Ava Grey is exactly where she's meant to be. Today, the 26-year-old actor, and all-around artist, is at home in Harlem. With butterflies and lyrics affixed to the wall behind her, a fire escape bird feeder beckoning the city’s sweetest songbirds (and occasional pigeon), Ava is living her own version of a fairytale.
Coming off the high of her first Emmys, Grey is proud to be listed among her idols who're recognized for Atlanta Season Three’s uniquely uncanny episode, "New Jazz," Grey’s only appearance on the season, which was nominated for "Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series" alongside shows Barry, Hacks, The Ms. Pat Show, Only Murders in the Building, and Ted Lasso.
Though Ted Lasso took home the win, the recognition alone is both the culmination and beginning of a lifelong effort for Grey to be seen. She came to New York City with dreams of a career in entertainment, leaving behind the housing instability and emotional injury of her youth in Virginia to nurture her creativity and embrace her identity. But she didn’t come alone; with Grey, she brought lessons taught by one of her closest creative collaborators: her mother.
In the Emmy-nominated episode “New Jazz” Grey’s character is revealed to be a stand-in for Alfred AKA Paperboi’s own mom, Lorraine. Played by Brian Tyree Henry, Alfred encounters Lorraine during a drug-induced trip in Amsterdam. Gracefully, she guides Alfred through symbolic art exhibitions and the "Cancel Club," urging him to face himself. In a season shrouded in double-entendre and ambiguity, Lorraine is the first character to tell it to us straight.
This is characteristic of Grey's own ethos, as she personally wrestles with the pursuit of love and truth in her own life. In a conversation with PAPER, Grey shares her style inspirations, creative inclinations and hints at more to come. Read our interview with the actor to get to the truth, below.
You’re Atlanta episode is Emmy-nominated. Congrats!
Thank you so much, I can’t believe. I just can’t imagine that’s me.
How did it feel when you saw?
I was watching the announcements and truly forgot. I’ve never been part of the [awards], I just watch it. But I saw the title and got on the phone with my agent and she was just like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh." That was my "Oh my gosh" moment. I was super proud. I honestly cried. Like, wow, my first big gig and I wasn’t even on the show, I was just a guest star. I felt crazy seen and proud, and then the business side of me was like, "Alright, listen, there’s more."
What did the recognition mean for you?
[Being] seen, that was a big thing for me. I wasn’t really able to fit into a clique, in high school or middle school. I had always been involved in and around different groups, but I never had my tribe. I always wanted to be an artist, so to be seen by other artists, I was like, "Wow this is my tribe. They’re seeing me professionally." It reconnected all those moments.
What was it like on set, working with the cast?
I got to work really closely with Brian Tyree Henry. He was truly the sweetest, just held my hand throughout all those scenes, because he has such an extensive background in all forms of acting and all sorts of beautiful things. He really helped, from a TV standpoint, and grilled me really hard, and we were able to connect artist to artist.
What was your approach to Lorraine? How did you flesh out her character?
I knew that she was a drug-induced vision, so I really wanted to play with that. My mom was definitely an inspiration. She was really young when she had me, so I got to see her grow as I was growing up as well and see even the clothes she would wear, which were fire, like the voice that Lorraine was going to have, even the inflection of every single word. For me, the wardrobe played a big role. The wardrobe was sexy and cunt, and that’s how the performance was going to be. I got to watch all of my old favorite Hollywood movies to also draw inspiration.
"Forgiveness is important. Nowadays, I don’t even think it’s about race or gender. I think it’s about forgiveness as a whole."
What are some of those movies?
Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross, as far as acting. Big Daddy is a big one, as well. I love seeing how far you can get by omitting the truth in your characters. That was really big.
In "New Jazz," Lorraine is kind of the voice of truth, or the only person being honest with Paperboi. What role has honesty played in your career and life?
I have to be truthful, I seek out the truth. That’s the Scorpio in me, I love the zodiac signs. That is the part that is the investigator of truth. We’re truthful, even if it hurts, we have to deal with the truth. I do find that in my life, I grow so much more when I know the truth about any situation.
If you’re truthful, you can be your authentic self, as well as with your characters. Because it’s going to be received by the audience that it needs to be received by. That means everything to me, being seen by people who need to be seen for inspiration, for support. I get a lot of people coming to me needing support. I think that’s really beautiful. I have been able to be truthful and not just become a gimmick. So when people come to me like, "Hey, I want to learn from you," I can give the same advice, the same energy, because I don’t lie.
What audiences need someone like Lorraine, right now? What does she have to say to us?
Forgiveness is important. Nowadays, I don’t even think it’s about race or gender. I think it’s about forgiveness as a whole. We’re all starting to look at each other and be like, "I recognize myself in you, regardless of physical attributes not matching up or offsetting." I was reading a book about two months ago, and I love pulling little quotes and phrases. Forgiveness just isn’t about the other person all the time. I had to forgive myself at times too. I had to get out of the victim role because, once I did, it was beautiful to see everybody in their real colors.
What did you take away from your episode's "Cancel Club" scene?
Don’t be fooled. Even your friends can fool you. Don’t be fooled by the next gimmick. Be your authentic self. If you’re scared of being canceled, it’s probably because you’re doing something you should not be doing. I don’t think people are aiming to leave the industry or have people be shunned from the industry. I think at the core of a human’s heart, we want to see people grow like we have grown. I believe we want to see people doing better, especially the ones that we look up to or our idols. But being fearful, I think being "canceled" comes from being attacked and being defensive.
So I think it was saying, don’t be fooled, don’t sit there in the Cancel Club. Don’t sit there with a Goofy hat on, because I made you put it on. Don’t be so easily manipulated. If you like that hat, there are going to be people who rock with you because of that. We’re people, and we go back and forth. We’re so easily influenced.
"Working in the industry I’ve always strived to be in is my reward. I’m still growing, making mistakes and having fun with my craft."
Where do you want to grow your art next? What can we anticipate?
Right now, I’m paying lots of attention to detail to the steps of building my legacy and trying to figure out the imprint I truly want to leave. Whether it be playing piano or writing a song because I always wanted to write a song, you have to go back to the basics, like let me remember the scale. Let’s start with children’s songs. Right now, it’s "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid or Megara from Hercules. She’s my number one girl, but you need to get the voice training that comes with Meg.
I do have an album written. My mom taught me how to write music when I was about four or five, and that really stuck with me. She was that first foundation of creativity. She was a really, really great rapper. I did more on the singing side, like Sade, Aaliyah, Martin Gaye, Luther. Those were my big inspo as far as training my voice, and gospel. Gospel is a great way to play with my voice and that range to see where it can go. Now that I’m accomplishing my dreams as far as acting goes, I get more wiggle room to experiment with music, which is in alignment with dreams of mine.
I know it's already an honor to be nominated, but what would it have meant to you if your episode won?
With "New Jazz," I’ll be forever in an already won state of mind. I’m super proud of both my performance and how much I got to learn. Being able to work alongside artistic legends like Hiro, Donald, Stephen and the crew that makes up Atlanta was an everlasting joy that an award just can’t top right now in my career. Working in the industry I’ve always strived to be in is my reward. I’m still growing, making mistakes and having fun with my craft. Getting dressed up and going to these prestige events is certainly the icing on the cake. I personally put more care and attention into making sure the cake itself is actually going to be delicious.
Photography: Spencer Ostrander