Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers from the premiere of Netflix’s Grand Army.
Netflix’s newest teen addiction is no Riverdale — and that’s a very good thing.
Loosely based on a 2013 play by series creator Katie Cappiello, Grand Army follows five diverse students at a public high school in Brooklyn. The series, which dropped its first nine episodes on Friday, offers an unflinching look at the experiences of Gen Zers in America, including some challenges that more commonly face teens of color.
“Katie is really big on making it as authentic as possible,” Maliq Johnson, who plays sophomore musician Jayson Jackson, tells TVLine. “If there was a scenario where we felt like things would have gone differently for us in our own lives, she was very open to letting us tell her that. And if there was a way she could do it, she would put it in the show.”
Compared to some of his fellow classmates — who immediately find themselves tackling issues surrounding sexual identity, poverty and slut-shaming — Jay’s life feels comfortably undramatic from the outset. “He’s a goofball and he can be mischievous, but he doesn’t do anything with bad intentions,” Johnson says. “He’s a good kid.”
Unfortunately, like so many young Black men, Jay’s spirit is tested by a series of tragic circumstances. “Jay isn’t really aware of his responsibilities, and how different it is for him as a Black man in America… until something happens on the show that forces him to pay attention to his Blackness,” he teases.
Johnson continues, “I was raised with my parents telling me, ‘You’re a Black man. It’s different for you. If you get into a certain encounter, you have to think about how it’s going to be different for you, how the consequences are going to be more extreme. If something happens to you, it’s going to be hard to get a second chance.”
And this is just one example of the all-too-real problems tackled in Grand Army, whose first episode kicks off with a school-wide lockdown prompted by an incident of domestic terrorism nearby.
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