Aliyah O’Brien on ‘Take Two’ and living “shamelessly shiny”
It’s almost impossible to imagine, given Aliyah O’Brien’s long list of acting credits and her seemingly outgoing personality, that there was ever a time in her life when she was painfully shy.
However, as a child growing up on Vancouver Island, O’Brien recalls being comfortable with family and friends but paralyzed by fear when faced with people she didn't know.
“I remember hiding in my mom’s broom skirts,” says the Vancouver-based actress, who is currently co-starring on ABC’s Take Two. “I was actually the shyest kid you will ever meet. Strangers terrified me."
It’s a scorching hot day in July. O’Brien has joined YVR Screen Scene on a stroll through Vancouver’s lush VanDusen Botanical Garden, pausing occasionally to survey lily pads and snap photos of dragonflies and tropical flowers. It’s rare for YVR Screen Scene to conduct roving interviews, especially in the sprawling garden, but in the case of O’Brien, it’s an apt choice: O'Brien is, after all, a busy actress for whom wanderlust, self-love, and spiritual growth are central to who she is and what she delivers on screen – and the world-renowned garden is all about pathways and growth.
O’Brien realized these truths about herself early in her life, when she worked to, if not overcome her shyness, accept it and integrate it into her life.
“I think, in retrospect, that’s my journey in this lifetime,” says O’Brien while pausing beside one of VanDusen’s man-made lakes. “It’s all about learning how to let my light shine and inspire others to do the same by being shamelessly shiny, and I started off terrified of shining. I was so shy, and I’ve worked to open the windows and let myself out. I’m still working on it. It’s still hard for me, but I’ve come a long way.”
O’Brien’s journey has taken her from DIY Christmas plays with fellow kids in her Vancouver Island neighbourhood, to high school musicals, to a backpacking adventure in her 20s that spanned 40 countries (including New Zealand, where she and a girlfriend bought a van and drove around for three months and “did every adventure sport you can think of”), to a satisfying career as a personal trainer (“I was super geeky about it; I’d do squats with barbells while standing on stability balls”), and to a watershed acting class in a community hall basement where she sunk her teeth into meaty scenes from various plays.
Performing those scenes in that basement, O’Brien says she “felt that aliveness, not just physically, which I was getting from the personal training, but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually” – at which point, O’Brien flung herself into acting, and built a filmography that includes memorable roles on Men With Brooms, Sanctuary, Rookie Blue, and now, Take Two, a crime comedy-drama on which she plays an LAPD detective.
O’Brien is nearly breathless when she talks about her wanderlust, and the impact it’s had on her acting career. “I love being wild and free,” she says. “As actors, we talk about the more life experience you have, the more you have to bring to your characters, and I think travelling gave me a whole bunch of life experience for my toolkit.”
It also equipped her with the headspace she's needed to weather the ups and downs of show business. “I have the attitude that if I want to make something happen, I can, because I wanted to go travelling, and I made it happen,” says O’Brien. “I wanted to become an actor, so I moved to Vancouver and I made it happen. By doing those things and taking action and just going for it, you build that belief in yourself that you can, despite fears. You need to have that to continue, despite the craziness of the business.”
O'Brien's first on-screen role was that of a stripper named Kandy in Chris Haddock’s critically acclaimed drama series Intelligence. “It was such a score, and I love that about Chris Haddock: He always seeks out performers that bring truth, and he gives the newbies a chance,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘What’s your resumé?’ My resumé was small. It was probably a bunch of classes." According to O'Brien, that first time on set was "such a good experience, but I was so nervous to do it.”
Not that the nerves have completely disappeared now that she's years into her career. “The difference now is, in the beginning I was nervous and really trying to hide it, whereas now, I’ll be nervous and just own it,” says O’Brien.
O’Brien is equally enthusiastic when she talks about her time on the Toronto-shot crime procedural Rookie Blue, which ran for five seasons on Global. O’Brien recurred throughout the fourth season as Holly, a forensic pathologist who romanced hardened cop Gail, portrayed by series regular Charlotte Sullivan.
“It’s always a dream as an actor to get to play a role that leaves impressions on people that are positive and relatable and, in this circumstance, for the LGBTQ community, let’s represent, let’s create more positive same-sex relationships on TV,” says O’Brien, who continues to hear from dedicated “Golly” fans on social media. “It’s such a gift to have that opportunity. And I think we need more. We need more bisexual representation. We need more sexually fluid representation. If, in the work, I can tell stories that have a positive impact and on some level, whether it be small or huge, change the way people see the world or themselves, that’s the goal. That’s the gold, and the goal.”
O'Brien is admittedly crazy for Detective Christine Rollins, the character she plays on Take Two.
Take Two premiered on ABC at the end of June. The series follows Sam (Rachel Bilson), fresh out of rehab and former star of a hit cop series, and Eddie (Eddie Cibrian), a private investigator. They team up to solve crimes, with Sam doing the job as research for a potential comeback role. To get a P.I. movie lead, she has to shadow Eddie, an ex-LAPD detective-turned-private-eye. After solving a case, Sam decides to become Eddie's partner and learn more about being a P.I.
Eddie and Christine have an on-again, off-again, friends-with-benefits relationship. “I love her,” raves O’Brien. “I love the way the writers are writing her, and how they write women. She’s a boss, she’s really good at her job, she loves her job, and she’s very morally driven. She does the right thing. She fights for justice, but she also really cares about people, especially Eddie. She and Eddie are best friends, and friends with benefits. Our deal is basically, ‘This is what it is until something better comes along.’ I think that’s very evolved.” She loves Christine's rapport with Bilson's Sam, and wants to see more like it on screen. “I want to see more healthy female relationships on TV; more women supporting women,” she says.
Take Two airs Thursdays at 10pm on ABC. Follow @AliyahOBrien
Top photo by Ryan West