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Jimmy Jean-Louis, international traveler-turned actor talks about ‘Claws’ and more

‘My hustle to pursue life led me to the path of acting’

From international modeling to starring in TNT’s new hit show Claws, Jimmy Jean-Louis has always been able to hustle out of a challenging situation, both on-screen and in real life. Becoming an actor was something completely and out of sight for Jean-Louis as he grew up underprivileged with no running water or electricity in Haiti.

“If you don’t have a TV, how do you even dream of becoming an actor?” said Jean-Louis, who turns 50 later this summer.

His mother worked as a maid for a French family in Haiti and then had the opportunity to work for them in France. Slowly but surely she got Jean-Louis and his siblings to France. It’s there that he came face to face with the beauty of the arts. Adapting to a new place and its language and culture forced him to rely first on human connections, something he learned and valued in Haiti when playing soccer with a ball made from a plastic bag filled with trash. The game stripped everyone of their social class and emphasized ability and relationship building as a team.

During his early 20s, he moved to Spain, and then to Italy, South Africa, England, Indonesia, Ghana, and Nigeria, where he found jobs in modeling and musical theater.

This eventually led him to test the waters in Hollywood after moving to Los Angeles in 1998. He started in underground and independent films, which set the stage for him to play in Tears of the Sun with Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci, Hollywood Homicide with Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett, Monster-in-Law with Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, The Miracle Match with Patrick Stewart, Wes Bentley and Gerard Butler, and Phat Girlz opposite Mo’Nique. His popularity rose from starring as Rene “The Haitian” in the hit TV show Heroes.

“My hustle to pursue life led me to the path of acting,” said Jean-Louis. “I managed to pick up five different languages [that I speak fluently] and a real understanding of all kinds of people, including top politicians like [Nelson] Mandela and [Barack] Obama that I’ve had the opportunity to meet.”

His latest venture is Claws, a wickedly funny series that follows five diverse and treacherous manicurists led by Desna (Niecy Nash) who work at a nail salon in South Florida, where they launder money for a neighboring pain clinic.

With the return of Claws for season two (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT), The Undefeated further connected with Jean-Louis to learn about working with Nash on the series, his love for soccer stemming from his childhood, and why Ethiopia is on his bucket list of countries to visit soon.

What attracted you to join the cast of Claws?

Originally, I didn’t know what Claws was, but I knew Niecy and that she was a hard worker. I dug in a little deeper and it was an excellent cast combined with an interesting story line. My character, Dr. Ruval, is a well-respected gynecologist, very dapper and Dena’s [Nash] love interest. But, he’s also part of a Haitian mafia as the kingpin, which creates a complicated character.

Did you know Niecy Nash before shooting Claws?

Just the other day, someone showed me a picture of Niecy and I at a red carpet event dated to 2008. We didn’t know each other before Claws, but we both knew of each other and had a respect for each other’s craft. She’s such a professional and on top of every single scene that she’s in.

Why do you love soccer?

I love soccer because it’s a poor-person sport. Anyone from my neighborhood [in Haiti] could afford to play it. All you needed was one ball and it didn’t have to be a perfect one. We’d get a plastic bag, throw a bunch of trash in it and that was our ball.

The game connected everyone. Once you started playing, your social class disappeared. It was all about what you could do on the field, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Who is your favorite soccer player currently playing?

If I had to pick just one, it would be Neymar [da Silva Santos Júnior]. I like his ability and cockiness. Not everyone needs to be so serious. A lot of people want athletes to be an example in all areas, but everyone can’t be perfect.

What’s one album that you think is a classic?

Legend by Bob Marley. It’s extremely relevant and sends a strong message to situations that are happening in today’s society. Not only is Bob Marley entertaining us, he’s forcing us to think and take action where possible. And that’s what art is.

Where does your courage come from?

My courage comes from really understanding life. I witnessed firsthand the last earthquake that devastated Haiti. I try to give things the true value that they deserve and I respect life for what it is and try to make the best of every situation. Life can be very quick if we’re not careful. Each movement, instance, dialogue, is so valuable.

What’s the last stamp on your passport?

I’ve been back home to Haiti twice within the last two weeks.

Where haven’t you been that you’re dying to visit?

Ethiopia is No. 1 because it’s the only country in Africa that hasn’t been colonized. I’d like to spend some time there to feel that kind of energy. And then Egypt because I want to get close to the pyramids and make sense of what life used to be like.

Gianina Thompson is a contributing writer for The Undefeated and handles NBA and MLB publicity for ESPN. Since grabbing kicks for Allen Iverson back when she was a 16-year-old Foot Locker sales associate, being part of how sports meshes with entertainment and impacts culture has been a driving force for her ever since.