Yara Shahidi is not your typical child star. Sure, she’s been working since the age of 6 and has had more guest spots on popular TV shows than we can list here, but Shahidi is in a class all her own. She is currently starring as Zoey on ABC’s hit comedy Black-ish alongside comedy veterans Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson. We chatted with Shahidi about the show, her co-stars, her philanthropic work, and her dream college.
Cliché: You got started in the business when you were just 6 years old. What did you take away from beginning in commercials and working with your mother and brother?
Yara Shahidi: What was nice about starting with my family and starring in commercials in particular is that it was so much fun on set that it didn’t feel like work. Ever since I was little, acting was never considered a job. It was something fun that I loved to do with my family. It spoke to me when I was little because I was an outgoing child; I wasn’t afraid to be who I am. When we are little, a lot of times we are shy or afraid to talk, and I think it made me more open.
You’re only 15, but you’ve been working steadily for a long time in guest spots on popular shows like The Fosters, Scandal, and Family Guy. Did those shows prepare you at all to star in Black-ish?
I feel like every show definitely did. I think the consistent working of your acting muscles always helps. I think it’s hard when you take a break and then go into a show that’s as intense as Black-ish. Black-ish is such an amazing show, but you have to have your comedy brain on and you have to be on all the time and think of funny adlibs or how to bring your character to life. Each show really let me work on those skills.
Rapper Nas is your cousin. Has he given you any advice about the entertainment industry?
He’s always said to just make sure that you’re doing what you love and make sure that you have enough time to live your life, too, so that your job never becomes work. He’s always said to me that he loves who I am as a person, so make sure that nothing I do can influence or impact that. He said there is no need to fit into a stereotype or a box and that there is something so lovely about being authentic.
What is it like working with Tracee Ellis Ross? What has she taught you as an actress?
She’s amazing. Not only is she a fashion icon, but the best part is that I get to see her amazing outfits every single day. She’s such an incredible actress and it’s so funny what she brings to her character, Bow [Rainbow]. It’s funny because we will read a script and it starts off one way, but by the time we start shooting, she’s done something completely different and hilarious. She’s really taught me how to go with the flow. She also really started a dialogue with the writers. They already do a fantastic job for our characters, but with the dialogue that she created, she’s made sure that everything that comes out of her mouth is true to Bow and who Bow is as a mother, a doctor, a wife, and a strong businesswoman.
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about your character, Zoey?
One of my favorite character traits is her confidence. Zoey is a bit rebellious and is much sassier than I am, but I love the fact that no one can dissuade her from what she wants. She gets what she wants when she wants it, and it’s not even her trying to be bossy—it is just that she’s so confident in who she is as a person that no one can tell her what to do or who to be.
You also star alongside Anthony Anderson. Does he pull all sorts of pranks on set?
Well, as long as the prank doesn’t get in the way of our general well-being, then yes. I think what’s really funny is when the camera is on us and they can’t see Anthony, he will say different dialogue. The best part is that we always end up getting the scene done, and he always makes sure that he gives us something to work off of. It’s never totally outlandish. But there are times when we are looking off-camera and laughing and the director is like, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And it’s because of what Anthony is doing.
What’s your favorite part about being on set?
It’s a daily reminder that I’m doing what I love and that I get to work with such amazing actors and actresses and learn from them. It’s also such a pleasant and nice set to be on. There’s such warm energy and it’s amazing.
There is pressure put on child stars to behave a certain way and say certain things. How do you combat that? What or who helps you remain true to who you are?
Well, when I started this business, there were two things that my parents always said to me: ‘Stop doing it as soon as it stops being fun. So as soon as this turns into some burden, it’s okay to dip out.’ A lot of times there is a pressure to continue to do what you’re doing, but it was always important to my parents that we were enjoying life as kids first. Also, I have always known how important it is to stay true to who I am, and that leads to an enjoyable experience. So, coming from that standpoint, I can’t enjoy my life if I’m trying to be somebody else, whether I am acting or not.
What’s up next for you?
I am currently spearheading something called Yara’s Club. I am working with the Young Women’s Leadership Schools founded by Ann Rubenstein Tisch and her family. There are 17 schools involved, and what is amazing is that they help support young girls, starting in elementary school and then through college. I plan on working with them on a monthly basis and help create a safe space to talk, whether it is about their hairstyles or our generation’s opinion on a political or social matter. I’m really looking forward to that.
I am also in the process of college touring. I am a junior, which means it’s college time! Part of me is trying to block it out, and part of me is extremely excited. I’ve already planned all my classes for senior year, and I am taking the ACT and SAT this year. I’m looking at Harvard, and I am also looking at Brown. Tracee has an honorary doctorate from there, which is incredible, and I’m really just excited to look around.
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Yara Shahidi Interview: photos courtesy of Theo + Juliet