Multi-talented Jo Mani stands at what is, to say the least, an interesting point in her career: on that verge of stardom many actors, even those quite gifted, find ever elusive. As with all things in life, a given amount of getting anywhere depends as much on luck as ability. Still, the smart money’s on Jo Mani to break out of the pack.
Recent developments put strong wind in her sails in the way of a higher profile. “People are starting to take a chance on me,” she says, which has resulted in, among other accomplishments, being cast in this fall’s Joshua Tree, starring Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Heat) and Steven Bauer (Scarface, Primal Fear), as well as a featured role in 2012’s Project Purgatory Beijing with director Kantz (Project Purgatory, Love and a Bullet). Her newest undertaking is with director Ron Santiano editor of the Syfy TV movie (Almighty Thor).
As the industry expands to reach a constantly growing Internet audience, Jo Mani stars in Santiano’s web series Venus Flytrap as an unorthodox, determinedly successful, modern-day bounty hunter. As well, she stars in the popular web series The Refuge as villainous temptress “Natasha.” You get the idea. Her presence is making itself known.
Not altogether surprising. For one, Hollywood being image land, you can possess all the skill in the world and still must be easy on the eyes. Jo Mani has the industry’s requisite good looks practically falling off her: drop-dead gorgeous with sculpted features, a mesmerizing smile, expressive eyes, and a, to severely understate the case, shapely figure.
Santiano, who also wrote Venus Flytrap, readily attests that she is much more than another pretty face with a sunburn-hot body. “I have worked with Jo before,” he recalls. “It was on my last project, The Chronicles of the Order: Xander’s Path’ Jo [is] always professional, always ready to give 150 percent to the role and to the project. I cannot say enough of her, and can’t wait to begin production on [Venus Flytrap].”
Mani’s past work includes appearances with Della Reese, Louis Gossett, Jr., Corbin Bernsen and Jenifer Lewis. She was in the television hit, Pastor Jones with Vivica A. Fox, Paula Jai Parker and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
On stage, Jo Mani, this August, acted in Arthur W. French III’s Triple Played at Los Angeles Theater Center (Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of NAACP’s 4th Annual Theater Festival).
Rounding out her skill set, she’s a veteran comedian (Laugh Factory, Dee Undaground Tour, Family Room) and a siren songbird, presently recording her CD debut with producer Marcus “Bellringer” Bell for independent release. She has directed television commercials, too. And can dance.
Suffice to say, this is one performer who, when opportunity knocks in the form of that proverbial big break, will be prepared to throw the door wide open.
Reached at her Los Angeles home, Jo Mani gave a telephone interview on a day off from rehearsing and shooting schedules.
MSR: I guess we can start with the last film you completed, which would be Joshua Tree, yes? Vincent Pastore — he’s also in it — from The Sopranos and Goodfellas?
JM: Yes, that’s the last one. Cool thing, [it] was screened at the Action on Film International Festival a week or so ago, and did really well. That’ll be coming out later in the fall. So, we just picked back up on Project Purgatory Beijing. I’ll be on set for that in a few days.
MSR: Project Purgatory Beijing, that’s getting all kind of play in the media.
JM: Yeah, it’s doing pretty good. After we finish [it], we’ll be doing the third movie in the trilogy. It’s exciting. I’ve got to get back to the gym and in fighting condition. They haven’t told us what the story is going to be yet, but, mine is one of the few characters that survive the finale of Beijing. So, I think I’ll make it to the third film. We’ll see what happens.
MSR: And the bounty hunter flick: Venus Flytrap.
JM: I’m in pre-production on that, right now. We start late September. I haven’t seen the script, yet. They’re still writing it. They sold me, based on the concept. I love the concept. The writer and director is Ron Santiano, he does kind of a series of films, all action films. The one I was in, they just screened it. It just won, like five awards at a film festival.
MSR: What started you acting?
JM: Just being in drama, being in theater, since I was a kid. Originally I set out to be a singer. Being a performer was always in my blood. I’ve never thought about being anything other than a performer, whether it was singing or dancing. Y’ know, my parents had me in tap dance and ballet since I was five and doing the silly dance recitals. They’d bring the camcorder.
MSR: How, where, when and why did you segue into acting?
JM: I was kind of doing it at the same time. As I got older, like when I got into middle school, was my first play. My first taste of, y’ know, the spotlight. More than anything, I just loved entertaining people. Whether it was making them cry, making them laugh. That’s another thing, I was always really fearless about comedy. I didn’t mind looking like a fool to bring a laugh to people.
MSR: Acting, clearly, is your primary focus now. At some point you decided to, say, go for the jugular.
JM: Yeah, I was doing background vocals for artists and stuff. That was what I first wanted to do. Then, I ended up having a baby. I was literally graduating high school, entering college with my husband. So, having a kid, I couldn’t actually tour and perform, all that stuff.
I still needed that creative avenue and decided to start doing acting, even after high school. I think my first professional job was Touched by an Angel.
MSR: The CBS show with Della Reese.
JM: Yeah, yeah. My first day on the set was opposite Louis Gossett, Jr. And Jenifer Lewis, Loretta Devine. I was terrified. As a matter of fact, we were leaving, walking through the set. There was this crackhead, like about five feet behind us — what I thought was a crackhead. He was, like, “Hey, hey, miss. What’s up? Could I holler at you for a minute?” And I turn around. He looked like a straight-up crackhead, was dressed like one, walked like one. Straight off the corner, you know? I literally blew him off, like, “Hey, man. Beat it.”
MSR: Was it an extra?
JM: He got closer and I went, “Oh, my God.” It was Louis Gossett, Jr., in hair and make-up, dressed up in character. He probably gave me the biggest confidence booster anyone ever has. When we were on set, after about eight hours, talking and getting to know each other and stuff, he said, “You know what, you are a special and unique individual.”
MSR: Your looks. As much as they’ve been an asset, have they also ever been a problem?
JM: It’s funny you ask that, ’cause I did go through this not too long ago. I’ve been passed on for so many projects because they thought that I couldn’t possibly act well enough to have the necessary range. No one would really give me a chance, wouldn’t even let me audition.
MSR: Casting directors?
JM: Oh, yeah. I’ve experienced it from many different casting directors over the years, even up until recently. Simon Kantz, the director of Project Purgatory Beijing, he probably was one of the first to give me a chance to do an action role. Because, looking at me, they didn’t believe I could be somebody who can kick some butt.
MSR: You, in fact, have martial arts training, don’t you?
JM: Tae kwon do. Movie training in stage combat, sword fighting, weapons training in guns.
MSR: Anyway, you’ve got past that typecasting hurdle to at least a given extent, enough to make headway.
JM: I’m starting to get out there a little bit. People are starting to get to know me and take a chance. I just want to keep doing it.