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

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

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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