In a matter of years, Jimmy Jean-Louis has become the most prominent black actors in Hollywood and one of the most successful Haitian actors in Hollywood (some would say the most successful). Jean-Louis who immigrated to France while a pre-teen worked first as a model in Europe, then moved to the USA in the 90s, and has never looked back.
From roles in Phat Girls to Diary of a Tired Black Man to his iconic role in the television hit series, Jean-Louis practically typifies the Hollywood Dream. But he’s also spread his wings, having flirted with Nollywood, having starred in Relentless and the award-winning Sinking Sands, two African-produced dramas. One of the biggest highlights of his career thus far, is playing the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Philippe Niang biopic of the legendary 19th Century leader. Next up is a role as a priest alongside 50 Cent, Meg Ryan, John Lithgow, and Anthony Anderson in the film The Lives of Saints. For Jean-Louis, life is good.
At the time of our interview, the actor is fighting a really bad cold, but decides he wants to keep his word about our scheduled interview. Calling from Paris, France, the Pétionville-born actor is enthusiastic and animated as he discusses the Toussaint L’ouverture project, family life, and educating kids in Haiti, a cause close to his heart.
Would you tell us about the mini-series that you’re in, that’s about Toussaint L’ouverture?
As it is now, it’s two movies of 90 minutes. Part 1 and part 2. It’s a total of 3 hours. It was shot entirely in French, [with] a little bit of Kreyol as well. Shot in France and Martinique, which replaced Haiti as a location. It’s ready now. I believe between February or March, it will be available. It was financed by French television…France 2. It will be on their station first and then [it will be available] for the international market. I’m not sure yet how it’s going to be distributed, whether it’s going to be in theaters or broadcasted on an [American] television station.
How did you get involved?
The producers contacted me. You have to understand they have tried to make this movie for the past 20 years. And Danny Glover tried to make this movie for the past 15 years. And many other names have tried to make it. It was a long overdue movie. I was called by the producers to play the role, because they felt I fit the character. I had to do a lot of exercises. I had to learn how to ride a horse. I took lessons for a couple of months. [I had to learn how to] do sword-fighting. I took lessons in California and France.
Did you read any books to give you a sense of the time period?
Yeah, of course. I read a few books. I watched a few documentaries that were made about him. I had information coming from him from historians in America and France. Had a lot of conversations. So, I had to do a lot of research to portray him as well. I’m very, very proud of the end results.
Why was the movie filmed in Martinique and not in Haiti? A lot of people feel it would have brought a lot of publicity to Haiti, and it only seemed natural that it should be filmed in Haiti and not another island.
Haiti falls short on some requirements. I think the production tried, but it’s difficult to get insurance to insure a place like Haiti right now. From what I’ve been told, that’s one of the reasons why we couldn’t go there and shoot. The structure in Haiti is not the best either. Electricity. The roads are still pretty bad. As a Haitian, I would love to have shot it there.
Are you going to be returning to American television anytime soon?
I’m not sure as to what will come to me in the future. I’m open to all kinds of projects. I’m still doing movies in different places, in different markets. Whether it’s America, France, or Africa. As of now, I am not currently attached to any American TV show.
What was the last the last thing that made you cry?
[long pause] Well. [pause]. Maybe going back to Haiti. Definitely the earthquake. Since I’ve been going back and forth, I’m very touched by what’s happened. Every time you go there, you still find a good reason to cry. I was there last week, and the situation is still so bad. People losing their family members. The dire situation there.
What exactly did you see? What have you observed in terms of the lives of people there…Does it seem like it’s improving?
Not really. Not really. Very little change. Unfortunately. After so long. After two years.
You have so many projects going on. How do you balance fatherhood, and family life with such a busy schedule?
You just have to prioritize what’s the most important in your life. You will find ways to do it.
You and Garcelle Beauvais are two of the most prominent Haitians in Hollywood. Are you two friends?
I would say yes. I don’t speak to her everyday. We don’t see each other every day. But from time to time, we see each other.
Do you guys have any plans of working together in the future? Any projects?
I would love to. At this time, I’m not attached to any project that she will be part of, or vice versa. But it’s definitely something I would like to be part of. I think she’s very talented. And she’s done a lot. An on top of that, being Haitian, yes, I’m always looking forward to collaborating with my Haitian peers.
Your organization Hollywood United for Haiti is doing a lot of great things. What are your latest accomplishments?
We have a school. Now we’re able to give the kids one meal a day as well as an education. It’s located in Cadet, which is a very remote location up the mountains, a place where about 90% of the people do not know how to read or write. I’m very happy and very proud of it [the school]. I went there last week, and it was just such a joy to see the kids being happy not only to be educated, but be happy to be fed. I’m trying to keep the community up and moving forward, and putting a big smile on their faces.
What’s the enrollment number for the school?
Right now, we have 100 kids, but we’re not finished with some parts of the building. But when we’re done, we’ll welcome 350 kids. This is our second year.
You played the role of The Haitian on the series “Heroes”. What would you say were the best moments of that experience?
It wouldn’t be necessarily a moment. It was more like a feeling. Playing The Haitian on “Heroes” was such a source of pride to me because it was one way to put Haiti on the map. Not too many people knew too much about Haiti. And to be able to actually play a superhero and his name was The Haitian, on one of the most successful shows on television was a great way to advertise Haiti on a TV show to the rest of the world. That brought me a lot of joy to actually portray a Haitian as a superhero.
In the past you’ve expressed your appreciation for Sydney Poitier. Have you met or connected?
Yeah, I’ve had the chance to meet with Sydney Poitier twice. The first time, I did express to him that he inspired me to continue to fight and create a space for myself in the game of Hollywood.
And speaking of Hollywood, is it possible to be in Hollywood and not go Hollywood.
Of course. It all depends on what people mean about going Hollywood.
Losing your head, and not having your head on your shoulders anymore.
It’s a small portion of the people. And most of the times, you know about that small portion of people because the media is all over them. But at the same time, we don’t know about a larger portion that don’t go Hollywood, because the media doesn’t have anything special to say about that. You know how many actors there are in Hollywood. Thousands and thousands. At the end of the day they [the media outlets] [chooses to concentrate on those] actors who are getting in trouble. So definitely, you can work in Hollywood and not go Hollywood.
I was counting the ones about that were made by directors based in Haiti.
It’s all about Haiti. It’s directed by a Haitian. How more Haitian can it be? [laughs]
Are you planning in being in any other ones? Or writing or directing any?
Yes I did Cousines, yes I did Le President a-til- Le Sida?. I would have loved to do more. To be honest with you, I am very proud of these movies [made in Haiti]. It’s too bad that the situation didn’t allow us to continue to do these kinds of movies. It’s just a shame we couldn’t continue to do them. And that was for many reasons. First of all, most of the theaters have closed down. Piracy started to take over. The people, the producers that used to put in a little bit of money into these movies couldn’t make their money back. So, we couldn’t continue to create those type of movies. But yes, I would love to continue. But the reality is, it’s difficult. We have no way to distribute these movies in Haiti. I’m not sure if there’s still one good movie theater in Haiti. Yes, the desire is there, to continue. But the reality doesn’t allow us to. I hope this will soon change. I hope we’ll be able to build theaters. It is absolutely necessary. We have about 3 million people in Haiti, and most people would love to see those type of movies, Haitian movies. We have a lot to do. And building theaters is one of them. We have to find a way to fight piracy. Find a way to [train] the filmmakers, so we cannot just make movies, but make movies of quality.
In the past you’ve said that France is not one of the most minority-friendly countries in the world. Has anything changed?
I am calling you from Paris. [laughs]. Well, slowly, but you know we still major issues as far as minorities are concerned. Even though France is full of minorities, whether it’s blacks from the Caribbean, blacks from Africa, a lot of Indians. Arabs, Moroccans, Tunisians, Vietnamese. Still a lot of people coming from outside of France. It’s difficult [for them] because France is considered a Caucasian country. America is a country that was built on immigration, so it’s very easy for a Hispanic, a black, a Chinese, or a Caucasian to say that, “I’m American.” And nobody will question the fact that they’re American. It’s not the same thing in France. If you’re not Caucasian, it’s very difficult to actually tell people that you’re French. They will [look at] you and say, “Yeah, you’re French but where are your parents from?” Or they will [keep questioning you] until they find out the background of where you’re really from. So you can already understand that things are not as smooth as we’d like for them to be over here [in France] regarding minorities.
How did you get involved with Moloch Tropical?
Raoul contacted me, and yeah he proposed that role of Gerard Francis. It was well-written, well-done project, and I couldn’t say no. It was a joy for me to work with Raoul. He’s one of the most talented directors I’ve worked with.
You’ve worked with Gessica Geneus in, like, three movies. How do enjoy working with her?
Most of them were completely accidental. The first one, which was Cousines, was the very first time I met her. My first movie made in Haiti. The next one was The President a t-il Le Sida?. The third time I didn’t even know she was going to be in Moloch Tropical. Raoul cast her. I think she’s very promising and very talented. She definitely has a future in the business. Not just in Haiti, but outside of Haiti, France, and the States. As long as she continues and keeps herself focused, she could definitely go far.
Your kids were born in California and France. How do you keep the Haitian culture alive in them?
My kids were born in California actually. None of them were born in France. All of them were born in LA. I think being Haitian is a lifestyle. I’m very in touch with Haiti. We go to Haiti regularly, with the family and the kids. I stay very close to Haitian family members. I speak the language to them. I try to give them as much as I can. Just so they feel connected. They know they are as Haitian as much as they are American. They’re born in America but they have a strong feeling that they are very much Haitian.
Photos: M&C, Noel Vazquez/Getty and Pascal Legretain/Getty Europe