Getting spoilers on a new Marvel movie is about as easy as holding an infinity stone. Just ask Jona Xiao’s friends, who still couldn’t get any details from her even after four shots at the bar.
The actress has landed a role in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming alongside Tom Holland, Zendaya and Michael Keaton. As someone who used every birthday wish hoping for superpowers, this is a dream come true. Since landing the role, Xiao says her life has intersected with the web-slinging hero in unexpected ways. And, in her latest film Keeping Up with the Joneses, Xiao collided with the DC Universe, working with Wonder Woman herself.
During a recent phone interview, Xiao and I discussed what to expect in Jon Watts’ imagining of Spider-Man, what kind of characters she likes to play and how an occasional cup of “fuck it” helps her through life.
You’re in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which has been very secretive, can you tell us anything about your character?
Unfortunately not, I can’t reveal anything about my character. But I will say – you mentioned you were a fan – so for fans of Spider-Man and the comics, because Marvel is going to be the one helping produce this time around, it’s very much true to canon in terms of the depiction of Spider-Man, and it’s his coming-of-age story when he’s a teenager. So when he’s coming into his powers and how he’s dealing with the typical things a teenager deals with in high school, but also having these superpowers. So, I think fans will see some things they expect to see, especially if they saw ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man, which I think is excellent. And then also some twists and turns and surprises that the studios are throwing into the mix.
Has anyone on social media or anything guessed your character correctly so far?
(laughs). I cannot confirm nor deny…I also haven’t read everything that people have said. I’ve just seen some glimpses of things.
What has it been like for you, being on a film that is so secretive? Has it been hard to keep things in or is it fun?
Right when I booked it, I wanted to tell my closest friends and family, but I couldn’t. (laughs). Then when it was announced that I joined the cast, I was like okay great, well at least I can share that, that I’m part of the cast. But it’s been interesting! I was drinking with some friends the other night. I didn’t get drunk, but I was a little tipsy. And my friend tried real hard. (laughs). He was like, “Alright I’m gonna say a characters name, and I want you to shake your head or nod, okay?” (laughs). And I was like, “Okay, yes I might have been drinking, but no, I am not so drunk that I would participate in this game of yours.” But good try, good try.
But it’s been really great. This is the first superhero movie I’ve been a part of, and I hope it’s not my last. I’ve always loved the superhero genre, ever since I was like seven years old. I wished for superpowers every birthday, and so it’s exciting to be part of a film where superheroes and powers are just a norm, which is really exciting and fun.
You worked with Marc Webb on your upcoming film Gifted, and he directed The Amazing Spider-Man series with Andrew Garfield. Did you talk to him about it once you were cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming?
You know, I haven’t. But that’s a great idea, though. (laughs). I feel like I should. Marc was one of those directors I’d always wanted to work with, ever since I saw 500 Days of Summer. At the time, I had just found out that a guy I was really really into had just cheated on me. It was a challenging time for me, but that film, 500 Days of Summer, really actually helped me see my relationship with him in a whole different way, and really helped me get over him. So ever since seeing that film, I was like “I want to work with Marc Webb someday.” So I was really grateful to get to collaborate with him on Gifted.
It’s this weird triangle I’ve noticed. So, as you mentioned, Marc Webb directed The Amazing Spider-Man and I’m in Spider-Man: Homecoming and then I’ve been filming a show on BET called “Being Mary-Jane.” (laughs). So I feel like there’s so many of these Spider-Man references across different things I’m working on. It’s a small world.
Working with Marc Webb on Gifted, was it everything you hoped and dreamed it would be?
Oh man, he was just so sweet and kind and just very creative. And very welcoming to hearing ideas from the other actors and me. It was really great to work with him on that project for sure. You know, the next time I talk to him, I’m definitely gonna mention the ‘cheating on’ story. Because I didn’t tell him! And I feel like, I want him to know. I’m sure he knows, and his films have touched so many people, but that had a very specific impact on me.
You mentioned that you were a superhero fan, and used every birthday wish for superpowers. Did you have a favorite superhero?
Let’s see. I really liked Superman. And then Wonder Woman was great as well. Catwoman…so many really. I also grew up watching Xena and Hercules (laughs) and all those types of action-oriented projects as well.
I remember, I used to have road rage. But I don’t anymore; I just had a little bit. And when I’d be driving, especially around Los Angeles, I would imagine I had Xena’s chakram and that when someone pissed me off while I was driving, I imagined myself throwing the chakram and hitting their car, or taking the mirror off their car or something and then getting the chakram back. (laughs). I would literally imagine that, and it would calm me down.
It’s funny that you mentioned Wonder Woman, because you just did Keeping Up with the Joneses with Gal Gadot. So you really are having a lot of superhero connections happening.
Yes, that’s true! That’s very very true. She is very talented, and very tall. (laughs). Anytime I stand next to her; I feel even shorter than I already am.
Aside from your road rage powers, what superpowers would you want?
(laughs). I would say stopping time. Because I think that would be one of the most useful. I mean a lot of people say flying, and I think that would be fun, but I think stopping time would just be a lot more practical and useful. For example, I have a million things on my to-do list sometimes, and it would be great to be able to stop time and get caught up. It’s been pretty busy recently. So I’d get to do more work-wise, and I’d do more in terms of like taking baths, and catching up on my favorite TV shows.
And then also, I play a lot of flag football. I’m really into flag football; it’s my go-to recreational activity. And if I could stop time, and see where the football is or see – I play quarterback – if I could freeze time and see where all my receivers are, and the defense, I could totally cheat the game. (laughs).
Along with flag football, you also play dodgeball, and you’ve said you can piggyback 330 pounds. How did you come to be an athlete?
When I was younger, I think growing up in elementary school and middle school, there were some racist comments that were mentioned. And I think there was some comment about Asians, and Asians not playing sports. And I was like “Screw you, yes they can!” So I think that might’ve been the incident that motivated me to try out for sports.
I played a little bit of soccer, wasn’t so good at the soccer, but got really into tetherball. I got second place in a school-wide tetherball competition; my best friend beat me. And I think I always liked competition. So, in middle school, I started playing lacrosse, and I was actually an all-state lacrosse player in high school. I played club in college at USC, and then started playing football shortly after.
So I’ve been quarterbacking in a lot of co-ed leagues, and I’m one of the very few female quarterbacks, and so I take it very seriously. Because there’s so few of us, if I don’t play well then people are gonna naturally think “Oh see? Girls can’t throw.” And that motivates me to want to get better and be an even stronger competitor.
Does the athleticism help with roles you’ve gotten, be it Spider-Man or any others?
It has. There’s been some projects where I did a little bit of martial arts, and I think it helps in terms of general stamina. Because, even if you’re not doing stunt work, which obviously requires a ton of stamina, it’s just very long days. And just to be energized and for your body to be able to handle long shooting days, it’s really really helpful, and it’s helped me a lot. I’ve always been someone who has a lot of energy, and I don’t drink coffee, and I just feel like I’m high on life. And I think the physical stamina does help.
So you filmed Gifted with Chris Evans, and now are in Spider-Man with Robert Downey Jr. Did you pick a side for Civil War, and has it changed after working with each of these actors?
When I watched Civil War, I was on Chris Evans’ side; I think I was rooting for his side. I don’t remember exactly why; maybe I was just a little more empathetic to him and his cause, as opposed to Robert Downey Jr., even though I really love and respect Robert Downey Jr. as well. And Chris Evans [in Gifted] plays a father of a very smart prodigy of a daughter. And you know, he’s a hot dad. (laughs). He’s a very hot dad.
I absolutely believe that. I know in the past, you were forced to take a drama class. At this point in your career, what would you tell your past self?
I would say be open to trying new things, and you never know where a decision will take you. Be open to being on the journey, and welcoming surprises, and when challenges arise as they always do – like there’s been a lot of ups and downs in my career – I have a friend who calls them plot twists. (laughs). So you think “Oh look at that, plot twist!” And I think that’s a better way of looking at problems and challenges that show up along our journeys.
With your recent projects, you’ve been working with Isla Fisher, Chris Evans, Zach Galifianakis, just to name a few. Did you get starstruck at all for anyone?
You know, not really. I get a little bit nervous, I do, before I meet them. I just remind myself that these are my peers, these are my colleagues. Yes, they’re at different points in their career, but we’re all working together toward putting the best piece of work together and collaborating. So I try the best I can, as much as I respect and admire them, to not put them on a pedestal. Because I think when you do that, you don’t treat people as people. You see them for their title, or for their occupation, or for what they’ve done, as opposed to who they are as people, and I think when you do that, you destroy any chance of having real human interaction and friendships develop.
I remember when we were shooting one of the scenes in Keeping Up with the Joneses, Zach Galifianakis, and Jon Hamm had a fun, competitive Scrabble game going in between takes. (laughs). And I got to witness all of this, and it was really fun just to see them playing Scrabble. They’re normal people just like everyone else is. I think it’s really great and I’m very lucky that all the big stars that I’ve worked with have been so down-to-earth and humble. Not a single one of them has been a diva.
Just regarding acting, I imagine it’s been a learning experience. What have you taken away from working with them?
Absolutely. Like with Jon Hamm, I actually helped him a little bit with his Mandarin, because he does speak some Mandarin in Keeping Up with the Joneses. Mandarin, I don’t think was anything that he’s learned in the past and just his level of commitment to have a strong speaking of Mandarin in such a short period of time, and really committing to making it sound as realistic as possible and honoring the language. I really respected that. Just his dedication to all parts of his role, making everything as believable as possible and honoring the storyline and his character. That was very inspiring to me.
With Keeping Up with the Joneses coming out, how excited are you for fans to see it?
I’m so excited. I went to the premiere in Los Angeles, and you know, when you work on a project, I shot and then I went back for reshoots, so it was a lengthier process than some other films. So with all this anticipation and build up, and I was like oh I just hope it’s good, I really hope it’s good. And it really was! I was laughing, I screamed like three times when the action – there’s action juxtaposed with some really funny moments. And then there’s a lot of great, powerful messages about friendship, and taking risks, and going outside your comfort zone. These are all things that I push myself to do, and I want to see people around me and just people in general doing. So I think it has some really strong messages but is also is so entertaining and funny. It’s such a great cast.
I know you had an audition today, I’m curious does the process ever get easier or less scary?
I was lucky enough always to enjoy auditioning, because it was just another opportunity to act. It’s like I got this chance to play a fun character. For me – you know, one of my friends, her name is Angelica, she just booked a series regular on a TV pilot. And she talks about, before going to auditions and before going to meetings or making scary phone calls, she imagines taking her cup of coffee or water or tea, whatever it is, and imagines mixing her cup of “Fuck it” into the cup of coffee. (laughs). Then she stirs it all up and then she chugs the cup of “fuck it.” (laughs). And it allows her to be really free, and actually, I got cups made that say “fuck it” on one side.
So in times where I just feel like I’m in my head and I think when…as an actress, the times I get myself in trouble are the times where I’m overthinking. Because that’s what I do as Jona, but if you do that as an actor, you can really take yourself out of the moment. So I either literally drink from my cup of “fuck it” or I just imagine that and remind myself that this is fun. And if I have fun, the people watching me will have fun, and I think that takes a lot of the pressure off, as opposed to focusing “I need to book this job.” If it’s for me, I will book it. And if it’s not, then whoever is right for it will.
What attracts you to a character?
I definitely look for characters that are multi-dimensional, so what you see on the surface is not what you get. Then I also really appreciate continuing to break stereotypes, in terms of how Asians are seen in our culture. For instance, in Halt and Catch Fire, I play one of the first female coders. I play this character named Julie Yang, who’s really spunky, badass, tough and she just is inappropriate. It’s very much the opposite of a polite, meek Asian girl. No, she’s the direct opposite.
She calls the guys out on their shit, things that come out of her mouth are a lot of “f*** you” and “f*** this.” When one of the guys is being sexist, she calls him semen. So those type of roles are so much fun because they’re so unexpected. I’m also very much a tomboy in that role. So yeah, where there’s those dimensions and where it surprises people.
And Halt And Catch Fire was just renewed! Aside from projects you’re on, what other shows are you watching?
Oh man. I recently got into the new show This Is Us. I think that’s great. And I’ve been such a huge Game of Thrones fans, I would love to be on a show like Game of Thrones, or Game of Thrones itself would be great as well. Silicon Valley, Fresh Off The Boat, I finished watching Stranger Things. I binge-watched that. There’s just so much good TV, and so much I want to see as well. Such a good time for television. Hence, if I stop time, I could watch all of them!
Keeping Up with the Joneses opens in theaters today. Spider-Man: Homecoming is set to release on July 7, 2017.
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