If there’s one thing Netflix does particularly well, it’s finding the brightest (undiscovered, as of yet) young talent, grouping them together with a captivating narrative, and proceeding to watch their careers skyrocket. We’ve seen it over (13 Reasons Why) and over (Outer Banks) and over (Elite) again—not that I’m complaining. In fact, quite the opposite. Some of Hollywood’s most exciting fresh faces have been born out of this tried-and-true formula, and I suspect the streamer’s latest project, Grand Army, will be no different.
Loosely based on the play Slut, the drama series follows five Brooklyn high schoolers trying to find success in the face of life’s economic, racial, and social challenges. Grand Army is a raw and authentic depiction of adolescence today, and its main cast—the majority of whom only have a few acting credits to their name—is spectacular. This brings me to Odley Jean, the show’s standout player.
Jean stars as Dominique "Dom” Pierre, who is juggling future career aspirations with the demands of family life. Like her on-screen counterpart, Jean is first-generation Haitian-American who also grew up in Brooklyn. The parallels between her own life and Dominique’s made the character an exciting prospect for Jean, who, up until this point, had only starred in small theater productions. While Jean’s personal understanding of Dominique’s experience lends perfectly to the part, there are many times throughout the show’s 10 episodes that demonstrate how the 24-year-old is a natural talent on screen.
For example, in episode seven, when Dom delivers a powerful speech on why it’s important for mental health services to be accessible to all communities. (Her performance was so good that it gave me goosebumps.) Jean is the cornerstone of the show, bringing some of its most human moments and also its most joyful.
Ahead of last week’s premiere, I caught up with Jean to talk about her big TV debut, why Grand Army is a teen drama unlike any other, and how she’s a true ’90s fashion girl at heart.
Grand Army is loosely based on the play Slut, which was written by Katie Cappiello. You actually met Cappiello when you joined the theater program Opening Act at 16 and later joined her theater arts production company, GoodCapp Arts. What do you appreciate about Cappiello as a playwright?
Katie is such a huge mentor for me and also such a great teacher. One thing with her is that she allows us to think and peel back situations, which really stood out to me, because the first time I met Katie was the first time I actually got to sit down and have logical conversations about our own experiences or our experiences as women as a whole. That allowed me to have conversations with others and not be afraid to tap into any kind of conversation.
Now, here you are working together again on Grand Army. There are several parallels between you and your character Dominique. Do you remember early conversations with Cappiello about the role?
I didn’t know about the role until the audition process when Katie told me that she really wanted me to take on the opportunity and audition. I had no idea about Dom, but one thing that I feel correlates amazingly is the fact that she is a first-generation Haitian, just like me, and she’s a hustler and a go-getter. It reminds me of so many of my friends and me growing up.
This is your very first television role. Were you nervous at all?
One thing I was super nervous about was having to meet a whole cast and people I don’t know. What was amazing was that a lot of us who are in the show have worked with Katie before too, so it also felt like one of those tour performances that Katie and her students would have but extended. Even the ones who didn’t know Katie before, once we met, it felt like we already knew each other. It felt amazing to have a group of people and castmates who support each other and are open to talking to each other and asking questions and having fun. A lot of the times off set, we were hanging out with one another at each other’s house, cooking dinner, or something. It really feels like a big family. It was so amazing because it made filming my first show so much easier.
The show takes place in New York City, which is where you grew up and live today. How was it filming around the city and in your neighborhood?
Oh my god, I have to say that it felt so surreal. I literally couldn’t believe it because there are some parts of the show we actually shot in Grand Army Plaza. I remember dreaming about this and thinking about possibly becoming a successful actress one day and to actually be a few blocks away from home, filming as a lead on a Netflix show, I couldn’t help but get emotional and also just feel so proud of myself. It’s such a weird place to be. To one day hope to be something and actually be in that position… It’s crazy. But I’m here. It shows you that anything is possible.
Growing up a first-generation Haitian-American in Brooklyn, just like Dominique, what were some personal experiences you brought to this role?
I would say Dom’s relationship with her mom is so amazing. She seems to want so much for her family, and her relationship with her mom is something that reminds me of me and my mom. You know, just wanting her to relax and take some time out, and just picking up the slack for her and helping out. I see a lot of that protective thing with her family, and it reminds me of how I feel with mine. I had to bring that because I knew what that felt like. A lot of the scenes with Dom and her mom actually make me really emotional. It’s weird, but it just shows you the love first-generation kids have for their parents. Although they made sacrifices to create that [life] for you, you also don’t want to see them work so hard.
One of my favorite parts of the show was in episode seven—Dominique’s interview for the psychology internship. She talks about self-care being a luxury and how being able to show anger is a privilege and the importance for POC to have access to healthcare workers who understand their needs. How are you caring for your own mental health, especially in the midst of a pandemic?
First off, mental health is huge, because without any sort of stable mental health, you can’t get anything done at all. You can’t be your full self. You can’t be fully present. You can’t be fully functional. So I take my mental health seriously. Especially being first-generation and having an immigrant family—an immigrant Haitian family, too—a lot of the time, they look at us as privileged and they expect us to get everything done and take advantage of our opportunities and do what we have to do. But in the society we live in and with the pressures we are under, it puts us under a lot of stress, and a lot of times, like in a Caribbean household, you’ll talk about depression and about mental health, and they look at you like you're crazy.
I grew up and was raised [with the mindset of] "Anything that happens, you have to stand up and stand tall and deal with it and fix it.” I didn’t think about actually having time to myself and feeling what I’m feeling and actually allowing myself to feel it until I had my own experience of just having it all built up and having no way of expressing it, and it eventually exploded on its own. I had to have that happen to me and have my breakdown in the middle of the street on the way to school and look at everybody like, "Phew, I let out a load,” and I know a lot of you guys need to do the same. So I take my mental health really seriously. I also tend to get really in my head about things, so it’s important that I have time to breathe or to organize my day and take it one thing at a time. And it’s still a process. Self-care is a privilege, especially if you don’t have the time for it. But when you do, making the time for yourself and saying, "You know what? I’m just going to do my nails today.” Those things charge us. If we are having a down day, literally a 30-minute face mask would have us feeling a little bit better, and it’s important we normalize that and normalize taking care of ourselves because we are literally charged batteries walking around, and oftentimes, we have no energy whatsoever to get through the day. We need self-care and we really need to take it easy on our mental state because it can only drive you so far.
Grand Army is a raw portrayal of teenage life today. How would you say it’s different from other teen dramas like Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why?
First off, I love Euphoria. I watched it like four times! But Grand Army, although you can see it’s a [young adult] show, it’s its own thing. I say that because it shows you the fast life of New York City and teens going through their experiences there, which is different, but also it calls out a lot of social norms that keep us in these generational chains. It shows you a different perspective of teens. It shows you teenagers actually raging and fighting and rising and speaking up and surviving. I feel that’s really important. Oftentimes, when we see teenagers on TV, we see them helpless or hopeless, and it can be discouraging sometimes. We need to stop seeing the same things and give the youth a voice and not show the same fall-from-grace teenage storyline. In Grand Army, you see kids protest, you see kids organize, you see kids stand up to adults that try to shut them up. You see kids make logical decisions and you see kids actually go through real traumatic experiences and rise above them. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something like that on TV. Euphoria, I got a feel of that too, but Grand Army digs deeper into more political, economical, social, and personal issues.
This is your TV debut! Now that you’ve experienced a bit of that world, do you want to explore more of what the industry has to offer or continue in theater?
I would love to explore more. I haven’t done anything like Broadway or super huge, but I noticed that there is a difference between performing on stage and performing on camera, and I’ve always wanted to get on camera and get comfortable and stuff. So I would love to dive more into what you would call "Hollywood.” I feel like the production world is growing a lot more too, so I’m looking forward to exploring a lot with acting and possibly writing and creating. Who knows? But I’m open to that.
Okay, I want to pivot to some fashion questions. How would you describe your style and how has it evolved over the last five years or so?
Well, I have to say in high school, I went shopping in the thrift stores and wore a lot of my mom’s clothes, so I am such a huge ’90s geek. I love baggy jeans. I love baggy sweaters. I am more of a comfort dresser, but at the same time, I could go boho. I just love oversize stuff.
And being in New York, you have access to so many great vintage stores.
Yeah! If you want to go classic New York, you throw on skinny jeans, some Timberlands, a T-shirt and a jacket, and some hoops. Because of all of this, it’s a new world for me, so I’m learning about how to put different things together and make it work and look nice. Yeah, fashion is still evolving here, but I would say in high school, you would have thought it was the ’90s if you saw me.
What is a look that makes you feel your most powerful or confident?
Up until some of my feature shoots, It had been a while since I put on something and felt really confident. I would say I felt really confident in a lot of the elegant dresses and [when I was] having my makeup done. I felt really beautiful.
Was there a Dominique look that specifically caught your eye?
I don’t know if it was episode six or seven, but when she went to do the private school girls’ hair and she had these overalls with the Rasta-colored top and the dark brown lip. That [look] I wish I took home. And then I would say episode eight or nine when she had a sunflower halter top with high-waisted jeans and a jean jacket. That outfit was so cute. The jeans fit perfectly. You know, jeans fitting perfectly is really meaningful to me because I have such a small waist and I’m so tired of having jeans look nice at the bottom but there is this big pocket gap in the back., So that outfit specifically just hugged me in all the right places, and I wish I took that home too.
It’s officially fall. What are your wardrobe essentials during this time of year living in NYC?
Okay, so sweatpants because I’m still in school and in the fall, I focus on things that are really comfortable. I would go for a pair of leggings or sweatpants and a nice oversize sweater, leather coat to go over that, and Uggs because last year I got my first pair of Uggs and I literally wore them until the weather got warm. I hate having to dress up every time I go out, so I just like to throw on things that are really oversize and easy to put on. Same for shoes. I like little booties that I can just stick my feet into and zip up. I do like a little headwrap if my hair isn’t done or if I don’t feel like having it out because of the weather. Then little hoops to finish it. That’s my fall ’fit.
Photographer: Stephanie Diani
Stylist: Jared Depriest
Makeup Artist: Jessica Smalls
Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.
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