When 16-year-old Lily Brooks O'Briant first heard about Life by Ella, a new series about Ella McCaffrey, a cancer survivor returning to middle school, seizing life, and inspiring others in her wake, she felt like it was meant to be.
The heartwarming and family-friendly show focuses on Ella, family, friends, and school life after a year-long medical absence, as she takes a new outlook on life into a world that seems determined to break it down.
O'Briant, who starred in the Broadway touring company of Matilda the Musical and Netflix's The Big Show Show, was such a devoted student that she skipped 5th grade, combined her freshman and sophomore years of high school, and is going into her senior year this fall.
O'Briant says that one of her best personality traits is her tenacity. She fell in love with the musical Matilda and this spurred her to audition for several years in a row. At age 9, her persistence paid off and she nabbed the leading role.
"Doing this show was really important to me because I’m a youth ambassador for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where St. Jude is based. I had a few friends that were treated for cancer at St. Jude, and I know that what these kids go through is so overwhelming and it really changes you as a person," O'Briant exclusively tells Parade.com.
"I immediately knew that I wanted to accurately represent what these kids go through and tell this story," she continues. "I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to do that."
Read on for more about Lily Brooks O'Briant's devotion to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and what she has learned from teen cancer survivors.
Why did you want to be in Life By Ella?
Lily Brooks O'Briant: From the first moment that I read the script for the audition, I knew immediately that I wanted to play Ella. Her character is similar to mine in many ways, but we also have some differences. There are definitely things from Ella that I’ve learned about myself and about life in general. After reading the script and doing this audition, I immediately knew that this was a story that needed to be told and a story that needed to be told accurately and honestly.
How would you describe what Ella’s all about to somebody who’s not familiar with the new series?
Ella’s definitely not afraid to be herself. She’s very adventurous; she’s not afraid of anything. But that’s not how she always was. Before going through treatment for cancer, she was more of a follower than she was a leader. She kind of just wanted to fit in, she wanted people to like her. She wanted to please people, but after going through treatment for cancer, she realized that it couldn't always be always possible. You have to go through life the way that you want to live it and be who you are 100 percent of the time because going through cancer, she realized that you only have one chance at life.
After Ella was given this chance to go back to her life, she realized that some kids don’t get that, and some kids don’t get that second chance. She did, so she knew that she didn’t want to live life in fear of anything. She just wanted to be 100 percent her true self. That’s something that I have learned from Ella and I hope that viewers can learn from her as well.
Are there other things that you learned about yourself and life because of Ella?
I think another thing that Ella’s really taught me is that you have to be yourself every moment of your life. I think on a bigger scale Ella definitely learned who she was and kind of came into her true self over this season.
During the episodes, you really see her journey and becoming who she is and learning what she wants to do in life and who she wants to be. It was so graceful, and she’s got the sweetest heart. I learned from Ella that you can’t be afraid to try new things because you’ve got to discover what you like and what you want to do and who you want to be. I’m really grateful that I learned that from her.
Talk about friends who have your back, both in the show and in real life.
In Life by Ella, we really see this friendship between my character, Ella, and one of my good friends in real life and on the show. Artyon Celestine plays Ella’s best friend, Kai. We really see their friendship kind of blossom over this season. They weren’t super close before Ella had cancer, and they kind of became friends during this tough situation. He came to visit her in the hospital when she assumed some of the friends she had would visit her and didn’t.
He was there for her through thick and thin, through the hardest moments, and through the happy moments. He was there to make her laugh and to kind of take her mind off of what she was going through. That’s something that Ella really needed in these moments.
The relationships between Ella and her friends really ring true in this series.
I agree. The friendship between Ella and Kai is one of my favorite parts of this show. We really see what Ella teaches herself about life We also see how Ella teaches Kai how to not be afraid of anything, how to face your fears, and how to live life to the fullest even if you’re afraid of things. I love that about their friendship.
There’s another friendship in this season that we get to see between Ella’s character and Ximena (Vanessa Carrasco). We see their friendship go through a journey with ups and downs throughout the entire season. Ximena was Ella’s best friend before cancer.
They did everything as a pair and they were really two peas in a pod. But when Ella was diagnosed with cancer, Ximena didn’t come to visit her in the hospital, mostly because she was scared to see what Ella was going through. She was scared that going to visit her would make it more real.
That sounds realistic to me. There are people you expect to be there for you during difficult times and often they let you down.
This series shows that no matter what you always have people that care for you, whether they’re friends, whether they’re family. I think that what’s really important for especially young viewers to see, is that you always have people in your corner. You always have people rooting for you, people that love you and that will always be there for you.
Do you find similarities or differences between your TV parents and your actual parents?
My real mom, Hope, is the best mom ever. She’s so supportive and just has always been there for me. But my [real] mom and Mary Farber, who plays my mom Joanne [on the show] have become best friends. They had breakfast this morning. My mom actually said, “Honestly, Mary looks more like you than I look like you.” We look so similar it’s crazy.
Then my dad on the show, Kevin Rahm (Madam Secretary), I am so grateful to have him play my dad on the show. He is the sweetest person ever. I’ve also learned so much from working with him. The advice that he’s given me has really, really taught me a lot about myself as an actor.
I can’t wait for everyone to see my relationships with Kevin and Mary in the show just really come to life. The family dynamic is so amazing in this show. When we had scenes together as a family with me, Mary, Kevin, and Aidan Wallace, who plays my brother, Grady, on the show—those are honestly some of the funniest scenes ever. We have an episode where we’re all together and it is my favorite episode.
How much medical jargon and medical details did you learn from Life By Ella?
I’m not the smartest medical-wise, so when we had the more medical scenes, we had someone on set making sure that everything was accurate. The most medical thing I learned was when I was talking to a few patients from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who are teen cancer survivors.
Hearing their stories and learning from their experiences was an amazing experience. I’m grateful that they shared their stories with me. I try to take their experience and what they’ve gone through and learn from it and put it into my character.
Was there a recurring theme when you talked to the teen cancer survivors? What were they talking about?
I had the honor of talking to two, who are also some of my mom’s friends from back when we lived in Memphis, Tennessee. I’m originally from Memphis, which is where St. Jude originated. Talking to them I told them a little bit about Ella’s mindset on life and they completely agreed with me that going through cancer really teaches you that you can’t take anything for granted. Even the little things. When you get that second chance you realize how many things you’ve taken for granted. Going and taking your dog for a walk or just going out and getting ice cream with your friends. Those are things we take for granted, and they’re things that you really need to cherish those moments. Another thing that they all talked about was how scary it all is and going through that.
Why did you get involved with St. Jude fundraising and what does being able to help cancer patients and their families mean to you?
I had a few friends from my Sunday School, and also my mom had some family friends whose children were treated at St. Jude. Ever since I was little, I was running or walking in their walk-run every year to raise money for St. Jude. I actually remember for my birthday one year, at the party I told everyone not to bring gifts, but instead bring a donation to St. Jude. I was able to bring it to the hospital and donate my birthday gifts to them, which was amazing. I’m really grateful that I did that.
Every year since then I wanted to do something to raise money for them because I know all of the amazing things that they do for kids all around the world. One of my favorite things is that no kid or family that is treated at St. Jude ever has to pay anything for treatment, housing, food, or transportation. It’s all covered by St. Jude. I started Team Young Hollywood and Broadway a few years ago and we’ve raised more than $50,000 for St. Jude, which is amazing and I’m so grateful. Definitely, we will keep doing it for years and years to come.
In Life By Ella, we see that the McCaffrey family actually moved into a smaller apartment, because of Ella’s medical bills. They used to live in a house. That’s something that the kids and the families at St. Jude never have to worry about.
Let’s talk about other aspects of your career, like starring in the Broadway tour of Matilda.
I’m the kind of person who if I set my mind to something I’m not going to stop doing whatever I need to do in order to make it happen. That’s definitely how it was with Matilda the Musical. I worked so hard to get that part. I auditioned for close to a year and never gave up. So, I’m incredibly grateful that I did because the experience was amazing. I had rehearsals and I was on tour for eight months. Being on tour, playing Matilda, and getting to travel was so much fun. I learned a lot from my experiences in all of these different places. It was an awesome opportunity for me.
What were some of the highlights of the Matilda tour?
What was amazing was the friends that I made on tour. I have some friends that I’m still friends with to this day. We talk every single day There were a lot of fun moments and a lot of crazy, funny stories that I have from the tour. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without that experience
Why do you encourage us to watch Life By Ella?
You should definitely watch Life by Ella because there’s so much heart and so much truth to this story. It’s a story that I think is so important to be told and for people to hear. I also think that there’s a lot that you can learn from watching this show. I definitely have learned so much from playing this character. I’ve learned that you can’t be afraid of anything. I’ve learned a lot from Ella, this "seize the day" mentality that she takes on throughout life and goes on this journey of doing things that she used to be afraid of. And also sharing with people that you can’t be afraid of anything. I hope that people learn from that and just watch the show and get to laugh and cry. I guess I feel like we have to take this new outlook into our real lives.
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What are some of the reasons you want there to be a Life By Ella Season 2?
I think watching Ella really go on this journey of coming back to life after going through such an overwhelming and traumatic experience was a really cool story for me to create. Also, I was able to watch some of the episodes and it was an awesome journey that inspires us.
They say you don’t regret the chances that you take in life, you regret the ones that you let pass you by.
I love that. Ella is 100 percent of that same mentality, that you just have to enjoy the journey, enjoy all the little things in life, and don’t take any moment for granted. You just have to live life at the moment that you’re currently living and just do your best and be who you are and not be afraid of anything.
Life by Ella is streaming on Apple TV+.