There's no process or certified method to Odessa A'zion’s acting. She doesn't keep an audition notebook or scribble her detailed character analysis into a journal. She just does what feels right in the moment. When a director yells "action," she just acts. "I can't teach anyone how to do it," she says with a raspy laugh. "I'm sure there are very good acting teachers out there. I don't know." Her voice trails off as if searching for what to say next. "You just have to go to the dark place."
It's a place she inhabited briefly while filming Netflix's new teen drama Grand Army, which follows a group of high school students in New York City. As the show's brazen "It" girl Joey Del Marco, the 21-year-old actor delivers a transcendent performance of a young woman navigating the traumatic aftermath of a sexual assault. She imbues Joey's fiery, fearless spirit with heart-rending fragility, painting a portrait of teenage pain so real it feels created almost from memory. "Some things are me and Joey's secret," she tells me over FaceTime.
She's calling from her sun-soaked living room in Los Angeles, where she's currently lounging on her couch in a ripped white t-shirt. She's telling me about the potted tomato trees next to her window that has grown much taller and much faster than anticipated. "Look how fucking tall they got," she says, flipping her camera angle. "How is that even possible?" Like the faces who adorn her walls (Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and her main man, Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger), she embraces a freewheeling sense of style and self. Beads and pendants loosely hang around her neck; there's a pair of large gold hoops in her ears, and her messy brown waves are tucked under a black baseball cap that simply reads "daddy." A gift from one of her friends ("because they said I was daddy," she laughs), the hat is a symbol of something more telling, as accessories often are. "I'm everyone's dad," she says pointedly, "including my own."
Growing up in Los Angeles, the middle daughter of a working, single mom, A'zion knew she wanted to act from a young age. She was captivated by what she calls "weird" stuff, like the strange puppetry of H.R. Pufnstuf and the body horror of the 1986 sci-fi flick The Fly. She was inspired by Jack Nicholson, especially his Academy Award-winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "I just really wanted to be like that," she says. So she started to put on plays and write skits with her sisters in their bedrooms. Imagine a mid-aughts version of Little Women but with dark, unconventional sensibilities and A'zion as their outspoken ringleader Jo. She laughs at the obvious comparison. "Yeah, I guess." And like her fictional counterpart, she eventually took her career into her own hands.
"I wanted to [act] when I was younger, but my family didn't let me," she says. "When I was 15, I went and got an agent and just started doing it on my own."
At the same time, she started to express herself in other ways, too. She began telling her stories through music. It became her immediate emotional release. She picked up piano and guitar, and as a teen, she started writing songs and performing with her band, Dessa, around the Los Angeles area. Music, she says, has always been part of her life. It's impossible to actually separate herself from it. "How does one not get into music?" she asks. "Music is everywhere. It's unavoidable. You can't get away from it." Nor would she want to.
Yet, she's hesitant to call herself a performer. She's not a typical actor with rock-star ambitions. "I haven't done anything with my band in a long time, but I do love playing music," she says. "I wish I was better. You can always be better. I wish I could play some gnarly stuff on guitar, but I can't really do anything. I taught three or four of my close friends how to play guitar, and now they can all shred and I'm still at the same level I was at when I was eight."
A'zion's reluctance to label herself — as an actor or as a musician — is instinctual. Maybe it's even a bit of a coping mechanism. Because once you label it, it becomes real. But it's also helped her take chances and approach each opportunity without any set expectations. Case in point: her big acting break. In 2019, she starred opposite Nina Dobrev in the short-lived CBS sitcom, Fam. She never envisioned that she'd one day become a sitcom actor, and even more surprising, that she would enjoy it so much. "I didn't think I was going to learn from [that experience] at all," she says. Now, with even more experience to compare it to, she admits, "I think I'm better at comedy than drama."
But it's not like she has the luxury to be picky as a young, working actor. "I have to pay my bills! I have, like, 12 animals I have to take care of and an apartment to pay rent [for] and a publicist to pay and a percentage of my money goes to the agents and managers," she rants, a wry grin on her face. "So a little more can never hurt." Self-aware humor aside, the sitcom experience did clarify things for her. "I enjoy doing comedy more than drama, and I thought that I really wanted to do drama before," she adds. "But comedy might be more for me."
That's not to say she doesn't stand by her work in Grand Army. It's just that she's not always comfortable in the dark place. And seeing herself so vulnerable and so exposed on-screen makes her feel uneasy. There's a part of her, the self-critical part that's hard to shut out, that doesn't want anyone to watch her performance at all. "I feel like I could have done it a lot better," she says. One of her animals, a hairless cat named Junebug, saunters into frame as if sensing the change in her demeanor. "There's a lot of times in the show where I was holding myself back, and you can kind of tell. I felt a little embarrassed in real life with some of the scenes. I should have and I could have made it more believable if I didn't do certain things and did do certain things. But no matter what I do, I'm sure I'm always going to say that."
It’s painfully human of her to pick apart her performance, to fixate on the uncomfortable bits, and know she could've done better. But that's what makes A'zion such an honest performer. She refuses to hide her frustrations behind a fake smile, choosing instead to voice her opinions. And regardless of how she feels about the experience now, she knows Joey's story needs to be seen.
"A lot of the time in shows or movies the girl doesn't get to come back from [her assault]," she says. "And we see Joey coming back from it. I'm happy that I was able to play her."
There will be more projects in the future. More opportunities to try again. And, hopefully, for her sake, more comedies. For now, A'zion is focusing her energy on two things: casting her ballot in the 2020 presidential election ("People need to vote, so that we can get the asshole out of the office," she says bluntly); and maintaining the thriving indoor garden she somehow grew over the last six months. Her new life as a plant dad is a bit overwhelming for her. As the wind chimes dance above the window sill, she points to her tomato trees — in all of their unruly beauty, sprouting fresh green leaves in every direction — and says, "They really like to grow."
Photographer: Emily Malan
Art Director: Emily Zirimis
Fashion & Beauty Features Director: Tahirah Hairston