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'Black Women Are Erased': NCIS's Shalita Grant on Race in America

Shalita Grant went from being a Tony-nominated Juilliard grad to joining the casts of "NCIS: New Orleans" and PBS's new Civil War era drama, "Mercy Street." We recently caught up with the actor to talk about the New York theater scene, New Orleans, and...

Emma Bracy

Emma Bracy

Photo by Vince Trupsin

"When I was a kid, Jurnee Smollett was on television, and she looked like me," actor Shalita Grant told me when I asked her about the first time she saw herself reflected in culture. "She was on TV, and if I wanted to, I could be too—because she was doing it."

Now, twenty years after watching Smollett as a character on shows like Hangin' With Mr. Cooper and Full House, Grant has come to be the embodiment of why representation matters. She has landed roles on not one, but two primetime dramas (agent Sonja Percy on CBS' NCIS: New Orleans, and former slave Aurelia Johnson on PBS' Mercy Street). Her talents also extend beyond the small screen; Grant's television placements come on the heels of a 2013 Tony nod for her portrayal of Cassandra in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Basically, she's got acting chops.

Some (the kids) might even call her "woke AF," which made our conversation about inclusion in Hollywood one of the best I've ever had. I interviewed the actor during one of her recent trips to New York, and we chatted about other things, too—like working in post-Katrina New Orleans and the New York theater scene. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BROADLY: I'm really fascinated with New Orleans and the city's history. Your character, Cassandra, in the play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was a voodoo practitioner. Is there a connection there?
Shalita Grant: Sonja [from NCIS: New Orleans] and Cassandra are so different. Cassandra was more Greek than Jacobean, and she used her voodoo doll abilities for good and not for evil. Sometimes she kind of fucked with Sigourney Weaver's character, but for the most part, she was just trying to make sure that the family kept the house. Sonja Percy doesn't really dabble in the voodoo, so I guess that's why I didn't think of the relationship. But we have a grave-robbing episode coming up, and that's pretty big in New Orleans. The graves are incredible—everything is above ground. They don't do underground because New Orleans is below sea level.

What's it like being in New Orleans post-Katrina? How does the show acknowledge what happened?
We're dealing with some of the grit of New Orleans without dealing with the politics, because that's not what the [NCIS] franchise is about. But it's hard to do anything in New Orleans and not really talk about what's happened, and what's happening. As much as I love New Orleans—the people, the culture, and everything—there is an underbelly. For example, you can go to New Orleans and see these huge monuments for Confederate leaders, you have streets named after them, and it is a city that is overwhelmingly black. Recently, there was a push to get these monuments taken down, and I was really excited about that. For people who are oppressed every day, walking past [a monument of] Jefferson Davis on his horse, with his back long and straight—that says something. That does something. For white people as well, it's dehumanizing: This is your embodied supremacy; this is your legacy. But that moment was short-lived, because the contracting company that was hired to take the shit down? They got death threats. One guy had his Lamborghini burnt down.

So let me get this straight: Local government is like, "Yeah, take the Confederate monuments down!" They just can't find someone to physically do the work?
Yeah.

Because those against removing the monuments are using terror? It sounds so much like what the KKK used to do.
But that's the interesting thing about our country: We are sort of anti-historical. We don't even want to talk about that shit.

I mean, burning a Lamborghini, burning a cross on a yard—very similar to me.
New Orleans has—the crime is just so crazy. Every day, spectacular shit. But NCIS, it deals with naval stuff, so we're not really talking about the systems and the people.

So let's talk about systems and people. Ava DuVernay recently said, "There's a belonging problem in Hollywood. Who dictates who belongs? The very body who dictates that looks all one way." Your background is in theater: You're a Tony-nominated actress, and now you work in TV. You're also a black woman. What has Hollywood been like for you?
It was eye-opening, because even though theater is an elitist institution—and you have to acknowledge that—if you came up through Juilliard or one of those programs, there is a sort of [sense that] "well, you are one of us now, because you have been indoctrinated into who we are, into the culture." So even if—and this happens all the time—you're a black face in a white space, and somebody thinks you're the waiter, and you're like, "'Scuse you!" real quick, and they're like, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry! I love your teacher and some guy that you acted with. I thought—" Nobitch, I know what you thought at first. So even if you have those experiences, and we still do, there is still this [idea that] we are all one in theater. If your hair is this long, we gonna throw a wig on you. It's this collective—and that can feel good. I'm not saying theater is perfect, but there is this give and take, and collaboration, and respect for the artist.

I know that I am a palatable version of blackness. For dark-skinned women, they have it even harder.

Why do you think that is?
I think it's the eight shows a week; I think it's the lack of money, because it's like, bitch, you are only making $525 a week! No one's making more than anybody else, so there is this equalizing factor. And then you're in the shit. Live performance—stage fright is a real thing. That fight-or-flight complex? That's some real shit. You take your body through a very stressful event, and you need those people you share the stage with for a connection. There is a need. Now, in LA, I got the real business. I got the "take the veil off your eyes, honey, this is what you're doing" business. Not only was I a newcomer, I didn't have UTA, ICM, or William Morris [WME] [representing me].

You mean the agencies?
Yes. All the big names—directors, writers—that's who they've signed with.

WME and other agencies have been called out for racist practices, and the ACLU is in the midst of probing Hollywood for gender discrimination. How do you navigate that space: Being a woman, being a black person, and then being a black woman?
No matter what, my race will trump my gender in this country, and that's what black women have been saying forever. Even in trying to be a part of the feminist movement, white women have let us know, slyly, that our race trumps our gender—it just does. Hillary Clinton—she's the first woman running for the Democratic nomination? No she's not! Shirley Chisholm was the first, but she's black, so she don't count.

I haven't heard anyone bring her name up in this election cycle.
No. But that's the thing—black women are erased, and it's reflected in Hollywood, and it hurts. Even being a light-skinned actress, I know that I am a palatable version of blackness. For dark-skinned women, they have it even harder. Love interests, for example—I still get to go into those castings. They look at me and say, "You could potentially do this. Somebody could find you attractive," you know?

It's controversial to point out that women of color get the short end of the stick, but it's also true.
Just as it is controversial to say most of the shit I said. But it is especially controversial to point out just how oppressed black women are. People think, Yeah, but Oprah! or, Yeah, but Beyonce! It shatters me; it's crazy to me. [Black women] might be a part of pop culture, but we are also jokes, we are buffoons, we are for gay men to inhabit. Living in New York, in Chelsea, it was not uncommon to hear [from gay men], "Oh, my inner black woman is about to come out!" You don't have an inner black woman. Stop taking my identity and putting it on. I'm more than this.

I read another interview you did about your character from the PBS series Mercy Street, Aurelia—who's a former slave—and you said something like, "Her body doesn't even belong to her." What do you mean by that?
She gets raped. She's a former slave, she escapes up North, plays into the respectability politics. What she is met with is, "No, your freedom is nominal, not only are you not free, your body still doesn't belong to you." When she is raped, it's like, "You are still cattle, and who are you going to tell?" Because a white man wanting sex with a black woman, that was unheard of. [It was:] "You're not attractive. You guys are animals. We have these pristine white women; they are the top of our sexual desire and our romantic dreams. Black women—you don't even make the cut, you're property. Who would believe that a white man would rape you? And if it did happen, you probably enticed him, because we all know you guys are loose. We all know you guys are down to fuck 24/7. Even if we can believe that, you should be flattered. He took an interest in you, dear."

Aurelia's gotta deal with all of that, and you know what I think of? I think of Daniel Holtzclaw's victims. History continues to repeat itself, and the reasons these women didn't come forward at first are because of the same ideology I just ran down to you.

It's got to be tough, playing a character like Aurelia in the midst of everything we are experiencing right now as people of color.
Oh, it was. That last summer was so hard because most of the cast is white. My character is supporting—she's not even a lead. [The cast] would all go out to dinner, and sometimes it was like schooling people on what it means to be black—and maybe you just pulled a day where you were raped. Maybe you just pulled a day where you gave yourself an abortion. It was really tiresome, so I didn't go out a lot, because it was hard to be in those spaces and not continue to feel badly. It's not that I was drawing on inspiration from the past: I was drawing on our current day-to-day. I was drawing inspiration from Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the McKinney pool party, Dylann Roof and the South Carolina massacre—that was happening every day, and I couldn't turn it off. I did not give myself permission to turn it off. It really changed me.

The charity that I work with, The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, they [offer] undoing racism workshops and try to give a well-rounded understanding of what racism is. One of the symptoms of an embodied superiority is relying on people of color to provide service for you. "Teach me, but teach me in this way." I get so tired of it. Then, I learned that I could say no for my own self-protection. That was empowering—to know I have the right to say, "No, that's not a thing that I want to do for you."

What would you say to someone hesitant to start a career because they don't see themselves represented or valued in the industry they want to pursue?
First, I always start with myself. [At Juilliard], I didn't even realize that I was underrepresented because I didn't give a fuck! I was like, "I go to Juilliard, I do all this shit, I'm top of my class, I'm fucking rocking." When I'd go to see plays and stuff, I was used to thinking, Oh, there probably aren't going to be any black people in that. But if it's a Greek play, or if it's Shakespeare: There's going to be some black people in that, whatever. But that was the thing—I was not deterred or inspired by what the industry was doing. I was inspired by myself because I knew that I was good, and I could wait out here all day!

Then, when I realized, when I got that rude awakening of what was going on, it pissed me off—but it was not going to stop me from reaching my dream, and that's what I have said to any person talking about doing something radical, like opening a new business, like going to the door of an all-white, all-male society and being like, "Let me in, because this work is important to me, I'm fucking awesome, and this is what I want to do!" That's the thing I think you have to remember: No matter what, don't let society and those constructs stop you.

Now, you always want to make sure that you have friends in high places because that's more important than even your ambition. You can be as good as you want to be, but if no one can vouch for you, it's like, "Whatever." You've got to work on your connections, and put yourself in the right places, and if you don't know where they are, google it. I google everything. I taught myself how to bartend on YouTube and made up a resume full of lies because I was about getting that shmoney. I got me two bartending jobs!

My secret—someone taught me this—is that I have a little white man named Brad in my head. When I don't know what to do, when I'm feeling insecure, or when I am made to feel like black people in this country are made to feel every day, I just ask: "What would Brad do?" Brad would ask for as much money as he wanted, even if it sounded crazy. Brad would tell somebody whatever best suited him. Brad would have no problem telling someone about themselves. It doesn't always work, but it helps.
That's so fucking smart.

Yours could be Charles.
No, I fuck with Brad. Brad is a little spoiled, entitled jerk. "What would Brad do?" That's good. That served me.