McKenna Grace on Her Struggle With Scoliosis: “I’m so Proud of Myself”

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In her punk new single “Self Dysmorphia”, 16-year-old McKenna Grace unconsciously sings about suffering from spinal scoliosis: “A constant reminder that I was wronged.” Considering that almost every teenager feels a little awkward in their own skin, this is a characteristic feeling from the actress and singer, known for her roles in Ghostbusters: The Afterlife, The Handmaid’s Tale and the crime miniseries Family Friend.

“Songwriting is my therapy,” Grace tells NME via Zoom, speaking from the same ordinary teenage bedroom we see in the “Self Dysmorphia” video. Although she woke up just 10 minutes ago— this is the first thing in Los Angeles where Grace lives – you won’t guess from her clear eyes and polite behavior.

Grace and her family moved from Texas about a decade ago when her acting career started to gain momentum, but she retains the old southern manners. When she mentions the director of “Ghostbusters” Jason Reitman, she quite charmingly calls him “Mr. Jason.”

Mckenna Grace

Grace hopes people will listen to “Self Dysmorphia” and think, “Well, that’s how I feel. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in dealing with insecurity.” But it’s also a song firmly rooted in her own life experience. About a month ago, she underwent a life-changing operation to correct an abnormally curved spine.

“For the first time in my life, my hips are straight and my body is straight. And I’ve gained two inches [in height],” she says with a smile. Even a visible reminder of the operation does not bother her. “My surgeon, Dr. Skaggs, was just incredible,— Grace adds. “Now I have a scar on my back that made me very nervous, but he made it look straight and clean, so I’m very happy with that.”

“I want people to know that they are not alone in dealing with insecurity”

Until now, Grace has never spoken publicly about her scoliosis. In mid-October, she shared TikTok from her hospital bed with the caption “not ready to talk [about] it yet, but still enjoying the content.” Then last week, she posted another TikTok showing her taking the preliminary steps after surgery with the help of medical staff. She wrote: “Thanks to Instagram and the internet, I can just choose which photos I want to post rather than post the weird, ugly side of things, but the last four years have been a very strange struggle and I’m so happy to be on the other side. I promise a clarification soon.”

From the very beginning of our interview, Grace is more than happy to talk about her scoliosis and how it affected her acting career. Filming her starring role in last year’s film Ghostbusters: The Afterlife, in which she played Phoebe Spengler, the enterprising granddaughter of franchise icon Harold Ramis Egon Spengler, proved particularly grueling. “What I never talked about was that I actually had a back brace that I wore during Ghostbusters to try to fix my spine,” she says. “But it’s difficult because you have to wear these things for 22 hours a day. And I couldn’t [handle it] during filming — they’re really made of hard plastic, almost like a corset. So in the end I didn’t wear it as often as I should have.”

Surgery became an absolute necessity when the curvature of her spine exceeded the 45 degree mark. “Otherwise,” Grace explains, “every year for the rest of your life you will [bend] by [another] degree. And that would mean that in 20 years I would have overcome the 60-degree curve, and then it could start affecting my lungs and all that.” Since her surgery was such a resounding success, Grace’s curvature has decreased to six degrees—”and it’s amazing.”

Grace’s father, an orthopedic surgeon, first noticed that she was “staggering” when she was 12 years old. By this point, she was already an incredibly well-established child actress who played a young version of Tonya Harding Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya”; a young version of Emma Swan performed by Jennifer Morrison from the science fiction series “Once upon a Time in a Fairy Tale”; and a young version of the main character Kiernan Shipka in the chilling adventure of Sabrina from Netflix. In fact, Grace has already played so many recognizable characters that she recently put together clips with her “best hits” into a funny TikTok with the soundtrack to the indie fireworks The Ting Tings “That’s Not My Name”. A young version of Captain Marvel Brie Larson in the 2019 superhero movie of the same name? It was Grace, too.

To begin with, Grace tried to hide her scoliosis whenever she came to a new set. “I don’t know, I was probably embarrassed or something for some reason,” she says today. But as the curvature worsened, her condition became harder to hide. “Cinematographers and production operators [directors] always said, ‘McKenna, you need to stand up straight’ or ‘McKenna, you’re leaning on one leg,'” she recalls. “And so I ended up having to talk about it, especially about fitting [costumes] and stuff. That way we could make sure that no matter what I was wearing, I wouldn’t look like one of my arms was much taller than the other.”

It also meant she had to dress smartly for Hollywood events, including last year’s Emmy Awards, where she was nominated for her impressive role as abused teenage bride Esther Keys in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Fans may not have noticed, but Grace says she is always acutely aware of her scoliosis when she looks at herself on screen: “I see myself bending over and it looks so weird.”

“For the first time in my life, my body is straight”

Grace discusses all this without self-pity, but it must have been excruciating dealing with a teenager working in a notoriously shallow industry. “It was pretty weird… it’s not great,” she admits, before turning to the positive. “But I’m proud of myself for having the surgery because it was really terrible… And so to look at this [my image before] and then see myself now, it’s like, ‘Wow, I just look completely different, and these are awesome.'”

Grace radiates an infectious positive throughout our hour-long interview, despite the first signs of a cold. She says she was always “that kid who had to do all the extracurricular activities” from ballet to gymnastics, but acting soon took the lead.

“I mean, it wasn’t my parents’ choice,” she says. “When I thought: “I want to be an actress, I want to be like Shirley Temple,” my mom said: “Okay, this is too much.” But, as Grace says, she was not persuaded. As soon as her mom enrolled her in acting classes, it became quite obvious that Grace liked it, and the work flooded in. She was only five years old when she commissioned her first television commercial, and still remembers how “she turned six on the set.”

“And then somehow I booked my first audition in California, and we just didn’t go anywhere,” she continues. “It’s very strange. I think everyone in my family just thought we’d go to Los Angeles, lose all my money, and then come back and be like, “Well, it happened.” But we’re still here.” Grace admits that there are pros and cons to being a child actor, but says that for her, “the fact that I’ve been doing this for so long is a huge plus.” Why? “Because now I can really appreciate what I’m doing and all the different elements that go into making a movie or a TV show.”

For some 16-year-olds, this may seem a little precocious, but there is no doubt that Grace deserved her stripes. According to IMDb, she has already scored 69 acting credits: a staggering number for someone who has only been in the game for a decade or so. Her roles gradually grew, but the breakthrough was a role in last year’s film “Ghostbusters: The Afterlife.” “I was so scared and nervous,” she says today. “But it’s really cool to be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, this movie really changed my life.’

“Ghostbusters changed my life”

Grace is to reprise her role in the sequel, which will return the franchise to her (pun intended) spiritual home: New York. “It’s going to be weird coming back to this character because I just turned 13 when we started filming [Ghostbusters: Life After Death], and now on our [new] set I’m about to turn 17,” she says.

Grace’s rapidly developing acting career really suffered only during the pandemic, when film sets around the world were closed. At that moment, she simply directed her creativity in a different direction. She says she “has always been a musical person,” but really got carried away by the confessional singer and songwriter Conan Gray during isolation and decided to write her own tunes. “In 2020, I had a lot of feelings, so writing was a good way to express them,” she says.

She mostly writes on the ukulele, an instrument she picked up after seeing singer and ukulele player Grace Vanderwaal win America’s Got Talent in 2016. “I don’t write tons on guitar because I’m still trying to learn it,” she adds modestly. Nevertheless, Grace gained enough confidence to record a guitar solo for one of her future songs. She says she “would like to release a big album with all the songs I love,” but her label, New York indie label Photo Finish Records, wants her to release an EP first. “I think now I have an idea exactly when he should come out,” she says, sticking to the party line.

 

As with her playing, Grace’s musical output is fruitful. “I have about 300 unfinished random ideas and notes for songs, so I just go through them and see if there are any chord sequences or lyrics [to revise],” she says. Grace admits that her sound is still in the formative stages, but she certainly outlined her musical direction by releasing a song called “You Ruined Nirvana”, which repeats Kurt, Dave and Krist’s 1993 hit “Heart-Shaped Box”. “Maybe I want to bring back that punk rock sound of the ’90s, but I don’t know if I’m fully into it,” she says carefully. “I also think I’m kind of pop-ish. I don’t want to say that I belong to a certain musical genre and sound ugly. I think I’m just having fun.”

Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to hide the fact that music is — at the moment — just a cherished side job. “I know I’ll always be an actress, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. “But I’m so happy and happy that I have music, because it’s such a sweet little outlet, and it has a therapeutic effect on me. And it’s so great to be able to make a career out of it.”

At this stage of her acting career, Grace is “always looking for important stories to tell.” An example of this is her latest mini-series “Family Friend”: She plays Jen Broberg, who was abducted twice as a teenager by family friend Robert Berchtold (played by Jake Lacey). “I just knew I wanted to tell her story,” Grace says. “It was so shocking and terrible, but also so wonderful to see her family reunited after such a terrible event.” The role also gave Grace an unexpected full circle moment: for the first time, another actor (Hendrix Yancey) is playing a younger version of her character.

“Finally, the girl who plays the younger version of every white woman in Hollywood finally has her own younger version,” she says with a laugh. “Look, I’m coming!”

McKenna Grace’s new single “Self Dysmorphia” is released on November 18.

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