Lily Brooks O’Briant knew acting was her dream career from the beginning. Acting and singing since she was 5 years old, Lily has taken on major stage and film roles from Matlida in the national Broadway Tour of Matilda the Musical to Mandy Wigh in Netflix’s The Big Big Show. Tackling different genres and characters with unique stories, Lily is always excited to learn and explore.
When it comes to her latest role, Lily is especially passionate. Playing Ella in Apple TV+’s new series Life By Ella, Lily takes on the life of a young cancer survivor ready to take on whatever life has to offer her. We caught up with Ella to get an inside look at her passion for acting, how she brought Ella to life, and what Ella’s story means to her.
Showstopper Magazine Online: How did you get started in acting?
Lily Brooks: I started acting when I was 5 years old when I was living in Memphis Tennessee. My mom took me to see a play at the community theater near where I lived, and I absolutely fell in love with theater at that moment. I remember turning to my mom at intermission, pointing at the stage, and saying, “That is what I want to do.”
After that night, my mom put me in a kids’ theatre camp at that same community theater, and from that moment on, I knew that I wanted to be an actor for the rest of my life. I continued doing theatre for years after that and one day decided that I wanted to try film and TV as well. I asked my mom and tried to convince her to let me audition for film and TV roles every day for almost a year straight. One day she finally gave in and took my siblings and I to Atlanta to do background work on a few TV shows. I absolutely fell in love with being on set and knew that this is what I wanted to do.
“My favorite thing about acting is being able to play so many different kinds of people and tell all different kinds of stories.”
SMO: You’ve seen so many different roles from Broadway stages to on-screen horror. What are your favorite roles and types of stories to step into?
Lily: My favorite thing about acting is being able to play so many different kinds of people and tell all different kinds of stories. I really love diving deep into the emotions of the character I am portraying in order to better understand them as a person.
For Life By Ella when preparing for the role of ‘Ella’ I had the honor of talking to a few of my childhood friends who were treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for childhood cancer. They were able to tell me their stories and share their experiences with me, and I am so incredibly grateful for that because I was able to take pieces of those stories and experiences and put them into my character in order to more accurately portray Ella and her story.
SMO: Most recently, you play Ella in Apple TV+’s Life By Ella. Can you tell us a bit about that character?
Lily: Ella is fun, brave, and determined to embrace each moment of life. Before cancer, Ella was focused more on pleasing others and was afraid to be herself. We meet Ella when she is returning to school after beating cancer with a brand-new perspective, excitement for what the future holds, and a major seize the day mentality. Post cancer, Ella is not afraid to be
herself and she is also incredibly adventurous. I really admire Ella’s strength, determination, and excitement towards life.
SMO: What was it like bringing Ella to life?
Lily: It was a dream come true to play the title role in Life by Ella. I connected with Ella from the moment I read the first audition sides. I was extremely committed to the role and talked with friends who had battled cancer as a teenager to try to understand what they faced and how they felt. I also cut my hair which was really long to a really short bob cut.
It was a huge responsibility to play a teenager who had battled cancer, and I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to give teens with cancer an accurate voice to share what it is like and how it changes you. I was so lucky to have two amazing creators in Tim [Pollock] and Jeff [Hodsen], and our producers at Apple TV+ were incredible in their support of the vision of this show.
SMO: Do you have any favorite scenes or moments from the show?
Lily: I loved absolutely every moment of Life By Ella. But one of my all-time favorite scenes to film and to watch was in episode 6 when Hayley Kiyoko is performing on top of the hospital. It was so much fun to film that episode and also watching it after the show came out.
“I am so happy that Ella’s story has connected with so many people around the world.”
SMO: What was the behind-the-scenes of the show like? Do you have any favorite memories?
Lily: Filming Life By Ella was so much fun. The cast and crew always had so much fun together! One of my favorite memories is playing card games with Artyon, Vanessa, and Aiden in the school room. In between filming, we would all go to the school room to hang out and play card games together! My favorite was UNO because I am a champion at Uno.
Another one of my favorite memories was filming the jumping off of the diving board into the pool scene with Artyon in episode one. I had practiced jumping off of that diving board at least 20 times but the day we were filming it I was just so nervous because we only had one take to get it right. But Artyon and I did it, and the shot looks absolutely amazing. But to show their support for me and Artyon doing something really scary, Tim and Jeff, our showrunners and writers, climbed up and jumped off the high dive too!
SMO: Now that the show is out, what has been your favorite part of people seeing the show?
Lily: My favorite part about the show being out and people seeing the show is hearing people’s reactions to the show and the story. I have had so many people message me and tell me how much this story being told means to them and every time I get a message like that, it warms my heart. I am so happy that Ella’s story has connected with so many people around the world.
SMO: A big part of your life is working with St Jude’s Children’s hospital which works to support and treat kids like Ella. Can you tell us a bit about that work and what it means to you?
Lily: I am a youth ambassador for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital! I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee which is where St. Jude Children’s Research hospital is based, and ever since I was really little, I have been walking in the St. Jude Walk/Run and raising money for St. Jude. As soon as my platform on social media began to grow, I knew that I wanted to do something important and meaningful. So I started Team Young Hollywood and Broadway, and together we have raised over $50,000 for St. Jude Children’s research hospital.
You can see Lily in Life By Ella, streaming now on Apple TV+.