Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs was a substitute teacher and was creating a web series with her friends. Now, she’s the lead on “Twenties” from Lena Waithe. Playing Hattie, the masculine-presenting lesbian lead character of the series, Gibbs has become a star on the rise. While the show draws from Waithe’s background as a writer and creative, Gibbs has imbued Hattie with her personal experience. Gibbs spoke to AwardsCircuit about her Hollywood story, working with Lena Waithe, and her approach creating the character of Hattie. Jonica T. Gibbs is eligible for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Alan French/AwardsCircuit: I’ve heard you had a cool story that led to you meeting Lena Waithe. Could you tell us how you first connected with Lena Waithe and auditioned for “Twenties?”
Jonica “Jojo” Gibbs: It was so serendipitous because it was the perfect timing. I was doing stand-up comedy and then I decided with my best friend Rashonda Joplin to co-write a web series (“No More Comics in LA”), and at that time it was going to be a web series. We were shooting it with a few of our friends and colleagues. We had decided to take a different route and we started a crowdfunding campaign.
Lena was one of the people that we reached out to, and she so happened to be auditioning for “Twenties” at the same time. That’s why I just say it’s the right timing because if it had been a month earlier or a month later, I would have missed the opportunity. She was just like, I’m gonna set you up to go do an audition, and the rest is history.
AF: She’s always been great in everything I’ve ever seen her in, so what was the most exciting part about taking on “Twenties?”
JG: I would say the most exciting part was how I got it. You know, I could have never imagined getting into acting the way that I did. I learned that I was capable and thought as long as I tried, it would eventually happen. However, I never thought I would get my first audition for a lead role. I thought I would need to get a lot of background or small roles to get my SAG card. I’m very very grateful.
AF: I’ve heard that she was trying to make the show as early as 2013. What was it like to take on a character that she’d already been trying to bring to life?
JG: I felt like it was an honor. I knew how long she had been working on “Twenties” and she had done a presentation on YouTube. I watched it and took a lot from that. However, I decided sometimes to create my interpretation of the character to the best of my ability. It meant a lot to me, for her to have written this character and then dubbed me as the one to portray her vision. I was very grateful for the opportunity.
AF: Some critics have made comparisons to the character being semi-autobiographical of Waithe’s career. What are some of the things that you wanted to bring out to make sure that people knew that you were creating your character?
JG: You know, I am a playful soul, a childlike soul. Hattie embodies that a lot with her naivete. That’s something that I wanted to display. I wanted Hattie to be a character that people want to be friends with and hang out with. You get that she’s a hot mess all over the place, but she also has a childlike disposition and yeah, you know, that’s something that I feel like will be important. I felt the character just needed to have a very distinct charm about her.
AF: You had been trying to create a show before joining “Twenties.” What were some of the similarities you found in Hattie’s story as a creative, and your role as a creator, that helped you connect with the character?
JG: I could relate with Hattie because she was a person coming out to Hollywood and trying to pursue something. You know, that’s a scary thing because there’s no blueprint to succeeding in this industry at all. You know, she could have a degree in acting and never book anything. I related to her wanting access to creation, chasing her dream, and her visions.
I related to her struggle to succeed. I lived on my best friend’s couch in the first month. I was in LA and she was living with her boyfriend at the time and I didn’t settle in like Hattie. I related to this character’s ambition. I also understood her family relations, because we come from families that don’t think that you’ll fail, but they don’t know how you can succeed. It’s a lot of pressure battling the anxiety that comes from that and the pressure to succeed. I understood her on a few levels and could definitely identify with her.
AF: You and Kym Whitley have some great scenes that take place over the phone. Did you film those scenes in the same room, or did you rehearse over the phone?
JG: A few of them she wasn’t there but there was one scene in the pilot where she filmed her scene in the apartment behind me. So I was sitting off to the side of the table. She was so cool, Kym was incredible. She had me cracking up, and she taught me a few things about the industry and just how to handle yourself.
AF: They are not many masculine-presenting lesbian characters on television today. Did you feel any pressure from that or do you use it to drive your performance?
JG: I love that Hattie is a representation of that particular demographic of women because it’s not something that’s been on TV before “Twenties.” I’m very proud to be a part of that legacy, and I hope that I can just play this character authentically. I know the space that Lena was trying to fill. I don’t feel any pressure.
I know a lot of people try to relate the character to my personal life, but I mean at the end of the day, it’s a character. I don’t think that anybody takes on the pressure of doing a character. I would hope that people understand that I’m acting at the end of the day, even if it does seem natural.
AF: That was the number one thing that I took away from the show, is that it feels authentic from beginning to end. This is a show about friendship and you have spectacular chemistry with your co-stars. When you were reading the scripts, what scenes were you most excited to jump into with them?
JG: I was excited about the car scene. I thought that was really cute and I rode with Whitney Houston of course. I played that song multiple times, just getting into the groove of that moment. That was a lot of fun. I was also looking forward to seeing how they were going to set up the Cinespia movie, watching “All About Eve” in the cemetery. I had never gone to one myself, and since we shot the show I’ve gone a few times. That was one of the most fun scenes, but any scenes with Christina and Gabrielle were very fun.
AF: The last two months have forced a lot of people to start to have honest conversations about race and representation in film and television. Somehow “Twenties” got passed over multiple times before getting picked up by BET. I think the show has a lot to say about the industry at the moment. What about the series that has resonated with you, specifically over the past couple of months?
JG: I’ll say there is so much development that needs to be had in terms of acceptance in our communities. This has to happen everywhere, but you know I think that’s why it was very special that the show went to BET. In the Black community, accepting people from the LGBTQ community. This is an issue that has been raised recently and has been left out of the discussion about bigotry. I think it’s necessary to see the uniqueness in humans and not categorize ourselves. We need empathy for people who are different than ourselves and I think Hattie is one of those characters that, regardless of sexuality, resonates with people on a deeper level. I think that’s one of the things that will significantly change humankind. We need to find a space of empathy for those who are different.
AF: You and Sophina Brown have a great conversation at one point during the show where you talk about what you want to do with your platform. Now that “Twenties” has given you a platform what are some things that you want to try to bring attention to in projects or really anything at the moment?
JG: I think for me some of the things that I’ve acquired a passion for are focused on the elderly. I was raised by my great-grandparents and they dealt with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I think that a lot of times people who have aged are overlooked and that’s just the demographic that can sometimes be forgotten. Even though we all grow old, it’s one of those things none of us want to consider.
I’m also a proponent of teachers. I was a substitute teacher for a long time, and I think teachers should earn more. Teaching is important, especially for children of color and in low-income areas. I hope that I can help in that space in the future.
AF: “Twenties” received positive critical buzz. I was a huge fan. Who are some other directors or showrunners you want to work with in the future?
JG: I think that Quentin Tarantino is someone I’d love to work with. I don’t know if that’s a reach, but I got into my reach school in college. I met Quentin once, and I took it as an omen. Honestly, I’m just ready to work. I won’t care who the director is, I’m going to be grateful to be on set, honestly.
Awards Circuit would like to thank Jonica T. Gibbs for speaking with us.
Season 1 of “Twenties” is available on Showtime and BET.
What do you think of “Twenties?” Did you enjoy Jonica T. Gibbs as the lead of “Twenties?” Let us know in the comments below!