JoJo Siwa’s brand has always been happiness.
She first burst onto the scene as the daughter of one of Lifetime’s titular “Dance Moms,” where she became known not just for her dance moves, but for the way she accessorized. Siwa wore bright, sparkly bows in her hair at all times, to some of the moms’ dismay — or perhaps it was just her perpetual grin that irked them.
Siwa is now 18, but the signature bows haven’t gone anywhere, and neither has her positive attitude. Both are essential to the plot of “The J Team,” the new Paramount Plus film that she executive produces and stars in as herself. This version of JoJo, along with her best friends “The Rubies,” must face a mean-spirited new dance coach named Poppy, played by Tisha Campbell. Poppy wants nothing more than to use dance to crush others’ dreams, imposing an all-grey uniform, a universal ban on sparkles and a mandate that JoJo learns how to suppress her individuality. To no one’s surprise, JoJo finds that task impossible.
Siwa spoke to Variety about the joys of filming “The J Team,” whether coming out has affected her career and her monster-sized career goals.
As you’ve done many times in your career, you play yourself in “The J Team.” Were you involved in creating the story idea?
Oh, yeah. So actually, in the beginning, my mom came up with the idea to do this musical. We pitched it to Nickelodeon and they loved it. There’s no way anybody could write or produce or act as JoJo better than I can. You know what I mean? And luckily, we have an incredible writer for this film. [Eydie Faye] was amazing, and she wrote the lines for me exactly how I would say them. She really did her homework, and she knew everything about me. Writing the script was a whole process that I was super involved with. Everything down to production design — I mean everything.
JoJo Siwa projects are always bright and joyful on screen, so how does that energy carry over behind the scenes? Any favorite memories from shooting?
Behind the scenes is really fun. Something that’s funny, actually, is we were at a barn. We shot most of our stuff out of a barn. And now, a barn is pretty … sound-y. It’s not very soundproof. We called it the Bermuda Triangle because we were surrounded by three different airports. So we had, every five minutes, an airplane going over us. When you’re filming a movie, you have to hold every time there’s an airplane or helicopter or a train, and we had those three sounds all the time. So the amount of times that we’d be filming and we’d have to just pause and listen and wait was wild.
I liked getting to work with Tisha [Campbell], she was really fun. She and I had a lot of fun together. And whenever we’d be in the hair and makeup trailer, that was always fun. My makeup artist [Jennifer Kaminski] and I would go back and forth scaring each other all the time. That was always a blast.
Tell me more about Tisha Campbell. What was it like working with her? Did she teach you anything special?
Tisha took the role and made it her own. No one expected her to do what she did [as] Miss Poppy, and I think that I’ll carry that throughout my life. She had a vision of what the character was, and she went for it, and everybody loved it.
What about your co-stars, the Rubies?
Right away, when Kiara [T. Romero], Kerrynton [Jones] and I met, we decided, “We have to be friends. If we want to make the best movie, we have to be real-life friends.” And so we did. We became friends, and we got super close while we were there. It was cool to see how fast the chemistry came to life.
The choreography in the film really matches the personal style you’ve been developing since your “Dance Moms” days. What was it like building those numbers with your choreographer?
[Heather Laura Gray] was so much fun to work with. We got to Canada and we had to have a two-week quarantine. We were hanging out the first day, it was great, then we had a mandatory Zoom for all crew that night. They were like, “By the way, cast rehearsals start tomorrow. 9 a.m.” I was like, “Oh… they do?” We thought we had two weeks off! But Heather made those days fun. Looking back on the film, rehearsing was one of my favorite parts.
This has been a big year for you outside of “The J Team” as well. Congratulations on coming out in January. How has being out affected your work so far? Have you thought much about playing specifically queer characters or participating in queer media in other ways?
You know, it’s affected my career way less than it’s affected my personal life. My career just kept going. It hasn’t stopped anything. It’s made things more fun, certainly. And on set, when there’s other gay people, it gives you an instant bond. It’s really cool. I’ve just been so happy. It just makes every day better than the last.
What are some of your dreams for the future of your acting career? What kinds of movies would you like to make?
I want to do a movie kind of like “The Greatest Showman.” And I want to play a character in a musical.
What do you mean by that, “a character”?
Well, “The J Team,” it’s a musical, but I’m playing myself. So I think that playing a character in a musical — like Hugh Jackman played P.T. Barnum and Zendaya played the acrobat — that’s really cool. You know, I think that playing a character in a musical. And I love musical biopics.
Who would you like to play in a biopic?
Oh, I wanna be Lady Gaga. For sure. That’s number one.
Until then, tell me more about playing yourself in your career so far. “The J Team” has a fictional plot, so are there any big differences between you and your character? Or is it still completely you?
It really is completely me. That was a whole thing before we started filming “The J Team.” Am I playing JoJo, or am I being JoJo? And the line is very fine — I mean, there’s not even a line, it’s so fine. So it was a very big thing to juggle. You can say that I’m playing JoJo, but there’s no such thing. So audience interpretation, whatever you want to take it as, but for me, I’m just being me.