Article & Interview by Zara Rawoof
If there’s one way to describe Jonetta Kaiser, it’s her passion. A word lately overused when describing even the most lackluster subjects, the passion that drives the 24-year-old actress is what led to her booking the role of Sonya Karp on Peacock’s new TV series “Vampire Academy.” It’s also the reason Kaiser powered through an interview with NFM the day after her Lasik eye surgery.
Jonetta’s tenacious spirit, in spite of life’s curveballs, is not recent character development. Diagnosed with scoliosis as a freshman in high school, she remembers the fear instilled in her by doctors when explaining the restrictions that come with the diagnosis. “I was heartbroken. No one’s ever going to want someone like that to be the actor in their show,” Jonetta said, reflecting on her teenage years. While some remember high school for the pivotal memories it created, Jonetta remembers these years as when she thought she had to give up her dream.
Being an actress was what Jonetta Kaiser always wanted. As a kid in Louisiana, she would spend hours Googling “How to become an actress” in hopes of finding the key to her big break. Her aspirations were the same as almost every child at one point. But Jonetta’s actions set her apart from other kids with the same goal. Kaiser did everything she could. After reading “The Hunger Games” as a preteen, she wrote the film franchise’s casting director, pitching herself for the lead role of Katniss Everdeen. Jonetta submitted headshots taken in her grandma’s backyard. As the momentum building up for years came to a sudden halt as she entered high school, Kaiser focused on more STEM-related activities. At 14, she was making money designing Myspace layouts for people. “It was just the math and the science of it all. I love studying. I read books, and I just took notes and marked pages. I loved, loved, loved, loved doing that,” she gushed, explaining how her love for STEM resulted in her majoring in biochemistry. “It was something to keep my mind busy until I realized what I really wanted to be doing is acting,” Jonetta said. After getting a second opinion about her scoliosis treatment and saving up the money she made as a waitress, bartender, and web designer, Jonetta left Louisiana for an entirely different LA. “I moved here in January of 2018. By February of 2018, I was fully repped with a manager, theatrical agent, commercial agent, and modeling agent. I just emailed people and hoped they responded to me!” The actress used the skills she developed years before to create the life she had always dreamed for herself.
Jonetta’s journey is admirable, but her methods to success are simple. The actress has spent her whole life putting herself out there and asking for what she wants. Rejection was never a concern of hers. “I wanted to be a cheerleader but never made the cheerleading team. I wanted to play soccer but didn’t make the soccer team. I think I had enough rejection in my childhood. I’m kind of used to being told no, so I’ll just keep going and it’ll work out eventually. The worst they can say is no. And then you go to the next person, and they’ll probably tell you no as well. And then the next person will as well! But then, eventually, you’ll get a yes. You keep trying!”
In hindsight, Jonetta made all the right decisions. But as a college student thinking about dropping everything in her small-town life for the opportunities of a big city, thinking positive can be harder. Especially for loved ones. “I was doing pretty well in Louisiana, working at the bar. I had my finances figured out, so quitting and moving to a place where everything is three times more expensive was terrifying. But my mom was always super supportive. She always knew I was going to be an actress. And then my dad told me that I made a big mistake, and I should move back to Louisiana. He’s very logical,” Jonetta explains, understanding where her father was coming from. “ He wasn’t saying anything that was crazy. It was scary until I hit the ground running and just figured it out.”
By “figuring it out,” Jonetta means booking a Big Sean music video, two Snapchat series, and most recently, her role in “Vampire Academy.” Based on the 2007 young adult novel by Richelle Meade, this series is the second on-screen adaptation of the hit story. With a new intensity to the story, the project is executive produced by “The Vampire Diaries” creator Julie Plec, who says this was something she had been “dying to make.” St. Vladimir’s Academy for royal vampires and their human-vampire-hybrid counterparts has a darker, sexier undertone not yet found in this sci-fi niche. But amidst the enticing romance and drama of these vamps, themes of classism parallel reality, adding a refreshing take that steers clear of an artificially unblemished fantasy world. Jonetta Kaiser plays Sonya Karp, an introverted librarian whose love life brings her out of her shell. “It’s really different from what people are used to,” Jonetta explains. “And we’re streaming, so there aren’t rules as far as cursing and all of the normally restricted things. It’s really exciting.” A book lover herself, Kaiser had been immersed in the vampire world as a teenager. From “The Vampire Diaries,” “Twilight,” and even to the “Vampire Academy” movie, booking this role was a full circle moment. This would normally cause some nerves, but Jonetta hadn’t realized that her audition for “Vampire Academy” was for the “Vampire Academy” until she saw Julie Plec’s name. By then, she had already sent in her tape. “At that point, I just thought it would be so cool if I booked this,” she said. “There was no pressure because I hadn’t realized what it was!” It ended up working in Jonetta’s favor, helping her connect to Sonya without auditioning in a certain style. “I read what was on the page. I did that to the best of my ability, and it worked out!”
Paving her way in the acting industry, Jonetta Kaiser still keeps herself grounded with her activism. Supporting A21, a non-profit dedicated to ending all forms of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, the actress admires the work done to actively protect victims and prevent the continuation of these humanitarian crimes. “I did my senior thesis in high school on human trafficking, and at Louisiana State University, I spoke to some of the people who worked for an organization to end human trafficking. It was something at the time I didn’t really know that much about. There are the “Taken” movies which are so scary, full of action, and fun to watch, but not the reality. These are real lives.” Human trafficking was something Jonetta didn’t learn about until later in life. But her advocacy for diversity and opportunities for underprivileged children comes from a more personal place. “I grew up very poor myself. It’s getting out of the box that you can get stuck in and seeing outside of that box to know that there’s more to life than what’s right in front of you. It’s one of the hardest things to break out of. And in generationally poor families, it’s really because they can’t see past a box. It’s a mental struggle on so many levels, and growing up that way, it’s something that I’m passionate about.” While Jonetta could break out of that mindset, she’s adamant about shining a light on the lack of opportunities in the arts for poorer communities. “In small towns in the middle of nowhere, you do what you know,” she says. “Go to school, go to college, get a job. Pursuing the arts is not something that guarantees any money. That’s a fear for a lot of parents. There aren’t a lot of resources where you can go to a music class or have those programs.”
Giving us a glimpse into the methods behind her success, Jonetta says she writes down short-term goals she can achieve to reach the long-term ones. “That’s one of my biggest motivators. I want to work with Academy Award winners. So what do I need to do on a smaller scale to get there?” She’s also candid about just wanting to pay her bills. Coming from where she did, making sure that money is not an issue drives Jonetta’s work. She also stresses the importance of maintaining a job that will support your dream. Putting it bluntly, she says, “Don’t expect anything to be handed to you because it will not be. The guys being found in a restaurant by Martin Scorsese is quite a long shot.” Reading, listening to podcasts, and consuming information help Jonetta become a better actress. “If you don’t know where to start, start with your favorite actor. Mine is Jennifer Lawrence, so I watched probably every interview and project she’s ever been in. Study all the time. And then, put yourself out there. Send out emails; sagaftra.org has a list of agencies that are sag franchised [Screen Actor’s Guild]. Reach out to them if they don’t respond, wait a while, and reach out again. Eventually, someone’s going to respond to you.”
The clichés about hard work paying off and never giving up retain less meaning each time someone mindlessly utters the words. But seeing powerhouses like Jonetta Kaiser turn those phrases into actions shows the true value of hard work. As if the emails she sent were promises made to her future self, Jonetta is already fulfilling the dreams she had her entire life. With a role in “Vampire Academy” this early on in her career, Jonetta Kaiser is becoming the actress she always knew she would be.
Photography by Kristina Yamamoto, Styling by Venetia Kidd, Makeup by Tiffany Thater and Hair by Brooklyn Cardenas.