'NCIS: New Orleans' star Shalita Grant on her journey to success

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Shalita Grant Talks The People's Institute For Survival And Beyond

By: Gibson Johns

Shalita Grant has been through a great deal to get where she is. Fresh off of a Tony nomination in 2013 for her portrayal of Cassandra in Broadway's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Grant moved to Los Angeles to make it big on television only to be given a resounding "no."

The actress auditioned for 59 different projects over the course of her first year in L.A. and considered throwing in the towel. But Grant wasn't done, and the work ethic that she picked up from her years on stage propelled her forward, and she eventually landed on CBS' hit new show, "NCIS: New Orleans."

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The multi-talented Grant is frank when it comes to her struggles, and the collective struggle of her fellow black actors. She's quick to point out that "there's a problem" in Hollywood when it comes to roles for minorities, but she admits that it's difficult to admit there's a problem while also trying to push her own career forward.

We chatted with Grant about her time on Broadway, how she converted Agent Sonja Percy on "NCIS" from a recurring role to a series regular, diversity on television and that time she found out she was nominated for a Tony when she was wildly hungover.

See photos of Shalita Grant throughout her career:

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'NCIS: New Orleans' star Shalita Grant on her journey to success
NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 20: 'Sleeping With the Enemy' -- The NCIS team exposes a mole and a catastrophic security breach while partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to find 900 missing pounds of explosives that pose an imminent threat to New Orleans, on the second season finale of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 17 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 20: 'Sleeping With the Enemy' -- The NCIS team exposes a mole and a catastrophic security breach while partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to find 900 missing pounds of explosives that pose an imminent threat to New Orleans, on the second season finale of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 17 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 7: 'The Third Man' -- The NCIS team partners with Homeland Security after the murder of a Navy master diver is linked to chatter of a foreign attack on the city, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 10 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Zoe McLellan as Special Agent Meredith 'Merri' Brody, Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, Lucas Black as Special Agent Christopher LaSalle, and Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 4: 'The Third Man' -- The NCIS team partners with Homeland Security after the murder of a Navy master diver is linked to chatter of a foreign attack on the city, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 10 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy, and Lucas Black as Special Agent Christopher LaSalle (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 28: 'Help Wanted' -- A Navy culinary specialist is the target of an explosion while visiting her family's restaurant, a French Quarter staple for over 100 years. Also, Brody is in D.C. tracking a lead in the General leak case, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 3 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Behind the scenes with Shalita Grant and musical guest Gary Clark Jr. (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 28: 'Help Wanted' -- A Navy culinary specialist is the target of an explosion while visiting her family's restaurant, a French Quarter staple for over 100 years. Also, Brody is in D.C. tracking a lead in the General leak case, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 3 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Behind the scenes with (Top row) Scott Bakula, Gene Todaro, John Besh, Lucas Black, (Bottom Row) Shalita Grant, Leah Chase, Sue Zemanick, and Susan Spicer (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 28: 'Help Wanted' -- A Navy culinary specialist is the target of an explosion while visiting her family's restaurant, a French Quarter staple for over 100 years. Also, Brody is in D.C. tracking a lead in the General leak case, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 3 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Behind the scenes with Chef Leah Chase and Shalita Grant (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 28: 'Help Wanted' -- A Navy culinary specialist is the target of an explosion while visiting her family's restaurant, a French Quarter staple for over 100 years. Also, Brody is in D.C. tracking a lead in the General leak case, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, May 3 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride and Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: Actress Shalita Grant attends the BELLA New York March/April 2016 Ladies Night Out cover launch party at Punto Space on March 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 8: 'Second Line' -- The NCIS team investigates the murder of a Navy Lieutenant during a French Quarter second line funeral procession, a New Orleans tradition that celebrates the recently deceased with a musical street parade, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, April 5 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy and Lucas Black as Special Agent Christopher LaSalle (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 27: Shalita Grant arrives on the red carpet at House of Blues on February 27, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ryan Theriot/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 27: Gordon Lonsdale, his wife, Shalita Grant, and James Hayman arrive on the red carpet at House of Blues on February 27, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ryan Theriot/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 22: 'Means to an End' -- The NCIS team discovers a surveillance van filled with photos documenting Special Agent Pride's every move after his daughter Laurel is attacked on campus and placed in protective custody, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, March 22 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 27: Shalita Grant performs at House of Blues on February 27, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ryan Theriot/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 27: Shalita Grant performs at House of Blues on February 27, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Ryan Theriot/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22: Actress Shalita Grant attends the Minnie Mouse 'Rocks The Dots' art and fashion exhibit on January 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/WireImage)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 01: Shalita Grant arrives at The Abbey Food and Bar's 6th Annual Tree Lighting at The Abbey on December 1, 2015 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jennifer Lourie/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 2015 American Music Awards Pre Party with Coca-Cola at the Conga Room on November 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for CSE)
LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 18: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy on the CBS series NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesdays (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - NOVEMBER 3: 'Blue Christmas' -- A string of Christmas burglaries turns deadly and the evidence leads the NCIS team to Wade's adopted son, Danny. Also, Lasalle and Brody tease Sonja about the high stakes of drawing Pride in the team's Secret Santa holiday exchange on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, Dec. 15 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 9th Annual Comedy Celebration, presented by the International Myeloma Foundation at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on October 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 9th Annual Comedy Celebration, presented by the International Myeloma Foundation at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on October 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 2: 'Insane in the Membrane' -- Behind the scenes on the set of the CBS series NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: CCH Pounder, Lucas Black, Shalita Grant, Rob Kerkovich, Zoe McLellan, and Scott Bakula (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGSUT 11: 'I Do' -- The NCIS team must determine why a murdered Navy drone pilot was using a black market drone to obtain military surveillance, and if the footage is linked to his death, on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, October 13 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy and Zoe McLellan as Special Agent Meredith 'Merri' Brody (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - JULY 7: 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' -- Pride and the team plan a dangerous undercover operation when a military convoy is attacked and a missile is stolen, on the second season premiere of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, Tuesday, Sept. 22 (9:00-19:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Shalita Grant as Sonja Percy, Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, Zoe McLellan as Special Agent Meredith 'Merri' Brody, and Lucas Black as Special Agent Christopher LaSalle (Photo by Skip Bolen/CBS via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 21: (L-R) Liesel Allen Yeager, Creed Garnick, and Shalita Grant attend Kristine Nielsen's caricature unveiling at Sardi's on August 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Norfleet/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 12: Actress Shalita Grant attends The Public Theater's 'Love's Labour's Lost' Opening Nght at Delacorte Theater on August 12, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 07: Annaleigh Ashford and Shalita Grant attend the 'Buyer and Cellar' Michael Urie portrait unveiling & birthday party at Tony di Napoli on August 7, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 30: Liesel Allen Yeager, Julie White, Billy Magnussen, David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen and Shalita Grant during the curtain call for Julie White's debut performance in 'Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike' at The Golden Theatre on July 30, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 25: Shalita Grant from the cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike attends 106.7 LITE FM's Broadway in Bryant Park 2013 at Bryant Park on July 25, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Janette Pellegrini/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 14: Shalita Grant (L) and guest attend 'Forever Tango' Broadway Opening Night afterparty at Buca di Beppo on July 14, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 24: Richard Kind and Shalita Grant attend the opening night for 'Buyers & Cellar' at the Barrow Street Theatre on June 24, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 09: Shalita Grant attends The 67th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage for Tony Awards Productions)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 08: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 2013 Tony Awards Eve Cocktail Party at Luggo Caffe on June 8, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Tony Award Productions)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 04: (L-R) Tony Award Nominees Valisia LeKae, Stephanie J. Block, Shalita Grant, Lauren Ward, Patina Miller, Carrie Coon, Kristine Nielsen, Keala Settle, Judith Light, Laura Osnes, and Annaleigh Ashford pose for a picture at The Empire State Building on June 4, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured: Shalita Grant -- Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE -- Pictured (l-r): Fredrik Eklund, Luis D. Ortiz, Shalita Grant, Ryan Serhant -- Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 21: Shalita Grant attends The New Dramatists' 64th Annual Benefit Luncheon at The New York Marriott Marquis on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: Shalita Grant attends the 79th Annual Drama League Awards at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 17, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 13: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 78th Annual Drama Critic's Circle Awards at 54 Below on May 13, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03: (L-R) Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant and Joan Rivers pose backstage at the Tony Nominated hit play 'Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike' on Broadway at The Golden Theater on May 3, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: Shalita Grant attends 2013 Tony Awards: The Meet The Nominees Press Junket at the Millenium Hilton on May 1, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Actress Shalita Grant attends the 2013 Actors Fund's Annual Gala Honoring Robert De Niro at The New York Marriott Marquis on April 29, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Shalita Grant attends the after party for The Cinema Society with FIJI Water & Levi's screening of 'Mud' at Harlow on April 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 06: Shalita Grant and Carol Burnett pose backstage at the hit comedy 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' at The Golden Theater on April 6, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: Actors Shalita Grant and Sigourney Weaver attend the after party for 'Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike' Broadway opening night at Gotham Hall on March 14, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 28: Actors Shalita Grant, Billy Magnussen, Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver and Genevive Angelson attend the 'Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike' Broadway Press Preview at The New 42nd Street Studios on February 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Shalita Grant attends the 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' press night at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on November 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
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Check out our full conversation with Shalita Grant below:

I've read that you struggled quite a bit when you first moved from New York to Los Angeles, and you had to audition a crazy amount of times before you nabbed a role. How many auditions did you go to until you succeeded in landing a part?

59 different projects! It hurt; It hurt so badly. I thought I was amazing and that everyone would get it ... and they didn't. It was 59 different projects -- and that's not counting the callbacks, producer sessions, going to a callback for one role only to be told you're better for another role and coming back and not getting it. Your dreams get crushed! It was definitely hard. Financially, I came out with a good chunk of money -- I wasn't irresponsible -- but I went broke twice. My manager paid my rent! It was embarrassing and hard, but I learned a ton.

I had a great, personal upheaval when I was in New York, and then I moved out to L.A. with the mindset of, I'm really going to do this. I'm going to do me, and my career will be amazing. And then it wasn't. So, at that point, what do you do? Do you pack it in? Do you give up? I certainly thought about giving up: I was 26, I had no money, I had this degree [from Juilliard] that nobody cared about. But I doubled down. I started to quantify how many auditions and hours of prep everything took; I started to understand how to work efficiently and get the best out of it. And then I booked my first job about six months before landing "NCIS: New Orleans," where I turned a [recurring role] into a series regular.

And this all came in the year after your Tony nomination for your role in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike! What was that whole experience like?

I had this personal embarrassment where everything fell apart, but I was still headed to Broadway -- I couldn't do two things at once. I couldn't have a mess [in my personal life], and reach the pinnacle of my career to date, you know? I told myself I was just going to focus on this one thing. After a month on Broadway, I was looking at all the predictions [for who would be nominated for Tonys that year], and I wasn't even in the running.

The night before the nominations were announced, I went to this HBO gala with my publicist and I was like, "Do you really think I even have a shot tomorrow morning?" She said, "Listen, I don't want to say either way, but here's the thing: I will call you if it's a personal nomination, and I will email you if it's just for the show." So then I went and partied that night 'til probably about 3 a.m., went to bed in my dress and I got a phone call at, like, 6 a.m. and it was from my publicist. I answered the phone and she was like, "Wake up! You're nominated for a Tony! You've got all of this press to do! Get it together!" I was glued to the coach for, like, six hours doing phone interviews, and after it all I sat back and was just like, "Wow. I did this." It just felt really good; It was the best feeling.

Why did you decide to move out to Los Angeles after such a successful first show on Broadway?

I'm a black woman, and at the time I was the only black person in my play and there were only a few other Broadway shows with black parts. In the middle of the summer after I lost [the Tony], I looked myself in the mirror and said, "Okay, what do you do now?" I was a 24-year-old Tony-nominated actress. Did I stay there and try to get another Broadway play? Who knows how long that was going to take with how few roles there were, so I thought about what I hadn't yet accomplished, and that was TV and film. So I went out to L.A.

Did the steadily increasing diversity on television play a factor in your optimistic view of TV?

Oh yeah. I definitely was thinking, "I can do TV -- I know I can." I had done an episode of "The Good Wife" in New York, so I knew I could be hired.

As you mentioned, your role as Agent Sonja Percy on "NCIS: New Orleans" was initially a recurring one, but you turned it into a series regular after the first season. Was that a natural jump or do you think that's something that you made happen?

I was told when I got the role that it was a recur with 3-5 episodes, with the possibility of being promoted. I looked at it as a paid audition, and I did my best work. Part of my journey in L.A. was repeatedly hearing that I was chubby, but instead of trying to get skinny, I got strong. I started lifting really heavy weights and training my body, which was perfect because this role is so physical.

I ended up booking a mini-series [PBS' Mercy Street] while filming the last episode. They called me and told me I needed to fly to Virginia to start filming it the day after I wrapped. I was asking [at "NCIS"] if I had a job for the next season, because the mini-series was going to carry me through until the start of season two, and they finally told me on the last day of filming that I had a position. That was also a "yay" moment, but I didn't have time to really process that.

What's it like playing a character for such an extended period of time?

It's hard to not get precious. You're doing this thing for 6-8 weeks, and you think you're just going to bang out these scenes and be done with it. But when you're playing a character for 24 episodes, it's definitely hard to not want her to be the favorite and be amazing all the time. But that's not as interesting! You have to get in trouble. I love how they write how "bad" she is. She gets in trouble, she almost got fired. She's a handful! But it's fun playing that.

How have you seen Sonja progress over the course of the show?

They've taken down some of the hard parts of her, really making her vulnerable and opening her up. She worked alone for so long, and now she's with a crew and learning the protocol. Getting close with her partner -- with Sal -- there are going to be a couple of surprises, that even she's surprised by. She's surprised by how things happen -- that's what I'll say [Laughs].

You're also on "Mercy Street," playing Aurelia Johnson who's a sexually assaulted, recently-freed slave during the Civil War. How did you prepare for such an emotionally intense role?

I knew that, in order for me to do that role, I needed to find the common thread [between Aurelia and myself]. The differences were apparent, but finding that connection was very important for me. We aren't in 1862, but I asked myself what I had to connect through. I looked at all of these videos, read all the think pieces and let CNN and MSNBC and Fox News roll. That's how I knew I could get into the mindset of the part, because I realized that, even though chattel slavery isn't a thing anymore, there's still a great level of oppression.

Right now, because of iPhones and everyone having a camera, we're documenting these things. The images that we're seeing today we saw 20 years ago, in the 80s, 70s, 60s ... there are postcards of lynchings, of police officers beating black and brown people. There's a definite commonality there.

For Aurelia, the story was about what happens when someone has this great expectation and their hopes are totally dashed. What does she do? My equivalent was, in 2008, I was at Juilliard -- and I come from nothing -- but I got myself there. Barack Obama was president! I remember the day after it was announced, I felt as if this weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It was a weight I didn't even realize I had. I thought, "Maybe racism is over! Maybe we are going to make giant steps forward to have real equality!" Eight years later, I just go to my Facebook, and I can see men and women just shot in the face. Our humanity is being debated! That was my equivalent [to Aurelia's situation], and I realized I had been shielding myself from it, because trying to be successful in the mainstream [as a black woman] can make you crazy, especially if you look at the numbers.

It's difficult to look at everything out there, knowing there's a problem in your industry, and be able to not have a chip on your shoulder and not freak out all the time. You have to insulate yourself for self-protection, but at the same time, you can't pretend as if it's not happening. I'm grateful to "Mercy Street" because it curved me from denying there's a problem.

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