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Playing Camila Cabello’s Grandmother In ‘Havana’ Video Let LeJuan James Go Totally Off-Script

He tells MTV News why working with Camila was 'a match made in heaven'

For her newly released “Havana” video, Camila Cabello cranked up the drama by packing the mini-movie with amazingly animated characters. There’s her bespectacled alter ego, Karla, her “extra” older sister, played by Lele Pons, and the stars of a campy, fictional telenovela. But the biggest scene-stealer may be Karla’s doting, fast-talking abuelita, played hilariously by social media star LeJuan James.

Calling in from the Dominican Republic, James spoke to MTV News about working on the video, the importance of representing Hispanic culture, and why Cabello’s mom was the real MVP of the shoot.

MTV News: It must be an exciting day for you, now that the video’s finally out.

James: For sure! It’s been kind of surreal. I’ve been a fan of Camila’s for a while — I really became a fan of her and followed her with Fifth Harmony, and now I’m watching her take off in her solo career. It’s really been extremely gratifying to get a response from people, and just get that kind of overwhelming love. I’m happy, more than anything, for Camila, because people seem to be enjoying the video so far, so that’s awesome for her.

MTV: How were you first approached to be in the video?

James: Camila’s management reached out to my management. We have the same talent agency. Camila’s mother, and Camila as well, are big fans of my work — I see them occasionally “like” my stuff. When I went on set, that was the first time I’d actually met Camila and interacted with her. She and her mother had a heartfelt conversation with me and told me how much they identify with what I do. The persona Camila plays in the video, it’s really who she is. She’s really a homebody, and her mom was telling me that she’s just a conservative person. They really wanted me to bring the grandmother character to life because her grandmother loved and enjoyed the song since the beginning. They thought that I would be perfect for it, and it was really heartwarming for them to share that with me.

MTV: I think a lot of people were initially shocked to see you as the grandmother. What was your reaction when you first heard you’d be playing that character?

James: Initially, I was just honored. I truly respect what [Camila] does because, like me, I really try to embrace my Hispanic culture and heritage and try to keep it alive as an immigrant here in the United States. I try to keep that upbringing alive through what I do with my online sketch comedy, and Camila does a great job of embracing her Hispanic heritage as well. I think it was a match made in heaven. I was just honored because I know what the song means particularly for Cuba, to get representation and a face like that. And not only just for Cuba, but for all Latin Americans. This is a trying time right now in the United States, and I love the fact that she stands up for us, and the fact that she’s Hispanic and embraces it. So it was super dope.

MTV: I’ve seen so many comments on the video that say, “The grandma is exactly mine!” Clearly, it’s relatable and resonating with a lot of people.

James: With everything that I do, my humor is based on relatability and nostalgia. That’s really why I spoke with Camila and her mom to just kind of get an insight into who her grandmother was, and then I brought the character to life. They really gave me creative freedom — they said “do what you do best.” I love to see that in the comments... for people to get an emotional connection when they see the video and they’re like, “Oh my god, that’s my grandmother!”

MTV: What was it like choosing your wardrobe and getting your whole look ready?

James: The day before the shoot, I arrived in L.A. and we did hair and makeup for two or three hours. We went through an assortment of wigs and costumes, just trying to figure out the whole look, and added some glasses and makeup and things like that. They were aiming for a general grandmother, but with some Hispanic flavor. So the [outfit]... basically that’s something that typically my grandmother wears around the house while she drinks coffee. [Hispanic grandmothers] always take care of themselves; they have a nice hairdo, regardless of where they’re at. The whole persona is just trying to be that Hispanic grandmother, and to be honest, we’re trying to represent the Hispanic community, but I think a lot of us have that grandmother, regardless of your heritage or background.

MTV: I love the scene where you’re sitting the two girls down and giving them this hilarious lecture. Were there a lot of takes involved with getting that scene just right?

James: Yeah, it was so fun. The whole time people were laughing. Initially, we had a script — and they still lived by the script — but for my part, they scrapped the script and Camila said, “Just do what you do.” The director couldn’t understand me because I was speaking Spanish, so Camila did the job of making the translations with the director in the post-edit. We shot it several times because we wanted to embrace that back-and-forth of family, and I was just free-styling, which is usually what I do — all of my stuff is off the top of my head. They did an amazing job editing it.

MTV: Where did the “don’t make me use the flip-flop” line come from? Was that your idea?

James: Well the flip-flop line, that was something Camila wanted. And I’m like, “Of course, we got to.” It’s a main staple in Hispanic houses. And to be honest, every time we shot a scene, her mom would chime in and say, “Hey this looks great, this could be better, this is what we could do,” to everybody on set. So I want to give her mom credit.

MTV: That's very cool. What was Camila’s mom like?

James: She was adorable. Her mom, from what I saw, plays a huge role in her career with just giving her advice. Even when we were prepping, before we shot the scenes, I went into Camila’s trailer and me, her, and her mom had a discussion about the creative process and what sounds good and what we thought people would really enjoy.

MTV: We also see you again later in the video, when you’re dancing alone in the apartment. What was it like shooting that scene?

James: To be honest, it was a little embarrassing!

MTV: Was there music playing while you were dancing?

James: It was during the last chorus of the song, and it was all a cappella. So it’s like, “OK, sing the last chorus of the song and dance with this broom.” And then the director was like, “Do this, do that, do this, do that.” And Camila was in the back going, “Do this, do that.” Think about a room full of, like, 40 men, and you’re dressed up as a grandmother and dancing. I mean, I just had fun with it. In the end, I knew it was important to Camila, because her and her grandmother really had those conversations about “you need to go out more, Camila, get out and live” because Camila really is a homebody.

MTV: What was it like collaborating with Camila?

James: I really have nothing but great things to say about her. She was just really kind to me. From the moment I met her, she was really lovable and gave me a big hug and told me how much she enjoyed my work. She’s really open with me, so it was easy to work with her. I even saw how she worked with the directors and the people on set, and she has a really great heart and was really patient.

MTV: Now that the video’s out, what’s it been like seeing the reactions from your fans and from Camila’s fans?

James: They’re just kind of in shock, because they didn’t expect it. And like I said, it’s a match made in heaven because of what [Camila] stands for and what I stand for. My fanbase is always so supportive of everything I do because they’ve been with me from the beginning. On Twitter, Camila’s fans are just going IN on me right now, congratulating us on killing the video. It’s been overwhelming. Shout out to her fans! They’re really passionate.