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Arlington Native Brittany O’Grady Talks About Her Role in HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’

Racking up millions of views this summer, hit HBO miniseries “The White Lotus” follows a group of travelers vacationing at a Hawaiian resort. As they attempt to escape from their problems, their problems instead confront them in ways they never imagined.

This dark comedy, released on HBO Max in July, features stars such as Connie Britton, Steve Zahn and Jennifer Coolidge with screenwriting and direction from Mike White, of “School of Rock” and “Nacho Libre.” It also includes a familiar face locally, whose fame continues to grow: Arlington’s very own Brittany O’Grady.

O’Grady, 25, is a graduate of Washington-Liberty High School who acted throughout her childhood at Drew Elementary School, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and W-L. She also danced at Arlington Dance Theatre (which has since closed) and Alexandria’s Metropolitan Fine Arts Center. She later performed at regional theaters including Synetic Theater in Crystal City and Ford’s Theatre in D.C., said Monique O’Grady, Brittany’s mother and a member of the Arlington School Board.

Brittany O’Grady, a true triple threat, had her breakout role last year in “Little Voice,” singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’s Apple TV+ show about her journey as an up-and-coming artist. O’Grady plays the show’s star, Bess, a character loosely based on Bareilles. Before that, she had a supporting role in the Fox series “Star.”

Most recently, she played a woman in love in a music video for “Love Me Now” by Kygo.

In The White Lotus, however, O’Grady’s character explores very different themes of race and privilege. She plays Paula, a college student who has joined her friend’s family on vacation. Although Paula and her friend Olivia (played by Sydney Sweeney) seem like two peas in a pod, their differences come to light as the story progresses.

Olivia comes from a privileged family, headed by the matriarch and high-powered CFO Nicole (played by Connie Britton). The affluent, white family members recognize this but seem unconcerned with the inequity on which they thrive. Paula, who is not white, feels the family needs to be knocked down a peg — though she also benefits from their status, which she doesn’t realize until later in the series.

O’Grady, who is biracial, says this dramatized environment of unchecked privilege was worlds away from her childhood and young adult life in Arlington.

“It was fairly opposite to my upbringing,” said O’Grady. “I loved growing up in Arlington. I am so grateful to the mentors I had when I worked with different companies around the area. I was always challenged. I continue to challenge myself, grow and learn from those around me.”

Being forced into uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege, however, is something she says she’s familiar with.

“I definitely feel like I have experienced circumstances that Paula faced on vacation, like sitting at a table and hearing atrocious, tone-deaf things come out of people’s mouths,” she said, while adding of her drug-using character that “I think we have different hobbies and approach issues differently.”

In the show, Olivia tells her father Mark (played by Steve Zahn) that Paula felt uncomfortable watching the hotel staff — many of whom are native Hawaiian — perform a traditional Hawaiian dance for them at dinner. Mark replies that they shouldn’t feel bad about it because things are the way they are and there’s nothing the family can do about it. Paula is visibly upset by his response.

Paula’s activist spirit is something else O’Grady says she relates to.

“Activism is a true action that people commit to daily and spend their whole lives actively working to bring to the light and heal the injustices around the world and in our own communities,” she said. “I don’t take that word or action lightly, especially watching true activists at the forefront of movements. I try to practice speaking my truth, educating myself and listening to those who wear the heavy burden of oppression.”

In her own life, O’Grady, who now lives in Georgia, has used her platform to encourage people to vote. She was particularly vocal about her support for now-Senator Raphael Warnock as he was running in the 2020 special election there.

Ahead of last year’s presidential election, she urged her Instagram followers to get to the polls: “This election is important. There has been so much growth, knowledge, and awareness that has come to the surface, especially this year. We have the power collectively to spark change.”

O’Grady says she hopes “The White Lotus” continues conversations and growth ignited by the events of 2020, helping people reassess how they engage with others and understand their privilege.

“I think [after watching the show] a lot of people are evaluating their experiences and how they relate to each character and their journey,” she said. “I’ve had people reach out and say they identified with Paula’s emotions and story. I think it’s another story showing examples of privilege, the human condition, and how we all impact one another.”

She says she hopes all her work can be as impactful as “The White Lotus,” which has garnered social media buzz and critical acclaim for its “brilliant, biting social satire.”

“I hope to make people feel supported, heard, and worthy of human decency,” O’Grady said.

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