She had to make a decision — attend a callback for a national Target commercial or take a required acting final.
Jona Xiao, who stars in the upcoming film Keeping Up with the Joneses, faced this decision while she was a student at USC. Instead of conceding that she would have to give up either an opportunity for a huge break in acting or her grades, she found a way to do both.
Arriving early for the callback, Xiao was able to make it back to campus in time for her final. She still got an A on the test and then booked the Target spot. “You can do it all!” Xiao said, throwing her hands in the air, showing off the ambitious attitude that has put her on the map in one of the most competitive industries in Los Angeles.
While at USC, Xiao was in the business cinematic arts program — a unique major that gave her knowledge on the business side of her craft — a choice to which she owes her acting success. Her role in the new movie starring Jon Hamm and Zach Galifianakis, Keeping Up with the Joneses, has given her the confidence to find her place among Hollywood’s elite.
“I think that was a good reminder to see these amazing actors as my peers, all in this together, and to appreciate it knowing this is where I belong,” Xiao said in an interview with the Daily Trojan.
Xiao seems like she has it all — a degree from a prestigious college, a good head on her shoulders and an acting gig in high power movies. However, she fought hard for every scrap of success she has achieved. She credits her success to two decisions she made in college: the first was learning the business side of the industry.
“When I first started out, I was clueless. I was scammed,” Xiao said. “I didn’t know how to partner with the right team of people to help and support me along the journey.”
She learned how to make connections from friends, a skill that led to her first role. Her mantra is “successful people do it themselves, but never alone.”
As an actress, Xiao prioritizes her independence as a key factor in building her career. However, she also realizes that having support is necessary.
“Yes, you shouldn’t ever rely on someone else.” Xiao said. “But you absolutely should and have to ask for support from other people in order to achieve your goals, especially if they are big goals.”
When it comes to controversial issues,such as the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in film, she states that while it may not be ideal, “it’s hard to be picky” when it comes to stereotypical roles, such as playing a manicurist in an Asian nail salon. But Xiao does not concede to the “I-Can’t-Do-Anything-About-It-So-Why-Bother-Trying” school of thought.
“Those people exist and one way to look at is, you’re still bringing to light their story, and it’s a real story,” Xiao said.
Xiao’s momentum shows no signs of slowing down. Her next role is in the highly anticipated Spider-Man: Homecoming. She cannot discuss the specific details of her role, but she mentions that this Spider-Man is “a little bit closer to the comic books that people grew up with. He’s a little more sarcastic and raw in that way.”
“He’s very charming. He’s very outgoing. On set, he was the life of the party. At the same time, he’s very down to earth,” Xiao said, on working with actor Jon Hamm. “You knew when John was on set. He’d introduce himself to everyone. He was a dream to work with.”
Of course, there’s more to Hamm than his dashing good looks. Xiao added that she coached Hamm with some of his Mandarin lines in the film, admitting that she was really impressed.
Xiao is poised and confident, though kind and willing to give back to her alma mater. She said she owes a lot to USC and has even offered to come back and speak with aspiring actors. Xiao has clearly taken her own advice in forging a career that could potentially become one of USC’s greatest success stories.