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‘Jingle Jangle’ actor Justin Cornwell says musical inspires ‘love, forgiveness, and redemption’

The former Chicago theater actor says his on-set conversations with co-star Forest Whitaker focused on their shared love of the stage.

Chicago theater alumnus Justin Cornwell (middle) stars in Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle” with Madalen Mills (left) and Sharon Rose.
Netflix

Chicago theater actor Justin Cornwell sees the importance of his upbeat new Netflix musical “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” amid trying times.

“It’s amazing to have the response that we’re getting from this movie,” said Cornwell. “I think everybody I’ve ever known has reached out to me telling me that they’ve seen the film three or four times. They are having such a visceral, emotional reaction to it because it feels like we are doing something that’s much needed. …

“For it to come out at a moment where I feel like everyone’s hearts are healing, or needed healing, it just feels like the right moment.”

The main storyline of the film, which features a predominately Black cast, focuses on inventor and toymaker Jeronicus Jangle, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, whose apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key), steals his book of inventions and becomes a successful toymaker in the process.

Cornwell, who plays Jangle as a young man, sees similarities in the downward spiral of his “Jingle Jangle” character and the career setbacks faced by most actors.

“I think when you’re an actor, you live and die on every audition,” said Cornwell. “You feel that heartbreak when something that’s taken away from you as Gustafson did. You think: ‘Oh, someone stole my role, or that was mine.’ ”

Justin Cornwell poses with the Buddy 3000 robot from “Jingle Jangle” at a Los Angeles drive-in premiere on Nov. 13.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

For Cornwell, one such comedown was the cancellation of his CBS series “Training Day” after the death of his co-star and friend Bill Paxton.

“There were people who came to me and said: ‘Man, I didn’t even know if I’d see you again,’ ” he recalled.

“I think grief comes in waves and I don’t know if you ever get to the other side of it. Me and Bill became so close that we spent every day together, and then after work, we go and hang out at his house and work on the script. We would hang out on weekends when we weren’t working on the script. … It’s tough when you lose a guy you’re hanging out with every day. I don’t know if I’m on the other side of this, but I definitely feel like I can bring a little bit of deep understanding of life and depth to my work.”

While on the set, Cornwell says he got to have conversations with Whitaker about their shared character and how it fits into their theater backgrounds.

“I got to hang out with Whitaker a lot on set. We honed our character together, so it wasn’t like I’m doing my thing and he’s doing his thing,” said Cornwell. “And we’re more theater-type actors. We can deep dive into this character even if it’s a children’s movie; there’s so much to be discovered, here.

“I wouldn’t be here without Chicago theater. I had worked there for half a decade. .. We were also working on ‘A [Q Brothers] Christmas Carol,’ which had a whimsical theme, and I thought about that show while making this film.”

“Jingle Jangle” actor Justin Cornwell (right, with co-star Madalen Mills).
Netflix

Cornwell says viewers can learn a lot from the film amid the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest — a time where people are reassessing what’s important to them.

“They [viewers] are going to find that love again,” said Cornwell. “That love for themselves. That love for their family; it’s about forgiveness and redemption. We have the ability to place our hand on something and change it into something else. … Children truly need to know that they are as powerful as anything in this world. I think that’s why I’m so happy to put this into the world. I wish I had it [the film] when I was a kid because I didn’t have a lot of those kinds of messages.”

And Cornwell believes roles like he played in “Jingle Jangle” can change an actor’s trajectory.

“It’s definitely one of those kinds of things you’d have to assess constantly when you’re doing an artistic career,” said Cornwell. “You have to assess constantly whether you’re going to go one direction or another because it can be changed depending on what you choose. … Our perspectives are beautiful as is every human perspective in the world, so it’s just amazing for me to be able to be a part of this. I’ll always work — pandemic or no pandemic — to try to be in pieces like this.”