This story contains spoilers for Netflix’s You Season 3.
When we first meet Shalita Grant’s character Sherry Conrad on Netflix’s hit series You, she feels familiar. She’s a classic mean girl turned mommy blogger. She’s Regina George meets Bree Van de Kamp. Her cutting remarks hidden behind a perfect smile and thinly-veiled judgement bolstered by a cookie-cutter suburban existence and an Instagram-worthy marriage stands in stark contrast to the show’s central characters, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) and Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), two serial killers running from their murderous past towards some semblance of normalcy.
At first, Sherry seems like she’s just there to be a one-note foe whose sole purpose is to make Love’s suburban life the hell she fears it is, and to act an archetype of the kind of people Love and Joe pretend they’re nothing like. When Sherry shows up, you kind of hate her and her meathead husband Cary (Travis Van Winkle). But as the 10-episode season races towards its thrilling conclusion, Sherry and Cary slowly become fan favourites, and on a show with precisely zero heroes, you can’t help but root for them.
This progression is why Grant did something most actors don’t have “the balls” for (her words, not mine): she went straight to social media as soon as the season dropped to scour for fan reactions. “I woke up this morning like, ‘Oh my God. I got to go to Twitter,’” she tells R29Unbothered over Zoom from her girlfriend’s mom’s house in Houston, TX. “I was cracking up this morning because the [tweets were] like, “I fucking hate Sherry. Sherry’s so annoying.” But then, she says, as fans finished bingeing the series, they changed their minds. “The comments now are like, “I’m so glad that they survived,” she laughs. That progression, from hating Sherry to sort of loving her, is due in large part to Grant’s stunning capabilities as an actor.
She’s a Julliard-educated, Shakespeare-proficient, Tony-nominated performer who is nothing like her character: she’s gay, makes an incredible first impression, and pole dances in her spare time instead of attending PTA meetings. Grant has become known for stealing scenes in buzzy shows (see: NCIS: New Orleans, Search Party and now, You) and has one guiding light in her career: she doesn’t take roles on shows she wouldn’t watch. “This was the first time that I was [already] a fan of the show and then got the call. I feel like a You Netflixer. I’m just on Twitter like, “What y’all saying?”
Not only are people loving Sherry and Cary as the #couplegoals of the fictional town of Madre Linda, California, they’re pointing out the significance of seeing a Black woman at the centre of petty suburban drama, especially on a show full of horrible, very problematic, white people who rarely get their comeuppance. Here, Grant breaks down the “politics of pretty” that comes with playing Sherry Conrad, how much her hair informed the character, and that wild foursome scene.
R29Unbothered: With Sherry in You, and with the character you played on Search Party, you’ve taken these stereotypes — the ditzy lawyer, the self-obsessed mommy blogger — and given them nuance. How do you approach characters that may seem superficial on the page and give them depth?
Shalita Grant: At Julliard, part of the training first year for character development was “never assume you know anything.” So you look up everything and you’d be surprised what gems you get. So case in point with Cassidy [on Search Party], when I got that audition they were like, “She has a vocal fry.” Now I never watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians... That’s not my vibe. So I had a judgment already. Because of that, it was important to push through and learn. I looked up the psychology behind the vocal fry and what I learned was these women are not actually trying to make their voices higher, they’re actually trying to make their voices lower and a byproduct is that you press down on your vocal folds. Boys have vocal fry too, but because we have a very patriarchal lens on our ears, we only hear it with the women. So the psychology behind it is trying to sound more professional by bringing your voice down. So with that, I was like, “Oh my God, that gives me a whole in into this character.” She’s actually trying really hard to be good at her job. It’s just society that takes it the wrong way.
Because of the research I do and because of the heart that I [approach] work with, it really grounds characters that come off as really surface level, or as an easy joke. I like complex jokes. So with Sherry, it was the same thing, “Oh, she’s a momfluencer?” “Oh she’s perfect?” “Okay. Let me just drill down deeper into that.” I’m not going to lie though. I had a really good time being horrible because I’m not like that in my life. Women are not allowed to be mean. So I was like, “Thank you so much.”
As Black women, we don’t have a lot of those examples of, “Actually I am the queen of this fucking community. And these are the reasons why.”
So the thing about Sherry is that I hated her… until I didn’t. And I loved that for her, and for you as a performer. Even though we’ve seen so many amazing, nuanced Black women characters with flaws, there’s still something to be said about Black women having to be “likeable” on screen. Is Sherry refreshing because she gets to be an unlikeable mean girl, who also happens to be Black?
SG: Yes. What I love about this current season of You is a lot of suburbs are not integrated, but this one really is and it takes you into what it takes to be the queen bee. So I got into the politics of pretty, and everything that it takes to make you the queen bee. To be able to be unimpeachable, and say, “there’s nothing you can say about me.” That’s really what makes Sherry that bitch. That’s what’s so annoying about Sherry too. As Black women, we don’t have a lot of those examples of, “Actually I am the queen of this fucking community. And these are the reasons why.”
Let’s talk about Sherry and Cary’s marriage. There’s just a lot to unpack. How would you describe their union and is it real love there or just for show?
SG: I think what we learn is that they do have real love between them. When the rubber hits the road, when they’re at rock bottom [with] no indoor plumbing, and stuck in a box, they’re doing everything they can to have clear communication, to love each other through it. They make mistakes like shooting each other [Laughs]. But what gets them out is their love for each other. And they’re two different sides of the same coin, the same way that Joe and Love are two sides of the same coin.
What we learn about Joe and Love’s relationship is that the reason that love doesn’t work is because we all want to love and be loved. But because our society hasn’t taught us how to love ourselves, unfortunately, you can only love people with the love that you have for yourself. And so unless you heal certain patterns with how you are with yourself, then you’re going to continue to vibe with the same people, the same situations and reenact those same habits in your relationship. With Joe and Love, Joe doesn’t accept himself. And so he has a wife that’s just like him and he calls her a monster when they’re the exact same. So that love doesn’t work. But for Cary and Sherry, they’re two people who are dedicated to optimization, to living their best life, to success. And regardless of how you feel about that, that’s real for them. That’s the glue that holds them together.
I need to ask about this one scene that the whole time I was watching it, I was like, “This is hilarious and horrifying and awkward and weird.” It was the swinging sex scene, or the orgy between Love, Joe, Cary and Sherry. What was it like filming that? Was it hilarious, weird, funny, confusing? What was happening?
SG: No. I mean, I think for certain people, yeah maybe. Not for this one! I’m buck wild, Kathleen. I have a lot of life experience, okay! So, for me, I was like, “Alright, cool.” And I’m also gay, but I went through a straight phase, so I just faked it like I did back then. It was no problem for me [Laughs].
I’ll say this, especially in the climate of Me Too, the producers [were really supportive]. I know from other actresses that have done these kinds of scenes who have had scene partners that were super horrible and took advantage of it and were not professional. And [they] worked with production companies that were very lax about their male stars and how far they can go with other actresses. But that wasn’t the case. And because of that, I felt even more free to just play and give them everything they want. [We’d go] “What do you want? Okay. We can do that too.” We had intimacy coordinators. It was a super safe set to do something really — for some people — buck wild.
It’s buck wild but also brilliant. Some criticism of the show has been about how we shouldn’t be rooting for a serial killing stalker, who is the protagonist. And I know that Penn Badgley has said, “well, that’s the point.” The show reveals what white men get away with, or what society is willing to forgive. When I’m watching it, I’m always reckoning with who I’m rooting for. So who are you rooting for in You?
SG: It’s me. In Season 3, I’m rooting for me. I had issues too in Season 1. It’s super abject to make the central character someone so deplorable, someone doing things like stalking — especially in our climate. But I would have to agree with Penn. My girlfriend Jess and I are now watching The Jinx, [the story of] Robert Durst.
In the first episode, the cop says, “I couldn’t believe that this guy was capable of disfiguring a body because he looks like a librarian.” And we looked at each other. She was like, “Is You based on [Durst]?” I was like, “No, girl it’s not based on that.” But it’s so true that white men, because we live in a patriarchal, capitalist, [racist] society, white men are able to blend into society in a way that other people can’t. And they’re given a lot, a lot of leeway and a lot of projection of innocence. It’s super weird to me that people are like, “Oh my God, [Joe] is so hot.” I’m gay so I guess I don’t get to participate in that conversation, but I’m also like, “Gross. Are you kidding me, is that what you want? No, girl, no.”
Y’all got issues.
SG: You got serious issues!
It’s super weird to me that people are like, ‘Oh my God, [Joe] is so hot.’ I’m gay so I guess I don’t get to participate in that conversation, but I’m also like, ‘Gross.’
This season brings up a lot about marriage and domesticity — the way in which women feel in marriage. It comes at it from a straight perspective of course, but you’ve been open about your divorce. Is there anything this season you relate to or feel strongly about when it comes to its commentary on marriage?
SG: My marriage was a gay marriage that fell apart for different reasons [Laughs]. But I think in the show, for women, it fucking sucks. There’s so much labor that you take on that is not appreciated. The expectations of men emotionally and physically at home are way lower. And when women complain about the experience of heterosexual relationships, there is no space that is truly understanding. Even other women are damning of other women because they’re living the same hell. And what Sherry does is what I see [in real life] and I get quite frankly a lot. I look super young so people always assume that I’m much younger than I am and also straight passing. So there is a lot of projection people do on me and what I’ve witnessed and experienced from other married women is that marriage is the prize. Well, you’re fucking miserable. And when they see other women living freely it’s, “I want you to experience the same misery that I’m experiencing. So it validates my choice to stay here.”
That’s what Sherry does to Love. When Love is like, “I’m having problems.” Sherry [responds], “It’s your problem, be sexier, change who you are.” And it’s like, “I have to feed my kid, bathe my kid, wash my kid, clean that house, and I have to remain fuckable?” What is Joe doing? He literally doesn’t even have a job. As far as I was concerned, he was volunteering. So what is he doing? It’s terrible. I think Season 3 is a beautiful microscopic push into those norms that a lot of gay relationships often try to replicate. For me, I don’t want to be the provider because I make the most money. I want a partner. I want someone who is as capable and sees themself as capable as I am.
To go back to what you mentioned about the “politics of pretty,” there’s a lot that goes into a character’s look. You’ve talked about how you started your line Four Natural Hair Care after having your hair ruined on the set of NCIS: New Orleans. When creating Sherry, how much did your hair inform her?
SG: I’ve always had this question: when I’m in a place or a space with someone who pisses me off, why is it that the next time I go back, I make a point to put on all my shit — throw on some mascara and let my hair down? What is that about? It’s about that feminine power and the subtle ways that we weaponize our femininity. When you arm yourself with the makeup, the clothes, the hair and all of that, it is armour in our society. Because for women to be safe, we have to be fuckable or pretty. And so when a new woman comes into the group, how do women find ways to pick and prod [at her]? That’s Sherry.
So for me as a Black woman, I used to have to wear wigs and extensions, because my hair was really, really fragile. I have Type 4 hair and when I was on [NCIS: New Orleans], they were committed to me hiding my natural hair, even though a curlier texture would have made a lot more sense in New Orleans. The powers that be had decided that for a Black woman to wear her natural hair, it would be considered vanity. We were literally spending hours in the trailer to try to make my hair something that it wasn’t, which is literally the definition of vanity. Anyway, when I left that show, I had a bald spot in the centre of my head. By the end of Season 3, I was losing [so much] hair. So I put on my little cosmetic chemistry hat, and I did some digging, and created the Four Naturals Treatment, which is now patent pending and dermatologically tested.
On You, my hair was heat straightened every day for six months. And I left that show with more hair than I had when I showed up. It was powerful to hand my white hair stylist my products and give her the instructions and have her do something that we know is a damaging thing to do. And I didn’t experience that damage. For Sherry, I know that I would not have been able to get that role had I not had my natural hair. Going back to the politics of pretty, Sherry’s whole thing is about being “perfectly imperfect” and that she’s natural, that she’s down to earth. [She can’t] have someone be able to call out her wigs, or call out her extensions, or call out the nails. PS. Those are mine in the show. I have a great nail hardener!
Hollywood has been failing Black actresses and their hair for so long, especially when it is something that informs so much of a character and our lives. As a Black woman watching TV, there are so many times when I’m looking at a character like, “That hair don’t make no sense.”
SG: Exactly! I did a show and I told the producers, “Listen, your body tells a story. So if you hire someone that looks a certain way, their body tells a story. So there are certain things that you can and cannot do based on the body that you chose.” If you look at my reel, no character is the same. So as an actress who prides herself on being a character actress, part of that is the physical transformation. But I did realise in 2018 that I was limited by my hair because there are certain characters who won’t wear a wig or extensions. So I thought, How can I heal myself so that I can go the furthest that I can go with any character, regardless of my hair? Everything about my body is in service to whatever character that I’m playing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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