind because what was most important was the bigger goal not the smaller decisions. That part of it was complicated because he did things that maybe I don’t think I would agree with or like, but then when I put in the context of his life experience, I understood it a lot better. A black man in power, a black man in full costume on a horse. It’s such a remote image to us nowadays. When I analyzed him as a person, I think he was extremely fair; his fight was all for freedom. He didn’t want the blacks to be superior to the whites; that wasn’t his approach at all. He was just demanding the same kind of respect from all races, which is a fair fight; a fight everyone should go for.
S&A: Do you think people in Haiti are excited for this film as we are?
JJL: People in Haiti are waiting for the movie, definitely. They are extremely excited about it, but that excitement should come from everywhere. We essentially speak about the men that gave any Black country freedom for the first time; so, it’s not just a Haitian story. It is a black story as much as it is a part of the French story; It’s a global story.
S&A: Is it a full biopic of his life from birth to death, or does the film focus primarily on the years of the Haitian Revolution he led?
JJL: We focus a little bit on his childhood, but we concentrate more on the last 10 to 20 years of his life, from general to governor until he dies.
S&A: How was working with writer/director Phillipe Niang?
JJL: Phillipe embraced the movie like it was his baby. He knew the story so well, and also, the fact that I’m Haitian, I was able to help out with some of the details and nuances to make my character as realistic as possible. He was extremely open to feedback from me and from some of the other actors.
S&A: Overall, what can we expect from the film?
JJL: I think you will come out of it having a full feeling of having gone back into history; a real sense of who this man was; even though he remains extremely mysterious. To have a real sense of how the revolution happened as well. Ultimately, it’s well shot, well acted and considering it’s the first time for a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture, people will be very pleased. I know I am very happy about the end result.
S&A: Will people in Haiti be able to see it? Do you know how soon?
JJL: We are organizing a very special screening to the Haitian people, first to the officials of course and then to the people. Hopefully, it will become a tele-movie at the beginning of next year, which will mark the anniversary of Haiti’s independence.