chat room

Brittany Bradford Ate Coq au Vin 5 Days in a Row on the Set of Julia

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

In the two years following her graduation from Juilliard in 2018, Brittany Bradford had already made impressive inroads on the stage and screen. First, she made her Broadway debut in Bernhardt/Hamlet as Ophelia opposite Janet McTeer and took up the title role of Erica Schmidt’s Mac Beth, a bold adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. Then, she secured her first screen role ever: Julia’s Alice Naman, a public-television producer who champions little-known cookbook author Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) and goes on to help produce her cooking show The French Chef. It’s a watershed performance for Bradford, who more than holds her own opposite heavyweights Lancashire, Bebe Neuwirth, and David Hyde Pierce. It’s also the series’ most notably fictionalized role, a Black producer at Boston’s very white WGBH who’s an amalgamation of several different women producers working during the ’60s.

Bradford continues her work onstage as well, starring in Alice Childress’s Wedding Band at Theater for a New Audience through May 15, as part of theater collective the Classix. The organization brings Black playwrights and plays to the fore while “exploding the classical” (read: white) canon. It’s a consistent theme for Bradford, who notes that the perspective of a Black producer in the 1960s isn’t one that’s received a lot of airtime.

Vulture spoke to Bradford about the quiet subversiveness of her role in Julia, learning how to flip an omelet like Julia Child, and that meet-cute with Isaac (Tosin Morohunfola) in episode seven.

Let’s talk about the origins of Alice Naman, who’s one of the few made-up characters in a show about real people.
She’s the only one who is a series regular. When I first read the script, I didn’t know much about Julia Child, so I didn’t know if Alice was a real person. Daniel and Charles McDougall [executive producer and director of the first two episodes] told me Alice is based on other Black producers who would have been around at the time, like Madeline Anderson. She’s also based on Ruth Lockwood, who was a white producer at WGBH. It got me to research Black producers from that time like Carol Munday Lawrence, who met Julia Child at WGBH. That could have been Alice. And there was an all-Black-produced and -run show at WGBH called Say, Brother [now Basic Black] from the early 1970s that was at WGBH. This allowed me to bring these Black women into the room as Alice and give them a chance to have their voices heard.

Do you know why the writers wanted to make Alice Black?
I asked [showrunner] Chris Keyser this question. I didn’t want to be tokenized or there just because they wanted to have a Black character so the show’s not all white. He talked about family friends he had growing up, an interracial couple — a Black woman and a white man — who met at WGBH as producers. He told me people don’t know her story and wouldn’t even think she would have been working around the time.

In thinking about who gets to tell the story of Julia Child, that’s not going to be given to people of color. He said, if we’re getting a chance to tell history, why not add those perspectives? Those people did exist, even if they have been seen more rarely. I latched onto that because with period pieces, people often act like Black people weren’t there. We are everywhere. We’re in every part of history.

I read somewhere that Alice was added to the show to give context to “the struggle.” Yes, Julia Child struggled to make it in her profession because she was a woman. But she was white and rich.
That’s one of my favorite parts about the dynamic between Alice and Julia. Alice is not a boss lady coming in who has everything figured out. She’s learning. She is a young Black woman learning in the ’60s on a job where there aren’t a lot of women like her. When she first meets Julia, she’s inspired by how she and the women around her are able to be themselves authentically and step into their power. But they do have a lot of privilege. Throughout the season, you see how Alice learns from them. They learn a lot from Alice, too.

While watching episode three, I wrote this note very fervently: “Alice should be on Julia’s show!”
Agreed. Alice is our way in. You know how in a play or movie, you sometimes have the new person in town, and you as the audience go on that journey with that character? To me, that is Alice. She sees the amazingness that is Julia, but she has to advocate for her and for the show, and it’s a struggle. We got the episodes as we filmed, and I was always wondering, What will happen to her this time? Will she get to be a producer? Will she be acknowledged for her efforts?

It was exciting to see this character blossom. There’s a scene in episode eight that exactly mimics the very first time you see Alice in episode one, but Alice’s body language is completely different. She’s literally blossomed — opened up. I don’t know that I was intentional about it, but it happened because of the character arc. It’s a gift as an actor to get to play that.

Speaking of Alice’s arc — there’s that scene in episode six where she’s honest with Julia about how tired she is of not being recognized. Can you break that down?
I’ll go backwards, actually, because in episode four we have Virginia, Alice’s mother, and Alice having the exchange about work not taking her seriously. She’s like, “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Black.” I got a chance to be part of writing those scenes. It was really important to me, Daniel, and Chris that, as one of the only times in the show you see two Black women talking to each other, we weren’t being sacred or soft about it, that we were having a real conversation. I needed to make sure it really did feel like two Black women with generational differences speaking to each other truthfully about their struggles.

How did you do that?
A lot of that conversation was about respectability politics, which happens a lot generationally, especially in the Black community. Every generation is different with their own civil rights struggles. We’re also in the height of civil rights, which is more in the backdrop of the show, but it wasn’t in the backdrop of my mind as Alice. She sees people around her struggling for their rights, people who look just like her. So, when we get to that scene with Julia in episode five, Alice has been trying to steel herself for so many weeks, being strong and being in charge, and then she has it shattered by somebody she respects a lot. I felt that impostor syndrome both as myself and as Alice.

When you’re the only Black person in a space, it’s hard to feel like you’re being judged extra, that you have to set a standard for the race, that you’re holding onto a lot that other people either don’t have to hold on to or don’t witness you holding on to. It was important for her to have that vulnerable moment to say, “Look. It’s just really difficult.” I don’t know any Black woman who hasn’t had a moment like that professionally or personally. It’s powerful to say, “I can be vulnerable in this space too. I don’t always have to be strong.”

Now, I’m never one to want some romantic ending to nicely tie up a nuanced story, but it’s pretty hard to not get excited about this possibility with Alice and Isaac.
[Laughs.] I know. When I read episode seven, I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t think Alice would ever say yes to one of her mother’s setups. And like you, I don’t want to have a female character suddenly happy and in love. What I think they did well, and what I appreciated, is that he gives her confidence. In the few moments they have together, he tells her she’s special, that she’s somebody who deserves the things she’s going for. That’s something she doesn’t even have with her mom. He’s the first person who makes her feel like she can step into her power. In a way, it’s subversive. Normally, that would be a female character doing that for a male character, going, “Oh, honey, you got this.” I don’t know what season two would entail, but to have a person supporting her is an interesting thing to portray, especially in that time.

Speaking of subverting traditional female tropes, I love that they created a Black female character who can’t cook. Historically, Black women in America have been cooking and serving onscreen for centuries.
I loved that. In episode one, she was like, “Listen, I eat meatloaf at a diner.” She couldn’t even crack an egg appropriately. She is singularly her own.

Back to the food: It was all real food and all Julia Child recipes. And I ate so much food, really, truly. I don’t know how I still fit into those period costumes by the end of it. At every opportunity, whether I was in the scene or not, I’d be like, “What are we making today?” We had an amazing on-set food stylist, Christine Tobin, and a kitchen on set where they were always cooking. Because we were doing multiple takes, there were like 15 soufflés at any given time; I had coq au vin five days in a row. Christine taught me how to make an omelet and flip it. I hate onions, but I had a sip of the French onion soup; I ate burgers and shakes and fries and biscuits. During the sweetbreads episode, myself, Fran Kranz, and Fiona Glascott had never had sweetbreads, so we tried them.

Did you like them?
I mean, they’re just a vehicle for butter. Which is most of Julia Child’s recipes. It looked questionable, but it tasted very good.

Have you tried any of Julia’s recipes on your own?
Over the pandemic, both of my brothers and I went home to San Diego. It was all of us all together for the first time in years. I tried to make Julia’s beef bourguignon and it was a fail. The recipe is just so long, and there was some issue with the pancetta. But I made a Filipino chicken adobo that was delicious. That was not Julia. I also made my dad a fancy five-course meal with my brothers — fancy being Caesar salad, garlic toast, a nice pasta. I even got a fancy pasta-maker to make the fresh pasta. I tend to be the person always asking, “Are you sure it tastes okay?” But you should just let people enjoy your food.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia’s Brittany Bradford Ate So Much Coq au Vin on Set