Her singles have climbed the charts, she’s been on tour with people like Usher, and she’s acquired millions of loyal fans, all at an age when the typical extracurricular activities are limited to cheerleading and writing for the school paper. Now, the 5-foot-4 phenom born as Joanna Levesque has set a new pair of goals for herself in 2006: become a movie star and get a driver’s license.
“I’m 15 and a half,” JoJo said. “In New Hampshire, they’re more lenient with permits and taking your child out. So my dad has actually taught me how to drive a stick shift in New Hampshire. We’ve been going to parking lots.”
Such lessons come with hours of late-night gas/clutch/gas-jerking in empty supermarket parking lots. When it comes to that other life goal, however, she’s learning to avoid more difficult obstacles than the occasional shopping cart.
“I was very nervous,” the “Leave (Get Out)” singer said of the “RV” casting process, where she earned the role of Robin Williams’ daughter. “I auditioned five times. … Actually, they had already hired a girl, and I’m thinking to myself, ’OK, I don’t even know why I’m doing this anymore because they already have a girl, so there’s no point,’ but I don’t know what happened because now I’m in the movie.”
What happened was quite simple: Veteran director Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black”) kept hearing the perfect voice for the role of jaded teenager Cassie — from his kid’s stereo.
“My daughter, who’s about to be 13, knew JoJo was a huge pop star and was so excited,” Sonnenfeld said. “JoJo and I never could get in the same room together because she was in Australia doing ’Aquamarine,’ so I kept trying to cast somebody else but kept coming back to JoJo.”
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Building off her debut in the recently released mermaid flick “Aquamarine,” JoJo has once again shown that she can carry her own — this time, opposite a pair of veteran actors.
“It’s amazing to see,” gushed “Good Will Hunting” Oscar winner Williams during a separate interview in New York. “She was 14 when she made the movie. So all of a sudden I’d see her be 14, but then all of a sudden be 30. She’s got this huge music career, and I’m like, ’Damn, girl, you the man!’ ”
“You work with younger actors, and you just hope they know their lines and show up and are beyond their years as far as professionalism. She was,” said Jeff Daniels, who plays a hillbilly patriarch encountered by the traveling Munro family. “She’s a nice kid, she’s a nice person, and everybody got along, so you just go, ’Oh, that’s great!’ ”
“Yo, Jo! You be throwin’ it down!” the famously energetic Williams screamed, giving a shout-out to his co-star while literally dancing in his chair. “Wassup, girl? Work it! Work it!”
As insane as Williams may occasionally be, however, JoJo cited one of the legend’s most subtle performances as her favorite.
” ’The Fisher King’ … was absolutely incredible,” she said. “I loved him in it. He was so weird and zany. I can see parts of it in the way he was in ’RV,’ which is weird, but he brings something that is authentically Robin Williams to each part that he plays.”
So as JoJo’s onscreen father teaches her how to make a smooth transition from first to second gear, her co-stars are dispensing equally important advice on the virtues of subtlety and versatility in acting.
“I want to do something more dramatic, something that kind of stretches my limits and something that makes me a little bit uncomfortable,” JoJo said of her future in Hollywood. “I’m just reading scripts right now. … I’m gonna set myself apart.”
And if that fails, she could always make a few bucks with some different lessons imparted by her “RV” mentors. “Cheryl [Hines of ’Curb Your Enthusiasm’] taught me how to play poker,” JoJo said of her onscreen mom. “It was great. … I have to hone my skills a bit more, but on the weekends and stuff Robin and Cheryl would have everyone over to their places and have poker tournaments.”
“We did a lot of poker playing,” Hines grinned. “We did hang out a lot together, once we started shooting.”
The group became so tight, in fact, that Hines is contemplating her very own JoJo-inspired name change. “Um, CherCher?” she laughed.
“I’m just K-Cho,” added Kristin Chenoweth (“Bewitched”), who plays Daniels’ wife in the film. “K-Cho from the cul-de-sac. I used to have a lot, now I have a little — that was my version of ’Jenny From the Block.’ ”
Maybe JoJo’s co-stars should stick to acting and let the 15-year-old double-threat worry about being a pop star. The way she sees it, both her acting and singing careers will only get bigger in the years to come. It’s the driving that needs to be kept small.
“I’d never drive an RV,” JoJo laughed. “I would be so afraid. That’s too much power to have. I’m scared enough trying to drive a Toyota.”
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