How ‘Search Party’s’ Shalita Grant turned her heartache into TV’s funniest millennial
While you’ve been making bad sourdough and binge-watching “Tiger King,” Shalita Grant has used her time indoors to develop a more distinctive pastime.
“One of the rooms in my house is a pole-dancing studio. I take advantage of my right as a Californian and I smoke some weed and I go in there and I dance it out. I have all these lights in there,” Grant says by phone from her home in Los Angeles, which she shares with her dogs, Mr. Tits and Candi Alizé. The cavalier King Charles spaniel and pitbull-Australian shepherd mix often join her. “I just have a blast,” she says, squealing with delight.
Grant has brought the same exuberance to her role in Season 3 of “Search Party,” the bitingly funny, genre-bending dark comedy-noir about a clique of Brooklyn hipsters who wind up semi-accidentally killing a private investigator. She plays Cassidy Diamond, the rookie lawyer representing accused killer Dory (Alia Shawkat) in a high-profile trial. She’s working pro bono in exchange for the media exposure. The one catch? It’s also Cassidy’s very first case.
With vocal fry to rival the Kardashians at their creakiest, Cassidy struts around the courtroom in corsets, sky-high heels and neon pink nails. As overconfident as she is inexperienced, she treats Dory more like a celebrity than an accused killer, picking her client up from jail in a luxury SUV and explaining defense options like treatments from a spa menu. “I’m kind of feeling pleading insanity,” she says. “Mental illness is a thing everyone has or wishes they had.”
After waiting nearly three years for the return of “Search Party,” which moved from TBS to the recently launched streaming platform HBO Max, fans cheered Cassidy’s addition to the ensemble of self-involved millennials. Even opposite comedy veterans like Michaela Watkins and Louie Anderson, Grant is a chronic scene-stealer, taking a character that might have been an easy punchline and turning her into something sharper, more idiosyncratic and, in the end, funnier.
Alia Shawkat, still identified with “Arrested Development” despite appearing in six films in 2015 alone, takes the lead in “Search Party,” an engaging new serial mystery comedy from TBS.
Cassidy’s distinctive manner of speaking was always part of the character, envisioned by showrunners Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss as “the ‘girl boss’ CEO of a company you’ve never heard of — somebody that had, like, a cutthroat ambition but is always trying to hide their vulnerability,” says Rogers. The part proved surprisingly difficult to cast. “People wanted to just play to the vapid side of the character,” Bliss adds, “but Shalita brought in the depth and the vulnerability of Cassidy — and then some.”
It all began with the voice. When she was preparing for the audition, Grant says she turned to “Mother Google” for research on vocal fry, a trait often derided in young women. And what she learned — that women subconsciously lower the pitch of their voices to sound more like men and thus more “serious,” resulting in an unnatural rasp — gave her a more sympathetic way into Cassidy.
“She’s doing this because she wants to sound professional, because she wants to be in this space, because she actually cares about her job and how people view her. Now, I can apply that across the ... board,” Grant says, noting that plenty of men do the same thing with their voices — most notably rapper Lil Wayne. “He’s frying all over the place. But when we hear it in women, we think it’s a joke.”
As contemporary as Grant’s performance in “Search Party” feels, its brilliance is rooted in her classical training. The actress — who grew up in Baltimore and Petersburg, Va. — attended the Juilliard School, where among other things she learned about “the larynx and the pharynx, the vocal folds and how they make sounds.”
Grant says Cassidy’s other endearing verbal tics — she pronounces defendant so it rhymes with “can’t” and harassment “hair-us-meant” — were inspired by her training in standard American dialect. Cassidy, she figures, would be trying her best to sound like a lawyer from the 1950s. “I brought a lot of my knowledge and skill set into these minute details,” she says. “It’s always about being serious, about asking questions.”
The 31-year-old has waited years for this kind of star-making turn. Not long after she completed her studies at Juilliard, Grant was nominated for a Tony Award in 2013 for her performance in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired dark family comedy.
“I worked so hard, and I wanted this thing so much, and it turned out way better than I even imagined. It was like, ‘So now what? Do I stay and try to win [the Tony] this time? Or do I go try to climb another mountain?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go try to climb another mountain.’ So I go to L.A. and say, ‘TV is the mountain I want to climb.’”
The ascent was more grueling than Grant expected. Despite her impressive credentials, she struggled to find work and spent a year auditioning. She estimates that she tried out for more than 50 roles, in some cases going in for multiple auditions, before she finally landed a guest spot on the CBS drama “Battle Creek.” More work followed, including a regular role on the PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street” and in what felt like a breakthrough at the time, a part as special agent Sonja Percy in “NCIS: New Orleans.”
Coming from Broadway to TV, she was ready for the long hours and relatively staid material of a CBS procedural. But she was shocked by other differences — particularly the on-set culture of finger-pointing.
“In theater, it’s us against the problem. We all come into the room knowing there are going to be problems, and we all know that we’re going to solve them together. In TV, the relationship to problems is, ‘Whose fault is it? Heads will roll!’” she says, shrieking like a comically irate producer. “Nobody wants their head to roll. It takes forever for people to solve problems, because nobody wants to take responsibility.”
Without dwelling on the details, Grant describes an array of problems on the show involving race, gender and “stupid ... actor [expletive].” (Showrunner Brad Kern was accused of creating a hostile work environment and replaced in 2018.) She says the climate was so toxic, she almost left after Season 3. But after a recuperative stint in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, she summoned the strength to return for one more season before leaving in 2018. “I was playing Hermia. And one of the lines about Hermia is, ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce,’ and I have that quote on my vanity.
“I came back and I was like, ‘I ain’t taking this ... no more.’ I found joy, and my standards are higher,” she adds, her voice breaking as she recalls the experience. “I am letting you know now, if you don’t want me here, if I’m just being tolerated, I’m leaving. Because I want to go where I’m celebrated, not where I’m tolerated.”
As it is for many Black actors, especially in TV where the grueling pace of production requires near-constant styling, poor experiences with hair on set were an ongoing source of frustration and demoralization for Grant. She has spoken about the extensive damage the producer-mandated styling wrought on her naturally curly hair and the way the show “decimated... my self-image.”
Grant channeled this difficulty into a hair-care company, Four Naturals, which provides healing treatments for Type 4 curly Black hair. “I learned so much from that darkness. That trauma, I turned it into joy. Everything that happened to my hair, I healed it. It’s in my business. I am healing other Black women as well.”
It’s an extension of the family business for Grant, whose mother, aunt and grandmother were all stylists. She grew up in her family’s salon — Hair Dreams II in Petersburg — working her way up from reception to shampoo girl.
After the disappointment of “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Search Party” was a welcome change. “My light was so welcome,” she says of filming on the show. While Cassidy, with her lavishly girly outfits and less-than-authoritative demeanor, could have easily been cast with an Elle Woods clone, that Grant is a woman of color — and gay — added more dimension to Cassidy.
“We didn’t want to fall into too familiar territory with [the character],” says Rogers. “A lot of what makes Shalita the perfect Cassidy is that she isn’t somebody who has vocal fry. She’s also gay and she’s playing a hyper-feminine person and she innately has this outside viewpoint into this type of character that was able to bring nuance that other people would take for granted. We leaned on her a ton to bring that to its full potential.”
The show’s unexpectedly long hiatus, though initially disappointing, now feels like a blessing, Grant says. “Nobody is leaving the house, so they have to watch. So things have just worked out for the better. This has been the most exciting thing that has happened to me in the last three years, and I get to do it from the comfort of my home. I don’t have to drive. I don’t really have to get dressed up. I just get to spend time with the dogs. And everyone still loves me? Amazing.”
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
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