Javicia Leslie Talks Ali and The God Squad on ‘God Friended Me’
By Pauline Perenack
Javicia Leslie is a familiar face on TV. You might have seen her on Killer Coach, Chef Julian, or even popping up on MacGyver. However, more recently, she’s been spending her time on the CBS drama God Friended Me, playing the sister of main character Miles Finer.
As Ali Finer, Leslie helped the main characters work through their troubles, by using the skills she’s learning while pursuing her doctorate in psychology, to talk them through what’s going on. When not solving everyone else’s problems, Ali is tending bar, and working through her own battles of who she is, and what her future holds.
With the second season of God Friended Me set to premiere on Sept. 29, I talked with Leslie about the first season of the show, how she’ll be more visible in the second, and why she thinks social media is crucial to the show’s success.
Congratulations on the second season of God Friended Me! So, before we start talking about the show, tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into acting?
I was born in Germany to military parents. My mom moved to Maryland when I was in second or third grade because she was raising two kids by herself, so it was a much easier area to be able to financially afford having that. I went to elementary, middle, and high school there. After I graduated high school there, I went to Hampton University. When I was in high school, I started doing theatre, but even before high school, when I was in middle school, I would do talent shows with my cousins, and put on fun kid shows. Then when I got to high school, I started doing plays and would go on stage for Black History Month and do poems by Nikki Giovanni, and I did little shows. And when I got to college, I did Seven Guitars by August Wilson, and then I got into pageants. So after I graduated from Hampton University, I moved back to DC for a year and a half and the entire time I was there, I kept thinking, I really want to act. I want to be on TV. I don’t want to sit behind a desk. I loved my job – I worked for the military. I worked for the Army specifically, paying soldiers who got injured in Iraq when the war started, so I specifically worked for soldiers’ families so they got paid for each month they were healthy under contract. It was very rewarding, but I was really ready to just do what my passion was, which was acting. So I moved to Los Angeles, California. My family was originally from LA, so we used to have a lot of family out there, but pretty much everybody started migrating to Seattle, Washington. So I have one uncle, and an aunt, just like a family member here, and a family member there, so I moved to LA and slept on my uncle’s couch for the first month and a half, and then I found a place to live, and the moment I found a place to live, about a month later I was at an event selling scarves for a friend, and this lady walked up to me, and she said are you an actress or a model, and I’m like, I’m whatever you need me to be. She said, I’m a manager, look at my information and if you’d like to meet, let’s meet. So I looked her up and saw she worked for Divinity, and I was very interested, I had a meeting with her, and then went from there.
So, on the show, you play Miles’ sister, Ali. Tell me about her, who she is, and her journey through season one.
Ali is Miles’ younger sister. I’m a young, outspoken, but very caring, very nurturing woman and I am going to get my doctorate in psychology, so I have this idea, and mindset of fixing everyone’s problems, which is kind of what we see my character do throughout the entire season last season. She’s like, how do I be there for everybody. But at the same time that I’m there for everybody, you start to realize that there’s no one there for her. So, one of the things that she had to battle a lot last season was that I am a lesbian woman, but I’m a part of a church that doesn’t necessarily approve of being a lesbian woman, so you watch her really kind of like battle being part of the church she’s been in her entire life, but being true to herself and knowing that what she chooses doesn’t represent her community, so that’s a battle she went through last season. And Arthur, played by Joe Morton, who is our dad, Reverend Arthur Finer is kind of like going through his own process of understanding what Ali is going through. Because for so long he never really saw Ali struggle, or Ali needing anyone because Ali has always been there for everyone else. So finally he realizes that, oh man, I haven’t been there for you. You’ve been going to the church for so long, and I don’t know if you know, but it has been a battle to watch people not used to being you. So we really see her going through that journey last season. And then just watching her be there to support her brother, be there to support the God Squad, and so a lot of times you watch as the different characters prefer to react emotionally, so they come to Ali to talk about it.
Talking about Joe Morton, you have a lot of scenes with him, and he directed a couple of episodes last season. Can you tell me what’s it like to work with him in so many different capacities?
It’s amazing. To work with all of the cast has been amazing. Of course with Joe, he’s very seasoned, so you learn a lot from him when you’re in scenes with him. I think with my journey as an actor, there are things that I’ve learned from my quote unquote movie and television parents because a lot of them have been in the industry for so long that they know how to harness what their power is as actors and so it’s not necessarily taking anything from them, but to learn. from them and I see how they deliver that line and see how you took that line and created your own version of it. So every day on set is a learning thing for me. I feel like that of all of our actors. All of our actors are really, really good, so like from Joe, you learn poise, you learn moments, versus with Violett, she has these subtle looks that are very beautiful for the screen and that’s something to learn from. And then Brandon, who is classically trained, you learn the ABCs with Brandon, and then with Suraj, he’s so comedic. He shows you great comedic timing. So it’s really a blessing to have all these different actors to learn from.
And it seems like you all are really close off set as well, so I’m assuming that helps when you’re on set.
Definitly. It really does.
Do you guys hang out in your downtime?
Oh yeah, we were kind of all brought here. No one lives here. Brandon had lived here before, but even before he moved out here, he lived in LA, so we were all kind of brought here. Except for Suraj. Suraj was already out here. But since we were all kind of brought out here, we were all kind of each other’s support system and after a while we just gained a true, genuine friendship. We all support each other’s projects, housewarmings, birthdays, accomplishments, so we’re a real, genuine family, so it’s so much fun to work with people you can call your friends as well.
Which was your favorite friend story of last year?
There was this story I believe was episode two or three and it was with the actress Dawn. She played the mother who had a son who wouldn’t speak to her. The actress’ name is Dawn Lyn Gardner, so she played a mother who had a son who she thought couldn’t’ speak to her because he was on the spectrum so there was this storyline of Miles trying to find a way to create communication between the mother and the son. And he ended up finding that the communication was through music because the son was extremely talented with piano and music and songs, and so at the end of the episode he’s at this beautiful piano in the park, and she finds him there, and he’s playing a John Legend song and the mom sits beside him, and starts singing him the song, and the song is a song she’s been singing him his entire life, but she thought he couldn’t hear her. And to hear her sing the song as he played it was just a beautiful moment, and probably one of my favorite moments in the entire season last season. There’s just so many beautiful moments that you fall in love with because these are real people. These are real people’s stories and I think that everyone can relate to these kinds of things.
Do you think that it being so relatable, is what makes the show so popular? It’s kind of a show that came out of nowhere.
I think it’s very relatable. I think that we’ve gotten to a society where we’re scared to talk about things that are told not to talk about at the table, whether it be politics, religion, whatever. But we never really understand how not talking about these things affects the people involved. And so I think the stories really goes behind the scenes and shows you people involved with these major things happening in society, whether it be, I can’t marry you because we’re two different religions or I don’t know how to communicate to you, or I don’t think you can communicate to me because we speak different languages. I think there’s this beautiful message that’s behind being a human, and that’s what the show really targets on. It targets on, let’s not hide everything. Let’s talk about everything. Because there’s a lot we have in common. And when we realize what we have in common, we’re able to communicate out of love and not out of confusion and hate, and I think that’s what this show does. It shows communication out of love.
What can you tell us about season two, and Ali’s storyline this season?
Season two is going to be a lot of fun. I’m having so much fun at the table reads. I’m having so much fun on set, and for Ali specifically, she has a journey she’s going to go on that’s very surprising that you’ll not expect. She’s going to start one journey and then something major is going to happen in her life where she’s going to have to reevaluate everything that she believes in, so it’s interesting to see one character that’s an atheist who is going to have to watch this journey, and then another character who believes in God and is going to have to be in this journey. And you really see Ali get closer with her brother and her father because of this. I can’t tell you too much more though. I do have to say, there’s going to be a lot more of Ali this year. She’s going to come out from behind the bar so I look forward to really getting deeper into her story, deeper into who she is, and being a strong representation of the community she represents.
One of the major cliffhanger of last season was a new character coming up to Miles and saying God had friended her, and Miles as someone she needed to connect with. Do you get to interact with this character a lot?
Yeah. Her and I, we will interact. Definitely.
Who do you wish you could have more scenes with this season?
For sure I would love to do more things with the God Squad. I think that’s so much fun and I do already in this season, have done things with the God Squad. But of course last season, most of my scenes were with Joe and Brandon, so if I had to look at our main cast, other people I would love to work with, definitely I have so much fun working with Suraj. So I would love to do more scenes with him. He’s very funny and I think the balance of our characters, that Ali is very grounded and Rakesh is very flighty, it’s a very comedic balanced duo, so that’s a character I would love to do a lot more with.
Do you have any other projects coming up that fans can be on the lookout for?
Yes, I do. So, God Friended Me premieres Sept. 29th, but I’m the lead of a feature film that premieres Sept. 28th. It’s called Always a Bridesmaid. And it’s a romantic comedy. I play Corina, and I play a woman who’s always a bridesmaid, never a bride, and you kind of watch me go on this comedic journey of finding love. It has a lot of great actors in it. Telma Hopkins who played Rachel in Family Matters, and Richard Lawson. It just has a lot of great actors, a lot of up and coming actors, it’s fun, it’s light hearted, it’s beautiful, it’s colorful, it’s based in Chicago, so it’s a really, great, fun love story.
Social media is obviously a big part of the show, and you’re very active on social media in real life. What has the fan interaction been like with you since the show started?
It’s been great. I think the fans are very, very supportive of our show. There are little things I love like, there’s a website that basically takes the characters and their outfits, and says, as worn on Ali, and it’s so fun how they catch every little thing. They’ll catch earrings that I feel can’t be seen behind my hair, but they find them, or they’ll catch a manicure. To me, that’s the fun part about being a fan of a show. When I was growing up, there were shows I was a fan of and there were those little things that I always catch, and then with social media what I love is that you get to interact with an actual human being. You’re not just interacting with the character of Ali, so you get to know the things I stand for, the things I believe in, the things I’m passionate about. And then there are connections there, there is growth there. You kind of create these social media friendships with people that are fans of the show and I think that nowadays that’s just as important as connecting with fans in person because you’re not going to touch base with every fan in person, so to be able to touch base with people on another platform, I think that’s powerful and very important.
It opens you to the rest of the world versus just people in say, North America.
Exactly. Especially because when we syndicate, we syndicate to other countries, so you don’t know, there are kids in a whole other country that watch you every single day. It’s like, I did a Lifetime film, and I always know when my Lifetime film has aired because there’s always this influx of comments and DMs and friend requests from people watching it, all from different countries and it’s so cool to see how many people are impacted by one project. But because of social media, and because of television and film, it just hits so many different platforms and so many different places.
I love that you guys on the show actually interact with fans because in today’s society, that’s the best way to create a fan base.
You have to be equal, the way that we are with our everyday life is a reflection of how we have to be when it comes to our fans and our shows, because at the end of the day, we communicate every single day on Instagram with our actual friends we know face to face, why would that be different for a show. One of the people that pointed that out to me was Joe, because he said one of the reasons why Scandal was so successful was because of how active the actors were on Twitter when the show first came out and as the show went on.
I like ending with an easy question – what’s your current favorite book, favorite song, and favorite TV show out there?
My current favorite book is “Women Who Run with Wolves,” my current favorite TV show is Grey’s Anatomy, I don’t know if that’ll ever change, and current favorite song, actually, it’s old, but it’s what I listen to a lot lately, is John Mayer’s ‘Gravity.’
Season two of God Friended Me continues Sundays at 8pm EST/PST on CBS.