Yara Shahidi is the future of acting and activism.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS I cared about when I was 18: guys, soccer, my fake ID, my Chanel Beige de Chanel lipstick and getting out of doing as many chores as possible. Here are some things 18-year-old Yara Shahidi cares about: getting Gen Z to vote, March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and generally making the world a kinder, better, more tolerant place.
“Is it wrong to be jealous of you?” I ask the impossibly-pulled-together teen over the phone. She laughs. (Yep, she’s even polite enough to laugh at my joke.) “What’s nice is that my character does the things I don’t do, so there’s really no need for me to experiment because I get to do it on-set,” she muses.
She’s talking about Zoey Johnson, the headstrong, popular eldest daughter of advertising exec Dre and doctor Rainbow on the sitcom Black-ish. Shahidi’s character recently got her own spinoff, Grown-ish, which sees her leaving the very comfortable family nest and attending college.
The finale of the fourth season of Black-ish is airing a few hours after we talk, but Grown-ish was just renewed for a second season, which means Shahidi is so busy filming that she can’t join in the celebrations tonight. “Unfortunately (and fortunately), I can’t go to a party because I have to work in the morning. I need a solid eight hours of sleep,” she says. “But I did a screening a few days back.” Credit for this decidedly mature attitude goes to her close-knit family (her dad, Afshin, was Prince’s photographer, her mom, Keri, is an actress and her two younger brothers, Ehsan and Sayeed, are also in the business), who keep her grounded, even when, say, Drake puts her in his “Nice for What” video or she gets to hang with Oprah.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM PLAYING ZOEY? “She has taught me to be even more open and accepting. I’m a political-leaning person. To play a character who isn’t, or who is at least growing into her own political [person] and self-identity, has been interesting because there have been times when Zoey has had an opinion that I don’t necessarily agree with. I think it has been a journey of realizing that her opinion is valid and how to have that conversation. And I guess it’s kind of meta because I’m having this conversation within myself.” HOW DO WE EMPOWER PEOPLE WHO PERHAPS LIVE IN A SMALL TOWN OR FEEL A BIT ISOLATED TO EFFECT THE KIND OF CHANGE YOU’RE ROOTING FOR? “I think it’s about spreading information in a way that brings humanity to the situation. So, understanding how something has an effect on us as people, or how it affects our community, is extremely important. It’s hard to make a decision that will go against other humans. So often when we talk about politics—or any issue, really—we talk about what it’ll do to our money. We sometimes underplay the importance of investing in our society.” HOW DO YOU STAY GROUNDED IN THE BUBBLE THAT IS L.A.? “By realizing that there’s a life outside of Hollywood. There’s no rush to do anything because it’s not going anywhere. It has allowed [my family and me] to really live life without the fear of missing out. We’ve been able to go travelling as a family; we’ve been able to say ‘We just want to go to a museum today.’ It might seem supersimple, but just establishing a life off-set is so important; otherwise it becomes your everyday.”
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO FOR FUN? “I love reading. When I have time, I will go through a book so quickly. I’m currently reading Shantaram. I’m only on, like, page 200 of a bajillion. I’m trying to get into more fiction. I love James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut. I also just started White Teeth by Zadie Smith. And I adore podcasts. They’re how I get most of my news. Hidden Brain is a great one. And I love Pod Save America and Code Switch.” ARE YOU HITTING UP ANY FESTIVALS THIS SUMMER? “I love and adore music of all sorts, and what’s nice is that three of my cast mates have albums out. Chloe x Halle have The Kids Are Alright and Trevor Jackson has Rough Drafts Pt. 1. I’m listening to both on repeat. And I’ve been listening to a lot of SuperDuperKyle and Bob Marley.”
DO YOU SING AT ALL? “Not in a way that I will pursue! You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Even though I’d have to start now and really start learning, I would love to produce music. I have such an adoration for producers because it takes such a skill set to have that overarching vision. So I would love to be in that position if I had the ability or talent.” AND YOU’VE BEEN ACCEPTED AT HARVARD. ARE YOU GOING THIS FALL? “We’re actually figuring that out now because I have made a commitment to a show and a commitment to a school, and I plan on keeping both.” IS THERE ANYTHING ZOEY HAS DONE THAT YOU WOULD NOT DO WHEN YOU GO AWAY TO UNIVERSITY? “Adderall. No Adderall for me!”
Yara Shahidi with Abraham D. Juste on Grown-ish