This article contains spoilers for the new Netflix series Grand Army.
At its best, the new Netflix teen drama Grand Army feels very lived in, as if certain roles were tailor-made for the actors playing them. No two actors on the show — about a diverse set of high school students navigating issues involving race, sexuality, identity, and class while attending Grand Army, Brooklyn’s largest public high school — better exemplify this than Odley Jean and Odessa A’Zion.
Although Jean, who plays Dominique Pierre, was actually a student of theater educator and Grand Army creator Katie Cappiello, the role of the aspiring psychology student burdened by the caretaker role her family has put her in wasn’t quite written for her. The actress, 24, says Cappiello told her, "'I really would like you to audition, and try it out, and give it your best.' She also made it clear that it's not up to her, whether I get cast or not, so it was just a matter of me giving it my all. And at that time, I did not [have a] script yet.”
After securing the role of Dominique, Jean was thrilled to see the full scope of her character, noting that “it hits so close to home because she's first-generation, she's Haitian, she's fighting through school and I know damn well school was like my priority. I just wanted to get through it.” The one big difference, though, was that Jean was not the star basketball player that Dominique is. “I didn't know how to dribble until the middle of filming,” the actress shares with a laugh. “Katie maybe had to shave down some scenes and water it down a little bit for me, so I could handle it.”
A’Zion’s experience was a little bit different. With her biggest role prior to Grand Army being on the CBS show Fam, which only lasted one season, she couldn’t quite believe she was Cappiello’s top choice to play Joey Del Marco, a star student and dance team member who’s a lightning rod for attention. “I thought that it was just a joke because I'm not like a household name or anything, so how are they supposed to know? For me, it was like I got the audition, and then yeah, [it was] just like any other role.”
While A’Zion was impressed with the show’s scope and accuracy — “I don't know a single high school that isn't dealing with a million of these things at once,” she says — the 21-year-old admits that she found her character to be “kind of annoying,” joking, “I don't know anybody in high school that everybody says their full-ass name all the time.”
That may be the underlying reason why Joey and Dominique butt heads in the premiere. “I understand that what we were told on set is it's as simple as they don't like each other because Joey is white and Dominique is Black. I don't agree with that, personally — even though I love everyone that has anything to do with the show and their reasoning for things, I just don't agree with that one,” states A’Zion. “But I don't think that's the whole thing behind it. I think it's just [Dominique] thinks that Joey thinks she's the s---, and it annoys her, and she's over it. Because if you watch the show, you f—ing see Joey literally has everybody talking about her all the time. It's like, ‘Girl, enough about you.’ That's how I feel too.”
Jean has a similar take on her character’s relationship with Dominique, claiming “with Dom and Joey, there's this weird dynamic where they can't really get along, but they see each other.” Citing the scene in the pilot where Joey is chastised for wearing short shorts, and somewhat retaliates by involving herself in a situation where horseplay leads to money being stolen from Dominique’s wallet, which results in the suspension of two Black male students, Jean says, “I felt like Joey was like, ‘But this is happening and you aren't acknowledging this, even though it was wrong,’ but it's just like, Sis, you didn't have to go there. I feel like Joey's character wouldn't think that way, but to us, you just threw somebody under the bus. We don't do that.”
That’s why when Joey later takes a knee during the national anthem at a school basketball game, following the lead of Dominique and the majority Black Grand Army women’s basketball team, “Dom looked at Joey like do you even really know why we're taking a knee here? Do you not know that you're a part of the reason why we're taking a knee?” says the actress. “I feel like that's really what's going on. It's like, ‘Are you really an ally?’” It’s a plot representative of the national conversation had this summer about how white Americans could better serve Black Americans. “If you're really going to stand for us, you gotta stand for us in every corner. Not just when it's reliable for you, or because it makes you look good,” declares Jean.
For her faults though, there’s still a lot to love about Del Marco. “She's a top-ranked student, she's really smart in her class, and I could see that she has really good intentions for things,” A’Zion explains. “I think her relationship with her mom is really sweet and with her little sisters. You might not see it at first, but they get close through the trauma bonding.”
That bonding comes after the third episode of Grand Army, where Del Marco is sexually assaulted by her male best friends in the back of a cab. While it was a scene that made A’Zion nervous and uncomfortable, it was one she felt a certain responsibility to help depict. “To bring the subject matter of rape into a show, especially when it's from your close friends, is really something I personally haven't seen before. You see rape in shows and movies, you see it being so brutal and you're confused, and you don't really remember exactly what happened, and you're trying to get to the bottom of it, and there's a lot going on there. You never really see it so simple as you were just f—ed up with your best friends and some s--- went down with your best friends. I think that was a big conversation that we would have. It's so important to talk about rape by your best friends because that's the most common kind. It's really upsetting. It's intense,” explains the actress. “I have more than a handful of people in my life that I know have gone through something similar to this.”
While Joey leaves Grand Army feeling a sense of betrayal by those closest to her, it’s the person most skeptical of her who shows her the most empathy in the end. “Dominique's a good person. At the core of it, when she sees that Joey is actually struggling and going through something, she's gonna be there for her,” affirms A’Zion. “They're both just girls going through s---. One of them also has to go through life being a Black woman, which Joey will never ever understand.”
It’s a provocative dynamic, in which neither side is diminished. That bodes well for the show’s Grand Army. “I know that it will allow people to take something away from it or even spark a conversation no matter how they take it,” says Jean. “I'm ready to have those conversations.”
Grand Army is now streaming on Netflix.