“I have friends who’ve been out there for a year and have only had six auditions. I had 59 different projects that I had went out for” – Shalita Grant on her first year in LA
Shalita Grant is the newest cast member of NCIS: New Orleans, playing ATF Agent Sonja Percy on the hit CBS series. She originally appeared in 4 episodes last season and there was a chance her role could turn into a series-regular. She had no idea what was going to happen. Then, on her last day of shooting, the executive producer gathered the whole cast and crew and said, “All right, picture wrap. We’re finished. Thanks, Shalita.” She thought that was it. “But it’s not the last time we’re going to see her,” he went on to say. “Because she’s a new series regular for season two!” How cool is that?
I first talked to Shalita right after she got her Tony nomination for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike back in 2013 and she is just as cool now as she was back then. She’s had a crazy, wild ride since then too. She moved to Los Angeles and auditioned for a full year before booking a part. She even had to get another job to support herself. But, as that old saying goes, work begets work and she was soon booking guest star and recurring roles. And now, she’s fighting crime in New Orleans.
In this interview, Shalita talks about what happens when a Tony nominee moves to LA, working as a bartender to make ends meet, life as a professional auditioner and working on NCIS: New Orleans.
NCIS: New Orleans airs on Tuesdays at 9pm on CBS
Nice to talk to you again! You know, since we last talked, I don’t think anything exciting has happened right?
Shalita Grant: [laughs] Yeah, my life sucks.
It has been crazy, it has been up and down it really has. After Vanya and Sonia, we closed at the end of August and I moved out to LA.
Oh, you moved right to LA?
Shalita Grant: Yeah, we closed on the 25th I left on the 31st.
Why did decide to move to LA?
Shalita Grant: Well, because the Tony’s is the ceiling in New York and I thought, ‘well, I could stay in New York City and try to get another show and try to win’ and that just did not seem worth my time, you know? While I respect the awards shows and everything, I don’t want my career to be about chasing awards. So I was like, ‘I would rather go and see what the rest of my career has to offer’. So, the next step was moving out to LA.
And then I thought, ‘oh, I got a Tony nomination. I have been branded, I have been gilded. So I am going to get so much respect and it is gonna be awesome for me and I am just gonna work, work, work.’ And that was not the case.
I got out there and I tested fairly soon, I tested for the second project I auditioned for and I had tested about five times throughout the course of the year and I didn’t book anything. I couldn’t even book a guest star.
It was awful. I ran out of money and I was like, ‘I have to find a way to support myself because my career [laughs] is in the gutter.’ So, I went on YouTube and I taught myself how to bartend. I talked my way into a job at a dive bar and got fired because they figured out that I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I lied my way into another job at Dave and Buster’s. And I was working there, drenched in syrup and just having a bad attitude from clientele and I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed.
I did not tell anybody that I was an actress. I had made up this whole life for myself because I could not deal with, “Oh, you’re an actress? Why you working here? Oh, you one of those.” And you know, you have to prove your resume. And then it’s like, “Well, why are you here?” “Well, I don’t know.” I didn’t want to go through that. So I was like, “Yeah, I was a big party girl in New York. That’s all I did was bartend and party.”
About a year to the day of me being out there, I booked my first job which was a guest star for Battle Creek that’s no longer on CBS. But even after that show, I was like, ‘it took me a year to book this job, when in my gonna book the next job? I don’t want to live like this, I’m too smart. There are so many other things I could do, this is awful.’ And I really understood for the first time how LA can kill your dreams, you know?
So I called my manager and I was like, “I quit. I’m not doing this anymore. Maybe New York was a fluke or maybe it was sort of the end of the line and I just need to call it quits.” And her reaction and my other manager in New York, they’re a team, they were just like, “Stick it out, you’re not really done yet. Stick it out.”
And my pride and my ego, my self-esteem was in the shitter, for lack of a better word [laughs].
But it turned out, after that job, I booked a job or shot a job every other month. And then in January, I ended up booking the NCIS gig. It was like a three-part thing where I was recurring but they gave me a holding deal and they were like, it could turn into a series regular. And here we are.
Going out to LA with a Tony nomination, did that open a bunch of doors audition-wise at first?
Shalita Grant: It did. Truthfully, everybody has their version of a hard time. I have friends who’ve been out there for a year and have only had six auditions. I had 59 different projects that I had went out for. And out of the 59, I had five tests… Four tests before the year and I had one more test for an HBO show that December before I booked NCIS. The four tests, two went to network, two went to studio and no job. So for me that was hard. For me that sucked because it wasn’t just like, ‘oh, you had a bad audition’ or ‘you had a great audition that you didn’t book.’
I remember during pilot season, I did Vanya and Sonia at the McCarter Theater in LA and I took this huge pay cut from what I was making on Broadway. I was barely making ends meet during the show. I was doing this during pilot season while doing the show. And so I remember there was a week where I cried in my Prius after every audition because by that point I had been hip to how auditions work in LA. A lot of times, stuff is already in play with other actors and the casting directors are covering their butts by taking on these other sessions where within like two days later you find out another person booked the job. So you realize of that audition I did two days ago where I made them laugh, they weren’t actually… They already had an actress with far more credits that they were looking to hire and her contract just went through. So that feels really bad.
Yeah, you feel like you wasted your time.
Shalita Grant: Yeah, yeah, all that. But then you have to believe too, ‘oh, well maybe I just booked the room. Maybe I did a good job on the audition, I just didn’t get the part. Maybe they’ll see me again for something else because they see that I’m a good actress.’
And when I first got out there I thought, what you thought: ‘I have a Tony nomination. I’m going to get so much respect, so much credit and it was like, “We don’t know you. Can you act?’” And I was like, “Yeah, of course I can.” “No, no, no, Broadway acting is different from TV acting.” And I was like, “No, no, no.”
It’s got to be such a buzz kill. In New York, I would assume that all the casting directors knew who you were. You have to start all over again out here.
Shalita Grant: It was, it was completely starting over which I didn’t realize at the time. Hindsight is 20/20. I was like, ‘yeah. I am going to start over but it’s not like I’m a brand-new face. It’s not like I’m a nobody from the middle of the country with no representation. I am in the best of places to make this move.’ And while that was true, I didn’t realize how far behind I actually was.
And the competition is different. Halle Berry has a TV show. So, it’s like how do you compete with that? You don’t. You just have to figure that out.
At what point did you quit Dave and Buster’s?
Shalita Grant: I quit Dave and Buster’s when I turned the Bones guest star into a recurring.
Was that like the best call ever?
Shalita Grant: Yeah, I was like, “No, I’m not coming in. I think I have a career.”
Had you audition for the NCIS casting directors before?
Shalita Grant: Yes, actually I had and it was for another role on NCIS: New Orleans.
At what point did you find out that you were going to be a series regular on NCIS?
Shalita Grant: It was supposed to be 3 to 5 episodes, I did four. In the fourth episode, which was the finale, I ended up looking another job. I booked a miniseries for PBS called Mercy Street. They were filming during the fourth episode so I started flying back and forth for a week to Virginia to do preliminary stuff on that show and then coming back to New Orleans.
During the last episode, I had met up with Jeff Lieber, who is the show runner, and I was like, “Yeah, I booked this other job that shoots until three days before you start season two and if I have to move here it would be great to know… Should I get a place? Cause I’d have to choreograph this move from the East Coast.” And he was like, “Yeah, I can’t say. I can’t say.”
So, the last scene, I don’t have anything to say and I’m following Scott [Bakula] to this balcony. I’m behind him and after every take, I’m like, “Scott, I’m killing it behind you. I’m scene stealin’.” He is like, “No, you’re not. All eyes are on me.” [laughs] At the end, the executive producer calls everybody in and says, “All right, picture wrap were finished. Thanks, Shalita.” Everybody claps and I’m like, ‘alright, cool. I’m not gonna know.” And he goes, “But it’s not the last time we’re going to see her because she’s a new series regular for season two!” And that’s how I found out.
I’m excited for you just for that moment.
Shalita Grant: Thank you, it meant a lot. It was a tough road there for a while.
Did you ever once think about moving back to New York?
Shalita Grant: No. When I left New York, I had a lot going on and part of the move from New York was also like getting a refresher on my personal life. I had this career-high but things were awful personally for me. So I looked at going to LA as a refresher of my life in general.
And it’s funny, because my career was not going well but I was the happiest I’ve ever been. Part of me was like, ‘I love LA but I hate my career here, so just get rid of the thing that’s making you unhappy.’ So that’s where I was.
Are you having fun with your character? Are you able to shape her in any sort of way?
Shalita Grant: Yeah. The wonderful thing about working with the team, Jeff Lieber and all the writers, is that they do give leeway and they really want to know who you are and what you’re comfortable with because it excites them and it gets them into like, ‘I can write this and I can write that,’ you know? It sparks their imagination and their creativity.
But one of my favorite things about this role is how physical it is. I’m doing the stunts and running so I’m in the best shape I have ever been in my life.
You moved to full New Orleans full-time now, right?
Shalita Grant: Yeah.
What’s the plan for when you’re on hiatus? Are you go to LA rent a place?
Shalita Grant: Well, hopefully I’ll get another job. I love working. I love it. It’s my favorite thing.
With Mercy Street, I booked that on tape with my phone. I recorded it on my iPhone. I will audition anywhere. And I’ve had I think about 75… 80 auditions since I moved out to California. So, I’m pretty adept at working these auditions. Give me an iPhone and some sides and I’ll rattle it off for you.
How do you like filming on location? I think it’s so much fun.
Shalita Grant: New Orleans is so big and bright and there’s so much character here. The houses are all painted so many colors. So, you know, this person is a Saints fan because their whole house is black and gold. This person loves purple and gold, so they paint their house like that. This person likes all the colors, they don’t discriminate, so they just paint it all every color that there is. There is no way we could have created this anywhere else.
Tell me about Mercy Street.
Shalita Grant: It’s a period drama and its PBS’s first foray into original programming in about 30 years. They’re looking to replace the Downton Abbey audience and give them something else to watch and they’re hoping that it’s this.
It takes place in the second year of the Civil War and it’s based on a true story… It’s set in a mansion house hospital and the union has taken over Alexandria, Virginia and they have this hospital that services both Union and Confederate soldiers. It’s a medical drama and that’s what the creators and writers want to stress. My character is Aurelia Johnson and I’m the laundress in the hospital. I was a freed slave who and came up to Alexandria and found work and is looking to reunite with my son and mother. She employs the help of her boss now that she’s free and she has in her mind that she’s in a different social status. So, she kind of takes advantage of that.
You went from going back to your first day on NCIS: New Orleans?
Shalita Grant: Yeah, it was a head change, you know? Especially with everything that’s going on in the country. I really forced myself to look at the videos and read think pieces and the hate speeches. It’s a trip because truthfully you just take the images of the past couple weeks and put them in that. And it fits. And that’s kind of hard to take but in a way it made the job the easiest job that I had.