Though your first instinct might be to lump any and all TV dramas about teenagers together, Odley Jean, who plays Dominique Pierre in the new Netflix series Grand Army, hopes you suspend that impulse for this show.
“Degrassi was in the school and the hallways, but also went into the teens’ lives at home as well as a lot of social issues,” the 24-year-old confesses about the show Grand Army will likely be compared to. “But, I feel like Grand Army lays it all out there and calls everything and everyone out. And it's up to us to dissect and have conversations… It’s not spoon-fed to you.”
Oddly’s character Dominique is a high school upperclassman trying to balance her school work, social life, and obligations at home. A first-generation daughter of a single Haitian mother, Dominique helps care for her niece and nephew while simultaneously trying to keep her spot on the school’s basketball team, spend time with her boyfriend, hang out with friend, and land a meaningful internship. Out of all the characters, Dominique has the most going on — and it weighs on her. When her sister is injured at work, she tries to find ways to step in so that her family isn’t short on rent — but doing so risks the life she has built for herself, in more ways than one.
Odley, a Haitian-American actress raised in Brooklyn, found synergy in her character’s storyline. “I'm still dealing with not taking on too much, and being able to prioritize and get things done in a timely manner,” she tells Teen Vogue. “If you take on so much, you end up spiraling — that's what Dom went through. And although she kept putting on a brave face and pushing through, it still broke her.”
That young people are under more stress than ever is no surprise and Grand Army puts those pressures front and center. The show follows five students at the same high school as their personal lives intersect and overlap. For Dom, moments of teenage joy with her friends and her crush are countered by stressors that typically fall on much older people — but because Dom has no choice but to persevere for the sake of her family’s well being.
And few characters experience the range of Grand Army’s extreme highs and lows as much as Dom does; her budding relationship with the popular John Ellis (Alphonso Romero Jones II) is threatened by what she believes is a duty to provide her family, and she also doesn’t want to burden him with her home life. “Dom and John, first off, are so cute,” Odley says of her on-screen romance, adding, “it's so important to see that on TV because oftentimes we see the same cliché storyline — like, him cheating or just trauma bonding.” Dom and John’s flirtation, by contrast, is “so genuine and pure and from a good place,” and both Odley and Alphonso worked together to make sure the other felt comfortable in really bringing the relationship to life. “It's important for us to see love like this, especially young love on TV, especially young Black love on TV. We made it happen and I love to see it. And as many times I watch [those scenes], I still blush because it's just so cute.”
Prior to being cast in the show, Odley met playwright and Grand Army co-creator Katie Cappiello when she was 16 years old in Opening Act, an NYC grass-roots organization focused on theater arts. When they began filming the show, Odley was already friends with some of her castmates; many of the scenes were based on off-screen discussions.
“It felt really cool to be able to see something so real,” Odley says about the storylines that depict the difference in consequences for mistakes between white and Black students. “It also sparked a lot of conversations even while filming certain scenes. I would have conversations with Odessa [A’zion who plays Joey] and I'd have conversations with Brittany [Adebumola, who plays Tamika] and Naiya [Ortiz, who plays Sonia] about the two different worlds merged in one.”
Her own Brooklyn high school was predominately Black, Odley adds, and many of the fictional Grand Army kids had privileges she never did, like being able to use cell phones in the hallway. Even so, she did see similarities with her own high school experience — and she hopes Dom’s story in particular sheds light on the realities of many kids whose parents are working minimum-wage jobs.
“Dom really didn't want her story to be a sob story,” Odley says, adding that she felt “empowered” by her character’s drive, and hopes other people realize how fragile things like housing stability are for many people. “Depending on your circumstances and where you're from, you could easily injure yourself one month and you're not able to work, and you're short for rent the next month. Dom’s family always made it happen. Always. There was never a time when she was hungry.”
The actor also wants viewers to feel seen in other ways, too, and that as a first-generation Haitian-American herself, she put in work to make her community proud. “When we find out that there is a Haitian character on TV, I'm telling you, we're all tuning in and hoping for the best,” she says with a laugh. To that end, she worked with costars Magaly Colimon, who plays Dom’s mother Antoinette, and Sajine Sémajuste, who plays her sister, Sabine, to make sure their Creole and other elements of their home life felt authentic to their own experiences. “I just remember always feeling proud and always talking to them about how crazy it is that a Haitian family on a Netflix show is legit Haitian, and that we already felt like a family.”
Odley hopes viewers see their own resilience reflected in Dom’s. “She doesn't take no for an answer and it always shows out for her,” Odley says, adding that she hopes the show serves as yet another reminder that young people have always been active contributors to their communities in ways that have for to long been ignored by those in power. “Despite how tired she is and how exhausted and frustrated she is, she still does her thing. She still goes for it. And that is amazing to me. I feel like people get to see how vulnerable and powerful you can be, despite your circumstances.”