How does a girl from the suburbs of Birmingham wind up living her best life in LA after a detour through New York? Well, in true southern fashion, that’s a bit of a long story.

“It all started with music,” Anna Grace Barlow explains. “My dad is an incredible singer and pianist, so I grew up hearing him sing pretty much every day. (He’s actually in a band called The Underhills. Check them out!) Because of his influence, I got into violin in kindergarten and went on to play for nine years. [“I was NOT GOOD!” she insists.] About that time, I started singing nonstop after developing an obsession with the Nat King Cole song ‘L-O-V-E,’ which was the credits song for The Parent Trap [the 1998 version with Lindsay Lohan]. My parents put me in voice lessons, and I very quickly fell in love with performing. I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of this world.”

After moving to Mountain Brook from Mississippi at age 11, Anna Grace spent a solid portion of her preteen and teenage years honing her acting chops at Red Mountain Theatre Company, with the unwavering support of her parents, Polly Anna and Mike, and three sisters.

“My family plays the biggest role in my dream. My parents are doctors, but they’ve made it their business to educate themselves on my world. They were so supportive of whatever I wanted to do in high school, and I wanted to do shows. I did so much community theater between Magic City Actor’s Theatre, the Starz program and RMTC,” she says.

The acting bug bit sister Abigail, too, who boasts a healthy following on YouTube and has joined Anna Grace in California. “My little sister is the single most talented person I have ever met,” gushes Anna Grace. “She is an incredible vocalist and song writer, as well as an unbelievable actress and dancer. She’s like J-Lo. I am so proud of her. The coolest thing about her wanting to pursue the industry is that I’ve been through it,” says Anna Grace. “And, together with my parents, we are able to help her avoid hurdles I had to unnecessarily jump.”

Anna Grace acknowledges that her parents did whatever they could to prepare her for a move to New York or LA, and—as it turns out—she tried both. After a year of musical theater studies at NYC’s Pace University, at the behest of RMTC teacher and now-manager Lynne Marks, Anna Grace flew to California for headshots. She never went back to New York.

“At that point, I had my heart set on being in LA because I completely fell in love with it. The palm trees, the weather, the people. It feels very much like the South to me. Of course, I didn’t feel completely alone because I had [fellow Birmingham thespian and Disney star] Jordan Fisher and his wonderful family. They really took me in. Sure, I had lonely moments, but I just focused on working and knew I’d make friends that way.”

She did make friends, and she made a few callbacks—okay, more than a few—too. With appearances in Scream Queens, Summer Forever and The Fosters, as well as theater parts and more, Anna Grace didn’t go long between jobs. Her biggest news of late, however, is originating “Alyssa” in headed-to-pre-Broadway musical The Prom.

“It was such a crazy thing that fell into my lap,” she explains. “I was living here [in LA], and I got this self-tape request from my agent in New York. She said, ‘The team looks amazing, you should really tape for this.’ So I did. My now-husband and I had just met, and we were doing a musical. So I had one of my castmates read with me, and our music director accompanied me on piano for a song I had to learn. I filmed it all on an iPad.” The quickly produced piece struck a note with casting directors, and a few months later the role was hers.

“It began with a one-week reading, and people really loved it. The next year, we did a month-long lab/workshop in NYC, where we added set pieces and props. A year after that, there was an out-of-town tryout at The Alliance in Atlanta. They kept bringing me back, for which I am so thankful. It’s been an incredibly long journey,” she says. The end goal, of course, is pre-Broadway to Broadway.

“Fingers crossed,” says Anna Grace of one of the “most difficult” characters she’s played thus far. “Alyssa is a cheerleader, part of the ‘it’ crowd, but she’s harboring this huge secret: She’s a lesbian, and she’s in love with Emma, an outcast played by the incredible Caitlin Kinnunen. It all sort of comes to a head because Alyssa is planning to come out at prom, though she might chicken out over fear of what her friends and parents will think. There’s lots of conflict and drama and so many layers and emotions. Exploring that and creating Alyssa has been the best acting experience of my life—I’ve had to learn how to harness it all and make the character reproducible but also healthy for me. I’m grateful the team has trusted me with her.” 

And though Broadway is her first love, Anna Grace draws some parallels between theater and TV/film roles and also recognizes her desire to try new things.

“I think the biggest difference is the immediate gratification, the applause,” says Anna Grace. “I love theater so much—Broadway will always be one of my biggest dreams. Maybe that’s why I love sitcom work, because there’s a live audience and it feels a lot like theater. But I also love single-camera drama, like Bones or Castle. Acting for camera is such a different muscle than theater acting, and it really allows me to stretch myself.”

When it comes to obstacles, Anna Grace is straightforward: “I constantly challenge myself to be more relaxed in audition settings. When I go a few weeks without auditioning, the first one back always gives me butterflies” she says. “Teaching myself to unwind and connect is a long-term challenge. It’s something I’ll always have to work on, I think.”

Despite the butterflies, her bucket-list dreams are big. Anna Grace quickly lists the trio that will help her check off her list.

“I want one blockbuster movie (in theaters), one regular role on a television show and a Broadway debut,” she says. “I love multicam (sitcoms), so it would be amazing to be on one for a long run—or a soap opera! I would love that stability. But Broadway is the ceiling. If I originate a role on Broadway, I will have reached the pinnacle of my theater dreams.”

Bama vs. Cali

You can take the girl out of the South, but… you know how it goes. Below, Anna Grace shares her southern faves, West Coast inspiration, and what she misses most about Mountain Brook. (Hint: She has some of the best bites in Birmingham covered!)

What’s the status of your southern accent? 

I think doing theater so much while growing up caused my accent to neutralize really early. So I rarely have one—but I always say “y’all!”

What is one thing you miss about Mountain Brook? 

I miss Gilchrist. I honestly have dreams about their BLTs and limeade.

Alabama cuisine or Californian? 

Mexican food is my favorite, but I have yet to find a restaurant in California that is as good as La Paz.

What is something you didn’t know you couldn’t live without until you found it on the West Coast? 

My husband! Haha! He’s actually from Knoxville, though, so don’t worry. He’s a southern boy.

What do you miss most about your family home? 

My parents got a golden retriever, and I’m completely obsessed with her. I miss her. I’m really lucky because my parents come to visit all the time. We FaceTime, too. It keeps me from feeling homesick.

Favorite expression?

“Bless your heart” is my all-time favorite expression from anywhere, ever.

If your parents sent a care package from Alabama, what would be in it? 

My mom would send some of her poppyseed chicken—my favorite dish she makes. Hopefully they’d send me some Milo’s cheese fries, a big bowl of Urban Cookhouse veggies, and some Bojangle’s Bo-Berry Biscuits. Wait, this is all food isn’t it?

If you sent a care package to your family from California, what would be in it? 

I’d send some cute clothes from my family’s favorite store here, Brandy Melville. Also some rosé from Santa Barbara!

Who is your biggest Hollywood inspiration?  

Anna Kendrick. She sings in almost every project she does, but she hasn’t released a pop album because she’s not a music artist. I just love that. I want to do musical projects like her.

If you could act with anyone, who would you choose? 

Film, Anna Kendrick or [fellow southerner!] Reese Witherspoon. Theater, definitely Jessie Mueller.