Michael Jai White on Ditching Your Hollywood Heroes and Other Lessons from a Career in Entertainment
Michael Jai White has lived many lives before getting his shot on the big screen.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut, Jai White was on his own at 14. He acted as a hobby, but became a teacher. He was about to train as a police officer when he landed a lead role in a Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1997’s Spawn, he played the first Black on-screen superhero.
Jai White also writes, produces and directs, and has just started his own mini-major studio, Jaigantic Studios, in Connecticut, the first of its kind in the state.
“I’m able to bring this industry into an environment that has very little else to prove that the future doesn’t have to be bleak. I’m an entertainer: we serve others. That’s me operating at my highest ability,” he says.
In this episode of SUCCESS Stories, Jai White tells Chief Storytelling Officer Kindra Hall why he doesn’t get star-struck by actors, the connection between teaching and entertainment, and why he looks for unity with even the most unlikely people.
Being a good person is more important than being good at something.
Jai White has worked with some of Hollywood’s best-known figures, including Issa Rae, Janet Jackson, Tyler Perry, Heath Ledger and Martin Sheen. Walking onto a set with superstars of this caliber sounds like both a dream and extremely intimidating—unless you’re Jai White.
Although he has always loved acting, and he respects the skill it takes to do it at a high level, Jai White says that he’s never put actors on a pedestal.
“My heroes were never actors. My heroes were people I thought were good people, who were selfless and did things for others,” he says. Acting is a skill, like being athletic or musical: but being able to do it doesn’t make you fundamentally better than anyone else.
When you’re on the inside of the industry like Jai White is, you also realize that as with any job, acting isn’t just about talent. You also have to look a certain way.
Because of this, he says, the most famous actors aren’t necessarily the most talented; they just happen to check certain boxes that are outside their control. This allows them a shot in the industry that other people with the same level of talent aren’t afforded.
The next time you have a meeting with someone considered important in your line of work, ask yourself if they’ve really earned that level of admiration. Be respectful, but keep their achievements in perspective.
Entertainment is the greatest vessel for education.
Being a teacher taught Jai White that people learn best when they don’t know you’re trying to teach them something. That’s why entertainment can be such a powerful conduit for important lessons.
He chooses projects he believes have something to say, but that wrap it up in fun.
For example, he describes his upcoming movie The Outlaw Johnny Black — in which he plays the eponymous lead — as “a faith-based action/Western/romantic comedy/drama.” Beneath all of those elements, he says the central message is about forgiveness and trying to understand other people’s perspectives.
Many people who want to use creative projects to get a message across are too heavy-handed. They’re so fixated on making people listen to what they have to say that they alienate their audience.
Entertainment that educates should never be about showboating or lecturing, Jai White says. Focus on engaging through your storytelling, and let people come to their own conclusions.
Value unity over division.
Jai White has always loved meeting people from different walks of life. As a teenager, he was friends with people from so many disparate groups that each of them couldn’t believe he knew the others. It made for some interesting parties.
Being open to everyone means reaching out to people who have different experiences and beliefs, even when they apparently contradict your own.
For example, he says that he has a friend who was previously in a biker gang, who has a tattoo of a Nazi symbol. He understands that at first glance, seeing them laughing and chatting over dinner probably seems weird to other people. But he took the time to get to know this person and his story, and to learn that his tattoos represent his past, not who he is now.
“Especially in this day and age, we have to relegate somebody as, ‘That’s that type of person, and that’s all they are.’ It’s such a waste of time; we spend so much time on this stupid hate stuff,” Jai White says.
Be prepared to meet people who think differently from you, and instead of focusing on the things you disagree on, look for the similarities.
See your hard times as a bootcamp in life.
Jai White’s Hollywood dreams didn’t come true overnight. He overcame a tough childhood, and he thinks it easily could have gone a different way.
What helped him was a piece of advice he heard from a speaker in high school. He can’t even remember who the man was, beyond being a lawyer from Puerto Rico.
“For some reason, I knew that that guy got to where he was through education, and my whole world changed,” he says.
At the time, he had no idea that the information had even sunk in: he says he was clowning around, barely paying attention. But part of him intuited that education was the way out of what could have been a much harder life.
After that talk, he applied himself at school, and even earned an improvement award, and a small scholarship that helped him go to college.
Now that Jai White himself is a popular motivational speaker, he gets to be the one changing lives.
He makes sure to tell kids in challenging circumstances that things will get better, and that their toughest times will give them strength other people don’t have.
“You’re running a race with a 50-pound backpack: that feels unfair,” he says. “But if you keep running, eventually that load lightens up. When that load becomes 30 pounds, you’re going to start running by people. You’re gonna blow right by everybody, but the way you do that is through education.”
He’s even met people who were inspired to change their lives after hearing him talk. “I could win an Oscar and not feel that significant,” Jai White says.
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