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After Leaving NCIS, Shalita Grant Wanted to Embrace Comedy on Search Party

Shalita Grant. Photo: Mediapunch/Shutterstock

From the moment she introduces herself in gigantic sunglasses and, for some reason, gloves, Cassidy Grant seizes the spotlight in the third season of Search Party. As played by Shalita Grant, who so commits to vocal fry it becomes endearing, Cassidy is a ridiculously privileged, bumbling, yet occasionally competent newbie lawyer whose approach to defending Alia Shawkat’s Dory involves both coming up with some pretty canny media manipulation and buying her expensive sushi. Grant’s performance so embraces the absurd that by the end of the season, there ends up being more than a little pathos about Cassidy, who is trying so hard — maybe too hard — all the time.

Grant filmed Search Party after leaving a series-regular role on NCIS: New Orleans that became a nightmare, and as she told Vulture over the phone, she was thrilled to be able to embrace her inner clown. Grant talked us through how she developed Cassidy’s voice, her mistreatment on NCIS, and why she decided to turn away from procedurals and focus on comedy.

Spoilers ahead for Search Party season three. 

We have to start with Cassidy’s vocal fry, which is such a crucial part of her character. Was her voice described on the page, or did you come up with it?
That was 100 percent Search Party’s idea. It was in the character description. When I read it, I cackled, and was like, This is an opportunity for me to grow as a person, because I knew I couldn’t do it in judgment, and I did have a judgment about women with vocal fry. I did some research on mother Google, and I discovered all this information about vocal dynamics. I went to Juilliard and we had voice classes, so I was familiar with the vocal folds and how they work. But understanding the psychology behind a woman bringing her voice that low to make that sound was actually really endearing. The idea is that women in the workplace’s voices are too high, so to try to mitigate that, these women have brought their voices down to try to sound more serious. But trying to bring your pitch lower than is normal creates this frying sound!

I love the idea of bringing this level of physical technique to a comedy performance.
It’s good to be that specific! The thing that makes Cassidy so lovable in spite of her vocal fry — and probably because of it — is that you can’t hate someone who’s trying so fucking hard. She’s trying to show up as the best person she can be, and putting on all the things that society tells her she needs to be taken seriously, and it’s hysterical, because it’s ridiculous.

Which leads to Cassidy wearing these incredible over-the-top costumes. Tell me about what those were like to wear.
My dream in life is always to look incredible, so being able to work with Matthew Simonelli was incredible. He tailored everything to perfection. That last look, the lace number — that thing is everything. He was like, “She is about drama and about moments and statements.” Even the blousy thing that she wears in the deposition, I busted up when I saw it for the first time. I was like, “This is ridiculous!” And he was like, “It’s amazing,” and I was like, “It’s totally amazing.”

Cassidy is so obsessed with her whole appearance, too, she has to be constantly making a statement.
My makeup artist was like, “I’m going to do all the makeup things that I hate to see on Instagram, and I’m gonna enjoy it.” Every time she put highlight on the tip of my nose, she grimaced and cackled at the same time.

It feels like Cassidy fits into that trope of a highly feminine woman who reveals herself to be pretty competent, like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde or Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. Were you thinking about those references?
Actually … the thing that I’m interested most in comedy is my sometimes aggressive commitment to the bright side. I’ve gotten myself into a lot of very funny but also ridiculous situations in my actual life. So when I read the character description, I wanted to stay in the world of Search Party. I didn’t know the show until I got an audition, and I binged both seasons and was obsessed, so it was important to stay within that world and drew from as much of my own reality as possible. Search Party is super-specific, and I felt seen. It is ridiculous and totally my world, as far as comedy is concerned.

Were there aspects of people you knew from New York that you brought into Cassidy?
[Laughs.] Are you trying to get me in trouble? I moved to New York when I was 17 to go to school, and I was there for seven years, so the city raised me. But then, I got burnt out. Seven years later, I was like I’ve gotta get out of here, I want a car. It was the Tonys, for me. I was going to all these parties. I got invited to this magazine opening party — it was a scene from Search Party. All these people in BDSM gear, an art installation that was so derivative. The person in charge of the magazine seemed like she was on molly. I’m like, Why did my publicist send me here? So, yeah, that kind of “so into your own bullshit that you’re not aware you’re full of shit” is the Search Party vibe. But I did want to layer in, without judgement, that Cassidy means it. She is truly in earnest.

It is wonderful when Cassidy does pull out an occasion win for herself in the courtroom.
She really wants to nail this one, not just for herself, but for her client. When I got to see the season, I loved that the moments where Cassidy came back to sit down with Dory and went, like, Yeah, I did that for you, didn’t get cut.

You filmed this season about two years ago, what was it like to revisit it now?
I was so disappointed last year when I found out that it was moving to another network and we weren’t sure of the dates and everything. From my perspective, I had just left my show [NCIS: New Orleans] and I did Santa Clarita Diet, and then I had the best two and half months of my career filming Search Party. I love laughter, so I learned about myself in 2018 that I require that. When I was doing theater, I was nominated for a Tony for comedy [for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike]. For drama, I can’t use all my tools. It’s inappropriate, actually. It was the first time in a long time I had felt so much joy at work, and I knew it was gonna come across onscreen. But when we got the dates for the release now, it was a blessing, because Search Party has everyone’s attention now in a way that it didn’t on TBS. You can watch the first two seasons [on HBOMax], and you get this third season, and now they get a fourth season.

Does Cassidy pop up in that fourth season? I know they’ve already shot it, too.
Cassidy got fired! And she should have, because at the end of the day, Dory had to save herself.

You talked about leaving your show. You had a series-regular job on NCIS: New Orleans, which is in some ways an enviable, stable gig for an actor to get. Were you looking to do more comedy specifically when you left?
After I left, I had a come-to-Jesus moment with myself. For your career, you have to consider more than a couple things. I don’t have any family in the business. I come from Virginia and Baltimore, nobody in my family does what I do. I was the first person in generations to get on a plane. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, always. I was thinking about the choices that I made, having some compassion for myself, and was like, I need to do comedy. If it’s a drama, it has to be something that I feel love for. It can’t just be a procedural. There’s more to life for me.

Why I wanted to do a procedural was also from a beautiful place. I’ve been to so many hotels across the country and seen Law & Order: SVU and felt like “that’s home.” I was presented with the opportunity to work on NCIS and I was like, I want to be that person for other people too. Then when I got on the show, I was like, Wow, there’s a lot you didn’t know.

There has been a lot reported about the toxic work conditions on NCIS: New Orleans, but there’s also a larger conversation now about how procedurals work in our culture, and the fact that they tend to take the side of law enforcement.
Exactly. There were a lot of moments that I had on the show that was like, This doesn’t feel so great. I don’t know if I’m helping or hurting. I know why I came into this, but I didn’t think about all of it. And that’s okay. I think a lot of people, because they don’t know how things work in show business, believe that all an actor needed to do was snap a finger and this would have changed. There are 30 other people involved in any decision. It’s a system. If you keep blaming people and offing individuals, you think you’re solving the problem, and you’re not, because someone else just pops right back up in their place.

One specific example of that comes up is how TV shows deal with Black actors’ hair. I was reading about you before this, and you started a natural-hair-care business after having your hair mistreated on NCIS for years.
So let’s talk about hair, and how Black hair is a seemingly small issue that highlights exactly how racism works. For Black women, the way our hair is policed is that we’re told it’s unprofessional in its natural state. From the time that you’re in school, you are getting this lesson. It’s shored up with punishment. Schools expel children or suspend children because of their hair. The way we touch our hair is full of internalized white supremacy, because of the anti-Black myths that it requires stringent chemicals to be manageable. To exist in public spaces, we have to don the wig, the weave, the straight hair, in order to survive.

With NCIS, it wasn’t just that the people didn’t know how to do my hair. The cosmetology board teaches that hair is hair, which essentially erases Black and Asian hair, because there are differences. The entire foundation of Black hair care is all trial and error, because none of our stuff is standardized. Because of that erasure, when I got to NCIS, they were lost, because everyone’s lost. What was specific to them was a couple of producers who were committed to [my character] Sonja Percy not having a natural curl pattern. Between season one and season two, I became a series regular. Season one I did a couple of episodes, and I wore this straight-hair wig. Some of my hair was out, but it was in its natural state. Type 4 hair like mine, in its natural state, our strands are very fragile. If it put heat on it, it could break off. In the hiatus, I was like, I’m going to be doing a lot of episodes, I need to talk to them and tell them that I need curlier hair, because we’re in Louisiana. I called the hair department head at the time, and she was like, “Send some photos of the wig or whatever it is you want to wear.” What we got back from an executive producer was that he was okay with the curl, but not that type.

For the next three years, I struggled. From episode to episode, my ponytail was completely different, and that was because I was trying to chase the traction alopecia — in 2017 I had less than an inch of hair in the front. When I came back for season four, I was wearing this helmet-head wig thing. I was like, I don’t give a fuck, I know this looks crazy, but I have to save myself, because they don’t care. I’m showing them pictures of the bald spot I got in season one, because they had me in chlorinated water and promised me I would have time to get my hair done, and then, always, on the day it’s “Oh no, we have to … whatever.” What was a dream job became a nightmare because of my hair. They were so committed to me and my hair being a problem that I had a meeting with a lower-level producer where he was like, “You couldn’t get your hair wet so we had to reshoot a scene.” The reason we had to reshoot that scene was because it was raining and the stunt couldn’t happen. I wasn’t the only actor in that scene who would need their hair blow-dried for the shot. When I brought up the white actors that would need the same thing for the shot, he had to drop it.

It was all because, in their minds, a love interest doesn’t look like that. A love interest has straight hair. It’s all built around those assumptions, and I suffered because of that.

Did you have a better experience with the treatment of your hair on Search Party?
Well, I auditioned with that hair. When I left NCIS, I assessed how I got to where I got to, and taking responsibility for the parts that I could do differently next time. The thing that I came to was that, from now on, I look the way I want to look, and that’s how I audition. With my Juilliard background — and I love this shit, Jackson — I’m like, Go into every audition with a completely different look! But as a Black woman, it doesn’t always work the same. You can transform, but just make sure it’s manageable, by anybody.

So on Search Party, I had that hair, but the way they communicated with me, they didn’t look at my hair and recoil subtly. There was no fear of me. We embraced it. I changed the location of the wig on my head for different episodes. We had fun! There was no fear of me. Also, they had real experience.

Finally, I have to ask about the stuffed-animal collection that Cassidy practices her closing arguments to at the end of episode nine, right before Dory comes in and fires her, because it’s just such a funny bit.
We were rehearsing and I was like, “You know what? I think we should have teddy bears! I feel like it’s right,” and [creators] Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss were really excited about it, but they’re like, “We’ve gotta call legal and figure out which teddy bears we’re allowed to use.” It was like an hour of back-and-forth. But if you’re just doing the speech in front of a mirror, it hits different. When you’re talking to the bears, you can get alive. It set up, for me, the contrast of that scene: You start on this cute high, and this crashing low by the end of the scene when Dory fires her. I wanted to boost up the highs, so the fall feels hard.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Shalita Grant Steals Every Scene on Search Party