Juju Brener

📷 : Mitchell Aragon / HMUA : Alma Nunez

Juju Brener can be seen playing Young Sarah Sanderson in the recent Disney+ release of Hocus Pocus 2 alongside her on-screen sisters Taylor Henderson as Young Winifred and Nina Kitchen as Young Mary, with the film starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the older sisters. Last year, Juju played Lily in Vanquish, working with Morgan Freeman, with her performance seeing her nominated at this year’s Young Artist Awards for Best Performance in a Feature Film: Supporting Young Artist. Previous projects for Juju have included Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, where she voiced one of the Wooden Bears, and she performed at the VMAs with Miley Cyrus having been part of Miley’s music video for Younger Now. Upcoming for Juju is The Furry Fortune – a screen adaptation of a bestselling children’s novel – playing Zoey Taylor, and Born Again, where Juju will play Rosita. Alongside acting, Juju is a brand ambassador for YMI Jeans Girls and she is working with the company’s creative team co-designing the YMI x JUJU COLLECTION, which launches October 12th. We chatted to Juju about filming as Young Sarah Sanderson in the Disney+ release of Hocus Pocus 2, her upcoming projects The Furry Fortune and Born Again and working with YMI Jeans.

You play Young Sarah Sanderson in Disney’s Hocus Pocus 2, which was released on Disney+ on September 30th, what is the character like to play and how did it feel finding out you’d booked the role?

It is so fun to play Young Sarah Sanderson. The kid version of the iconic witch created by Sarah Jessica Parker. Playing a witch, coupled with Disney and Halloween being my favourites, made it extra special! Sarah has all kinds of personality, physical, vocal, and even hair characteristics. I watched a lot of SJP as Sarah. Listened to New England pilgrim accent. My mom and sister Mila, who are both also actors, helped me in researching the period, the Salem witch trials, and understanding the script and context. After I booked the role, my acting teacher Scott Parkin and his daughter Miranda (assisted by our mutual acting friends Michael Reiser and Jeremy Cohenour) cut a back-to-back reel of only Sarah’s parts in the film. I kept watching without sound to incorporate all the specific behaviour and body mannerisms. And alternated by listening to her voice without looking at the moving picture. SJP talked in interviews about how she created Sarah’s voice so it was important for me to stay authentic and match her. As a kid, I had to find that register within my own voice. Then for different moments of the script, I incorporated body mannerisms. SJP had specific movements and I wanted to create my own child version of what those would be while staying true to her character. I knew the fans and SJP will expect that and wanted to give it all I could. It’s challenging embodying a character that a very respected and talented actress created. Everyone who knows me personally was joking that by the time we wrapped I couldn’t get Sarah Sanderson out of me. I was talking and reacting like Sarah even off set.

Of course, when I booked it, it was so exciting! This whole journey has been so amazing. I am forever super grateful to be part of the sequel to this iconic movie and Disney.

How much did you know about Hocus Pocus before auditioning and what was it like reading the script for the new film?

I was a huge fan. Halloween has always been my favourite holiday. I love anything spooky and macabre. The film is so associated with Halloween. It’s always been about Hocus Pocus for me.

The script had been under total confidentiality so I had only seen parts of it until the premiere. The parts that I did read were beyond cool, funny, and creative and, while staying true to the original the script, offers surprises, new characters, and unique storylines. I just know everyone of all ages will love Jen D’Angelo’s script, dedicated fans from the past as well as the new generation of audiences.

How was it on the set of the film and meeting the rest of the cast, which includes the older Sanderson sisters – Bette Midler (as Winifred), Kathy Najimy (as Mary), and Sarah Jessica Parker (as Sarah), for the first time?

Filming Hocus Pocus 2 was amazing! There are so many aspects from the script, sound stages, set design, costumes, hair and makeup, and locations. All were so meticulous and creative. Everyone at Disney and production were so talented, nice, and efficient. The set was very large and spread out with so many departments and personnel. We shot all over Rhode Island, and it so neat to have all the authentic New England locations. They even built the whole city of 1600s Salem from scratch in Chase Park. Everyone from the cast was super cool and inspiring! I loved working with Hannah Waddingham and Tony Hale. They brought so much to their roles and were so giving to us younger witches on and off set. Of course, meeting the iconic ladies was epic, they are all so kind, talented, and beautiful inside and out.

What was it like having Taylor Henderson and Nina Kitchen play your sisters and do you have any stand-out highlights from filming?

Having Taylor and Nina was awesome. They are both teens and I’m younger but we had that sisterly thing off set as well. Living on location in historic Providence, we got to see the famous Water Fires, visit Brown University, go to cool dinners, and take gondola trips on the canals. We also got to do unique field trips for school to areas like Newport and Salem.

A stand-out highlight is when we all got to do spider training for the scene with the spider. These are the same spiders used in the “you should see me in a crown” Billie Eilish video. They are interesting and friendly, they make webs as they crawl. We were all super scared at first but had to learn as, in the movie, we were witches who love spiders. In the first movie, Sarah even eats one! We all faced our fears and ended up bonding with the spiders and their handlers.

What were you looking forward to most for seeing the film’s release and who do you think it will appeal to?

I know fans have been waiting for this sequel for nearly three decades! And will be so pleased with the tone, the look, the characters, and all the surprises in the script. And just so incredible that it’s reuniting the original stars: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. I’m definitely looking forward to everyone’s reaction. There is already so much buzz and excitement on social media. I think the second, like the first, will become a cultural phenomenon, a cult classic! It will appeal to adults, teens and kids, to the legions of fans from over the years as well as to a new generation of audiences, even those not familiar with the original.

📷 : Mitchell Aragon / HMUA : Alma Nunez

How much can you tell us about the feature film The Furry Fortune and your character Zoey Taylor?

The Furry Fortune is a book-to-movie adaptation of author D. Goode Morgan’s popular children’s book. The story centres on twins Zoey and Dax, me and Mason Blomberg, who are growing apart and discover their pet rescue dog (Henry) is shedding money. The neighbours, a malicious IRS agent, and his slimy son kidnap the money-making canine, and the siblings must work together to save their pet and their family. Justin Ward adapted and directed the live-action comedy family feature. It is produced by industry veteran Brad Wilson. Three-time Grammy and six-time Emmy nominee Steve Dorff composed the score and original songs. When I booked this movie, it was a dream role because of my love for dogs. I literally screamed with happiness as, at the time, we didn’t have Pixie, my rescue chi mix, so spending long days with a dog pretending it’s mine was my happy place. I love being on a set, making movies, and creating characters. Getting to combine that with my love for animals was so awesome!

Is there anything you enjoyed most about being on the set of the film and how is it being involved with a bestselling children’s novel screen adaptation?

I’m happy I made friendships for a lifetime. Mason Blomberg, who plays my fraternal twin, is so cool, talented, and funny. We were actually born only a few days apart in real life and felt like siblings from day one! We have great chemistry. It just felt organic with him since we met. Mason Wells, who plays our nemesis, is also such a talent and an awesome dude. The three of us felt like we bonded during summer camp. My family and I also stayed close with Shane Hartline, who plays my dad. He’s such a good actor, hilarious, and so sweet. We recently collaborated again on his project Southern Man. I also stayed close with Alma Munez, who often does my hair and makeup and literally has magic hands. Director Justin Ward is also a friend. He and I really had a special actor-director relationship. He gave me a lot of space to create my character and trusted me while giving input. We had a good collaborative relationship. It was a dense shoot and I was basically in every setup and days were extremely hot, some up to 105! Shooting outdoors, lots of wardrobe and hair changes. Long hours and tons of dialogue. I had to stay very focused as sometimes we only had a couple of takes for certain scenes. It gave me confidence as an actress. I love my character, Zoe, who is very driven and business-oriented, with a dream of attending Harvard. It was great to work on her wit and find all the comedic moments. My sister Mila helped me a lot by breaking apart the script, finding the character’s rhythm, and nailing the jokes. The movie has a great message that family is more important than materialistic things and shows how greed and money can tear people apart. It also shows that love and the bond of family is something magical that is above all!

You will also be seen in another yet-to-be-released film Born Again, what is it like to be part of?

I just wrapped Born Again, a comedy which is the sequel to Born in East LA. Produced by and starring Paul Rodriguez. Also starring Jay Mohr, Louis Guzman, and an amazing ensemble cast. I play Rosita and all I can say now is it’s a type of character I’ve never played before, which was interesting to explore. The vibe on this set was so positive. Everyone was so nice, generous, and grateful. I love the actress playing my mom Stephanie Gerard and our producer Angeles Prado and, of course, Paul. Directed by the equally sweet and talented Rene Bueno, it’s set to release theatrically in 2023.

Last year, you appeared in Vanquish alongside Morgan Freeman, can you tell us about filming as Lily?

Filming Vanquish was super cool, I mean, Morgan is an acting legend! We filmed in Biloxi, Mississippi. We were one of the first movies out post-pandemic, so many challenges with COVID at the time. Plus, dealing with a hurricane. Being in the South and the humidity, I got bit by a lot of bugs. At some point, I had 36 bug bites. Lily was interesting because, unlike me, she is very sick and introverted. I had to work on delivering so much of her inner feelings in that way. But she is also just a kid who wants to be a kid and have fun but happens to be the daughter of a hired hit-woman, played by Ruby Rose. Morgan was so calm on and off the set. I learned from him to stay centred no matter the chaos around. Director George Gallo, who is just awesome, described all three characters as broken in some way leaning on each other to find their place in a dysfunctional way.

What are some of your favourite memories from working on Vanquish, which has seen you be nominated at this year’s Young Artist Awards for Best Performance in a Feature Film: Supporting Young Artist?

I loved being around Morgan and George, I learned a lot from such talented humans. It was a night movie so all were night shoots. I’m a night owl so that was fun for me. One night after I wrapped, me and my mom went to visit the 2nd unit and I got to see all these cool stunts. In the movie, Ruby rides this insane motorcycle, so her stunt double showed me some cool tricks. I even got to call “Action” on one of the scenes.

I also fell in love with the south, the southern hospitality and the food. I had to eat grits every day and I am still obsessed with fried Oreos.

I’m very honoured to be nominated this year for this film.

At last year’s Young Artist Awards, you won Best Performance in a Voice-Acting Role: Youth Actress for Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, what was it like receiving the award and voicing one of the Wooden Bears?

Working on Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs was cool and fun. It’s a spin on the Snow White classic tale with a good message about body shaming and acceptance regardless of physical appearance. Voiceover is cool because you can literally be in pyjamas and it does not matter. The challenge is bringing characters to life just with your voice. Sometimes these characters are animals or from a different made-up universe. Then the rest of the work is up to the animators and editors. It was so fun to bring to life Wooden Bears. By the end of the movie, we learn I was a kid that the Wicked Witch turned into a wooden bear. I worked on that film when I was so young and it took almost three years to complete. Animation often takes a long time to release with all the technical aspects needed to complete.

📷 : Mitchell Aragon / HMUA : Alma Nunez

How was the experience working on Miley Cyrus’ music video for Younger Now and performing at the VMAs?

Working with Miley was truly iconic! She is so, so talented and such a unique, creative artist. It was cool to see how she is very hands-on with her production and all artistic aspects. She did not leave it up to others. She had a strong vision, but was very collaborative with director Diane Martel, a perfect balance. It taught me that and that’s how I try to approach my work now. Also, when we were rehearsing in the venue for the VMAS, she had to sing over and over. She went all out every time even though there was no audience during those rehearsals and it was a cappella. I learned to do that. Give it my all even if it’s a rehearsal and there are only three people in the room. Performing live at five years old was epic! I recall Katy Perry, P!nk, and Snoop Dogg giving me high fives. I loved that whole experience and hope to do more of that in the future.

We understand you work with YMI Jeans, can you tell us about this?

Fashion has always been a big part of my life. I’ve been expressing my own unique individuality through my outfits for as long as I can remember. My grandmother is crafty and taught me and my sister how to put patches on our jeans from an early age. My sister Mila used to model for them when she was younger and we stayed in touch over the years. CEO/Founder David Vered is a Hocus Pocus fan, so when I wrapped the movie, he and my branding agent Yoav Davis of Davis Media NY put their creative ideas together to come up with a project we can collaborate on. The idea was to spotlight their kids’ line. I have been co-designing the line alongside the company’s creative team, which will include jeans, pants, and jackets. In addition, I also serve as a brand ambassador for YMI Jeans Girls. The brand is awesome because it appeals to girls and women of all ages who are confident, vibrant, fashionable, and want to express themselves through what they wear. It was important to all of us to create a capsule collection that reflects the trends of the moment in youth sizes. I can promise that kids, tweens, and teens will love the fits.

Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?

I have been acting since I was a baby. I shot my first national commercial for Verizon when I was six weeks old! My sister Mila is an actress, so was my mom Shirly Brener, and my grandmother Smadar Brener is an icon from Israeli cinema. I was born into it. My sister and I are third generation actors. We both have artistic interests and have been acting, dancing, making art, and doing voiceover animation and music since we were teenie. It was natural for us. I used to come to all my sister’s shoots and auditions and was excited when her agents and manager took me on so I worked hard to book my own jobs. I got inspired and learned a lot and still do from my mom, grandma, and Mila.

What are some of your favourite films and TV shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?

Some of my favourites are Stranger Things, E.T., the OG High School Musical movies, Toy Story, Sing, Bolt, Night at The Museum, Spider-Man, Black Widow, and Mean Girls.

Since I was little, I would always doodle and draw, and over the years, my dad, who is an artist, has taught me some of his techniques. There are dozens of papers all over our house and in drawers with my drawings. I am super into all desserts and exploring food, sampling the local foods wherever I travel. I love travelling, it’s been a big part of my life. My family and I are snow skiers. We love getting on the white slopes with the scenery and the mountain air. It’s fun and sort of magical. I also love beachy resorts where I can swim and do water sports. I equally like big urban cities with museums, shows, and shopping. My dream right now is to travel to Japan and London. Also, Hawaii. All seem like such a vibe. I’ve always been into amusement parks and, as soon as I was tall enough to hit the cool rides, I got pretty obsessed with roller coasters. I also just love to hang out with friends. We really enjoy sleepovers and some of my friends have pools so we go swimming. We love going to the mall and shopping, eating, and getting frozen yogurt.

Apart from your upcoming releases, do you have any other future projects you can tell us about and what are you hoping the upcoming year brings for you?

There are things I’m working on and cool goals ahead. This year, expanding with the fashion stuff and brand partnerships, getting to co-design YMI x JUJU COLLECTION has been epic. I’m so excited for the October 12th launch! I also have something we’re doing on the music side, so stay tuned. As well as working on school and my academics. I look forward to all the Hocus Pocus 2 promotion now it’s launched on Disney+, my travels to NY, and my favourite month of Halloween.

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