SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the third season of “You,” currently streaming on Netflix.
When Shalita Grant woke up on Oct. 15, she immediately opened Twitter. The Tony-award nominee couldn’t wait to see what fans thought of her portrayal of Sherry Conrad — the influencer queen bee of Madre Linda — on the Netflix series. Even though it was only 7 a.m. on the morning of the season 3 premiere, the responses were just as hilariously vicious as she’d hoped they’d be.
“You can feel the hatred in the tweets,” Grant tells Variety over the phone, recounting her initial scroll through the viewer’s comments.
“The first tweets are like ‘Oh my god…kill her. She needs to be fired,’” Grant recalls. “And now that people have finished the season, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I love Sherry, she’s hilarious.’”
Grant describes playing the polarizing character on the slasher soap opera as “a dream come true” and it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the role a major coup for the Juilliard-trained actor, who spent four seasons on “NCIS: New Orleans” before going on to steal scenes on season 3 of HBO Max’s “Search Party.”
Netflix reports that audiences have consumed more than 521 million hours of the season since its launch, with “You” ranking in the top 10 English-language shows on Netflix for 7 weeks running. But beyond the massive fan base, Grant says the role afforded her another opportunity — the chance to play someone nasty.
“I’m used to playing people that people typically tend to like,” she explains. “So, to be able to do something that you’re not really allowed to do in real life as a woman – which is to be mean [or] to be not likable – I just bit way into it.”
One of the scenes Grant found most delicious was Sherry’s self-aggrandizing press conference during the series’ third episode. “The fake cry during the speech and the hashtag #NatalieComeHome – that, to me, was everything,” she says with a laugh. “Also getting back up on the table to receive my applause was so bitchy.”
Other highlights include one-liners like “Don’t worry, I took a seminar” — which Sherry quips before shooting her husband Cary (Travis Van Winkle) in the leg while they’re locked in Joe (Penn Badgley) and Love’s (Victoria Pedretti) Plexiglass cage — and the revelation that “Hakuna Matata” is Sherry and Cary’s swinger safe word. With dialogue like that, the character had all the makings of a fan-favorite.
“That’s the brilliance of the producers, one hundo,” Grant says, explaining “The Lion King” gone NC-17 reference. “When I first read that [line], I fucking cackled, and then I called my girlfriend to share it. There’s so many little gems.”
Meatier still was Sherry’s arc across the 10-episode season, where Grant peeled back the layers of the character’s perfectly manicured surface to reveal what lay at her core.
“It’s not a mask,” Grant notes. “The things that Sherry uses — the nails, the hair — it’s real, and she weaponizes it. So, in that way, it’s this vicious armor.”
“It took me a couple of episodes of playing [her] to figure out, ‘Oh my god, she’s afraid of everything,’” Grant adds. “The only reason you would aspire to that level of perfection is out of fear: ‘I’m afraid of not being good enough. I’m afraid of people thinking that I don’t deserve the life that I have. I’m afraid that what I have to sell or what I have to say, doesn’t have value. I’m afraid that people are going to see my unworthiness.’”
Sherry’s hair was also a tool for Grant to demonstrate the character’s unraveling across the story arc, starting out with her perfectly flat-ironed hairdo.
“For Sherry, it’s all about the appearance of natural. That’s part of her online persona — she’s very down to earth and ‘perfectly imperfect,’” the actor explains. “And as a Black woman with long hair that I press straight – [Sherry] says this to Love in episode three about ‘not eating cupcakes because she wants to remain aspirational’ — it’s aspirational hair. It’s a beautiful long bang; it’s updos and curls and everything looks so effortless.”
But the rubber meets the road in Sherry’s life (and with her hair), when she and Cary run afoul of Joe and Love when their evening of polyamory goes dangerously awry. For those scenes locked in the serial killer couple’s cage, Grant relished the opportunity to “be added to that canon of Black women who wore their natural hair in a distressed state.”
To really nail the look, Grant instructed the hair and makeup team to spray her roots with water so her hair would puff, curl and stand up as much as possible. “I want the craziness. I want people to see a destroyed, distressed version of Sherry because this is truly Sherry,” the actor explains.
The arc culminates in episode nine with Sherry’s admission that her momfluencer persona is really a form of protection around her and her family. The character admits the truth in hopes that Love will let her out of the cage — but the tearful performance from Grant showed off the deep hurt the character is working to hide.
“Part of the whole influencer bullshit is about power and about protection,” Grant says, breaking down the moment. “People are always going to have a problem with Black women; no matter what we’re doing, someone will always have a critique of some sort. So [as Sherry] I have found a way to point to what those flaws are; I decide. That’s my power: Yes, you will see flaws in me, but I get to decide what you see those to be.”
Sherry’s constant quest to be good enough is surely resonant for many women, but there are elements to that confession that are specific to a Black woman’s experience moving through the world.
“[Sherry’s] a Black woman who has managed to become the queen of a community that’s predominantly white and pretty homogenous in the wealth aspect, and to be the queen of a community like that, as a Black woman, there is a lot of giving and taking that has to happen,” Grant explains.
The nuances of that give and take weren’t something that Grant explicitly discussed with the predominantly white creative team behind “You,” but the actress filled in that layer by mining her own intimate knowledge of those realities, especially as they pertained to Black women’s hair and the history of assimilation in relation to hair, particularly in American culture.
“When you’re not white, hair becomes one of the ways that you are policed. And for Sherry in this community, when you think about the politics of pretty — the prettiest girl is the one that no one can can pull apart,” Grant explains.
“For me as the actress, I know what I went through physically with my hair and the trauma that I had survived,” she continues. “And then to not just survive but to thrive, I know what it takes to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘At the end of this, I’m going to come out of this loving myself even more. And as a byproduct, everyone will love me too.’”
“The end is a hair joke, because we all know what it’s like to have to cut bangs for different reasons,” Grant explains. “And now everybody knows that Sherry got one ear and that’s why she rockin’ the bangs. It’s hilarious.”
Grant credits overcoming that emotional experience with informing her performance as Sherry. “I’ve come a long way with my hair,” she shares. “I know why I got this role now; I wouldn’t have been able to do this role seven years ago.”
What Grant is alluding to is her time on “NCIS: New Orleans,” where she starred for four seasons. Landing the role of Sonja Percy, a former ATF agent recruited to the NCIS unit, marked the Julliard grad’s first series regular gig. But the experience wasn’t as charmed as she’d hoped.
Since leaving the show in 2018, the actor has revealed that her natural hair was damaged by the various wigs, weaves and heat styling mishaps that occurred while she was under contract. Grant has detailed her experience during recent interviews, including an appearance on the “Tamron Hall” show, sharing that her decision to leave “NCIS: New Orleans” was more than a year and a half in the making.
“My hair wasn’t welcome, and I was told my natural hair wasn’t welcome because it’s ‘vanity,’ my natural hair wasn’t welcomed because it ‘didn’t look professional,’ my hair wasn’t welcome because they thought it would take too long,” Grant recalls. “The reality was, when I came out of that wig for the end of season four, the end of my tenure, my call for hair and makeup was much shorter.”
“By the middle of season three, I started documenting my hair loss — from January 2017 to June 2017 — and at the front of my hair, I was almost completely bald,” she adds, highlighting the full extent of the physical damage.
But it was the emotional scars from feeling that she’d been pegged as “difficult” on set that lingered and required some deprogramming. “When I left, I went through about three months of trauma counseling, because I had made a decision [that] I’m not gonna leave the business because of this. That’s letting them win. I’m gonna get on another show, but I know that I have to heal myself.”
In recent years, struggles for Black women in the hair and makeup trailer have become more commonly and openly discussed, but Grant has taken on the challenge of finding a solution for the entertainment industry and beyond by launching a new haircare treatment called Four Naturals.
Grant comes from a long line of hairstylists and salon owners, including her mother and grandmother, so she already had a basic knowledge of what the cosmetology board teaches about textured hair (and what they don’t). So she put on her cosmetic chemist hat and started learning about what products would or wouldn’t work for her natural hair texture.
Today, Grant has developed a treatment that works for her high porosity, medium to low density, Type 4 hair and its fine strands. And, most importantly, Grant was able to work with her natural hair in all of Sherry’s styles for the full shoot on “You.”
“I want everyone to experience the beauty of life regardless of the limits that society puts on you because of the identity that they gave you,” Grant says of developing Four Naturals, which is expected to launch to the public in early 2022.
“My gift to my community is freedom,” she explains. “If these are the requirements for you to go to work, I want to make it easy for you. If this is what it takes for you to go on vacation, I want to give you ease, because it’s possible.”
So, now with her hair and her career at their strongest points to date, Grant is looking forward. She’s moved past the Internet trolls who told her she’d never book a role as big as NCIS again (“So many people who don’t even have icons in their fucking profile love to tag me on the [memes or tweets saying], ‘You ain’t heard shit about Shalita since ‘NCIS,’ she’s gone down the tubes,’” she quips.) With the millions of viewers who’ve streamed “You,” she’s instantly proved them wrong.
“There is just a tenacity that I was born with,” she says. “No matter what, I’m not gonna just survive, I’m going to fucking thrive and I’m going to plant flowers everywhere I go, because life is beautiful, and I want everyone to experience the beauty of life regardless of the limits that society puts on you because of the identity that they gave you.”
Asked what flower “You” represents in that garden, Grant calls it “the flower that’s going to populate the rest of the garden.”