Actress Lily Brooks O'Briant Talks About Life By Ella And Her Cancer Activism Work - Exclusive Interview

Cancer sucks — and is so heartbreaking when it happens to a child. The new Apple TV+ series "Life by Ella" is an inspiring story about a 13-year-old who returns to school after beating cancer with a new lease on life and a fresh perspective, excited and confident about the future. The series captures Ella's new, uplifting "seize the day" mentality that is no longer held back by fear, or anything else. According to Ella, "Every day is a gift," says Lily Brooks O'Briant, the actress who plays Ella.

Brooks O'Briant began her acting career at age 8 in the horror film "Shark Lake." She then landed the starring role in Broadway's hit "Matilda." When she finished touring for the musical, she moved on to work in short films, winning many awards, like the Wasserman Award, the NYC Independent Film Festival Award, and the Five Continents Film Festival Award, all in the category of best young actress. 

In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Brooks O'Briant talks about her time filming "Life by Ella," as well as her cancer activism work with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. At just 4 years old, she began raising money for St. Jude's, and she discusses how she was able to draw upon her relationships to connect with her character, Ella. She continues to use her growing platform to advocate for important causes.

Don't let anything hold you back

Congratulations on your role in the new series "Life by Ella." Can you tell us a little bit about the show and how this opportunity came about?

"Life by Ella" is the story of a girl named Ella who is in remission for cancer. She's going back to school after beating cancer, with this new perspective on life and this excitement for what's to come in her life, because going through cancer, she realized that you only have one chance to live your life. She was lucky enough to be given the second chance that not everyone gets, so she's not going to let anything get in the way of her living her life to the fullest and living her life the way that she wants to live it. You get to see her journey going through life, dealing with her friends and her family, and also taking on this brand-new perspective on life while also teaching her friends and her family about this perspective that she has on life. It's a really cool story, and she's ready to take on literally anything that comes her way — she's not afraid of anything.

What originally drew you to Ella's character?

I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and I'm a Jude youth ambassador for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. I also have a few family members who were treated at St. Jude for childhood cancer. I know how absolutely important this story is to be told. It's such a touching story, and I've seen firsthand through my friends how emotional and heartbreaking this experience can be. Reading this script and going through the thought process and preparations for the role, I knew how important it was to tell this story accurately and be completely honest and open. I was really grateful to be able to talk to a few of my friends who were treated at St. Jude for childhood cancer. I was honored to be able to talk to them and hear their stories. I was able to take their experiences and some of what they told me and put them into my character. I feel like it really did help me connect [to] my character even more.

Did you find that you had any challenges in portraying a character like Ella?

There are challenges in every character, but especially for Ella. The hardest thing is being open and vulnerable with everything that I was portraying in this show, because there are happy moments for sure, but there are also those deeper moments. Sometimes it can be hard to tap into those emotions, especially when they're human emotions that you don't normally want to be feeling, like sadness or anger or confusion. A lot of the time, people try to push those emotions away, but as an actor, you have to let those emotions come to you and feel them. That was one of the biggest challenges, but I have some amazing actors and actresses surrounding me that were supporting me every step of the way, and also some amazing directors too, that were incredibly supportive in helping [to find] those moments and helping me get to that emotional place.

Live your life to the fullest

What do you hope viewers will take away from the show, and about Ella's character and her journey?

The biggest thing that I hope people take away from this show is that even as a teenager, every day is a gift. Every day, there's new things to experience and fun things that you can be doing. No matter what, you always have to live life in the moment and be your true self. Ella, before cancer, before going through treatment, she was more of a follower than she was a leader, and she really wanted to please people — she wanted to make people happy and she wanted to fit in. But after going through cancer, she realized that's not how you should be living your life. You should be yourself and be your true, 100% authentic self, no matter what other people might think of you, because you only have one chance to live life and you have to live it in the moment, every single second.

You mentioned your work with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Can you share a little more about the activism work you have done and your connection to St. Jude's?

I lived in Memphis, Tennessee, from when I was born until I was ... I think I moved when I was 11. So I lived there for about 11 years, and ever since I was little, my mom used to take me to the St. Jude Walk & Runs, and I had some friends who were in the nursery with me and also in Sunday school with me who sadly had childhood cancer and were treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. From a very young age, I've seen firsthand what St. Jude does for these kids and the amazing things that happen at St. Jude. One of the biggest things, and this ties into "Life by Ella" too, is no child or family that is treated at St. Jude ever has to pay for anything — not their treatment, not food, not housing, transportation, anything. It's all covered by St. Jude because St. Jude believes that all that a family should be worrying about is making sure that their child feels happy and safe in this environment, even going through this really tough time. 

In "Life by Ella," we see that this family, the McCaffery family, used to have a really big house and have a fortunate life. But after going through cancer, their medical bills took a toll on the way that they lived their life. They moved into a smaller apartment, and it was definitely a big change for them. St. Jude, what they do for all of the families that are treated there is amazing. Ever since I was little, I've been helping to raise money. As soon as I started to gain a bigger platform on social media, I knew that it was important to use that platform for something meaningful, for something important. So I created Team Young Hollywood, which is a Walk & Run team with a bunch of young Hollywood actors and singers. We all got together and raised over $50,000 for St. Jude in the last few years. I'm so grateful for that. It'll definitely be continuing for years and years to come.

Giving back

As someone who also has loved ones that have been negatively affected by cancer, I'm really moved by your activism work. Thank you for all that you do.

Thank you. I think they are such an amazing organization. I'm so grateful that I'm able to spread awareness for the amazing things that they do.

It sounds like you live a very busy life! When you find free time, how do you like to spend it?

Other than acting? 'Cause I will say I'm happiest when I'm working. I love being on set and acting. It's my absolute favorite thing to do. But when I'm not on set, my two favorite things to do are to write songs — I love playing my guitar and my ukulele and sitting down and writing music. It's therapeutic for me — writing your feelings out but also turning it into something meaningful with music. Music is an amazing way to express yourself.

And another thing — this sounds crazy, I know, but it's a real thing, I promise — I take trapeze lessons on Santa Monica Pier. I go once or twice a week, and I take a trapeze lesson basically on the beach. My favorite is when I can take sunset classes because when you're doing trapeze, you're flying towards the beach or into the setting sun. It is the most beautiful thing ever.

That sounds amazing! I've done trapeze a few times. It's super fun.

I love it. Oh my gosh. You're like the first person I met that's actually done it before. That's amazing.

It's a lot of work. It's hard! 

Oh my gosh. I wake up every morning after I do trapeze, and I'm like, "Oh, I'm sore." It's my favorite thing to do. Back in January of this year, I had appendicitis, and they're like, "Okay, you shouldn't be too active until three or four weeks after your surgery." [About] two weeks after my surgery, I went to my mom and I was like, "Can I go take a trapeze lesson today?" She was like, "Are you literally crazy?!"

Do you have any future projects in the works that you can share with us?

You'll definitely have to stay tuned on my social media [accounts] to see anything for upcoming projects. What I can say is that I have a lot coming up in partnership with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, some events and some really fun things planned to help raise money for St. Jude. I'm really excited for those. Definitely stay tuned.

You can follow Lily Brooks O'Briant on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, and watch "Life by Ella" starting September 2, 2022, on Apple TV+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.