Avan Jogia is tired of being left out of the “nerd conversation”
The ex-Nickelodeon star talks about his film Door Mouse, avoiding Hollywood’s identity trap, and the relentless anxiety of trying to find your purpose.
When the Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious ended in 2013, Avan Jogia, who starred as the impossibly suave Beck Oliver, theoretically should've felt on top of the world. He was 21, a verifiable teen heartthrob, and poised to launch the next phase of his successful career — much like megawatt child stars who came before him. Instead, Jogia tells me one December afternoon over Zoom, he quickly felt "limited and suffocated" by the roles he was being offered. Unsatisfied with his career and done waiting for purpose to be thrust upon him, he got to writing.
“I didn't want to just be adrift,” Jogia says of that period. “I needed to be a participant in my own life. And part of that was grabbing the reins of my creativity and being able to create something that is fully and wholly mine.”
It was then that he wrote Door Mouse, a punk rock neo-noir thriller about a comic book creator who moonlights as a burlesque dancer and stumbles upon a vast conspiracy after her friend disappears. The film — which stars Hayley Law (Riverdale) as the titular Mouse with Keith Powers (The New Edition Story) as her brooding sidekick, Ugly — marks Jogia’s feature-length directorial and writing debut, and a powerhouse one at that. Door Mouse is a captivating condemnation of capitalism that explores whether anyone can truly be immune to its corrupting influence; and with its gritty cinematography, comic book-inspired animated sequences, and hardcore soundtrack, it has all the makings of an indie sleeper hit.
Jogia says the film is a love letter to the “anarchic” women, femme-presenting people, and artists he grew up with in Vancouver, as well as to the city itself. He spent his childhood in government housing dealing with both indifference and over-policing from law enforcement, an influence that’s clearly depicted in the film.
But not everyone got it right away. Jogia wrote the script when he was 23; now, the day it premieres in theaters and on-demand, he’s a few weeks shy of turning 31 — a delay he blames on Hollywood prioritizing “identity politics.”
That’s not to say Jogia spent the past seven years sitting and waiting. In the better part of a decade since writing Door Mouse, the actor has added many more credits to his resume — a starring role on STARZ’s Now Apocalypse, a Resident Evil movie, and the upcoming Orphan Black spinoff, to name a few. He also released a book of poems and stories about his mixed racial identity in 2019 and currently performs in an alt-rock band with his brother. And, to the delight of his Gen Z fan base, Jogia has been using TikTok to reveal more intimate moments of his life as well as behind-the-scenes looks at working in Hollywood and a bit of nostalgia, racking up 4 million followers and nearly 100 million likes in the process. But even after all of that — and with Door Mouse making its grand debut — Jogia still feels like he’s waiting for his purpose.
Jogia talked to Mic about growing up in queer spaces, pushing back on Hollywood tokenism, and whether Door Mouse’s anti-establishment sentiment reflects how he really feels.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
All writing for me always starts with: “What are my anxieties? What are the things that cause me duress? What are the things about the world that stress me out?” And then I go from there and I figure it out. Because writing about those things, truly, is really depressing. So I wanted to write a hero. I wanted to write somebody who, in the face of all the things that cause me anxiety, rises up, finds her conviction, and goes after the bad guy.
I want movies to be big and bright and vibrant. There's the feeling that we had when we were growing up when we saw, I don't know, The Matrix. Like, “Oh, I want to be Neo.” I wanted someone like Mouse. I wanted you to walk out of the movies being like, “I want to be Mouse. I want to have the trenchcoat, and I want to smoke the cigarette.” Maybe not smoke the cigarette. But you know what I mean. [Laughs]
Mouse isn’t the stereotypical comic book creator we usually see depicted in entertainment. Why did you decide to take that approach with her?
What is perceived as nerd culture or geek culture is really limited. And I'm a huge nerd. I'm sure you're a huge nerd. [Laughs] You like comic books.
Black and brown people get left out of the nerd conversation a lot of the time. I wanted to lend a voice or give a perspective that showed the biodiversity of people who are into this stuff. Punk rock is another thing that is really limited in its visual scope when people close their eyes. They've been told and inundated with these images about who these people are and what they look like.
There were many different types of people who were into punk rock, comic books, nerd shit, and anime when I was growing up. I just wanted to show that those people exist, because I think they get written out of the conversation a lot.
“I needed to be a participant in my own life. Part of that was grabbing the reins of my creativity.”
The movie has a clear anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, pro-working-class sentiment. What are your thoughts on the current labor movement and the big union push we're seeing right now?
There's an underreporting of how crucial a moment that we're in. The more and more the pressure cooker gets turned up, the more and more people are going to feel disenfranchised and uncared for. And it's very simple, right?
Beyond the politics of it all, it's that the base level of care — for all of us — is in decline. Especially for people of marginalized groups, people who are not from generational wealth, and people from the working class. And if it gets harder and harder, then the only power the people have ever had is withholding their labor — as unfortunate as that is. [Laughs]
That's also why I started writing this. I felt powerless, and I wanted to create a character who acquires their power. They don't know what they're doing with their life. They're lost. And throughout the film, they find out what they want to fight for.
This film is about the erosion of morals. You've got Mouse, who is on the doorsteps of her future, and is deciding what she really wants to be; what is her moral center. She's always been a person of conviction. It's probably led her to not succeed in life and be ostracized because she has such a strong moral compass. And I don't think the world really rewards that.
Morality is so, so complicated when you get older, and it shouldn't be. There's just right and wrong. I think a lot of young people are feeling that they’re just waiting for purpose — I certainly have felt it my whole life and still do to this day. We know things are bad, and we know that there's systems that have been put in place that have a chokehold on us, and we just want to be given purpose.
What draws you to writing imperfect and complicated characters?
I think people are imperfect and complicated. I feel ineffectual and, at times, spineless and unable to affect the world around me in a way that I feel is positive. So I like characters who also feel tied up in that way. And I love characters that have lost their way from where they once were.
I wrote Ugly as a representation of my relationship with men and my father. He's the rock. He's the modern man. He's strong. He's solid. He's actually in love and enamored with Mouse's conviction. And that's what I think leads him to support her in that way.
When I first started this, it was like, “OK, I want to write a gender-flipped noir.” I want to write a noir where you have the grizzled, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking female lead. And you have the man who is the supportive rock — the “good wife” — that is in a lot of these archetypal noir situations. That's where I started to write the characters. I'm like, “OK, I know this genre really well because I love it. How can I manipulate and change it and vamp on it and modernize it a little bit?”
“I wanted to write somebody who, in the face of all the things that cause me anxiety, rises up, finds her conviction, and goes after the bad guy.”
Door Mouse is heavily queer-coded. Somebody is coming after Mouse’s chosen family — and the concept of chosen family is so important in queer communities, so she can't let that go. It feels like the impetus of all her actions. Did you consider that when writing the script?
If you have grown up in queer spaces and with people who choose their family in this way, like I did, [you know] it comes from that idea of creating a family that, when in danger, will find a way to stand up for and support one another. Danger in this film is a really intense situation, but danger in the real world can be housing — like, “I don't have a place to live right now” — and how the community will surround someone and protect them.
I don’t know if it’s around anymore, but when I was growing up, there was this thing in Vancouver called “Rent Cheque.” It was a fun little queer space; a [monthly, amateur] burlesque show that a bunch of people would put on. If you won the burlesque show, the group paid your rent for the month [from the door fee money]. Spaces I was around like that really inspired the closeness of Mama’s, the club where Mouse works [in the movie]. Circling back to your question, those spaces are very queer spaces and were definitely an influence.
In the movie, the characters have to investigate their friends’ disappearances by themselves. Why can't they rely on the police?
Anyone who's grown up in areas like that knows you have to handle your own business a lot of the time. Especially having lived in the States, there's a mounting distrust about those relationships between public safety and what a public servant is supposed to do, and the actual functionality of enforcing that public safety — emphasis on the word “enforcing.”
When you look a certain way, when you present a certain way, it's hard for you to rely on those things that other people take for granted as something that they can rely on. And by the way, systems work for [certain] people — which is not their fault — so it makes 100% sense that those people would go to those systems and public servants [for help].
But for people in this neighborhood, and this community, that’s not the way they're usually handled, so they have to take it into their own hands. Part of it is Mouse's journey to find her purpose, right? She finds her purpose through action, finally. Most of her life has been without action because she's just so suffocated by all of the hypocrisy and no one having any morals. And society can forget groups of people. So then you ask yourself: Who's defending these people?
Why did you decide to make the jump from acting to writing and directing?
I've always loved making things. I always try new things, and most of my 20s were about trying new things. I wrote a book, I've written albums, I acted a bunch, and I just wanted to direct. It started as a promise to myself as a younger person that I was going to direct a film. And then it happened at this time because as a brown man, it felt like there was a limitation on what I was able to do in my acting.
The reason I wanted to get this movie made, specifically, was that so much of your first film is about identity politics and how you present. So if I want to make a film about being mixed race, or I want to make a film about being Indian and my dad wants me to be a doctor and I want to go into the Royal Ballet — if I wanted to make that film, the industry lets you make that really easily. But our value as filmmakers — I mean people of color, and even people of different genders or sexual orientations — is not limited to our identity. It's always been a really frustrating thing. If I make a film with two Black leads about a comic book illustrator who is uncovering this larger plot, then I'm making that film because as a filmmaker, I have something to say. I have creativity to add to this conversation, and I’m coming from a place that is authentic to me.
So it took longer, basically, because it's harder to make a film [while] they're like, “Well, why don't you go make the film with the brown guy in it?” I don't want to make that film. I will make that film at some point. But I think it's because I'm a contrarian and I didn't like the idea that that was what my value was to the industry. And so I decided that I was going to make a much harder film to make. [Laughs]
Right. I definitely understand. It's this tightrope you have to walk as a person of color in the media industry. You don't want to be tokenized, but at the same time, you do want to be able to bring in your own voice and point of view.
You want to talk authentically about who you are without that identity being commodified for other people.
The difference between appreciation, and observation, and exploration, and commodification, and the ugly machinery of capitalism is you can feel it. You just know, “Oh, I'm being tokenized here,” or, “My value to this is they're trying to get a demographic,” or whatever. Whereas, when you really feel respected as an artist, is when you're making stuff because it's your imagination and you let it fly and you get to make a film. But I'm happy I got to make a film. It was a really fun experience.
What does this mean for your career? Are you planning to devote more time to writing and directing, or do you want to keep acting?
I don't know. I'd like to make more things. I also want to continue to love acting. I realized I need to be more precious about how I go about that. Because you can sort of abuse the muse a little bit. I know that's a bit wanky and heady and arty to go through, but I think everyone can relate to the idea that you can stop your joy if you don't do the thing that you love in a way that's joyous.
I am going to be directing and writing. I will be acting, but I think it'll be with less frequency, and I'll really be concentrating more on making sure that the thing I'm acting in is really inspiring me to be better — not just going through the motions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.