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From the minds of Sara Bareilles, Jessie Nelson and J.J. Abrams comes Little Voice, the AppleTV+ drama all about an aspiring singer-songwriter’s journey toward her own voice. The venue: New York City, populated by so many voices seeking the soothing forces of music. The voice: Bess Alice King (Brittany O’Grady), who is right at the heart of the series as she bravely puts forward the songs she’s written only for herself into the public eye — sometimes more successfully than others.
Inspired by Abrams’ early television effort Felicity as well as the New York City-based music experiences of erstwhile Waitress collaborators Bareilles and Nelson, Little Voice tasks its young cast with belting out original songs that define what it’s like to be a young 20-something at the starting gates of adulthood, questing toward a greater meaning in life.
In that spirit, sitting down with The Hollywood Reporter for THR in Depth: AppleTV+’ Little Voice, the assembled cast and crew (executive producers Nelson and Bareilles and stars O’Grady, Sean Teale, Colton Ryan, Shalini Bathina, Kevin Valdez and Phillip Johnson Richardson) joined together to not just reflect on the meaning behind Little Voice, but also show off their own musical abilities.
How exactly did the Little Voice cast find and express their individual voices? Watch the full interview for the answer, and read onward for their thoughts on putting the series together.
For Jessie and Sara, can you walk us through the initial conversations that led to this show’s existence?
JESSIE NELSON | There’s one story that’s emblematic of the whole thing. Once we came together, Sara and J.J. had had a conversation about Sara potentially doing a show, and Sara started shaping together a show inspired by Felicity about a young singer-songwriter. I was writing another show inspired by Sara from when we worked together on Waitress. We combined these two ideas, and in my mind, I remember Sara saying, “Let’s call it Little Voice.” In Sara’s mind, she remembers it as me saying, “Let’s call it Little Voice.” That, to me, is emblematic of our collaboration. We were really excited about the idea of doing something that spoke to all the insecurities, self-doubt and struggles that accompany attempting to manifest your dreams as a young artist. Sara and I have that in common as young women. We both had a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to where we wanted to be.
SARA BAREILLES | One of the main things that ended up taking shape and happening really organically is that Jessie and I both recently transplanted to New York City from Los Angeles, working together on Waitress. We fell madly in love with this city and all of its musicality, diversity, opportunity and hardship. Placing this story here in New York — and now, sadly, looking back, the show feels so nostalgic for a time we’re aching to be able to touch again, this romantic New York City that’s maskless and communal … the stories in the show aren’t autobiographical, but they’re very much inspired by experiences I had and people I know, lots of my friends in the artist community.
Brittany, what are your memories of joining Little Voice and beginning this journey?
BRITTANY O’GRADY | I was doing a project in New Zealand at the time. I was lucky enough to connect with Jessie and Sara and portray Bess. As soon as I got to New York, we hit the ground running. I started taking guitar and piano lessons, working with Sara and Jessie to connect with the importance of the relationships Bess has in the show, all of them being so important to her life and this season.
How about you, Kevin?
KEVIN VALDEZ | I attend something called Futures Explored, which is a film and media workshop founded by Joey Travolta. It helps provide potential job opportunities in the media for people on the autism spectrum. The program director got this message from Jessie and Sara saying they wanted someone with autism to play Louie on Little Voice. They had me fly over to New York and audition for them in person. I was so confident in myself. It wasn’t until I flew home that I got the news that I was officially cast.
Little Voice is about the start of young adulthood and questing forward toward individuality … hearing these audition stories, Sara and Jessie, what are your memories of assembling this young cast?
NELSON | As they each told their stories, I flashed through what we put them all through. It took so long because at first, we couldn’t find Bess and Louie. We really weren’t going to cast the other people until we found them, and that was a really long search.
BAREILLES | It was an exercise in faith. We were at the casting table for a lot of months and a lot of sessions. We always prioritize someone with a kind heart. Jessie and I both believe in leading with kindness and trying to create an environment where people feel safe and connected.
Music is the life blood of the series. What are some of your memories of music that you remember as particularly transformative?
COLTON RYAN | One night, we were recording a lot of vocals. There’s a song called “In July,” which is by Samora Pinderhughes, and it’s supposed to be in the vein of a song Sam has written for Bess. We were just sitting on a couch. It was so comfy and cozy. They handed me a mic and said, “Just try stuff!” I have never felt so comfortable in my entire life, as weird as it is to say. This show kind of opened my eyes to how much I was trying to put [my love for music] away for so long. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until a moment like that. It should have been really scary. Instead, I was the most jazzed I’d been in a long time.
SHALINI BATHINA | My main connection to music is through dance. I’ve studied a form of classical Indian dance called Kuchipudi since I was 5. From an early age, listening to different beats and different tones that changed with each song and style … I absorbed [music] through my body. When I listen to music, I start choreographing and moving through it. That’s why Sara’s songs to me were so unique that I was always drawn to her style of music in general. Even the music I listen to now. It’s always rooted in melody.
NELSON | My grandfather was the first violinist in the New York Philharmonic. He had a stroke when I was a little girl. He lost his ability to speak. He was a Russian immigrant. When I went to visit him, he couldn’t talk at all. I remember thinking, “When will Grandpa talk again?” My dad would tell him, “Play an A.” He would hold out his arm, and my grandpa would bow it. Then he would say, “Play Beethoven’s 9th.” My grandfather would play the symphony on my dad’s arm. It felt like such a miracle to me. From such a young age, I learned the power of music, by watching him.
BAREILLES | Music, to me, is my church. It’s my spiritual belief. I go to songwriting to worship at the altar of music. I think it’s the most powerful force besides love in the world. I love that for everybody here, music does the tapping on the window. From a very young age, I had a hard time finding my place in the world. Very early on, music became the world I could find myself inside of.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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