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In the two years since graduating from Juilliard University in 2018, Brittany Bradford had already made impressive strides on stage and screen. First she made her Broadway debut in Bernhardt/Hamlet as Ophelia opposite Janet McTeer and took over the title role from Erica Schmidt Macbeth, a bold adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. Then she secured her first film role ever: Julia‘s Alice Naman, a public television producer who champions and helps produce little-known cookbook author Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire) on her cooking show The French chef. It’s a turning point for Bradford, who are more than holding their own heavyweights Lancashire, Bebe Neuwirth and David Hyde Pierce. It is also the series’ most notable fictional role, a black female producer at Boston’s very white WGBH, who is an amalgamation of several different female producers who worked in the ’60s.
Bradford continues her work on the stage as well, starring in Alice Childress’s wedding band in the theater for new audiences until May 15 as part of the theater collective Classix. The organization brings black playwrights and plays to the fore and “explodes the classical” (read: white) canon. It’s an ongoing theme for Bradford, who notes that a black producer’s perspective didn’t get much airtime in the 1960s.
Vulture spoke to Bradford about the quiet subversiveness of her role in Julialearning how to roll an omelette like Julia Child, and meeting Isaac (Tosin Morohunfola) in episode seven.
Let’s talk about the origins of Alice Naman, who is one of the few fictional characters in a show about real people.
She is the only one who is a regular on a series. When I first read the script, I didn’t know much about Julia Child, so I didn’t know if Alice was a real person. Daniel and Charles McDougall [executive producer and director of the first two episodes] told me Alice was based on other black producers that existed at the time, like Madeline Anderson. She is also based on Ruth Lockwood who was a white producer at WGBH. It got me researching black producers from that era like Carol Munday Lawrence, who Julia Child met at WGBH. That could have been Alice. And there was an all black produced and directed show at WGBH called Speak, brother [now Basic Black] from the early 1970s that was at WGBH. This allowed me to bring these black women into the room as Alice and give them the opportunity to hear their voices.
Do you know why the writers wanted to make Alice Black?
I asked [showrunner] Chris Keyser this question. I didn’t want to be tokenized or be there just because they wanted a black character so the show wouldn’t be all white. He spoke about family friends he had growing up, a multiracial couple – a black woman and a white man – who met while they were producers at WGBH. He told me people don’t know her story and wouldn’t even believe she was working at the time.
When you think about who gets to tell Julia Child’s story, that doesn’t get passed on to people of color. He said that if we’re given the opportunity to tell a story, why not add those perspectives? These people existed, even if you rarely saw them. I complied because with historical plays people often pretend that there are no black people there. We are everywhere. We are in every part of the story.
I read somewhere that Alice was included in the show to give context to the “fight”. Yes, Julia Child struggled to gain a foothold in her profession because she was a woman. But she was white and rich.
This is one of my favorite parts about the dynamic between Alice and Juliet. Alice is not an incoming boss who has everything under control. She learns. She is a young black woman who learned a job in the 60’s where there are not many women like her. When she first meets Julia, she is inspired by how she and the women around her are able to authentically be themselves and step into their power. But they have many privileges. Throughout the season you will see Alice learning from them. You also learn a lot from Alice.
while watching episode threeI fervently wrote this note: “Alice should be on Juliet’s show!”
Agreed. Alice is our way in. You know how sometimes in a play or a movie the new person is in town and you as the audience go on that journey with that character? For me, that’s Alice. She sees the amazingness of Julia, but she has to stand up for her and the show, and it’s a struggle. We got the episodes while we were shooting and I always wondered What will happen to her this time? Will she become a producer? Is she recognized for her efforts?
It was exciting to see this character blossom. There’s a scene in episode eight that exactly mimics the very first time you see Alice in episode one, but Alice’s body language is completely different. It’s literally blossomed—opened. I don’t know if I intended it, but it happened because of the character arc. It’s a gift as an actor to be able to play that.
Speaking of Alice’s bow – there’s this scene in there episode six where she is honest with Julia about how tired she is of not being recognized. can you break this down
Actually I’m going back because in episode four we have Virginia, Alice’s mother, and Alice talking about work and not taking it seriously. She says: “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman. I don’t know if it’s because I’m black.” I had the chance to be a part of the writing of those scenes. It was really important to me, Daniel and Chris that as one of the few times on the show that two black women talk to each other it wasn’t holy or gentle that we had a real conversation. I had to make sure it really felt like two black women with generational differences were speaking truthfully about their struggles.
How did you do that?
Much of this conversation revolved around the politics of respectability, which is common across generations, particularly in the black community. Each generation is different with its own civil rights struggles. We’re also at the height of civil rights, which is more in the back of the show, but not in my head as Alice. She sees people around her fighting for their rights, people who look just like her. So when we get to that scene with Julia in episode five, Alice has spent so many weeks trying to empower herself, be strong and stay in control, and then she’s shaken by someone she respects a lot. I felt this imposter syndrome as both myself and Alice.
When you’re the only black person in a room, it’s hard to feel like you’re being judged extra, that you have to set a standard for the race, that you have to hold on to a lot that other people either don’t have to hold on to or not witness how you hold on. It was important to her to have that vulnerable moment to say, ‘Look. It’s just very difficult.” I don’t know of any black woman who hasn’t had a moment like this, professionally or personally. It is powerful to say, “I can be vulnerable in this area too. I don’t always have to be strong.”
Now, I’m never one to want a romantic ending to nicely weave a nuanced story, but it’s pretty hard not to get excited about that possibility with Alice and Isaac.
[Laughs.] I know. When I read episode seven, I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t think Alice would ever say yes to any of her mom’s setups. And like you, I don’t want to have a suddenly happy and in love female character. What I think they did well and what I really appreciated is that he gives them confidence. In the few moments they have together, he tells her that she is special, that she is someone who deserves the things she strives for. That’s something she doesn’t even have with her mother. He’s the first person who makes her feel like she can step into her power. In a way it’s subversive. Normally that would be a female character doing that for a male character and saying, “Oh honey, you get that.” I don’t know what season two would mean, but having a person supporting her is an interesting thing, especially at this time.
Speaking of subverting traditional female tropes, I love that they created a black female character who can’t cook. Historically, black women in America have cooked and served on screen for centuries.
I loved that. In the first episode, she said, “Listen, I’m eating meatloaf at a diner.” She couldn’t even crack an egg properly. She is uniquely her own.
Back to the food: it was all real food and all Julia Child recipes. And I ate so much, really, really. I don’t know how I can end up fitting into these period costumes. On every occasion, whether I was in the scene or not, I would ask, “What are we doing today?” We had an amazing food stylist on set, Christine Tobin, and a kitchen on set that they always cooked in. Because we did multiple takes, there were about 15 soufflés at any one time; I’ve had coq au vin five days in a row. Christine taught me how to make an omelet and flip it. I hate onions, but I had a sip of the French onion soup; I ate burgers and shakes and fries and cookies. During the sweetbreads episode, me, Fran Kranz, and Fiona Glascott had never eaten sweetbreads, so we gave it a try.
did you like her
I mean, they’re just a vehicle for butter. These are most of Julia Child’s recipes. It looked questionable but tasted very good.
Have you tried one of Julia’s recipes yourself?
During the pandemic, my two brothers and I went home to San Diego. For the first time in years we were all together. I tried making Julia’s Beef Bourguignon and it was a failure. The recipe is just so long and there was a problem with the pancetta. But I made a Filipino chicken adobo that was delicious. That wasn’t Julia. I also made my dad a fancy five course meal with my brothers – fancy Caesar salad, garlic toast, a lovely pasta. I even have a fancy pasta maker that makes the fresh pasta. I tend to be the person who always asks, “Are you sure it tastes good?” But you should just let people enjoy your food.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.