James Jolly Talks Filming ‘The Custom Mary’ in East LA

James Jolly

H770 Films

Newcomer James Jolly stars alongside Alicia Sixtos in the new Indie thriller The Custom Mary, which is being screened this week at the New York International Latino Film Festival.

The Custom Mary is about the cultural and spiritual journey of Mary (Sixtos), a young modest Latina, in East LA, set amidst the world of Lowriders, storefront preachers, and a dangerous religious attempt to clone Jesus.

Searching for identity and religious meaning in the world, Mary becomes involved in an East Los Angeles storefront church, where a young, charismatic minister enthralls her. At the same time, she meets Joe (Jolly), a passionate and self-empowered African-American lowrider.

Mary struggles with her identity, torn between her budding feelings for Joe and her conflicted pull of faith in a dangerous religious group, who believes they can clone Jesus with Mary’s help. Mary becomes pregnant, and as the day of birth approaches, both Joe and her storefront religious community fight for her attention. Battling both real and imagined truths, Mary begins a secret journey to the desert of California, seeking answers in a surprising and surreal way.

In an exclusive interview with Blackactors.net, Jolly talks about how he landed the role in the controversial film, and he shares advice for aspiring black actors trying to get their foot in the door.

BA: Tell us about your background and how you got into acting.

JJ: I am from the windy city better known as Chicago. I was an only child raised by two Haitian parents growing up on the Northside. It is said to be not as “cool” as the Southside or the Westside growing up as a Black kid. All lies. Well, some of them anyway lol I decided to pursue acting professionally one year after graduating college. I didn’t know anyone in the business so I just called up some friends and asked people for referrals to anyone remotely involved. Eventually, I was able to start on a path with some Improv classes at IO – Chicago (formerly Improv Olympic) and a casting internship. Two and a half years later, I moved to Los Angeles where it is not so windy. Chicago, I still love you but just saying…

BA: Tell us about your new film “The Custom Mary.”

JJ: The Custom Mary is a story that takes place in East LA with a modern day Joseph, Mary and an attempt to clone Jesus. Yes, THE one and only. I play the character of Joe. Instead of a carpenter, my character works as a car mechanic on lowriders.

BA: How did you land the role? What was the audition process?

JJ: I heard about the role through an online casting notice on the Actors Access website. The first audition consisted of a monologue and a cold read. At the time, it drove me nuts because I couldn’t find one that worked best for me. The filmmakers were playing around with the idea of the Joe character also being a spoken word artist. I had a much easier time finding an appropriate poem to perform. Shout out to HBO Def Poetry and Youtube! Sometimes, I have a nervous habit of taking my keys, and phone out of my pockets in an audition room. When I left the audition, I realized I left my cell phone on the floor so I had to go back. At the time, I was thinking: “Great. Time for an awkward moment.” I had to jump a locked gate to get back to the room because I didn’t want to disturb casting by ringing the buzzer. When I told the team that, they laughed. Little did I know, they thought that was an endearing moment that they found to be akin to Joe and it helped put me in the running early. A few weeks later, they called me back in for chemistry reads with some of the women reading for Mary. A few days later, I found out I got the part.

BA: Were you worried about offending religious people when you signed on for this project? It is a movie about cloning Jesus Christ, after all.

JJ: I did go back and forth during the audition process as to whether or not this was the right project for me. I come from a very conservative, Christian Baptist upbringing. While I do not consider myself to be very religious in the traditional sense, I did feel a sense of accountability to not misrepresent a faith shared by so many people around the world. Plus, I didn’t want to go to hell in a hand basket lol I realized though that the script genuinely treated and respected this sensitive material in a way that is explorative and not exploitative. What it does exploit however, is the hypocrisy that is present when religious leaders abuse their teachings to take advantage of their position and devout followers.

BA: With the history of bad blood between Blacks and Hispanics in Los Angeles, were you nervous about filming in East LA? What was the reaction?The Custom Mary

JJ: I was aware of that history but I wasn’t concerned. We were shown love and support in all of the communities we used for the film and the feeling was absolutely mutual. From visiting a few of the lowrider meet-ups, to the crowds that would draw when we had the lowriders on set, one could see that there is still a sense of unspoken unity between the groups.

BA: What advice would you give other black actors trying to make it in Hollywood?

JJ: At this early stage in my career, I think it so important to balance this pursuit with a life filled with hobbies, activities, and healthy, loving relationships. Not only will it help enhance your work, it gives you patience, perspective and stamina in a business where roles and stories that call for Black actors are severely lacking. That said, no matter how inexperienced you may think you are, stay open as possible to creating, writing and producing projects for yourself.

BA: Whats next for you and your career?

JJ: I’m being considered for a few things but nothing is signed and dotted on the line as of yet. That means, I am for hire right now folks! Meanwhile, I am auditioning for film and TV, writing and developing material, and staying focused on solidifying my brand.

BA: Why should people see The Custom Mary?

JJ: You should see The Custom Mary because it is a fresh and curious take on a story that you already know. It has a VERY diverse ensemble cast, unexpected twists, and a lot of heart! It is the little indie that could lol

BA: Thank you for taking the time out to answer our questions. Good luck and we hope to do it again for your next project.

JJ: Thank you BlackActors.net for the support and giving artists a platform!

The Custom Mary is being screened at the New York International Latino Film Festival on Aug 17 and Aug 20 at AMC Empire in Times Square. Buy tickets online here.