‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ actress Shalita Grant discusses acting, Chris Durang and her Broadway debut

Shalita Grant

Shalita Grant

Shalita Grant  is currently starring in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School and her Off-Broadway credits include Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Lincoln Center Theater); The Philanderer (Pearl Theatre); Measure for MeasureThe Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice (The Public Theater). Stage Door Dish chatted with her about her current role, her blossoming acting career and what it’s like to make her Broadway debut.

SDD: I want to ask you about your show, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and everything else you do. I have just a few questions and I was going to start with where you are from.

SG: Well, it’s complicated. I was born in Baltimore but I was raised in Virginia and I moved back to Baltimore at 15 to finish out high school.

SDD: How long have you been in New York?

SG: I’ve been in New York since 2006. I moved here when I was seventeen to go to Julliard.

SDD: How was that?

SG: It was pretty good. I didn’t know what Julliard was actually. I knew the word and I knew from pop culture- in Save the Last Dance, Julia Stiles’ character wanted to get into Julliard- but that is all I knew about the school. When I was a junior in high school, a teacher was like, ‘Okay, what are your plans?’ I was like, ‘I do want to go to college, and I do want to take up acting.’ He said, ‘Well, you should audition for Julliard.’ So, Julliard was the first school I auditioned for, and in my head, it was like a practice. I have all these other schools that I want to audition for, so this is good practice for me. I ended up getting in- once I got there, I realized, ‘Holy crap, this is a big deal.’ My first year was Jim Houghton’s first year, so the program was different from previous years. The environment was so oddly inviting and very much ‘You can do it.’ It wasn’t very competitive or anything. Our first meeting, the teachers sat us down and said, ‘Listen, if you have a competitive attitude, the door is right there. This is for you to grow, and you can’t really grow if you’re always looking at the other person.’

SDD: That’s a great attitude.

SG: Yeah, I really embraced that. I worked hard to focus on what I was doing and supporting my classmates instead of trying to tear them down. You’re human so sometimes you get a little bit jealous and people get jealous of you. All in all, the class was a really good class.

SDD: Is that when you decided to become an actor or had you decided on that before?

SG: I think fighting to get into Baltimore School for the Arts and putting myself out there and saying ‘this is what I want to do’ that told me ‘this is means a lot to me.’ Then when I had to make the decision of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I realized I was good at a lot of things but I don’t want to do all those things. I really just want to do this. Acting allows me to be whoever I want to be, you know what I mean? All these different characters and all these different professions. And I am very interested in life and learning about other people. This gave me the opportunity to do that and it just so happened that I was pretty good at it.

SDD: Tell us about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and your character, Cassandra. What is the most exciting challenge that you have to face playing her?

SG: I was in this play when it was a one act. I got the call from Chris Durang, because Chris was the head of the playwriting program at Julliard and he knew me and my work.

SDD: He pretty much wrote the part of Cassandra for you.

SG: Yeah. He called me and asked me to come and do the reading for him and I was like, ‘Yeah. Sure, Chris, anything for you.’ As an actor I was like, ‘What do you want me to do with this play?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll figure something out.’ I said, ‘Chris, we’ve got an hour and change before we do this in front of people, so what do you want me to do?’ He was just like, ‘Let’s play around.’ So I played around with maybe a Jamaican accent, maybe not. I have so many crazy characters in my family, so I said, ‘This reminds me of my great-grandma- I’m going to do that.’ And I did and it worked and it surprised Chris, because he had written all of these complicated speeches and I breezed right through them. That was an exciting challenge because it was the first time I created a character. It’s a new play and I have been with it for so long and I’ve seen the various changes that have been made to the play. That’s exciting to me. I love working on new work and that’s the part that I love the most, the playwright saying, ‘You know what, I need this and I need you to do it now.’ That’s exciting, because hell yeah, I’ll do it!

SDD: So it’s definitely a Durang play but is it also a Chekov play? What’s important about each writer and how they fit together?

SG: The themes that are definitely Chekov- longing, regret and sadness. And of course the characters’ names. There is a little bit of every one of Chekov’s plays in this play. The brilliant part about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is that you don’t have to know anything about Chekov to enjoy the play. Chris Durang and his themes- getting older, the times changing, our wacky culture and Facebook, the constant access to celebrity that is very much part of the play as well. It’s great that you’ve got work from a dude that was writing in the nineteenth century, and those scenes have been made very prescient by Chris Durang. It’s great because you have a lot of fun. And for those who do know Chekov, there are very delicious surprises throughout the play, because you’re like, ‘I know that! I know exactly what he’s doing there!’ But for people who don’t, it’s like, ‘Whoa. I love that, I get that. That’s funny and that touches me.’

SDD: Congratulations on your Broadway debut! I know you were in the show at the Lincoln Center. What’s it like to be on Broadway now?

SG: Oh my God. It’s so great. It’s sad because I don’t know if it’s really going to hit me until after the show is over because there has been so much going on getting used to the new space and being back with the cast. All these hundreds of people who are seeing it. It’s overwhelming and it’s really great, but I feel like everyday I have to take a moment and say, ‘This is really, really special’ and take it in and not just do it. I’m the kind of person, that if you put a task in front of me, it will get done. But sometimes I don’t really savor the moment. It’s really special and it’s really great. What’s even better is I have done a lot of off-Broadway work for nonprofit theatres so a lot of people who come to see it are subscribers. That’s special because if you do a show that means something to that person, they can say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen x-amount of plays here and this one is special to me, because of what you did.’ That’s great. What’s awesome about Broadway is that these people want to see the show. A lot of these people have never seen a show before, but they wanted to come and see this. So, having a good time is that much better.

SDD: Are you getting recognized outside of the theatre now that you are on Broadway?

SG: Sometimes. Because I wear a wig in the show and my real hair is drastically different and I’m a lot hipper than my character, it takes people a moment to recognize me. Even at the party on opening night, I was introduced to this one woman and she was like, ‘Hi, what show are you in?” I was like, ‘The show you just saw.’ And then she said, ‘Oh my God, I loved you! You were amazing in the show. I didn’t recognize you!’ It’s really funny, because Cassandra is very ‘middle of Pennsylvania.’ Her hair is all-natural and in real life I have this really edgy haircut and dress up really awesome. So, it is really different.

Grant as Cassandra

Grant as Cassandra

SDD: Now some fun questions- Has anyone made you star struck recently?

SG: Victor Garber. I love him, so everytime I see him I’m like, ‘It’s Victor Garber.’ And of course, sometimes, Sigourney and David’s celebrity surprises me too. You work with them and they are very easy to get along with, but when you walk out onto the street with them, it’s a completely different story. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s right. You are a celebrity.’

SDD: What’s the best show you’ve seen recently? Have you had the time to see anything?

SG: I haven’t really, but I actually saw Hands on a Hardbody Monday night- I saw it in previews. I liked that show, I thought it was really fun. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I mean, it’s people with their hands on a car for two hours- how much are we going to get out of that? But they did a really great job and it was surprisingly moving.

SDD: If you could trade places with anybody, real or fictional, who would it be?

SG: You know who I would be? This is so easy. I would be Josephine Baker. There is so much about her that is fascinating and bad and awesome, all at the same time. I really don’t have the guts to be that badly behaved. I think it would be awesome to be that and experience that. She worked with so many incredible artists- photographers and musicians- and to be alive during that period of renaissance. I know it was incredibly painful too, being black in America with that treatment but she was incredible. With the amount of racism that was hurled at her, it was completely unjust, of course. Her talent was so much bigger than the bullshit, you know? She was fabulous.

SDD: Speaking of imagining yourself in other places, do you have a dream role you would like to play?

SG: I really don’t. I enjoy working on new things, I really do. I love new work. I mean, I’m sure there are a couple of things, but nothing that I am dying to do. I like doing something that’s new, that’s fresh and means something to a lot of people. That’s what I want to do.

SDD: You have a great cast right now, but moving forward, is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?

SG: There are so many actors that I want to work with, or even just watch their work. I would love to work with Victor Garber or Meryl Streep. I would love to work with funny guys. I’d love to work with Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and so many people. I just love funny people and people that are just really committed to the work.

SDD: When you’re not acting, what do you like to do with your free time?

SG: I like to build things. Right now I am totally into furniture making. I love cooking. Hell yeah! I’m not going to say that I am a foodie, anyone that eats out more than three times a week considers themselves a foodie, but I love good food and I love going to places with good food. I love eating and drinking with my friends. I am training in music right now, because I want to get better at hearing music and singing and all of that. And watching really trashy TV like Bravo. Like the Real Housewives of everywhere.

SDD: Do you have any interesting or unusual talents that nobody knows about?

SG: This is a bit weird, but I am really good at facial recognition and I have a really good memory for faces. It’s embarrassing, because people who waited on me in Express or H&M- I remember people like that. There was a man who helped my boyfriend at the time find jeans at H&M and I remembered his face when I ran into him on the train. I was staring at him on the train and I was like, ‘I recognize you. You work at H&M.’ It was so embarrassing. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. I recognize everybody. I can have a conversation with someone and almost be able to repeat it back to them verbatim like months or years later. But if you ask me that person’s name, forget about it. I remember stories and I remember faces, but names and birthdays? Forget about it.

SDD: Does that help with your acting? Not only with your character, but with your lines and the whole play?

SG: With lines and stuff, my process is not sitting down and memorizing the lines. I like to memorize my lines while on my feet. When we’re blocking, that’s when I’m memorizing my lines. The movement has to be motivated by the words, so if the movement is motivated, that helps me know the words. It’s sometimes tricky, especially with this play, because we’ve moved to so many different spaces. So, coming back, the blocking has to be different, because we are in proscenium. When doing that, I had so much trouble, because usually I can look over here and say that line, but that space doesn’t exist. So, it has its good side and its bad side. The good side is I am a quick study- you don’t have to worry about me memorizing my lines. The bad side is, if the blocking changes drastically, who knows?

SDD: Do you have any words of wisdom that you live by?

SG: It depends on where I am. Now that I am on this big platform, onstage, it is hard not to take it personally when you are being critiqued. The New York Times- all that is really good- but there will be that one person who didn’t like what you did and you will be like, ‘Damn, I wish I won that one person over.’ But you can’t please everybody all the time. I think it was Ricky Gervais who said, ‘If you don’t want to be criticized, then do nothing, say nothing and be nothing.’ You can’t always please people. I think it was Dita Von Teese who said, ‘You can be the ripest, sweetest, juiciest peach, but there will always be someone who doesn’t like peaches.’ You can’t be everything to everyone. All you can do is be yourself and stay true to that. And if you’re happy, then you’re good. I am happy, so I am good. So, if I’m being completely honest, that is what I’m working on right now.

SDD: What’s next for you? What’s coming up after your show?

SG: Oh, I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I find out!

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is playing at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, until June 30, 2013.

S Grant 3

Grant and David Hyde Pierce in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

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2 Responses

  1. Shalita was hysterical in the show! I could tell instantly that she was Juilliard trained and I enjoyed how present she was in the room for the entire performance. Great interview! :)

    • Hey, dude, thanks! I am lucky to have talked to her. I’m glad you got to see her great work. She was a blast to talk with.