Rule Breakers

Shalita Grant Fights Sweet

With a life story more astonishing than most Netflix dramas, Grant's scene-stealing turns in Search Party and You are waking the world up to one of Hollywood's most underrated talents.

by Anna Peele
Apollo Barragah

Shalita Grant was born anew. The 18-year-old had converted from the Nation of Islam to what she now calls “nothing” to evangelical Christianity, a fresh holiness that came with a revirginization process — her next first kiss would be at the altar because, she thought, “Jesus has sealed my stuff up.” At lunchtime, Grant would go to the Worldwide Plaza, a kind of outdoor food court secreted between two busy Hell’s Kitchen avenues and two quiet streets. She would walk up to people eating their meals — and, Grant says, “minding their own business” — and make an offer with the satisfied benevolence of a child handing their parent a freshly torn dandelion: “I would like to tell you about the Lord.”

But Grant was not just a servant of God. She was a student in Juilliard’s elite BFA program, the first brick on the pathway to being a Tony-nominated actor for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and to a role on procedural behemoth NCIS’ New Orleans-based, Scott Bakula-led spin-off, and to a transcendent comedic performance on the much-loved but relatively little seen Search Party, and then a transcendent comedic performance on Season 3 of the much-loved and very widely seen Netflix stalker series You.

At Juilliard, Grant’s religion became a thing. Not among the student body, where she says the Korean Christian community had a presence in the music department and a Mormon contingency apparently ran roughshod and horny over the dance department, far from the temples of Salt Lake City. (“They all go bad, girl,” Grant says now, cackling. “Don’t print that; their kids might not be able to go no more. But they go rotten.”) In Grant’s classes, however, teachers started making comments. During a “primitive” mask workshop, drama students were supposed to perform physical actions that conveyed the primal state their covered faces could not emote. What artistic choice did the inchoate actors make? “They would all hump each other,” Grant says.

Grant was answering to God in an environment where the teachers demanded worship, requiring the ensemble to lay on the floor of a brass practice room and try to avoid the spit puddles that Grant called “instrument piss.” Every few months, Grant and her classmates, who included The Handmaid’s Tale actor Samira Wiley, would sit in a circle and get unfiltered feedback from faculty about their many failures. “Get your sh*t together,” the artistic director would say. “You’re too boring.” Grant remembers hearing that students would be cut from the program at the mandatory Christmas party, during which a teacher would tap the doomed actor on the shoulder, and they would vanish into obscurity. (Or, alternately, into the career of class of 1977’s eliminated student Robin Williams.)

Students under this pressure were thrown into the masked orgy, and the obvious consequence played out. “There were people in the class that had a classmate do something that crossed a boundary for them,” Grant says. She wasn’t avoiding the dry humping because she was a Christian; she was avoiding it because it was unnecessary and, in her estimation, a lame and unsophisticated impulse. So after the second time the mask teacher suggested that Grant’s religion was holding her back, Grant says she “grabbed the biggest guy in our ensemble, and I put him on that table and I f*cked him right in front of [the teacher]. I made eye contact [with her] in my neutral mask, riding the f*ck out of [him]. Ain’t sh*t scared about me. OK?”

In her fourth year at Juilliard, Grant says, she “stopped hearing the voice of the Lord. I was like, ‘Did I bother him too much this summer?’”

“You know Pat Benatar?” Grant says, 11 years after graduating from Juilliard. “Good old Pat Benatar has this song, ‘Hell Is for Children.’ And it’s really true. For me, it was really hell.”

The 33-year-old recounts her childhood hell from the safety of a corduroy chair in the Houston house of her girlfriend’s mother, where Grant and MMA fighter Jessica Aguilar are staying while their own home is being renovated. Though Grant’s substance of choice is weed, I had suggested we talk over drinks, so the 4-foot-11 actor pours a second glass of the $5 Trader Joe’s lambrusco she claims is hangover-proof. (When Grant purchased three bottles earlier in the week, a store employee admiringly said, “Oh, you know about the lambrusco, too?” “B*tch, do I?” Grant replied in her intoxicating voice, which swings from the g-dropped gerunds of the American South to the “betches” of Los Angeles. “Don’t I look like it? I’m not new to this, I’m true to this. This is bottle No. 3, don’t you see?”)

Grant tells me she was born in Baltimore to a 17-year-old father and 18-year-old mother, the latest in a matrilineage of teenage pregnancies so dominant that her great-great-grandmother, a literal bootlegger, died when Grant was 9. By the time Grant was 5, her mother was in jail, and when she was 7, her father survived a shot in the face by a robber who got nothing for his trouble.

It was an environment in which Grant says she coped by trying to appeal to others; love was something she felt she could earn. This led to her bout of Christianity, which became its own kind of codependency. In her fourth year at Juilliard, Grant says, she “stopped hearing the voice of the Lord. I was like, ‘Did I bother him too much this summer?’ I was so depressed. But by the time I got to the end of that year, I was questioning: Why do I need other people to believe this for me to be satisfied?”

Acting was somewhere between an escape from this sequence of pursuit and disillusionment and a way to channel it. Grant’s friend of a decade, Michael Sanders, met her while doing publicity for the Lincoln Center run of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Performance gave Grant an opportunity to literally remove herself from the world she was raised in, but also a way to make sense of that left-behind life. Sanders says acting gives Grant “the ability to be able to wrestle with any of your trauma or any of the demons you fought in growing up; you get to exorcise those things in rehearsals and figure out what that is in different characters.” And, of course: “She’s good at doing it,” Sanders says. “When all three of those things align, you get a really powerful person who is [also] consciously aware.”

Prodigious approval-seeking — and questioning of that desire — is a singular quality of Grant’s best performances. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that they also share something her less widely celebrated work lacked: salty, acidic humor.) On Search Party, she plays a first-time lawyer who becomes the criminal defense attorney in a high-profile murder case. With extra-crispy vocal fry, Grant elevates a Cher-Horowitz-bullsh*tting-her-way-through-a-social-studies-presentation-in-Clueless savvy naivete to something deeper; she’s not totally qualified for the situation she’s in, yeah, but she respects the stakes and does her best to meet them.

I don’t do anything I wouldn’t watch.

After auditioning on tape, Grant was cast on You over what showrunner Sera Gamble describes as “pretty exciting, offer-only actors who were fans of the show.” The greatest set piece on the new season of You — which you should watch before reading the following spoilers — is a multi-episode arc in which Grant’s mom-influencer character, Sherry, and her optimized caveman husband, Cary, learn too much and are locked in a torture box by serial-killing couple Joe and Love.

“Shalita does have a lot of charisma,” Gamble says in the raised-eyebrow tone reserved for stating the very obvious. “This is somebody who should, like, be an actor. … I would be in post with the editors, and they’d be like, ‘You know, Shalita just really is a star.’ … It is a strange, ineffable thing, but we as humans recognize it. The character of Sherry weaponizes that about herself.” Sherry works through the five stages of persuasion — threatening, bargaining, cajoling, reasoning, abandoning the idea of help, and doing it on her own — and manages to escape the cage with Cary and turn the experience into a bestselling book and attendant TED Talk.

Grant approached her early romantic life with the same “I can make this work” verve Sherry used to break out of her prison. She assumed she was straight because that was the only option presented to her and searched Cosmo’s sex manuals for answers the way she would later scrutinize philosophical texts. (Among the many spiritual learnings Grant shares are that her enneagram number is two — “the helper” — and one of her favorites of the Four Agreements is “Don’t take anything personally.”) “To me,” Grant says, “the world was saying, ‘If you want to be a good lady, you gotta be good at sex.’ And that’s sex with men, and it’s labor. It’s like, blow jobs. Hand jobs. Like, it’s a lot of jobs you gotta do! And so what I aspired to do was just be good at these jobs.”

That Grant experienced no pleasure as she toiled was surprising to her, but she asked around and no one told her it was supposed to be any different. “Well, as long as it’s not pain,” her relatives said when she explained she felt nothing during sexual encounters. “But even if it is, that’s normal, too.”

It wasn’t until her 20s, when Grant says she “fell on a lady at a bar” that she discovered what had been absent. “I just was really a natural,” she says of being with a woman. “And I was like, I didn’t study for any of this. None of this I knew, but I knew it. And it felt amazing.” After a brief stint identifying as bisexual (“I was like, ain’t no way I took all of that for no reason!”), Grant was out and gay.

But even if we manage to actualize, it’s hard to leave our inherent selves behind. Grant was accommodating and ambitious, so when she got a job on NCIS: New Orleans, she took it. (And, like, what actor would say no to network TV paychecks?) Though she tried her hardest to work for the benefit of the team, the team was not reciprocating. After three seasons of styling so unconcerned with how a Black woman’s hair needs to be handled — and how a Black woman deserves to be treated — Grant was left with bald patches and the “threat” of a receding hairline. She had multi-cam nightmares in which she dreamed she was being filmed in her bedroom and had to play to three camera setups.

If this person that I am now is getting the most attention, that’s great. Because I was a sh*thead a lot.

Her relationship at the time — “the divorce was longer than marriage,” Grant says now — was similarly imbalanced. Grant threw monthly parties, from marijuana feasts with tasting notes to salons in which guests were provided syllabi for discussion, for the enrichment of her partner. At the time, Grant says, she didn’t know “you shouldn’t be in this cycle of being their mentor, or their inspiration, or their encourager. That’s toxic. It brings me pain, in the end. Because you’re never repaid in the way that you hope.” The lesson is a universal one: “You shouldn’t f*ck your mentees,” Grant mostly jokes, squeezing her lips into an “mmhm” shape and splaying fingers elongated by black-shellacked nails.

Grant’s friend Karin Danger, whose child is Grant’s goddaughter, attended the elaborate gatherings held for the protege-partner’s benefit and recalls the vibe of the other guests as “Who’s the most famous person in the room? Can I get close to that person?” ​​Grant says, “I loved the food, the ambience, the drinks, and all that sh*t. But then I looked back and I was like, these motherf*ckers that I’m inviting don’t call me to ask me how I’m doing. Why am I doing this? So I am now the anti-party person.”

After aborting her compounding poisonous situations, Grant underwent three months of intensive trauma therapy to try and dismantle the tracks she had assembled to survive childhood and were now forcing her to keep traveling the same route as an adult. The treatment was EMDR — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — which tracks patients’ ocular motion when they recount traumatic events. The PTSD treatment works by identifying when the body is in distress and then teaching the person what kinds of stimulus create a negative emotional response and how to avoid that reaction.

It was freeing for Grant. “There are things that present in the body, and what’s great about trauma therapy is that you begin to name it for yourself,” she says. It allowed Grant to look at her own role in the way things had gone in what she calls the “karmic cycle.” It helped her hone her inner circle from a house full of party guests who were happy to be amused but never seemed to check in when there wasn’t an elaborate invitation involved. (Not that Grant is emotionally cloistering herself; I’ve never before interviewed someone who listed by name the four people they say they trust and then let me talk to two of them.) The treatment also gave Grant a professional ethos that would allow her to avoid future NCIS situations. “I don’t do anything I wouldn’t watch,” Grant says.

“The rags-to-riches story of someone who’s been through hardship and ends up successful is very done. But the story of someone who goes through hardship and ends up happy is a totally different thing.”

It was in this emotional space that Grant met Aguilar. She’d undergone a period of abstinence in which she’d had a couple of conversations that she cut off before they became one more tick on the docket of bad patterns. “I was super proud of myself that I was no longer the girl that ignored red flags,” Grant says. She had just started a hair care line called Four Naturals (as in Type 4 hair, the texture her previous glam team had tried to force into network-palatable white styles), which features all-natural ingredients like henna, fenugreek, and aloe vera and will be available for purchase next year. (Grant promises the products are also great for other hair textures.) Her first FaceTime with Aguilar, arranged by a mutual friend during the pandemic, was an awe-inspiring 17 hours. (When I point out to Grant that this borderline unbelievable timeframe demonstrates her immediate enthusiasm for things she’s interested in, exemplified by a passion for pole dancing that began with taking four classes in one day, she yells, “Anna! I’m intense, man!”) “We some crazy b*tches together,” Grant says dreamily of Aguilar. “Every day, it’s a new adventure. Like, she sees it in me, I see it in her. We’re like, ‘Yeah, f*ck yeah, let’s renovate this house.’”

In addition to the Houston home, they want to buy and gut an investment property in Mexico, where they spent much of the summer. The plan is to start in the resort town Mérida and film something; in a perfect world, for HGTV. “F*ck yes,” Grant says of the soothing home design and real estate network. “It’s so in my f*cking vibe.” And if the HGTV crowd, who went all-in for Chip and Joanna Gaines’ style, have something to say about Grant joining their tidy, open-concept world, she is ready: “Don’t take anything personally,” remember? “When people are talking, they’re not talking about you,” Grant says of the hostility people lob at others. “They’re talking about themselves. Even if they put your name on it, they’re talking about themselves.” Besides, Grant says, “I’ve already had that experience with NCIS. They’re not loving a pot-smoking lesbian who pole dances. And I could pay someone $40 an hour just to screen through this sh*t to block your ass. You’ll never hear from me again. If this upsets you so much, I will take it out of your way.”

Though You has generated the greatest acclaim and most attention of Grant’s acting career, she hasn’t signed on to any new projects yet. “As far as I’m concerned, she should be in the center of her own TV show,” Gamble says, noting she’s fielded many personal requests for a Sherry-and-Cary-centered spinoff of You (though nothing official so far). “I believe that’s her future.”

“To have this amount of attention right now feels great because I have so much to offer people,” Grant says of becoming famous as the woman forged by the damage of the past. “If this person that I am now is getting the most attention, that’s great. Because I was a sh*thead a lot. I’m glad that no one’s catching me mid-sh*ttiness.” Grant switches into TED Talk mode: “Guys, I was in the sh*tter. Let me tell you how I got out.”

Grant’s friend Sanders says, “She has the family issues, she has the religious complexes. There’s the LGBTQ stuff. There’s a person back there, you know? It’s just been nice to watch that person come to fruition because if she would’ve gotten that Tony in 2013, I don’t think she would’ve been an absolute sh*thead, but I do know that there’s perspective she would’ve missed out on. I’m glad that the world is getting to witness that perspective at play in her current self.” Grant is doing the kind of work she, a pot-smoking lesbian who pole dances, would watch. It makes sense then that people who watch her work would love a pot-smoking lesbian who pole dances.

Or as Danger summarizes Grant’s journey: “The rags-to-riches story of someone who’s been through hardship and ends up successful is very done. But the story of someone who goes through hardship and ends up happy is a totally different thing. … The great triumph is happiness.”

You may have noticed a tattoo on Sherry’s sternum this season on You. The bee, flanked by two swords, is Grant’s real ink. “It’s something I learned from a ceremony I did in New Orleans,” Grant says. “The message from my ancestors was ‘You are a honey-dipped machete. Fight sweet and don’t allow the battles to harden you.’”