Netflix's new Christmas film, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story has taken the nation by storm since its release in November, and for good reason. It's one of the first-ever Christmas films to feature an almost all-Black cast, and the cast itself is pretty star-studded. With appearances — and songs — from Keegan-Michael Key, Ricky Martin, and Forest Whitaker, the film is a truly special affair. Based on a toy maker who gets betrayed by his apprentice, Jingle Jangle is a tale of hope and compassion.
Lisa Davina Phillip plays Ms. Johnston, an impassioned postwoman who won't take no for an answer — we caught up with her discuss her role in the film, her acting career in general, and her thoughts on this year's Christmas adverts.
POPSUGAR: When did you first start singing? How did that come about for you?
Lisa Davina: I started singing at drama school and acting when I was about 12. I went to a local youth group, and it was always very focused on the acting side, but then at drama school, they teach you that you have to be this triple threat. I was quite shy and retiring at first — I used to just sit back, and listen, and watch. Then they had a meet-and-greet outside school where you get to know people outside of the classroom — we were in a pub, and they had a little karaoke session, and I sang Gabrielle's "Dreams Can Come True."
After I sang that, the singing teacher came up to me and said, 'You can sing!' and I was like "Oh, OK," because I had been really shy before then. I won a scholarship, but there was a lot of pressure to prove that I was this amazing actor. From then on, I was one of the singing teacher's favourite pupils, and she always used to say to me, "You could be in The Lion King", so much that it almost became a bit of a mantra. Funnily enough, when I left drama school, I got a role in The Lion King six months later, so it worked!
PS: That's incredible, clearly it did! What was your time on the West End like?
LD: I was pinching myself to be in The Lion King, because I'd only just started singing, so it was very surreal. I was a swing, so it meant that I wasn't on stage every day. They have this thing — they call it The Lion King Bible — and inside there is every entrance, every exit, every costume change, all your harmonies, and it's literally as thick as a Bible because there are that many things you have to remember! I felt so blessed to be in The Lion King. It was definitely a pinch-yourself moment and very much a learning curve because the standard is so high, being in the West End, and there's a lot expected of you.
I was also part of the original cast in Ghost: The Musical. I've never done an original cast anything before, so that was fabulous! I was part of the soundtrack as well, and I was able to really create the character of Clara. I love the film, and Whoopi Goldberg is my favourite actor. Even when I was creating Ms. Johnston, there were moments when I was thinking in my head "What would Whoopi do? How would she execute this?" because she's just warm, and funny, and wonderful. I loved my time in the West End. The first 10 years of my career has basically been dedicated to the West End, and I'd say the last six or seven years, I've tried to transfer and move over to TV and film.
PS: You made an appearance in People Just Do Nothing, that must have been quite different! What was it like?
LD: That was just a laugh a minute because though some of it is scripted, a lot of it is just made up on the spot. You genuinely have to be ready, and it's all about improvisation skills. Anybody who watches it knows that there's this bizarre relationship between Grindah and Michelle, it's this love/hate thing where she loves him and he kind of hates her? Finally they tie the knot, and I was the vicar that was able to get them together, which was fantastic. It was one of those episodes where there were children, and animals, and in TV, they say never work with children and animals because you just don't know what's going to happen! We were all on our toes, but there was a lot of laughter, and it was a lot of fun. They made me feel really lovely and really welcome, so it was a great experience.
PS: It sounds like you picked the best episode to be a part of! How did you first hear about Jingle Jangle, and what was your initial reaction like when you were asked to be a part of it?
LD: There's a video that David Talbert (the director) has from when he offered me the role, which I still look at and I cry. I read the script, and I was immediately blown away because I'd never seen a film that was about a Black inventor before. I'm a mother to a 10-year-old, and I think it's really important that we tell stories that are inspiring, that will help children's self-esteem. My daughter actually has a poster on her wall of a hundred Black inventions. On that there's the sharpener, and the gas mask, and the traffic light, and the spatula, and the home security system, the floppy disc, and there's just so many things that we just don't know about. They don't teach us this at school, that Black people, as well as being singers, dancers, and fantastic sports people, we also invent things, we also contributed to science. So initially when I read the script, I was blown away.
It's funny though, I actually wasn't even supposed to be in the film! I was only supposed to be helping out initially as part of a workshop. We all sat around a table, David came over from LA, and we were just fleshing things out, and he was so open to suggestions and ideas.
As the process went on, I realised that there was a chance of me actually playing this character, which made me want it even more. Eventually in April, David called me into the studio, because they wanted to put some vocals down, and he was like, "So what do you think of this song? And what do you think of the musical you're working on?" And then he said, "And how would you feel if I told you you got the role?" My voice went up to my soprano voice, and it was just a dream come true, and it still feels like a dream come true. Jingle Jangle just feels like the gift that just keeps on giving. The response that we're getting from people who watch it now is just wonderful.
PS: It is wonderful! Having now watched the film, it looks like you guys must've had so much fun making it. Do you have behind-the-scenes stories?
LD: It was always fun and silly. When they said "action," everybody was very much on their A game, but when the cameras stopped rolling, we would just be being silly, or taking pictures on set. During the scene where Jeronicus kisses Ms. Johnston, I was sitting in the postal truck and Forest was standing outside by the window. David said, "OK, let's have playback on the track," and nothing happened. We were all looking around, like what happened? Where's the music?
It was one of those moments where it feels like the silence had gone on for a little bit too long, and it became a bit awkward. I was sitting in the truck, and I noticed Forest's mischievous little hand coming through the window of the truck — he pressed the horn of the truck, and it just went [*makes truck noise*], and it was LOUD. It reverberated all over the studio. Everyone looked at me, and I sat there like, "No! That was Forest. Forest did that," and people just start laughing. Forest is very naughty, don't let him fool you! He comes across as being really shy, but he's very naughty. He's just like David, very mischievous.
PS: It's always the quiet ones! It's interesting actually, most Christmas films from the past have typically centered around white families. How does it feel to be part of something that finally shows us a different narrative?
LD: I mean, it's historic, it's phenomenal. My favourite Christmas films are Elf and Home Alone. I watch those films even outside of the Christmas period, that's how much I love them. So to be part of this is epic, and the feedback that I've had is phenomenal.
People have been really overwhelmed by the costumes, too. David coined it "Afro-Victorian" because of all the African materials in the costumes, the afro hair, and the music — it's so soulful that it feels iconic. It's a film that can be rewatched and watched, so we're not just inspiring the little ones that are here now but the grandchildren to come, too.
It feels wonderful to be the first because hopefully we'll inspire more films like this. What's even more exciting is that although yes, it is a majority Black cast, the story itself is universal. The fact that they're Black is almost incidental, it doesn't matter, but the story that's being told is a story about a family. The story that's being told is about second chances, and possibilities, and the power of belief. I think that's what's beautiful.
PS: Yeah, exactly. It is almost strange that it needs to feel like such a revelation at this point, but it is amazing. It genuinely does feel like it is going to be one of the new classics, doesn't it?
LD: Absolutely. We couldn't have done this had it not been for films like Black Panther or Get Out and even things like Lovecraft County and The Watchmen. There are so many things coming out that showcase Black excellence. It's just phenomenal to be part of this. It feels like a movement.
PS: Exactly that. It's things like this that we need now more than ever, especially after the backlashes of some of the Christmas adverts this year. Have you seen some of the comments?
LD: For me, it's not shocking because I'm Black and British, and it is part of my lived experience. I've had experiences, not specific to acting, but just generally in my day-to-day life, so I'm not surprised by the backlash. What is surprising, is that because of social media, people can be more bold about what they're saying, they can hide behind their facade, and maybe they wouldn't be so confident to say something to your face, but because they can type it on a computer, it's different. But I do think we need those things because as a second generation Black Brit, my experience in this country is very different to what my parents went through. They're part of the Windrush generation, and I always remember my dad used to talk about running from the Teddy Boys.
I never experienced that. I don't know what that's like because by the time I came around, all those things, we thought, had been ironed out. What we're realising is they haven't actually been ironed out, they've just been covered over. So maybe this is just a discussion and a dialogue that we need to have. It's not to say that I'm not grateful for being born here, because I am. I'm absolutely grateful for all the opportunities afforded me, but there are still things that need changing, and there's just a conversation that needs to be had, really.
PS: Yeah, absolutely, and it does feel like that's finally starting to happen. Finally, how do you plan to spend Christmas this year?
LD:I mean, it's a weird one this year because things are constantly changing! It's undecided whether it's going to be me and my daughter, that is it's going to be just a small family get-together, or if we're going to do something on Zoom.
We're playing it by ear, but there's definitely going to be some type of celebration because I think we need to celebrate this year. I think what Jingle Jangle has given us back is this hope, this joy, and this need to celebrate and be happy, even if it's just for a short time. Whatever I do this year, there's definitely going to be some sort of celebration. How it's going to pan out, I'm not quite sure yet!
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story is available to watch on Netflix now.