Actress Jonetta Kaiser Talks Her Role In Vampire Academy - Exclusive Interview

Contains spoilers for "Vampire Academy" book series and potential spoilers for "Vampire Academy" TV series

Best friends Lissa Dragomir and Rose Hathaway are pretty standard teenagers. They go to school together and protect each other from any roadblocks that come up during the day. However, there are a couple of important differences between their relationship and the one you have with your own best friend. For starters, Lissa is a vampire princess and the heir to a royal dynasty. Oh yeah, and Rose is protecting her from something a bit more threatening and bloodthirsty than a mean gym teacher. 

That's the plot of Richelle Mead's acclaimed young adult saga "Vampire Academy," and the novels are coming to life in the form of a new series on Peacock. Daniela Nieves and Sisi Stringer take the lead in the upcoming show, and they've spilled some tea about the project in an exclusive interview, as have showrunners Julie Plec and Marguerite MacIntyre. But they aren't the only cast members along for the ride. Rising star Jonetta Kaiser stepped up to play Sonya Karp in "Vampire Academy," and the Louisiana native is bringing something special to the show.

Kaiser spoke exclusively to The List about how she got involved with the series. In the process, she revealed that she's a longtime fan of Mead's books. She also opened up about her favorite characters and favorite vampire story (spoiler alert: It stars Aaliyah), what it's like to play an established character, her acting aspirations, and so much more. 

Jonetta Kaiser read the Vampire Academy series as a child

What drew you to "Vampire Academy" in the first place?

Doing the audition process when you're just getting your foot in the door. I moved down [to Los Angeles in] 2018 to start acting professionally. When you're doing it, you literally audition for everything.

When it came my way to audition, I don't turn down auditions, so I just did it. It wasn't until I got the audition for the character that I ended up being hired for Sonya Karp. Because I did an audition for Rose [Hathaway], which all of the girls did, and then they gave us each [the] character that they saw us more as.

When I got the audition for Sonya Karp, that's when I realized, "Wait a second, 'Vampire Academy,' the books, like that?" That's when I got a little excited. I was like, "I didn't realize." Then I saw Julie Plec's name attached to it, and I was like, "Wait a second, this would be ..."

So then I immediately went and watched the movie, and I was like, "Whoa, this would be so cool with the book." That's what drew me to it. [I realized] in real time what was going on.

Had you had read the books before auditioning?

I read them when I was 13. Those are the first young adult fantasy books that I read. It was so cool. My sister [and I], we would just go. She'd be on book two, I'd be on book one, and then I'd catch up with her, and then she'd go on. We were superfans of these books. I think it was the "Vampire Academy" books that actually got me into "Twilight" [and] "The Vampire Diaries." I read those books. There's other[s]. The young adult fantasy book section in Books-A-Million — I'd go in there, and we'd browse and go get those.

The following question contains spoilers for the "Vampire Academy" book series and potential spoilers for the "Vampire Academy" TV series.

Do you have a favorite character from the series that isn't Rose, Lissa, or Sonya?

That is a good question. I think Christian is ... No, Mason. Mason's my favorite. You root for him so hard, and then you're absolutely, in the books, heartbroken when you read that he dies. It's like, "No." Yeah, Mason's my favorite.

He's a fun character. I loved reading him with Rose.

Yes. The way they're written is just so ... It's great. You're fully there. You're like, "Yes! Team Mason, Team Rose."

Katniss Everdeen is one of Jonetta Kaiser's dream roles

Speaking about Rose, would you say you relate more to Rose or Lissa?

From the books, I would say Rose for sure, because Lissa is a princess, and she's a royal. She has that whole dynamic going on. [During] my upbringing as a kid, I was always a kid that was not cool. Rose is kind of on the outside, and she's like that person — she knows everyone, everyone likes her, but she's rough around the edges and things like that. That's why I definitely relate to that a lot more. I would love to relate more to Lissa. That'd be so cool if I could relate to being a princess and being super rich.

Rose is a baddie, though! So in the long run, you came out ahead.

Yeah, and 13-year-old me was like, "I want every guy to like me." Every guy loves Rose.

I saw on Instagram that you said you'd always wanted to play a book character. If you could play anyone, who would be your dream character from a book?

Oh, this is so easy for me: Katniss Everdeen from "The Hunger Games." I read those books, and those books have my heart. When I found out that they were casting for the movie, I wrote the casting director, Deborah Zane, a little letter on my Dell desktop computer and dial-up, and printed it, and then snail mailed her my headshot and resume telling her why I should be cast as Katniss Everdeen. I'm such a dork. She probably never saw it, but it exists. I have it. I still have the letter.

Speaking about Sonya, she's already an established character in the books, but she seems to play a little bit of a different role here. Can you talk at all about how she's different?

I can't say too much. We've taken the world in "Vampire Academy" and we've expanded upon it. Everyone's getting a little bit of a backstory, which we never got with Sonya in the books. That's a main difference. I can't say what will happen or won't happen that's different from the books to the TV show, because some of that may or may not be a spoiler. You have to watch to find out!

Playing an established character comes with challenges

Another thing about playing a character like Sonya is that there is a fan base who expects them to behave a certain way. Are there any challenges as an actor to bring a character like that to life?

Yeah, definitely. Especially when you're portraying a character from a book series that [is] so loved by so many people worldwide, there's a little bit of, "I do want them to be proud of what I did, and I hope that they don't hate it." But there's only so much that I can ... It comes down to a person being a people pleaser. If that's what I'm thinking about when I'm acting in the midst of doing a scene, then I'm probably not doing my best job because I'm not present. I'm not in the moment.

Maybe there's something that's not in the character or [not] something that Sonya Karp herself would do, but if there's something in the moment that happens, and she reacts, whether it's out of character or not, but it's true to the moment that's happening in front of me, then who's to say that wasn't something Sonya would do? Because in the moment, it happened, and if she just stands there like a doorknob and doesn't do anything, then that's weird. 

That's the joy of acting; it's spontaneous. You never know exactly what's going to happen. You can prep. You can prep. And I try to honor who Sonya Karp — based upon the scripts we were given — who she is. Then ... when I show up on the day, that prep work goes in and hopefully it shows, but also there's a certain amount of presence to being there in the moment that you have to also maintain.

It sounds like part of it is having that confidence in yourself and faith in knowing your character.

Yeah, and hoping that the prep work, the homework that I did before I went to set, is there. That helps with the confidence.

Jonetta Kaiser's favorite vampire tale involves Aaliyah

You mentioned "Twilight." I have to put you on the spot: Do you have a favorite vampire story?

Good question. I loved the movie "Queen of the Damned," with Aaliyah. My mom was super obsessed with that movie. Aaliyah is so beautiful and captivating, and it's so dark. I love that about it. It's like the underworld. It's a lot like "Vampire Academy" in the sense of [how] there's a king, there's a queen, and that's so cool to incorporate that into a vampire world because they are so old, usually. Yeah, I think that's my favorite vampire story.

You mentioned that you've been working in acting since 2018. What drew you to the field?

I've always wanted to do it. Being from the South and not having the means to go to Juilliard, I would Google things all day long. I would watch movies with my favorite actors. Angelina Jolie is a huge one. I've always absorbed everything I could. Even subconsciously, [I] was doing it, studying, without realizing that that's what I was doing.

I'm very much a quiet person, and I'm very shy, and I've always watched people. I've always studied people and really good actors doing what they do by watching their movies. That's when I found my way back to "I can actually do this professionally. That's something that people actually can do." Then I made the big move to Los Angeles. Then everything fell into place because it was something that I'd always been exercising without actually doing it.

That was a whole different thing once I actually started auditioning and then exercising that instrument. It's a whole craft to master in itself, auditioning. Having that, and then reading books and educating myself, and watching interviews like the Roundtable [from] The Hollywood Reporter — their Roundtables with those actors that are absolute masters at their craft. I think that's what got me to this point. Then in 2018, [I was] like, "Screw it, I'm just going to do it."

Is there any actor or actress that you would most love to work with?

Yes, absolutely! Obviously, Jennifer Lawrence; I love her. I've loved her since her playing Katniss Everdeen. Also, I've gone back and watched other things that she's done. She's so great. 

Charlize Theron. I really want to work with Denzel Washington. He's so great at what he does. Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh my gosh, there's so many. Zendaya! Zendaya is killing it. She's so great. Love her. Yeah, the list goes on and on. Those are the few off the top of my head because they're the most recent people I've watched in things.

Jonetta Kaiser is also interested in coding and biochemistry

I was reading your bio, and it mentioned that you were also interested in coding and biochemistry and other science-related things. Do you still get to do anything in those fields as you're pursuing acting?

Yeah. Before booking "Vampire Academy," I actually had website clients [whose websites I'd] code. And I still have them because then I had to uproot my entire life and move to Spain for seven months, which was such an amazing experience. I haven't had time to hand off the clients to anyone else yet. It's been like, go, go, go, go, go. So I'm looking to do that. If there's anyone who wants a website client, let me know. I will be happy to hand them off.

But yeah, I loved coding. That started back in the MySpace days, and I remembered everything — HTML, CSS, all that good stuff — for whatever reason. One of my first friends in LA, she's a senior software engineer, so she taught me shorthand JavaScript, which is now called React, and things like that. That's just one of the ways to do shorthand JavaScript. So I know all of that. It's literally another language that I know and understand.

The biochemistry came in when I was diagnosed with scoliosis in ninth grade. I gave up on becoming an actress. I was like, "Okay, well, I'll graduate, and then I'll go into STEM." My dad, he's like, "Women in STEM, that's the new direction. Do that; you'll be successful." So I was like, "Okay," and went to school for biochemistry in 2018. '17-'18 is when I dropped out to move to LA and do the acting professionally. But yeah, that's what I was doing before, right before.

Vampire Academy's diverse cast was a draw to the project

Your bio also mentioned that you're an advocate for diversity in Hollywood, and the casting for "Vampire Academy" seems fantastic for that. Did that draw you in at all when you were looking at the offer?

Oh my, yes. When I saw that our female lead would be a Black woman, I was like, "Finally. It's time." For a show like this, I want people to be able to see themselves in the characters. The world has evolved. As a society, we've evolved, so now it's time for the entertainment that we all watch and love to reflect that. "Bridgerton" is doing it. It doesn't take away from the acting. It doesn't take away from the story at all.

"Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon," they're getting so much hate for casting people of color and Black people, and it's so upsetting because we are good actors too, and we can do this story and play the storyline, and it does not take away from the story.

Yeah, it drew me to it. [I love] being able to look at my co-stars and be so proud of who we are and look at every person and be like, "My god, so many people, so many young people are going to watch this and actually be able to see themselves." That's so amazing and beautiful.

The first four episodes of "Vampire Academy" are available now on Peacock, with subsequent episodes being released on Thursdays.

This interview has been edited for clarity.