Note: This interview discusses plot points from the third seasons of You and Search Party.
Shalita Grant is quickly turning into the queen of comic relief. In Netflix thriller You’s third season, she delivers a captivating and hilarious performance as Sherry Conrad, the snarky influencer ruling over her small town community in luxe outfits. As her story emotionally intensifies, the actor’s nuanced take morphs Sherry from the clichéd judgmental suburban mom into one of the few people worth rooting for in a show that frequently kills off its characters.
Grant returned to her comedy roots after starring in CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans for four seasons from 2015 to 2018. It’s no surprise considering Grant was nominated for a Tony award in 2013 for her performance in the comedy Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike. Since then, she has also appeared in Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet and had a breakout role in the third season of HBO Max’s Search Party as titillating lawyer Cassidy Diamond.
The A.V. Club spoke to Grant about binge-watching You before she was cast, Sherry’s unexpectedly tumultuous journey, and how she enjoys subverting expectations with her relatively comedic roles in You and Search Party.
The A.V. Club: How familiar were you with You before you joined season three?
Shalita Grant: I was such a fan of You before I got on the show. It became my hotel companion on my last international trip before the world changed. In December 2019, I was alone in Barcelona at my hotel, wondering what show to watch. Netflix suggested You. I remember thinking to myself, “Do you really want to watch a thriller about a stalker and serial killer on your solo trip?” I absolutely did. I binged it and fell in love with it. I thought it was so uncomfortable but entertaining.
I got back to Los Angeles, and three months later the pandemic happened. During the pandemic, the third season of Search Party aired. I heard from my casting agent that You was interested in me. I did a small audition and got the part. That was a dream come true. I had made a pact to myself after I left my procedural, NCIS: New Orleans, that I would only do projects I’d actually watch. This was the first time I had already watched the show before I got the job.
AVC: What drew you to the role of Sherry Conrad?
SG: One of my favorite things about playing Sherry was the beginning of my arc. Everyone, including my girlfriend, kept telling me “I hate your character, she’s so horrible.” Until this role, I hadn’t gotten the opportunity yet to play someone people would truly despise. I love the reason people hate her so much. She really weaponizes her femininity. She wields it in a super gaslighty, super passive-aggressive but familiar way. I was drawn to playing this horrible person.
AVC: Sherry’s story begins changing and shaping up by the end of the season, especially in episode eight. Everyone thinks this swinging couple might change Love and Joe’s relationship, and they’ll all hook up. The tables wildly turn on Sherry and Cary.
SG: Your description is how I describe it verbatim. It was nuts. Filming it was so much fun. It was the episode we were all looking forward to because it’s so fun to surprise people. I love how the whole season, you think you know what’s happening with Sherry and Cary, but you don’t see those twists coming. The fight scene with Love and Sherry in that episode is the easiest scene I’ve had to shoot. We shot it wildly, just sitting on couches on set and going “aah, aah” and screaming for the voiceovers.
AVC: The Conrads get trapped in the cage, so the initial assumption is they’ll die, but they don’t. Did you know where your character’s journey will end, and did that impact your performance?
SG: I wish we got all the scripts at once so I’d have known. We block shot two episodes at a time because of the pandemic, so we got two scripts always. The showrunner, Sera Gamble, she’s amazing. I’m buck-wild, and when I first got the role, I also thought my character will die. I asked Sera about it right away to know how. She quickly told me, “Oh, sweetie, you’re going to be the first cage couple but you won’t die.” I didn’t have any other details though on how it would all happen.
AVC: What was filming in the infamous glass cage box like? Are you claustrophobic in real life?
SG: Oh my god. Yes, I don’t like being in tight spaces. Let me tell you about that cage. Not only is it small, it has a lot of shelves, so it’s even tighter. When we would shoot, they would take one wall down. You’d think that’s making it bigger, but no, now it’s you, the other actor, three crew members, and a big camera. Oftentimes, I’m standing at the same spot with nowhere to go. I did not enjoy that. We did rehearsals before, which was great, but actually filming it was when I had to confront the situation. I’ve shot a lot of television, so I thought, it won’t be that bad. But I had to really wrap my head around the idea of doing it for 12 hours a day.
AVC: Sherry and Cary are comic relief until this point, but now you and co-star Travis Van Winkle have to deliver emotional intensity in this tight space.
SG: The funny thing about those scenes is that they do get intense but I was laughing through them. You’re right, most characters I get are funny, or if it’s a drama, they don’t ask too much of me in that sense. When I started reading the scripts and I realized I’m going to be in the cage, and above that I have to cry quite a bit, wow. I’ve trained at The Juilliard School and I’m a Tony nominee, but I still can’t cry on cue. I knew I had to work hard on that in order to be the best I can be. A lot of my cage prep was really going back to the basics of my training and having to figure out why I can’t cry on cue.
I’m an emotional person who cries in real life at the drop of a hat. I knew I had to feel vulnerable enough while filming. On set, I’m the actress that speaks to everybody and knows everyone. I had to change my set behavior on those days to feel vulnerable. I’m usually making eye contact with people, reading their energies. On those days, I had no eye contact. I had to also work on physical things to make it happen. A lot of those scenes, the makeup department can’t do anything because the crying happens in the middle of a scene, so we had to do it in the moment. Travis was amazing, he gave me the space to do that.
What’s amazing is that the day they shot my ear off, I had to drum up that intense emotion and produce big fake girl tears. I was proud of myself that I had nailed this problem. Because of COVID, we had people watching remotely in a different area of the lot. I remember after doing couple of takes, the producing director’s assistant comes running from another part of the Warner Bros. studio to tell me how hysterical the scene is. I was like, “Wait, I’ve done all this work, and people are just going to laugh at it.”
AVC: How do you feel about possibly returning for season four? Sherry got to know Love and Joe’s relationship quite well while in the cage, do you think she believes Joe is really dead?
SG: I don’t know about season four yet. All I know is I had the deal for season three. My takeaway for Sherry was that if she did believe Joe was alive, I think there would be at least three chapters from her dedicated to the sleuthing of it all. Sherry and Cary do believe they killed the monster, and that their relationship made it happen. It’s totally in step with both of them. Sherry believes she knows everything, and before the cage she thought she knew Joe and Love’s marriage. She was so wrong.
AVC: Your role in Search Party is considered your TV comedy breakout. Did you expect that after doing dramas like NCIS: New Orleans? Would you want to return for season five?
SG: Search Party was a healing experience for me. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Before my procedural, the theater show I was nominated for was a comedy. I had the breakout then, too, apparently. Going into TV, you don’t know what you don’t know. I joined a procedural thinking, “Oh my gosh, I know how much Law & Order: SVU has meant to people. I want to be part of something like that, where people being anywhere in the world can turn on their TV and see comfort characters.”
I didn’t understand how soul-numbing the experience would be for me, someone who thrives off of laughter. When I got Search Party, I thought, “Okay, I’ve still got it.” I became a fan after I got the audition. I binged it and grew obsessed. I knew I had to be part of the show. The fact that fans then loved Cassidy Diamond, it was amazing.
We shot that in December 2018, but it didn’t air until mid-2020. Sometimes I was thinking, “TBS isn’t going to air this season, and they are launching this new streaming site, HBO Max, will people even watch it on there.” I had so much doubt and insecurity. I also don’t know if my character would’ve popped as hard if people weren’t in a pandemic and sitting at home. A lot of streaming services were popular because people had nothing to do but watch shows. It’s beautiful how it was celebrated the way that it was though. I have nothing but great feelings about that experience and nothing but love for Search Party fans. I can’t say anything about the next season though, but I haven’t spoken to anyone about doing it.
AVC: Cassidy Diamond and Sherry Conrad are one-note at first glance, but you find the depth in those characters and subvert expectations. Was picking these kind of roles important to you after working on a procedural?
SG: Here’s my thing. When I watch any show, I’m watching for how creatives treat supporting characters. Even when I’m auditioning, I like to observe that to see how much latitude they give. I love when I get these roles and even creatives don’t know what they want, so being able to give them things they don’t realize is great.
For example, Cassidy was supposed to have vocal fry. When I got the audition, I remembered one thing I learned from from Juilliard, which to never assume anything and look up everything. I researched the psychology behind vocal fry and discovered all of these dimensions. It’s not about making your voice high, but is a response to a sexist notion that women’s voices are too high to be taken seriously in business. Boys and men often have vocal fry, but no one gives them shit. One of the biggest ones with vocal fry is Lil Wayne. I also then take into account who I am. Your body tells a story. I’m a Black woman, and if creatives are giving Cassidy a vocal fry, why can’t she have other vocal ticks.
Everything I do, I try to figure out the genuine why for the character. I love getting roles people think on the surface are one-dimensional and aren’t going to go anywhere, but then offering up myself in service of the character’s soul and building up specificity of who they are and what they do authentically. I’m thinking about how I want the audience to feel when they watch any of my roles.