Arts and Culture

A brilliant toymaker betrayed by his own apprentice struggles to find something to believe in. 

That’s the premise of the new Christmas movie “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” streaming on Netflix. It stars Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad and Forest Whitaker as the toymaker Jeronicus Jangle.

Playing young Jeronicus is Justin Cornwell, who has deep roots in Louisville. 

He attended Middletown Elementary School, Crosby Middle School and Eastern High School, studied theater at the University of Louisville, and returned to Louisville to perform with StageOne Family Theatre in 2015.

Cornwell first felt like this was a special project during an early table read, before filming began, when he got to sit in a room with the rest of the cast with “all of the concept art hanging on the walls” so he could see and hear the bigger vision.

“We had a piano player underscoring the entire table read,” Cornwell said. “I’ve never been in a table read that felt like we were at a concert. It was just this amazing, beautiful thing. And after we finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Writer and director David E. Talbert told Fast Company that it took him roughly two decades to get the project over the finish line, and he wanted representation to be a priority. 

“We were unapologetic in the representation that we wanted, but it has nothing to do with any of that,” Talbert says. “It has everything to do with the humanity and the heart of these characters who happened to be Black — not Black characters who happened to have humanity.”

That wasn’t lost on Cornwell. 

“African Americans, we love stories about joy and about hope, and about belief… We love Christmas. We love family. We love love,” Cornwell said. “And the fact that there aren’t more holiday movies with African American cast at the level like this, I think that is a shame.”

Below are excerpts from Cornwell’s conversation with WFPL. 

On why it’s important to have holiday films about joy starring mostly Black actors:

“Until I actually worked on this project, I didn’t even know I needed it. I was sitting on set in this project unaware that I was creating something that I also needed. And looking back, literally felt like oh my gosh, like I love this [Christmas] movie, and there’s one Black character or there’s no black characters, and I realized that, even as children, we have been bridging the gap between our identity and everyone else’s identity just so we can feel something.. And I think that’s what I’ve been hungry for and I think that’s why people are taking to this movie the way they are.”

On what it felt like doing the big musical number in the film ‘This Day’:

“Wow! It felt like I was maybe performing at the Super Bowl or something. It was incredible. Just like when you’re with a choir, and everyone’s doing their voice part, and the room swells with this beautiful chord. That’s what it felt like when we’re dancing — everyone dancing their part, and then the room just swells with this beautiful motion of energy. It truly was like a moment where I felt out of my body for a moment. And watching the movie back, it’s almost like watching someone else do it because I kind of felt beside myself the whole time.”

On how he landed the role:

“That was actually a really cool kind of process for me. And it was a very different audition process than the one that I usually go through… all the creative team was already out in London, this is pre-pandemic. So they really had hired almost everybody else on the film, they were still looking for someone who could sing and also represent Forest Whitaker, his younger self, so someone who had the kind of matchup with him, in certain ways, at least the the feeling of him or the youthfulness of what he brings to the screen. I did one audition, it was a self tape. And like two days later, I got a call. And they hit me up and they said, ‘Hey, the director wants to Zoom with you, today if you’re available.’ They Zoomed with me… and they kind of told me right, then they’re like, ‘I think you’re the guy… So we want you to go to the studio. And we want you to record the song ‘This Day.’ I go to the studio and they have had me actually cut a real record, like with engineers and editors. They called me back and said, ‘Hey, come and join us out here in London. You’re young Jeronicus.’ And so it was all over Zoom really. I think it really prepared me for how we have to work in the pandemic.” 

On cutting his acting teeth in Louisville:

I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t there in Louisville. I was forced to do a play when I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t really want to do it necessarily. I loved movies and film, but I wasn’t like oh, I’m an actor. But I could memorize quickly. My teachers found out. So they were just like, ‘Well, you came to the audition and you knew all the lines, so you’re going to be the lead now.’ I took to it instantly. So I kept working at it. I kept doing plays throughout high school, working on the music stuff, the triple threat thing, the song, the dance and the acting thing.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.