On her punky new single ‘Self Dysmorphia’, 16-year-old Mckenna Grace sings unselfconsciously about suffering from the spinal condition scoliosis: “A constant reminder that I was made wrong”. Given that nearly every teenager feels a little bit uncomfortable in their skin, it’s a relatable sentiment from the actress and singer known for her roles in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Handmaid’s Tale and crime miniseries A Friend Of The Family.
“Songwriting is my therapy,” Grace tells NME over Zoom, speaking from the same normal-looking teenage bedroom we see in the ‘Self Dysmorphia’ video. Though she only woke up 10 minutes ago – it’s first thing in LA where Grace lives – you wouldn’t guess from her bright-eyed and polite demeanour.
Grace and her family moved from Texas around a decade ago when her acting career began to take off, but she retains old school Southern manners. When she mentions Ghostbusters director Jason Reitman, she refers to him rather charmingly as “Mr Jason”.
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 struggling with insecurities.” But it’s also a song firmly rooted in her own lived experience. Around a month ago, she underwent life-changing surgery to correct her abnormally curved spine.
“For the first time in my life, my hips are even and my body is straight. And I gained two inches [in height],” she says with a smile. Even the visible reminder of her operation doesn’t bother her. “My surgeon Dr Skaggs was incredible,” Grace adds. “I have a scar down my back now, which I was really nervous about, but he made it look straight and clean – so I’m super-happy with that.”
“I’m want people to know that they’re not alone in struggling with insecurities”
Until now, Grace has never spoken publicly about her scoliosis. In mid-October, she shared a TikTok from her hospital bed with the caption “not ready to talk [about] it yet but enjoy the content anyhow”. Then last week she posted another TikTok showing her taking tentative post-surgery steps with help from medical staff. She wrote: “Because of Instagram and the internet I can just choose what pictures I want to post and not post the weird, ugly side of things, but the past four years have been a super weird struggle and I’m so happy to be on the other side of it. I promise elaboration soon.”
From the very start of our interview, Grace is more than happy to elaborate on her scoliosis and the way it impacted her acting career. Shooting her lead role in last year’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife – in which she played Phoebe Spengler, the enterprising granddaughter of Harold Ramis’ franchise icon Egon Spengler – proved particularly gruelling. “Something I’ve never talked about was that actually I used to have a back brace that I would wear during Ghostbusters to try and correct my spine,” she says. “But it’s hard because you have to wear those things [for] like 22 hours a day. And I couldn’t [manage that] while I was shooting – they’re really hard plastic, like a corset almost. So I ended up not wearing it as much as I should have.”
Surgery became an absolute necessity once her spinal curvature exceeded the 45-degree mark. “Otherwise,” Grace explains, “every year for the rest of your life, you’ll go [more curved] by [another] degree. And so that would have meant that in 20 years, I would have been past a 60-degree curve, and then it could have started impacting my lungs and stuff.” Because her surgery was such a resounding success, Grace’s curvature is down to six degrees – “and that’s amazing”.
Grace’s father, an orthopaedic surgeon, first noticed she was “wonky” when she was 12 years old. By this point, she was already an incredibly well-established child actor who had portrayed the young version of Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding in I, Tonya; the young version of Jennifer Morrison’s Emma Swan in fantasy series Once Upon A Time; and the young version of Kiernan Shipka’s title character in Netflix’s Chilling Adventure Of Sabrina. In fact, Grace has already played such a wide variety of recognisable characters that she recently compiled clips of her “greatest hits” into a lolzy TikTok soundtracked by The Ting Tings‘ indie banger ‘That’s Not My Name’. The young version of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel in the 2019 superhero movie of the same name? That was Grace, too.
To begin with, Grace tried to hide her scoliosis whenever she arrived on a new set. “I don’t know, I guess I was embarrassed or something for some reason,” she says today. But as the curvature worsened, her condition became harder to hide. “Cinematographers and DPs [directors of photography] would always be like, ‘Mckenna, you need to stand up straight’ or ‘Mckenna, you’re leaning on one foot,'” she recalls. “And so I eventually started having to talk about it, especially in [costume] fittings and stuff. That way we could make sure that whatever I was wearing didn’t make me look like one of my hands was way higher than the other.”
It also meant she had to dress cleverly for Hollywood events including last year’s Emmy Awards, where she was nominated for her powerful performance as abused teenage bride Esther Keyes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fans may not have noticed, but Grace says she is always hyper-aware of her scoliosis when watching herself on screen: “I can see myself leaning over, and it looks so weird.”
“For the first time in my life, my body is straight”
Grace discusses all of this without self-pity, but it must have been excruciating to deal with as a teenager navigating a notoriously superficial industry. “It was pretty weird… it’s not great,” she concedes, before pivoting to the positive. “But I’m proud of myself for going through the surgery because it was really horrible… And so to look at that [image of me before] and then see myself now, it’s like, ‘Wow, I just look totally different and it’s awesome.'”
Grace emits an infectious positivity throughout our hour-long interview despite showing the first signs of a cold. She says she was always “that kid who had to do all of the extracurricular activities” from ballet to gymnastics, but acting soon pulled into the lead.
“I mean, it wasn’t my parents’ choice,” she says. “When I was like, ‘I want to be an actress, I want to be like Shirley Temple’, my mum said, ‘OK, that’s a bit too far.'” But as Grace tells it, there was no dissuading her. As soon as her mum enrolled her in acting class, it was abundantly obvious that Grace loved it and work came flooding in. She was just five years old when she booked her first TV commercial and can still remember “turning six on a set”.
“And then, somehow, I booked my first audition in California and we just never really left,” she continues. “It’s super weird. I think that everyone in my family just thought we were gonna go out to LA, lose all my money, and then come back and be like: ‘Well, that happened.’ But we’re still here.” Grace acknowledges that there are “pros and cons to being a child actor”, but says that for her, “it’s a massive pro that I’ve been doing it for so long”. Why? “Because now I’m able to really appreciate what I do and all the different elements that go into making a film or TV show”.
From some 16-year-olds, this could sound a little precocious, but there’s no doubt that Grace has earned her stripes. According to IMDb, she has already racked up 69 acting credits: a staggering number from someone who’s only been in the game for a decade or so. Her roles have gradually grown larger, but leading last year’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a breakthrough. “I was so scared and nervous,” she says today. “But it’s really cool to be able to look back in retrospect and say, ‘Wow, that film really changed my life.'”
“Ghostbusters changed my life”
Grace is due to reprise her role in a sequel that will return the franchise to its (pun intended) spiritual home: New York City. “It’s gonna be weird getting back into that character because I had just turned 13 when we started shooting [Ghostbusters: Afterlife], and now on our [new] set, I’m going to turn 17,” she says.
Grace’s skyrocketing acting career only really took a hit during the pandemic when sets around the world were shut down. At this point, she simply channelled her creativity into a different outlet. She says she’s “always been a musical person”, but really got into confessional singer-songwriter Conan Gray while isolating and decided to write her own tunes. “I had a lot of feelings in 2020, so writing was a good way to get them out,” she says.
She mainly writes on the ukelele, an instrument she picked up after watching singer and ukulele player Grace VanderWaal win America’s Got Talent in 2016. “I don’t write a ton on guitar because I’m still trying to learn how to get good at it,” she adds modestly. Still, Grace has gained enough confidence to record a guitar solo for one of her upcoming songs. She says she’d “love to put out a massive album with all the songs I love”, but her label, New York indie Photo Finish Records, want her to release an EP first. “I think for sure now I have an idea of when it should come out,” she says, sticking to the party line.
As with her acting, Grace’s musical output is prolific. “I have like 300 unfinished random song ideas and notes, so I’ll just go through them and see if there are any chord progressions or lyrics [to revisit],” she says. Grace admits her sound is still taking shape, but she has surely signposted her musical direction by releasing a song called ‘You Ruined Nirvana‘ that namechecks Kurt, Dave and Krist’s 1993 hit ‘Heart-Shaped Box’. “Maybe I wanna bring back that ’90s punk-y girl-rock sound, but I don’t know if I’m fully that,” she says cautiously. “I also think that I’m kind of pop-ish. I don’t want to say I’m a certain music genre and sound cringy. I think I’m just having fun.”
Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to disguise the fact that music is – at the moment – only a cherished side hustle. “I know that I’m always gonna be an actor and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. “But I’m so lucky and happy to have music because it’s such a nice little outlet and it’s therapeutic for me. And it’s so cool to be able to make a career out of it as well.”
At this point in her acting career, Grace is “always looking for important stories to tell”. Her latest miniseries A Friend of the Family is a case in point: she plays Jan Broberg, who was abducted twice in her adolescent years by family friend Robert Berchtold (played by Jake Lacy). “I just knew I wanted to be able to tell her story,” Grace says. “It was so shocking and horrifying, but also so beautiful to see how her family came back together after such a horrific thing.” This role has also given 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 a younger version of every white woman in Hollywood finally has her own younger version,” she says with a laugh. “Look at me go!”
Mckenna Grace’s new single ‘Self Dysmorphia’ is out on November 18