A’Zion had reason to have butterflies about millions of people watching her fearless Grand Army performance. The 21-year-old plays Joey Del Marco, the heroine of the Degrassi-style high school drama. When we first meet Joey, she is the body-confident cool girl queen bee of Grand Army High School, the series’ fictional central location. In third episode “Relationship Goals,” Joey is raped by two of her closest friends — George Wright (Anthony Ippolito) and Luke Friedman (Brian Altemus) — while her actual crush, Tim Delaney (Thelonius Serrell-Freed), silently watches on.
It’s a painful scene with a purpose. After speaking with A’Zion it’s obvious just how much work the Grand Army team put into filming its most delicate scene — and finding a resolution worthy of Joey’s difficult journey.
“Grand Army highlights something I don’t think is talked about that much, which is this type of sexual assault and who assaulted her,” A’Zion said of her initial interest to take on a role as emotionally taxing as Joey.
Joey isn’t assaulted by some terrible, obviously villainous jock (as is the case in fellow Netflix teen show 13 Reasons Why), a powerful, manipulative older man (as we’ve seen in countless upsetting Hollywood headlines), or a random predator (as shown in this year's I May Destroy You). Instead, Joey's best friends escalate a youthful inebriated hookup into an act of unmistakable violence. To further highlight the darkness of the “betrayal,” as A’Zion said, Grand Army shows us just how close Joey, her childhood neighbour Geo, her “forever” pal Luke, Tim, and Tim’s sister Anna (Sydney Meyer) are before their relationship shatters.
“The people who are in our crew in the show, we were talking about how we really wish we had a lot more scenes together before the assault happens,” A’Zion said. “Because then it could show that we were even closer. Because they’re supposed to be best friends. Really best friends. Not just like, ‘Oh we see each other at school and hang out sometimes.’”
But with the time allotted to their on-screen relationship, the actors involved in the assault scene gave their all to preparation. The entire cast cried during the table read for “Relationship Goals,” down to the outside reader tasked with narrating the stage directions. A’Zion, Anthony Ippolito, Brian Altemus, and Thelonius Serrell-Freed then rehearsed the scene “a lot,” according to A’Zion, and had multiple conversations about it with series creator Katie Cappiello and director Darnell Martin. Every movement was choreographed, and the team worked with intimacy coordinator Lindsay Somers.
When you watch the scene — which A'Zion reveals was softened through editing — all of the prep seems necessary. There are no quick cuts or short glances to blunt the violence on screen, which intensifies for over a minute. “It is long,” A’Zion admitted, saying the moment forces viewers to “grasp” the horror of the situation. “I think people need to know how intense it was so that later on they understand where Joey is coming from. Even if it wasn’t that intense, what happened is still not okay.
“It just gives people a better idea of why these boys end up getting arrested in school and taken out of school. And why it’s so fucked up when they meet up at the park.”
As A’Zion alluded to, Joey’s last meeting with Geo, Luke, and Tim is the final act of violence the boys inflict on her in Grand Army. At this point, the boys have been let off on rape charges for lack of evidence. Joey, knowing she will never get the legal justice she craves, asks her former friends to privately confess their wrongdoing — so that she can at least have that iota of peace. They refuse. Since the audience saw the true nature of the assault, there is no way to sympathise with George and Luke.
“They’re still acting like fucking idiots and like they have no idea what she’s talking about. Like she was just drunk and she was just being Joey,” A’Zion remarked. “But she wasn’t. No one else knows in the show, but at least the audience knows it wasn’t just ‘Joey being Joey.’”
At least Grand Army allows Joey to find a slice of hope as the finale, “Freedom,” ends. In Joey’s final section of the episode, she returns to dance class after shunning her passion — and anything else that involves her body — following the rape. We watch Joey slowly regain her confidence as she, someone who once walked around her high school in a soaking wet white tank top to make a point, begins to shed the layers of cosy sweatshirt material used to hide her form from the world.
A’Zion, who is not a dancer, practiced for six hours on her off days for dance scenes like this one. She tore her groin muscle performing a split and had to use a thigh wrap and cane during the rest of production (she’s since recovered fully). “I really didn’t want to use a dance double. I wanted it to be me actually doing it because I’d worked so hard to get there,” she said. “I kind of felt like Joey. She finally feels free and is able to express herself through dance.”