From writer Ryan Engle and director James McTeigue, the dramatic thriller Breaking In shows what can happen when the family home of Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) is broken into and her two children (played by Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr) are taken hostage. Even though they are trapped in a remote house designed with impenetrable security and they’re being threatened by four very scary men, nothing can stop a mother determined to protect her family.
At the film’s press day in Downtown Los Angeles, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actress Ajiona Alexus (who plays Shaun’s whip-smart teenage daughter, Jasmine) to chat 1-on-1 about the appeal of Breaking In, what she was most excited and most nervous about getting to do, developing the strong family dynamic, her most challenging stunt, how much fun she had working with Gabrielle Union, and making friends with a local giraffe named Stanley. She also talked about being a part of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, releasing an album of music and wanting to go on tour for it, what she looks for in a project, and how she became so driven, at such a young age.
Collider: Was that the main appeal of doing something like this?
AJIONA ALEXUS: Yeah, definitely! The theme of it and how the script was written definitely attracted me because it was different from anything I ever did, but what attracted me more than anything was the content and how it was celebrating African American women and black females in a positive light and showed that they can take charge and make things happen. They’re just as independent as a man is. There are four men trying to attack Gab and her family, and it shows you that we can overcome anything and how powerful we are. To be a part of a project that celebrates women was amazing. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.
I love the fact that the kids in this movie are not weak kids. They can very much take care of themselves. When this came your way, did you have any idea just what you were getting yourself into and how intense it would be?
ALEXUS: I did, and that right was just level one for me because I love doing stunts. I love being involved on the adventurous, active side of things, so I can’t wait until I get more projects that are even more physically draining for me. I love learning new things and being challenged.
What were you most excited about getting to do, and what were you most nervous about?
ALEXUS: I think I’m always nervous because I want to do so well, but it’s not nervous being scared. It’s just more that I’m so excited that I’m nervous because the excitement overwhelms me. I was just happy to be part of a project with new people. I’m always happy to work with new people, from the crew to the acting side, because I learn so much from everybody that I’m around and I always take note. I love it when I can get to experience different sets with different people, actors and crew members.
Do you like to be very observant with everything because you’re also thinking of doing behind-the-scenes work? Do you want to get into producing?
ALEXUS: Eventually, yeah, I would like to do something like that, but I’m definitely more of an on-camera type of girl. I feel like nowadays you have to be multi-talented and do everything, like Gab. She produced this and was acting in it. That’s necessary, and I, 100%, want to do something like that, someday in the future. It’s important to observe, and just watching Gab, I was bettering myself.
I love the bond between mother and children in this, and especially the mother-daughter bond. Did you guys have time to get to know each other?
ALEXUS: Yeah, we’re really close. We’re both very silly and fun. We’re very similar. I love her so much. I appreciate people and women like her, in the industry, who really represent what a woman should be like. She’s down to earth and actually cares about people.
I love how at the same time Gabrielle Union’s character is so protective of you, you’re also protective of your little brother. How was it to work with Seth Carr?
ALEXUS: He’s really fun. I’m still very young, myself, and I’m very goofy and funny. Sometimes people get caught up in being too serious. It’s important to remember to have that laughter and enjoy yourself. You’re also living your life while you’re working, so to have young people come on set and play your younger siblings, they’re kids and are like, Let’s go eat!” You just have fun. You have to remember how to incorporate that in your daily life, especially your work life, because when you’re filming, it takes up so much of your life. If that’s all you’re doing, you’ll get overwhelmed by it. You need to enjoy it and just live in the moment.
What was it like to do the scenes with these four bad guys, who all seemed a bit intimidating?
ALEXUS: Yeah, I know. They were, but they’re actually the sweetest people, ever. We all got along really well. It was just fun. I feel like everybody on the set had a good vibe, and it was just a fun set to be on. We just did whatever we needed to do to bring the film to life.
Was there a most challenging stunt or physical sequence that you had to do?
ALEXUS: Not really. When I climbed into the vent and had to climb up there, that was a little scary because it was like, “I could possibly fall, and something bad could happen.” That was a little risky. But, you get a rush of adrenaline. I like that type of stuff, so it was fun for me.
How did you find the experience of working with your director, James McTeigue?
ALEXUS: He’s so sweet and really patient. He was really easygoing. There weren’t ever any problems. I feel like we got along really well, and I love his accent. It was really fun. We had a good cast and crew.
What was the house like to shoot in?
ALEXUS: We were in Agoura Hills. It was really secluded, with just a lot of land and animals everywhere. It was cool. My favorite animal was Stanley. He’s a giraffe, and he was the only giraffe there. Me and Gab would go sing to him every day, so that was fun.
People always talk about how Gabrielle Union likes to lip sync, on set. Was that going on, on this film?
ALEXUS: Yeah. I’m a singer, so I’d sing and she’d be moving her mouth, but she’s so amazing. I love her. She’s just so fun to be around.
And you have an album coming out, right?
ALEXUS: Mm-hmm. We’ll be dropping some singles for the next few months, and the album will be out really soon. I’m really excited about it. I’ve been working really hard on it. It’s gonna be amazing. I’m glad to be able to give fans another side of me, so they get a better sense of who I am, as a person and as an artist.
Are you hoping to go on tour for your album?
ALEXUS: Oh, 100%. I always want to do things at a very high level, and one thing about me, as an artist, is that I’m a performer. I love putting on a show, so I think that’s gonna be one of my strengths, as an artist, actually giving people that visual.
Does it feel scary to do live shows like that, with the audience right there, giving you feedback?
ALEXUS: It is scary, but I’m a risk taker. I like the adrenaline. I love being tested, and I love growing. What’s the point of living, if you’re not gonna take risks? Why live scared? I wanna go out and do it. If it makes you happy, then just do it. That’s how I look at it.
Have you always wanted to do acting and singing?
ALEXUS: Yeah, 100%. I’ve always wanted to do so many things, at a high level. It’s just all about timing. Things don’t happen exactly when you want them to happen, but you have to take advantage of when you can make it happen, and that’s how it is for the music. Right now is the time for that. There’s just so much more that I want to do, and that I’m capable of doing. It’s just about the timing and making sure that I’m ready to put the product out because I always want everything I do to be the best of the best.
You’re so young to be so driven. Where does that come from?