LIVING Javicia Leslie, who plays Ali Finer in God Friended Me, tells Jack Yan about her role, her faith, and how she keeps her life balanced—not to mention her theory on just who is behind the ‘God account’ on the CBS hit show
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
Javicia Leslie has been on our screens regularly since the mid-2010s, in such series as Chef Julian, the MacGyver remake, The Family Business, and the Lifetime movie Killer Coach, but it’s her latest role, as Ali Finer in God Friended Me that has brought her the most prominence. It is a coincidence that Lucire featured her co-star, Violett Beane, in issue 40, but at the risk of turning this magazine into an unofficial God Friended Me actors’ publication, the opportunity to interview Leslie was too good to miss.
Born 1987 in Augsburg, Germany, to parents serving in the US military, she gained an early interest in acting. She has vague memories of her time in Germany—the cold, and her dog, a chow-chow, who did not like her—and gained an interest in acting when she was a child. ‘I used to put together talent shows with my cousins to perform in front of my family.’ However, she wasn’t sure that she would act as her career: ‘I wanted to be a teacher, an actor, a dancer, I wanted to be all these things!’
She recalls, ‘Then in high school, I started doing plays and other talent shows. When I entered college at Hampton University, I started doing more plays and more pageants.’
The pageant circuit saw Leslie crowned Miss Hampton University when she was a junior in college. ‘We had the talent sections, [for] which I did tap-dance,’ says Leslie, along with the usual Q&A, swimsuit and ball gown sections. However, the most rewarding part, as many pageant participants attest, was in community service. ‘That was a huge part of the programme. It gave me access to programmes that I don’t think I would have had access to, had I not done the pageant programmes like Girls Inc., etc. Now, 10 years later, one of my hugest passions is community service.’
She pursued a business management degree at Hampton University, and wound up in the government sector as a contractor.
However, the acting bug never left. She continued to act on the side, in commercials, plays and live hosting.
Her work was nevertheless meaningful, working with soldiers who were deployed under the US’s “stop-loss” orders during the Iraq War. These were soldiers who were ordered to stay longer than their enlistment period because the US had a manpower shortage. Leslie’s job was to find soldiers that hadn’t been paid, specifically those who had passed away—but not while on active service. Many had passed away postwar.
‘Working on that programme taught me a lot about the importance of mental health in our country,’ says Leslie. ‘What we need to do is make sure that when these soldiers are coming back, they have all of the opportunities for health and mental health options available for them because we don’t know what they went through. When I was working for that company, I saw that a lot of it was self-inflicted and I felt that our country needed a wake-up call. This is something that really needs to be the focus, it needs to be dealt with. Soldiers risk their lives for us, so I feel that it is important that we return the favour by protecting them when they’re here.’
However, the work left Leslie unfulfilled. She felt happy bringing happiness to those families who would be paid by her employers, but admits, ‘My spirit wasn’t necessarily fulfilled with what I wanted to do for myself, my passion, and my purpose.’
She had some further work in Maryland and DC, and finished up a job that was winding down. With her severance pay and unemployment to help with her transition, she moved to Los Angeles—with a one-way ticket—in 2012. She signed with her manager a month after she got there, and an agent the month after.
As a Christian, Leslie felt God guided her to make the transition. ‘I feel like God gave us passion for a reason. I’ve always felt that if you pursue your passion, you will find your purpose. We each individually have gifts that are necessary for not only ourselves, but for the world to live off of. Our world goes around because of these gifts, so it is very necessary for you to walk in your purpose. We all depend on each individual walking in their purpose. I feel like where I am is a part of my purpose. I’ve always felt that I am exactly where I am supposed to be!’ A lot of it is watching the signs: she gives the example of running into someone who winds up being a big part of the next step of her purpose or career. ‘There have always been signs along my path that have allowed me to know that I am right where I am supposed to be—it’s almost like a constant déjà vu.’
Those signs have led her to a variety of roles: ‘In MacGyver, I am a member of a family of bounty hunters, versus in The Family Business, I’m a hit woman, and in God Friended Me I am someone who gives spiritual guidance when it comes to [Ali’s brother] Miles, [Miles’s on–off girlfriend] Cara, [Miles’s friend and colleague] Rakesh, for what they’re going through, or even when it comes to my father, Arthur. So, to be able to play all these different characters, is really just playing all of these different parts of me. It’s been fun and something that I want to continue to do, I can’t wait to get into the superhero world.’
When Leslie first read for the role of Ali, she says it reminded her a lot of herself: ‘I have an older brother that I feel like I’m constantly giving advice to … She has this light spunky sense of humour where she finds the positivity in everything, but also finds a way to bring people to reality and to see different perspectives, not just their own perspectives. I also just love that she’s so strong. I think that after Ali’s mother died, she became that strong, woman figure in her household.’ Leslie says she likes to think of herself as a grounded person for others in her life, but that she can call on those even more grounded than her when she needs it.
Her dress sense isn’t as similar to Ali’s, however. ‘Ali is very eclectic, colourful, her style is practical, but it’s fun. She’s very, very colourful, she loves dresses. As for me personally, I’m never set on one style, it depends! Sometimes I’m the sweatpants, sneakers, and hoodie girl and this is generally what I wear to work every day. This is me and this is what makes me comfortable! I love to wear something like that, but pair it with a peacoat so it gives the slouchy outfit some beautiful structure, so it looks like I do care!’ Leslie’s red-carpet look is about having fun: ‘I don’t think I have any specific style that I go for, but I love things that catch my attention and things that I haven’t done before. I do love men’s suits, specifically a long slouchy suit—I think that it’s sleek and sexy but it’s still very masculine.’
Working on the show, she says the cast—Brandon Micheal Hall as Miles; Joe Morton as Arthur; Violett Beane as Cara; and Suraj Sharma as Rakesh—really does have a family vibe. ‘It’s amazing, I mean Brandon and I are really like brother and sister. I think we all kind of see Joe Morton as like a father figure! The rest of us all are just really great friends, we get to hang out in New York City together. Whenever we travel for the show, we get to go to different places for that, we always come together for different nights to have dinner and we celebrate each other’s accomplishments and birthdays. It’s really cool to be on a show where we genuinely love each other.’
For those unfamiliar with the show, or haven’t read issue 40, God Friended Me revolves around Miles receiving Facebook friend requests from someone calling themselves ‘God’, his job being to help that person through whatever trials they faced. The underlying mystery that Miles, an avowed atheist, is trying to uncover is just who is behind the God account. Leslie has her theory: ‘This is going to sound insane; I think Ali might be behind the God account. She just knows so much and if you think about it, everyone is connected in some kind of way, and in some kind of way, everyone funnels their way through the church, and she’s been going to the church her entire life. So of course, she’s met these people and she knows what’s going on in their lives. Maybe her overall goal is to bring Miles his faith back? If that’s the case, wouldn’t that be the reason for Ali to be the God account? I’m just saying …’
Leslie balances her life well. Acting can have its stresses, and she is mindful to not get caught up in them.
Therefore, she has a Twitter account, and is active on there on the nights she has a project airing, but ‘I’m never on Twitter outside of that, and I never read Twitter.’ The confusion she sees—she stops at calling it negativity—doesn’t help with her own energy and consciousness, which she wishes to protect.
‘Instagram, same thing,’ she says. She is there for her friends, and she enjoys the images and videos, but she will still take breaks from it.
‘I think that social media is a distraction. I understand as an actress that it’s valuable because it allows access, and I’ve been in casting offices where I’ve overheard individuals talking about how many followers actresses and actors have, and I’m sure that may make a difference, but I don’t know if it makes a difference in the projects that I want to be a apart of.’ Wisely, Leslie sees Instagram as a tool to network and create community over the things she cares about. But it shouldn’t be a numbers’ game: ‘I think that we have to be really careful about where we lay our values when it comes to creating art, because it may be the person who doesn’t have any followers that may be able to move the masses.’
She visits the gym daily, and enjoys running, Muay Thai, Pilates, yoga, dance, and kickboxing, but it goes further than physical fitness. ‘I started doing Muay Thai a few years ago. It is so amazing; it feels like a release,’ she explains. ‘You will really be surprised what you have blocked inside of you and it helps you release frustration, anger, confusion, sadness.
‘One time, I had to do a fighting scene in The Family Business, and in the midst of doing the fighting scene my character gets emotional. So I’m fighting, and fighting, and then I become emotional because I’m dropped in and I’m there for all of my character’s circumstances and that’s what it’s doing to me—releasing these emotions that I didn’t even expect it to release, and it just so happened to go perfectly with where my character was.’
Running is also a release for her, as is dance: ‘sometimes I go to local tap dance classes just on a random Saturday and I kind of release my creativity through that.’
She also believes in eating healthily. ‘I also love cooking, it’s very therapeutic for me and especially as a vegan, I love vegan cookbooks, because it gives me a chance to try all of these different recipes.’ Leslie has published some of her recipes online, and says cooking, and hosting friends who try out her food, bring her great joy.
Her dog, Judah, is ‘literally one of the sweetest animals ever. Judah is so loving and playful, he kind of grounds me because he’s so loyal. To have such a loyal being wanting to be around me and make me happy is such a blessing.’
The future looks bright for Leslie. During the hiatus on God Friended Me’s first season, she filmed Always a Bridesmaid, a comedy where she played the lead, a woman who re-enters the dating scene after being the bridesmaid at many of her friends’ weddings. ‘I didn’t have to necessarily be the comic relief, but the funny things were happening to me! I’ve always wanted to be that girl, the Along Came Polly type of girl where it’s like you aren’t the person trying to make the joke, but all of the bad things that could happen are happening to you. We all can relate to that!’
In real life, Leslie is grateful not to be on the dating scene any more, having been in a relationship ‘for a while’. ‘I actually feel bad for those that are still in the dating scene, it looks like it is crazy!’
With her skills in Muay Thai and kickboxing, Leslie would love to be Tomb Raider in a future role. ‘I want to do something on that level. I want to use all of my skills for a role and I would love to land a role similar to Tomb Raider.’
She is also starting a podcast, with the goal of educating her audience and helping them grow, with a longer-term plan to have it develop into a talk show. ‘I used to want to be the next Oprah, but now I’ve realized, I don’t want a live studio audience talk show. I want something more like Jada Pinkett Smith’s talk show, Red Table Talk. I want guests to come on my show—maybe it’s just my guest, me, and one other guest and we get to talk about what’s real. I want guests to feel like they’re comfortable, and I want guests to feel like they’re protected and safe and this is a platform for guests to be heard.’
Finally, Leslie wants to take her charity, the Chandler Foundation, to ‘the next level.’ Her work for the Foundation sees her giving back to youth. ‘Last year, I held an event in Los Angeles in celebration of my birthday and I encouraged guests to bring athletic equipment, which I donated to local elementary and middle schools. I’m really passionate about helping others and want to be able to impact more children’s lives and hold bigger events where we’re able to give back.’
For now, Leslie is keen to continue with Ali. The character has been diagnosed with cancer in the second season. The second half of the season has some surprises, ‘and because of those circumstances, I’m getting a chance to go in a place I’ve never gone before. Right now, my most fulfilling role is playing Ali in God Friended Me because I’m going to be able to be a voice for a lot of people. It’s a blessing to have this opportunity to be as vulnerable as I’ll have to be and to be able to also be as sensitive and gentle towards the subject that a lot of people are battling with.’ •
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