It was only through getting lost on the streets of Paris that Jojo T. Gibbs realized the extent of Luc Besson’s fanbase and what it meant to be in one of his films. In the French capital to shoot Dogman — billed as the director’s comeback movie (it’s one of the buzziest films premiering in Venice) and about a troubled young man who finds salvation through the love of his dogs — she one day found herself on a road she didn’t recognize with her phone battery having died.
“And I ran into these two women and they had to show me back to my hotel. When I told them why I was there, they were like, ‘Oh my god, Luc Besson?’,” Gibbs recalls. “I hadn’t been nervous at all up until that moment. But the way they reacted… it was the first time I thought, wow, this is a really big deal.”
Not that the rising star — for whom Dogman marks her biggest role to date and sees her play the crucial part of prison psychiatrist Evelyn alongside Caleb Landry Jones’ protagonist Douglas (while it is predominantly shot in a French studio, it’s actually set in New Jersey) — wasn’t already a keen Besson enthusiast. As a child growing up in small-town North Carolina, she fondly recalls the traditional trip to the local video store with her dad and brother to choose the movie they’d then watch over a Chinese takeaway. One of those movies was Besson’s 1997 space opera The Fifth Element.
“I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew it resonated with me so much that there was a black president,” she says. “Stuff like that is so significant, and I realized how impactful film and television was for me as a kid and what I believed was attainable. It clearly looked like the far-distant future, but who knew Obama would come along? So yeah, I thought that was dope — I’d never seen a black president in movies before.”
While The Fifth Element may have been transformative, Gibbs says as she grew older the idea of becoming an actress still didn’t seem feasible, so instead studied broadcast journalism. But her close friends kept reminding her what she’d told them, that her dream had always been to perform. “So eventually I was like, I gotta do it,” she says.
She moved to LA, starting down that classic route of doing stand-up comedy and improv while juggling a variety of jobs, including being a substitute teacher, a door-to-door solar panel saleswoman, and working at the Cheesecake Factory. But that “Chris Tucker moment” — someone catching her show and immediately offering her a life-changing role — never happened. Realizing she needed to take things into her own hands, Gibbs found inspiration in Issa Rae, who had done just that with her self-made web series Awkward Black Girl.
So, alongside her best friend Rashonda Joplin, she co-wrote the comedy series No More Comics in LA, following Gibbs in the not-too-unfamiliar role of a broke aspiring comedian from small-town America trying to make it in the city. She shot two episodes while simultaneously working two jobs (teaching and the Cheesecake Factory), but then — “exhausted” — turned to crowdfunding to finance the rest, using the skills picked up selling solar panels door-to-door to hit up production companies and potential donors. Lena Waithe was among them.
“And she was like, I’m actually auditioning people for a show that I’m about to do,” says Gibbs. From her first-ever audition, she got the lead role in Waithe’s groundbreaking semi-autobiographical comedy series for BET, Twenties. Her moment had come. There would be no more cheesecakes. “Literally within a week, I had an agent, a manager, and a lawyer.”
Twenties, which ran for two seasons from 2020-2021, was hugely well-received, but much of the acclaim was reserved for the natural comedic screen presence of Gibbs.
It wasn’t long before she landed her first film role, playing Daisy Edgar-Jones’ best friend in Hulu’s cannibalistic horror Fresh (one of the few characters not to die). She was later cast in Celine Song’s recent awards hit Past Lives, but in the final cut her role was reduced to a non-speaking part. “Celine called me to explain why they took the scenes out and it made complete sense,” she says. “But I still appreciate the little cameo.” Then came Alex Garland’s yet-to-be-released and somewhat mysterious sci-fi action epic Civil War for A24 alongside Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny (also in Venice this year for Priscilla). Gibbs says she appears in the “fourth quarter” of Civil War, rumored to be coming out in early 2024.
At some point during this growing assortment of work, Gibbs gave an interview, an interview that was watched by Besson.
“He was auditioning another actress, and said he saw me in an interview I was in with her, and that when he heard my voice, he was like, that’s it.” Gibbs says she can’t even remember the interview in question (“I don’t want to know who the actress was”), but it’s one that has landed her more than just a little cameo — a major part in a much-hyped feature from a legendary director and bowing in competition in one of the world’s most prestigious festivals.
Dogman — which Gibbs filmed back-to-back with Civil War, flying from Atlanta to Paris — is, she says, a “thriller that tugs on the heartstrings” and will show a new emotional depth to Besson’s filmmaking. “It has the same action as The Fifth Element and it’s entertaining, but it’s also a little darker, a little heavier. It’s still gonna keep you engaged, but it’s going to have a different nuanced feeling that I think might take the audience by surprise.”
As for Dogman being Besson’s all-important comeback feature as a director, Gibbs says that, during the production, she felt a “strong sense of care,” not just from the filmmaker himself, but everyone involved.
“When I stepped on set, I knew the importance of the moment, just because I could feel the energy. But then he may treat every single project like that.”