You may have heard it said that “art imitates life.” In actor Jimmy Jean-Louis’ experience, life also imitates art. He has had many different roles in his acting career, and each one has influenced the way he lives. He finds that a character “may handle life in a different way than you would, and you don’t realize what a big part this plays in defining you down the line.”
We’re at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where he finally has a few minutes to spare. A young man apologetically interrupts our conversation. He has recognized Jean-Louis from a movie whose title I don’t quite catch. Jean-Louis’ face lights up at the mention of the movie. He pumps the young man’s proffered hand and banters with him, surprised that the young man remembers him from one of his lesser-known roles.
Jean-Louis tells me about his recent role as Toussaint Louverture in the movie of the same name, which was showing at the festival for the second consecutive year. Toussaint Louverture, a freed slave, led the Haitian Revolution against France in the late 18th century and shook up the institution of slavery in the “New World.” He won independence from Napoleon Bonaparte and established Haiti as the first free Black nation in the Western hemisphere.
“I think it is the most fulfilling role I’ve played so far, for many reasons. The historical point-of-view and being in the skin of a hero and a leader opened up something in me. The role gave me a different approach to life.”
Jean-Louis is fascinated by the many facets of humanity one can explore in different acting roles. “That is what I most enjoy about acting: the experience that it brings, how you can understand people better by playing them, how you’re faced by so many different stories that you’d probably never hear about if you were not acting. Most scripts are based on true events.”
The native of Haiti has already had the wonderful fortune of pursuing a variety of careers: he has been a dancer and a model. He has acted in musical theater and in commercials, and is now an international actor. He speaks five languages fluently: Creole, French, English, Spanish, and Italian. He picked most of them up while living and working in the countries where they are spoken.
His current career reflects the same versatility. He has acted as a hero, a lover, a villain and more. He believes that he has avoided being typecast in the industry because of the kind of life he has lived.
“The nature of who I am makes it difficult to pinpoint what kind of character I should play. Am I the thug? No. But could I play one? Potentially. Am I the action guy? No. But I could I play him? Potentially. Am I the romantic man? No. But could I play him? Potentially. Nobody’s ever naturally clear on who I am, and I think that reflects on the roles I end up getting.”
Although Jean-Louis enjoys the diverse roles he gets to take on, he finds that his versatility is sometimes a challenge, making it difficult for people to place him or to associate him with a particular character. Nevertheless, he tries to make this flexibility work to his advantage. “With time, that has become who I am by definition,” he says. “It would be difficult for me to stay in just one genre.”
Another challenge Jean-Louis faces as an actor is the uncertainty of the industry, of not knowing when he could get his next job.”As a profession, acting gives you a lot of freedom and a lot of time, but also a lot of stress from the uncertainty. One year may be great and the next could be doubtful.”
His mind constantly races—trying to decide what to audition for; thinking about new skills he needs to learn for different roles; strategizing on which market to tackle and constantly reevaluating his decisions. He tries to stay positive and tries to let these challenges motivate him, but sometimes the constant worrying about the future gets exhausting.
Still he considers his main victory as an actor to be the fact that has kept at acting and has not given up. To have succeeded at having “a career in that madness” and in taking care of his family is no mean feat.
I ask about the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind. He doesn’t think too much about that because he feels it would only box him in. “It’s too early to talk about that. I always like to believe that I can go further than what I can see. I just like to be a part of projects that are meaningful, and to be as free as possible to explore and learn as much as I can.”
Jean-Louis did not have a grand, carefully laid-out plan that led to his becoming an international actor; it just sort of happened as he was living. If he had any dreams as a child, he maybe dreamed about becoming a soccer player, like the famous Pelé. As it happened, each of his careers naturally led to the next. “I never really planned any of that, though I’m sure there’s something inside of me that drives me in one direction and not another.”
Jean-Louis is just getting started. “There’s so much still ahead of me,” he says. “I’m always open, not to everything, but to a different avenue from the one I’m currently in; whatever that might be.”