“As a black woman, I felt so much responsibility,” admits Shalita Grant as we chat via webcam (watch above) about her role in the Civil War era drama “Mercy Street.” The acclaimed PBS series centers on a hospital in Alexandria, VA, which treats both Union and Confederate soldiers. Grant plays Aurelia Johnson, an escaped slave who works as a laundress and is desperate to reunite with her son and mother. “It really felt like you had to do everything well, and you have to do everything right,” she says of the role. “I never really felt the need to do that before.”
To that end, Grant contacted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner (“The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery”) “to get some real insight for myself on the part, and what the expectations were.” She says she slowly found her character. “The work that I had to do as an actor was to be as simple as I could be,” she explains, “because the drama was there. You don’t have to put a lot on it: just really play the beats.”
A Juilliard graduate, Grant reaped a Tony nomination in 2013 for her scene-stealing work in the Christopher Durang comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” “Frankly, I thought I’d hit the ceiling in my career,” she recalls. Upon moving to Los Angeles to land roles on screen, she found, “Nobody gave a damn. No one cared. They could not care any less in a lot of instances, so it was really like starting over that first year.”
She soon landed a role as Special Agent Sonja Percy on “NCIS: New Orleans.” When offered “Mercy Street,” the actress relished the opportunity to do something completely different in style and tone. “I just wanted to do something that felt prescient and timely, especially because right now it’s so topsy-turvy,” she admits. “I think on some level, we all wanted to believe that we were further along than we thought we were.”
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