Turns out the road from the Davis Musical Theatre Company to Hollywood success is shorter than you might think.
Just ask J.J. Totah, who got his start at DMTC before he was even in kindergarten and five years later is making a name for himself in television, film and stand-up comedy. He’s gone from ensemble parts in “Aladdin,” “Mulan” and “The Jungle Book” on the DMTC stage to a starring role in the “Lil’ Dictator,” a spoof of the Sasha Baron Cohen film made by the web-only channel Awesomeness TV earlier this year.
He has four stand-up comedy routines at the Hollywood Improv under his belt, supporting roles in a television pilot and upcoming film, a manager and agent that sought him out as a client and, oh yes, Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce tweeting about him.
And he’s all of 10 years old.
The third child of South Davis residents Christine and Suheil Totah, J.J. says he was drawn to the stage after watching big sister Camille performing at DMTC. But television and film quickly became the goal, and his parents began taking turns driving him to Southern California for auditions.
A year ago, during spring break, he landed a leading role in a pilot, “Sunny Time.” Though the pilot hasn’t been picked up yet, the whole experience, J.J. says, “was really fun and exciting.”
It prompted him to start taking acting lessons and he eventually ended up meeting a Disney casting director who encouraged him to give stand-up comedy a try.
Watching him on YouTube, it’s not hard to see why. This pint-size kid, all 4 1/2 feet and 50 pounds of him, shows some comedic chops in the three stand-up Hollywood Improv routines available on YouTube (search J.J. Totah).
He also landed a role in a music video and a Nintendo commercial in the past year. But with the family still living in Davis, all the driving back and forth to Los Angeles nearly every week was getting to be a bit much.
Not that there wasn’t an upside, says dad Suheil.
“It created an opportunity for me to bond with J.J. … spending quality time together on long drives to L.A., preparing for auditions and being there for (him) when he doesn’t get the role,” Suheil says. “It has become our father-son time.
“Other dads spend time with their sons on traveling sports teams. For us, it is no different, except that we are traveling to Hollywood.”
But the family decided to put an end to the constant traveling for now, with J.J. and his mom taking up residence in an apartment near Hollywood. Sister Camille is now a short drive away at UCLA, but J.J. concedes he misses his dad and especially his older brother Alex back in Davis.
But in Hollywood he’s not only found his calling, J.J. says, he’s found kindred spirits as well.
In North Hollywood, he enrolled in a school full of fellow child actors. It was a far cry from his experiences at schools in Davis and Sacramento, he says, “where I never fit in.”
Now he has many close friends who share his passion and drive, he says. One even landed a role alongside him in the “Lil’ Dictator,” the role that undoubtedly has drawn the most attention.
J.J. auditioned for the role not long ago and learned two days later the part was his.
The program, a spoof on Cohen’s “The Dictator,” which was released in theaters last month, was produced by Awesomeness TV, a web-only channel owned by Google (which also owns YouTube).
J.J. confesses he was a little confused about the role — he’s never seen Cohen’s R-rated movies, “and I had to figure it out from the script,” he says.
But with some coaching from his mom and a bit of improvisation, he says, he pulled it off.
The first episode — 3 1/2 minutes long and first airing on YouTube on May 8 — drew 35,000 views. Celtics star Pierce even tweeted about it in May, calling the first episode “hilarious.”
But others, perhaps not surprising given Cohen’s material, have taken offense, calling the videos racist.
The “Lil’ Dictator” channels Cohen, who has drawn criticism for over-the-top, stereotypical portrayals of various ethnicities.
But J.J. and his family are quick to point out that they are Arab-Americans themselves — mom Christine is Lebanese, dad Suheil is Palestinian — and it’s all just a spoof.
“It’s not even real,” says J.J., who said he’s read the critical comments on YouTube, but doesn’t let them get to him.
“It’s their opinion,” he says. “If you live your life worrying about what other people say, you’re not going to have the life you want.”
A second episode followed, also available on YouTube, but J.J. says the criticism may have put an end to future episodes.
That’s OK, though, as he’s already moved on, having been cast in a comedy being made by a student at the New York Film Academy. The movie will begin shooting shortly in Los Angeles.
In between everything, there are always auditions — usually one or more a week. And J.J. doesn’t let the rejections that do occasionally come get him down.
“You have to accept when you don’t get it, that something else will come up,” he explains. “And the process is so fun. I love auditioning.”
He now has an agent and a manager who approached him after seeing one of his stand-up routines. That frees up mom and dad to be, well, mom and dad, instead of parent-agent-manager-chauffeur-coach.
But J.J. is well aware of his family’s sacrifices.
“My mom and dad are still a humongous help,” he says, adding, “my mom is sacrificing her life for me.”
For her part, Christine Totah says, “We are doing what any parents would do to support their children and help them reach their dreams.”
It’s been challenging at times, she says with the family being split up.
“But we feel blessed as a family to share in this unique opportunity.”
J.J., meanwhile, is enjoying this life he’s living. He’d very much like to land a television pilot by the end of the year.
But whether he does or not, he says, “I’ve found the place where I belong.”
Not bad for a fifth-grader.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy