Let Odley Jean Be Vulnerable With You For A Second
In Grand Army, Odley Jean breaks Netflix’s Black girl mould.
Ten seconds: That’s how long it takes to know that Odley Jean is going to be a star. As high school junior Dominique “Dom” Pierre on the new Netflix series Grand Army, a range of emotions — relief, over a much-need injection of cash for her siblings; pride, from her work as a teenage hair expert; playful irritation, over her white classmates screaming “Bodak Yellow”; and casual horniness for her crush — wash over her face within the first 10 seconds that viewers see her in the series’ premiere.
But the true power of Jean’s performance really shines through in Grand Army’s seventh episode, when Dom, exhausted from running on the hamster wheel that is her life, unburdens herself during an interview for an internship at a mental health organisation. In five minutes of true vulnerability, Dom makes clear that access to mental healthcare isn’t some esoteric intellectual exercise for her — it’s a lifeboat, one that she, and thousands of Black women and girls like her, desperately need in a world specifically crafted to work against them. Dom isn’t sad that “self-care” feels out of her reach, she’s angry. But Dom also knows she isn’t allowed to be angry. Unless, of course, she wants to fall into society’s trap for her, and be dismissed for her emotions. So Dom is simply left heartbroken.
“The first time I read it, I cried,” Jean says, sporting a cosy mustard yellow shirt, a short black bob, a bare face, and a bracelet reading “GRAND ARMY” on her wrist.
The 24-year-old self-described “mummy’s girl” is talking to me on Zoom from her bedroom in her family home in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood on a late September morning, admitting that she can’t imagine moving out of the house she shares with her mother. Jean, who is finishing her last semester toward a degree in social work at Nassau Community College and just recently started an internship at a women’s and children’s centre, also went to high school in Brooklyn. Her alma mater, Clara Barton, is not so far away from where the fictional Grand Army High School could be found — and that’s not the end of the similarities of Jean and Dom’s experiences. “It’s a topic that a lot of my friends talk about and I grew up talking about,” Jean continues of her series-defining monologue. “It gave me chills.”
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When audiences see it, they too will likely get chills. But they’ll also feel invigorated, because they’ll be witnessing something unique for television: an authentic and unfortunately rare look at what it means to be a Haitian-American girl like Dom, who lives in a working- class matriarchal household that fits three generations of family members into one apartment. Dom is the kind of girl who strives for everything she has, whether that means sleepless nights or parties skipped to maintain stability for her loved ones and fulfil her own college dreams.
“It resonates with a lot of the Black girls, Caribbean Black girls in Brooklyn, I would hope,” Jean says. For her, this moment is defined by hope and a little bit of awe. “I'm still embracing the fact that things are happening the way they’re meant to happen. I did work for this, and this is just what happens when you get a leading role for a show on Netflix,” Jean says, before whispering in shock, like a roller coaster is about to start, “What the fuck?”
Although Grand Army is a show about New York City teens, it was mostly filmed in Toronto, though some shooting did take place in Brooklyn. Whereas many of New York City’s public high schools are effectively segregated — Jean’s high school student body was, she says, almost 100% Black — Grand Army goes out of its way to be multicultural. Still, the interactions among the GA kids resonate with Jean years after high school.
“The slut-shaming was present. The depression and going through mental health [issues] was present,” she recalls, comparing her high school experience to Dom’s journey. “Some privilege was very much present, even through colourism.”
Jean often sounds like Grand Army’s perfect daughter and hyper-busy student, Dom; she even studied nursing in high school because it was what her mother wanted her to do. Like Dom, who can be seen on the show juggling a multi-part hair business, familial obligations, a heavy course load, high school sports, and a blossoming love life, Jean was also extremely busy during her high school years, doing hair for extra cash and selling brownies to pay for prom.
“I had to learn the hard way that I was taking on too many things and had my schedule overpacked,” she says. “But at the same time, I wanted to do everything because it’s an opportunity. I’m still learning that. I’m still learning how to break out of that.”
It seems like she’s doing a good job at figuring out how to do just that, and bucking the expectations that everyone else had for her. Despite her mother’s practical nursing dreams, Jean had other ideas, and first caught the acting bug doing a Christmas play towards the end of elementary school. “This one guy in my church was like, ‘Oh, you little actress! You need to take acting classes. I see you in movies and stuff,’” Jean remembers. “I was such a shy kid, I was just like, ‘I don’t know!’ But deep down I really wanted to do it.”
Jean was finally able to explore her brewing passion in high school, when an extra credit assignment introduced her to the work of Opening Act, a non-profit theatre organisation. “I didn’t even know my school had a theatre program,” she says, looking into the camera with a resigned stare. Jean joined Opening Act the next term. It was a move that put her directly on the path to Grand Army.
“One of the Opening Act students invited me to a StopSlut Girl Coalition meeting,” Jean explains, referencing the workshop founded by Grand Army’s creator Katie Cappiello that brings teenage girls together to combat slut-shaming and sexual aggression. After the first meeting, Cappiello invited Jean to another event. “She offered me a scholarship to her girls’ theatre program,” Jean says. Eight year later, Jean has worked with Cappiello nonstop, performing thought-provoking plays as part of the StopSlut Girl Coalition around the country for audiences filled with judges, lawyers, and survivors. This kind of emotionally heavy subject matter requires a level of trust between actor and director, and it’s clear Jean has that with Cappiello; she even tears up talking about Cappiello’s impact on her life.
Despite their long-standing working relationship, Jean swears Cappiello didn’t write Dom for her — or about her. “It’s not my story,” she says. “I think Katie wrote Dom for every one of us. Because I’m not the only first-generation Haitian student she had.”
Still, it was Jean who won the part of Dom, even though, as someone new to the world of screen-acting, she had some uncertainties going in. “When I got the role, I felt like I wasn’t ready for it. That I wasn’t good enough for it. Black women, Black people, have to normalise giving themselves credit and wanting more for themselves,” Jean says, wiping away tears. “We need to normalise being able to take that in and feel like, Yes, you know what? I deserved it.”
Now that Jean has read every Grand Army script and watched the series “so many times,” she is ready for other people to see it, even if she can’t control their reactions. When asked if the cast recognised that there would undoubtedly be some drama upon the series’ release, Jean says, “Hell yeah!” But she also turned down comparisons to other recent controversial teen shows, like Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why. Instead, Jean thinks it’s more like Degrassi, which she watched while she was growing up: “It taught you the things that were going on.”
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Her face lights up when she mentions the fact that Lauren Collins — aka Degrassi: The Next Generation’s Paige — was at the Grand Army table read. “And they tried to get Manny in, but Manny was busy,” Jean reveals.
Like Degrassi before it, Grand Army isn’t afraid afraid to dive into painful topics like sexual assault, systematic racism in the education system, and even terrorism. Dom’s storyline sheds light on the precarious position of families that are just one pay cheque away from financial ruin, and shows the creative ways they must overcome a system stacked against them.
“I feel like Grand Army is literally a mirror,” Jean says. “We need to see this because we’ve been seeing [these problems] all year. We see it with politics. We see it with everything.”
Jean isn’t just seeing the problems — she’s acting on them. “2020 showed me the facts,” she says, “And I was just like, I don’t give a fuck. It is what it is.” Lately, she has been using her own Instagram account to reflect the injustice she sees in the world. In July, she spoke out about police brutality and reminded followers that Black lives still matter — even if ant-racist protests began to disappear from their feeds.
“We need protesters, we need organisers. We need everyone at this point. It’s really touchy, but that’s because this system is so protected. And I can be dragged literally for [doing the Black power fist],” she says, doing the gesture into the camera for emphasis. But Jean — who has five Black nephews — shrugs at the threat of hypothetical hate. “People’s lives are at stake. My nephews’ lives are at stake. My mom’s life is at stake. My family is at stake the minute they step out of their house, because of the colour of their skin. Because of our history. I’m not going to back down.”
And there’s more than one way to make a stand: Jean says it’s “amazing” to know she can serve as a sign of possibility for young people watching Grand Army. Particularly since Jean needed to look up to actresses two generations ahead of her — like Taraji P. Henson and Jada Pinkett Smith — as a teen, since Jean’s teenage years were filled with shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars that lacked anyone who looked like her, let alone had a similar background. Yet, Jean also recognises her potential fans need more than just her as a hero.
“We need to see more characters like Dom. And maybe even better ones, too,” she says. “I want girls to see themselves, no matter what skin tone they are, no matter what colour … I want girls like me to be able to know they can get there no matter what.”
“The quote under my high school picture was, ‘I live to inspire,’” Jean says, a proud smile spreading across her face. “I used to always say that when I was young. It’s so cool to be in a place where I can actually do that.”