J.J. Totah may have gotten a glimpse of what awaits him when he accompanied his friend Skai Jackson to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Skai, who co-stars on the Disney Channel hit, “Jessie,” couldn’t go anywhere in public without being recognized. Some people just stopped and stared at the sight of her; others actually grabbed at Skai and asked for photos.
“She’s really sweet about it,” J.J. said of his young friend. “But I don’t know if I could handle it.”
He may find out soon enough. Beginning with the episode airing Friday, Jan. 11, J.J. will be appearing on “Jessie” as well, in a recurring role as Stuart, a friend of Jackson’s character, Zuri.
Landing a role on the popular show is a dream come true for the 11-year-old thespian, who is the youngest child of Davis residents Suheil and Christine Totah. (Brother Alex is a junior at Da Vinci Charter Academy; sister Camille is a student at UCLA).
J.J. has been acting — not to mention dancing and singing — since before he was in kindergarten. He started with the Davis Musical Theatre Company and later performed with the Sacramento Theatre Company and River City Theatre Company. Since last year, he has been living with his mom near Hollywood, auditioning and landing roles in films, web-only shows and commercials and performing stand-up comedy routines at the Hollywood Improv.
One of his most noteworthy roles up until “Jessie” was as the “Lil’ Dictator,” a spoof of the Sasha Baron Cohen film made by the web-only channel Awesomeness TV last year. The first episode aired on YouTube in May and drew tens of thousands of views in short order.
The casting director of “Lil’ Dictator” turned out to be the casting director for “Jessie” as well, and J.J. was asked to audition for the Disney show last summer. He not only landed the role, he was told in November it would be a recurring one. He’s since filmed two upcoming episodes, and he’s gotten an inkling of what kind of fame might await.
When Skai posted a photo of the two of them on Instagram, for example, J.J. acquired more than 1,000 new Twitter followers overnight.
“Skai has a lot of fans,” J.J. noted.
Asked what that kind of fame might mean for J.J., his mom said, “I want him always to be kind.”
She’s already seen proof that he will be.
After a recent live taping of “Jessie,” a young girl in a wheelchair got to come onstage along with other special guests of the show, Christine Totah said. In the crowd of people on the stage, she lost sight of J.J. for a few minutes. Then she saw him — down on one knee, in earnest conversation with the girl.
“He was so nice, so kind, not condescending,” Christine explained. “Her dad said (J.J.) was her favorite and that made her whole night.
“(It was) a proud mama moment,” she said, adding that she thinks J.J. having grown up with a sibling with special needs — his older brother, Alex, is autistic — has made him particularly kind.
In addition to his recurring role on “Jessie,” J.J. will continue to audition for other roles, including for the upcoming Broadway musical, “Newsies,” which he’s preparing for with additional dance and vocal classes — on top of all the other auditions, filming and, of course, schoolwork filling his busy schedule. He attends a special school for child actors in Southern California.
In February he’ll be featured in a AAA commercial in which he plays a break-dancing kid whose moves so distract a passing driver that an accident ensues.
Mixed in with all the success, of course, are the invariable rejections that come from most auditions.
“You go on a lot of auditions and get told ‘no’ about 98 percent of the time,” Christine said.
But, she said, those moments almost seem harder for her than for J.J., who is one level-headed 11-year-old.
“When it happens,” he said, “I just know it probably wasn’t the right thing for me.”
Catch J.J.’s first appearance on “Jessie” at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, on the Disney Channel. See a preview on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LrIUsTpNWs.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy