There are few people who could tell me, an entertainment journalist, during an interview, that they “care a lot about people's happiness” and have it sound more like a genuine admission than a PR-crafted catch-all. Brittany O’Grady is one of those people.
As the star of Apple TV+’s latest original series, Little Voice, O’Grady plays Bess King, an aspiring singer-songwriter living in N.Y.C. The show is loosely based on the early days of executive-producer Sara Bareilles’s own career, and boasts a creative team that also includes Bareilles’s Waitress co-conspirator Jessie Nelson and executive-producer J.J. Abrams (co-creator of seminal “young-in-N.Y.C.” drama Felicity).
There’s one descriptor that can be found in nearly every review of Little Voice: “earnest.” But hold the eye roll — earnest can be nice, especially when it accompanies folksy original songs and the struggle to pay your bills while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Given the obvious Felicity influences, the liberally-used adjective shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but speaking with O’Grady only underscores the show’s bent toward the sincere.
Like her onscreen counterpart, O’Grady, 24, is navigating an industry that hasn’t always welcomed her warmly. “People are going to be brutally honest in a way that's, in my opinion, unnecessary or unevolved,” she tells me over the phone, “but it's like, dang, that's what you really think about the way I look, or my body.” Growing up in the business, O’Grady is primed to handle the negativity: “I think that it's important to remember that one person can't decide your worth in five minutes.”
The Arlington, Va. native has made it her mission to use her own (not so little) voice to fight for change. “I've had experiences where I have not been respected or treated fairly because of my background or my ethnicity,” says O’Grady, whose mother is Black and father is white. “And that's something that can really be painful.” But it’s more than just personal for O’Grady. “I never want anyone to get hurt and I can't just sit by and watch people get treated like crap,” she tells me. Though that sentiment may seem like a no-brainer, it’s becoming more and more apparent, in a state of “all lives matter” proclamations and a widespread refusal to wear masks, that not everyone feels that way — or, at least, not everyone is able to back it up.
O’Grady is doing her part, even if it’s just creating something hopeful and entertaining that reflects the world we live in (an N.Y.C. comprised of more than just white women with Louboutin-filled closets and standing brunch dates?? *Gasp*). Little Voice is a soothing balm for a year that has felt (and continues to feel) like the most demoralizing practical joke. And O’Grady, who built a loyal fan base in Lee Daniels’s Star, is the talented and (OK, I’ll bite) earnest heroine we could use right now.
Read on as the actress-cum-singer opens up about her new show, her experiences in Hollywood, and being an apologetic Gemini.
InStyle: How has quarantine been for you?
I’m usually in Atlanta, Ga., and I came up [to Va.] to see my family. We’re staying with my parents, and my older sister, and my family, and just spending quality time with them because I don't really get to, usually, when I'm working. So it's actually been kind of nice.
I was going to ask you about that. Are you someone who thrives in constant motion and busyness, or does this feel like a necessary, forced pause?
I'm definitely someone that likes to feel like I'm doing something productive, but I'm also a big fan of being able to take breaks and to be able to restore yourself. And I think that's something that's super important that I'm learning as I get older, how to allow myself to do that.. Because life as an actress, you'll be working non-stop, and then it will stop all of a sudden, and then that can be hard to adjust to. So when everybody in the world was in the same boat, I felt a little less alone, and I felt [like I] embraced reality and time a little bit better, for sure.
You have been using your platform to speak out against racial injustice, even before George Floyd's death motivated the protests and everything in our current moment. What inspired you to use your voice?
I think since I was a young girl I've always felt and was taught that it's important to treat your peers with respect and love. All of my friends have different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, and they come from different cultures, speak different languages, and being a biracial girl — my mom's African American and my dad's white — I guess, me as a minority, I also think it's important.
I sometimes feel, because of the way that I look, I get treated differently than my [Black] peers. And then sometimes I get treated differently from my white peers. I just think that it's important to have common respect for everybody. And everybody deserves to feel loved and empowered to be who they are. My mom is somebody that always took action. She got involved and she always knew what was going on. She was a TV reporter. My grandfather was the first Black man to be in the SBA, the Small Business Administration in the South, in New Orleans.
So I think it's kind of in the bloodline where we always have been outspoken and tried to make things better for the community, or a group of people. I've seen people that I love get discriminated against. I've had experiences where I have not been respected or treated fairly because of my background or my ethnicity. And that's something that can really be painful. And I don't think that people should have to go through that. I never want anyone to get hurt and I can't just sit by and watch people get treated like crap. That's something that is really important to me.
I watched your interview with Where Is the Buzz recently where you were talked about your “light skin privilege.” How is that, do you think, an important part of Black Lives Matter activism, but also as it relates to Hollywood and representation?
I think usually Hollywood can put different people in boxes. I think that ethnic groups have constantly been put in boxes. [Hollywood has] a history of using white actors to play Black people.
And I think that now, as we're progressing forward, people who are casting for roles, they usually go for an African American person, or a Black person, that [has European features they believe to be more appealing]. And I think that a lot of dark-skinned women in our industry have felt ignored, have felt overlooked, have felt that their beauty has not been appreciated or represented well, and usually only represented by lighter-skinned women.
Lupita Nyong'o, Viola Davis, Regina King, or one of my close friends, Ryan Destiny … There are so many actresses out there that are paving the way for so many young dark-skinned women, not only just in the industry, but for young dark-skinned women who need more representation. And Hollywood is in charge of a lot of representation around the world. So I think that it's important to acknowledge that, in a racist history, people, unfortunately, always gravitated to people who looked more European-looking. And I think that that's something that, hopefully, is going to change. And that's something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Switching gears, how did all of this start? How did you get into this business, and did you always know that you wanted to be a singer and actress?
When I was little, my mom and dad put me in print work and commercials in the D.C. area. And I started doing professional theater when I was a kid, and going up for auditions on Broadway. And I think it wasn't until I was a teenager and started to gain more of an independent thinking, and really finding the root of who I am and my individuality, was when I really decided like, OK, I think this is something I actually want to do. Not just something that I was introduced to at a really young age.
Are you a Waitress fan?
I am a Waitress fan. I feel like I was late to the train, because it takes me a long time to get into things. So I heard of Waitress and it wasn't actually until last year I started listening to the soundtrack, and [I was like], “Wow, this music is so beautiful.” And then three months later I got an audition for [Little Voice]. I was like, "Oh, that's funny." That's kind of serendipitous there. I thought that was really cool.
What was it like to work with Sara Bareilles?
I was so excited to work with Sara Bareilles and [director and executive producer] Jessie Nelson. I met Jessie Nelson first, in-person, and we just are so alike. We both love the same things, we both feel the same way, we both care about things deeply. And I think that resonates with people on a very deep level. And we both have the same birthday. We're both into astrology. That meant a lot to us. So that was really cool. And then Sara, I had met Sara right after I met Jessie, and she was just so kind, so down to earth. I would say she's incredibly focused and brilliant at what she does, and it's so admirable. I just felt really, really blessed and learned so much from her.
Were you nervous at all about having Sara watch you portray her experiences?
I actually felt more comfortable with her there, because if she could give me more advice or she could give me more perspective, I could do that for her and portray it right. So I felt like I was always in good hands when she was around and I could do it well.
Something that I thought was really interesting about the show is that, when you see movies and TV about people aspiring to be in show business, they’re usually on this fast track to the A-list — Little Voice does not do that. As an actor and singer yourself, does the show's depiction feel more accurate and true to what the business is actually like?
Yeah, I think so. I think that [the show] really depicts this in a very raw, painful, funny, endearing way. And I think that's something that's super exciting, because it is really like that. You are going to have moments where you just embarrass the crap out of yourself. I have embarrassed myself in front of casting directors. I've embarrassed myself on set. People are going to be brutally honest in a way that's, in my opinion, unnecessary or unevolved, but it's like, dang, that's what you really think about the way I look, or my body. I think that it's important to remember that one person can't decide your worth in five minutes.
You’ve said that your character is more similar to you than any of the characters you've played before. What do you find that you have in common with Bess?
I think Bess is really awkward. I'm a super awkward person. And I think that Bess isn't really someone that wants to change for other people. She wants to do it true to herself. And I think that I'm someone that really tries to be true to myself. And I think Bess feels responsible for a lot of people, and cares a lot about other people. And I think that that's something that runs through my veins as well. I'm someone that really cares, and wants to make sure that I do things the best that I can and make people feel good while I do it. So I think that's how Bess is. And she's a hard worker. I find myself to be a very hard worker as well.
So much of the show revolves around Bess's relationship with her family, and her brother in particular. Did your own relationship with your family help inform your performance at all?
My family dynamic is different than Bess's family dynamic, but I think that being a part of a family and having a relationship with them can inspire, or give you insight to maybe how you'll respond to family situations.
Has anyone in Hollywood — on Star, or Little Voice, or any other project you've been involved in — acted as a mentor of sorts in the industry?
Yeah. I've had a good amount of people be a mentor. You know, someone that is a real big mentor to me is Michael Michele. She was in ER, and she pops up in the second season of Star, and we exercise together, we go out to eat together, and she is also a biracial actress. Her mom is African-American and her dad is white. And so we kind of connect on our identity as biracial women as well. I think Queen Latifa is definitely someone that was super kind, and someone that really cared about all of us on [Star]. She was also an incredible mentor, and so kind.
Why do you think that Little Voice is important for the current moment?
I think that Bess, the character in the show, and the whole cast is a true representation of the world around us. And I think it's a very uplifting show. I think it's a very real show, and I think so many people can connect to it. Hopefully people feel less alone or feel inspired to pursue whatever they feel is in their heart.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Oh, wow. John Stamos.
Astrology, yes or no?
Yes, absolutely. I drive people nuts with my astrology stuff, especially on set.
You're a Gemini, right?
Yeah. I'm sorry.
I know a lot of great Geminis!
Oh, cool. I like that, because when I was actually filming Little Voice, I would go and drop off my laundry, and would always chat it up with the girl at the front. And we talked about astrology majorly, and I told her I was a Gemini and she got really scared of me.
She was like, "Oh God, Gemini." I was like, "I'm sorry." And then I'd go back again and she's like, "What are you again? A Scorpio, a Gemini?" I'm like, "I'm a Gemini."
What is your love language?
Words of affirmation. That one's kind of a big one for me.
What was your last binge watch?
It was either Unorthodox or Self Made. I can't remember which one. I think I watched Self Made last. And that's the one about Madam C.J. Walker. I love historical pieces and I love that it had a modern twist to it. I love Octavia Spencer, and I loved knowing about the first female millionaire in the United States.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
I think probably one of my favorite articles of clothing I own is a pair of cloth Lacausa overalls. They're tan, and they just make me feel like I'm going to do a mural or something, but I don't really paint well. So it's just an aesthetic.
If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I heard one guy went blind doing this, but I'd probably eat potatoes the rest of my life, because then you could have it as French fries. I just love potatoes so much.
Or, I know this is really bland, but I really like kale too. I really like kale a lot because I feel like I can make it crunchy. If you put it in the oven and you make it a crunchy chip or something, but potatoes are definitely my favorite. I apologize for my back and forth. That's my duality as a Gemini [laughs].
Do you have a worst audition story that you feel comfortable sharing?
Absolutely. There was one where I was 17 years old and I got an audition to be a girl in a music video. Like a guy singing and they need the girl in it. And I think the guy was probably like 15 years old. I don't know where he is or who he was, but his whole team was there and they were like, “just dance around like you're in a field or a garden.” And I'm like just dancing around in this empty big room, like an audition room, pretending to pick flowers and laugh at nothing. And I'm pretty sure that this 15-year-old was cracking the eff up at me.
I felt so embarrassed, it was really humiliating. I feel like that's a moment where if you watched it you would cringe. It was really cringy, and it was super awkward, and the kid was cracking up at me. I think that one wins for the worst audition I've ever had.
What is something that you wish people knew about you?
The one thing I thing I wish that people would know about me is I care a lot about people's happiness. I want people to be happy during this time, and feel loved, and uplifted. And that's something I feel strongly. I know that's kind of deep and a lot, but I guess that's the type of person I am. I just want the best for a lot of people. I think that's where I'm at right now, especially with everything going on.
I'm a really empathetic person, and feel things on a deep level. And that's something that I've tried to understand as I've gotten older. And I think there are a lot of people out there who are empathetic, and I think that being sensitive is a super power as well. It can be a gift and a curse at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs by Xang Mimi Ho. Styling by Samantha Sutton. Beauty direction by Kayla Greaves. Production by Kelly Chiello.
Little Voice is currently streaming on Apple TV+.