Sixteen-Year-Old Actress and Activist Yara Shahidi Is Normal-ish

Yara Shahidi, who stars on ABC’s Black-ish, juggles a full-time acting career, a busy high school course load and social activism. All of that aside, she tries to maintain a somewhat normal teenage life, and she’s pretty darn excited to go to prom this year.

Photo by Alex Hodor-Lee. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Yara Shahidi has been in New York City for only 48 hours and she’s already accepted an award from The Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN), alongside fellow honorees like Lil Kim, Teyana Taylor and Meagan Good. She also made time to visit her teachers at the Dwight School on the Upper West Side, where she’s a senior; held a meeting of Yara’s Club, the young women’s mentoring program she launched with Ann Tisch, where they talked about the impact of the recent presidential election; she stopped by Dior’s Guggenheim International Gala pre-party; and she made sure to hit up some of the restaurants she’s been dying to try.

“The trip has been really quick, but we somehow managed to squeeze in a lot of good eating,” said Shahidi, who stars as Zoey on ABC’s hit show “Black-ish,” when she came by the W offices for an interview, with her mom and publicist in tow. “We finally made it to Charlie Bird,” said Shahidi, who lives in L.A.

Shahidi, if you couldn’t tell by how much she packed into her whirlwind visit to New York, is not one to sit around and twiddle her thumbs. The Iranian-African American actress has been working since she was six weeks old (when she did her first print job), and has since dabbled in film (starring alongside Eddie Murphy in Imagine That and Jennifer Garner in the indie flick, Butter) and held her role for three seasons and counting on Black-ish. On the show, her TV family wrestles with racial issues and off-screen, she works with young women to help combat and overcome those issues. She spends her “spare” time giving talks on diversity, meeting with UN Women, hosting support groups for young women, and uses her social media channels to speak freely about gender and equality issues.

It’s hard not to be instantly charmed by Shahidi. On one hand, she is wise beyond her years, almost to the point where it’s hard to believe she’s actually 16. She’s not old enough to vote, and she can talk about this month’s election far better than most of us who can. She’s well spoken, impressively accomplished, smart (give her the chance and she’ll wax poetic about literary greats like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes), and carries herself with unfailing confidence. But she also remains committed to not growing up too fast. Unlike many teen stars, she wants to dress her age, she’s unabashedly enthusiastic about pretty much everything she’s doing, and she’s pretty darn excited to go to prom this year.

“I know my normal is different than other peoples’ normal, but acting, it’s just something I am passionate about,” she said. “Acting doesn’t define who I am, it’s not my whole life. I have been able to have all these amazing experiences driven by 10 million other interests and being able to have access to that because of acting balances it out.” Here, Shahidi talks about activisim, acting and her love of pantsuits.

Yara Shahidi.

Photo by Alex Hodor-Lee. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Photo by Alex Hodor-Lee.|||

How did this all begin for you? I know you started when you were just six weeks old… I started in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My mom was a commercial actress and my father is a DP cinematographer. It started as a fun thing to do with my family. It has always been balanced with the rest of my life so it didn’t dominate. Acting and going into TV and movies happened almost by accident. I was so content with commercials and print. When they first offered me a movie script I was like “hmm, no thank you.” Then, I read it, and as a seven-year-old with a crazy imagination it was cool for my first character to be literally a girl with an imaginary world. From there, what’s been fun about the past eight years is that every role has been something close to my heart. It’s been intentional. So, rather than filling my resume with as many TV shows as I can possibly do, we read and think, what does this mean to me? Will I be proud of this years from now and what kind of characters do I want to play? How does this challenge me? So, I am able to look at every experience and feel good about it.

What has been the most challenging point in your career so far? I am lucky enough to have a team of people, from my parents to my publicist to my manager to my agent, that has protected me from so many of the emotional pitfalls of this industry. But still, I love the craft of acting. As a 16 year old, it’s the balancing and juggling of wanting to do a million things. It’s honestly a blessing, but it just gets hectic at times. I’m creating a digital series, working full-time on Black-ish, I am a senior in high school, but that all comes from the fact that I have the opportunity and the platform I have been given. On this New York trip alone, I got to visit my high school, I am going to prom this year (which is super exciting), I will be in the yearbook, but I also went to Yara’s Club, which is a mentoring group that I started with Ann Tisch. It was a lot of the girls from the 12 different YWLN schools around New York and we all met at Ann’s house. We had the most lovely conversation discussing what this election meant to us and discussing what actions we can take from here on out, given that for many of us it wasn’t the result we expected or wanted. To see all of these passions, hopes, and dreams of mine come to fruition is pretty darn cool.

What were some of those conversations you had at her house? The election was about a week ago…how are you feeling now? What struck me most? Two things. First, how motivated all the girls were (including myself). It’s really easy to fall into this despair of what in the world can I do? I am under 18 and not even legally an adult. What role can I play in government? But I love that each girl in there had hope and felt they could take action. Also, just how personally it struck all of us. There was a moment in which we realized this election meant a lot to us, not only as young women, but the majority of us young women as color. How does this affect me and my family? How do you deal with that one person in your family who is voting for Trump? To be able to have that conversation authentically was amazing. To see the determination each girl has is a powerful moment for me, just to feel like I am not alone and there is so much of Generation Z that is motivated and ready to take action.

I know you come from a family with a strong history of activism. How do you want to take action after this election? How do you feel people can help? Like Yara’s Club, I am hoping to organize a gathering to address the hate in schools and in spaces that used to be safe. To see post-election the correlation between people feeling justified in their hate and anger and taking that out on people… it was really unfortunate because it is usually a reflection of what they see at home or in their own communities. I want people to grow up in a safe space. I don’t want them to live in the extra fear of ‘will my hijab be pulled off’ or ‘will people taunt me’ or ‘will people say I need to go back to where I came from.’ Even seeing the videos of kids chanting ‘build a wall,’ it’s shocking. Addressing that head-on, and I am involved in various organizations that are taking different stands because I realize the problems we are facing now directly affect me and my community in one way or another. It’s important that we take action in everything and help improve everybody’s lives.

You sound so busy. If you ever get some free time, what do you like to do? What’s great is that I enjoy what I do. I have found a great group of people also interested in the same thing so not only do we see each other at events, so that becomes our time to hang, but we make sure we have free time. We have that balance together. Thanksgiving is coming up, so I am excited to hang out with all my cousins. And, we are hosting Christmas this year! I get to see cousins from all over, my auntie and uncle, my nana, everyone…

It seems like you have a great network of friends and family. Is that what you think keeps you so grounded and balanced? The idea that I have some sense of normalcy…I know my normal is different than other peoples’ normal, but acting, it’s just something I am passionate about. Acting doesn’t define who I am, it’s not my whole life. I have been able to have all these amazing experiences driven by 10 million other interests and being able to have access to that because of acting balances it out. I will put in the extra 15 hours of school on the weekend, but that means I get to speak and share my opinions with the world, travel to all these amazing places, it means I have been given this amazing platform to affect the change I want to see. Yeah, we work hard and play harder.

Speaking of “normal,” you said you are also looking forward to prom. Have you started to think about your dress yet? I have a long ways to go. I have to get through the semester first. Prom is in May. I will plan accordingly. Knowing me, I will have one option and change my mind the day of.

Is college the next step? What do you want to study? Yes, sociology! That is what I have settled on. I will probably change my mind like a thousand other times, but I love history and sociology is the study of history and people in history. I love the study of humans, whether it’s being an actress, which is literally becoming other people.

What are your dream roles? I have spent a great three years in television, but I love film. I did an indie film called Butter and that was one of the best experiences. Not only did I learn how to butter carve, but I was taught how to improve on that set. Also, there are two characters I would love to play, both on opposite ends of the spectrums but similar at the same time—a sociopath and a super hero. Both would be cool. I am obsessed with Marvel and as somebody who loves the comic books and what they have stood for throughout the years. Overall, I am open, because I am the kind of kid who loves books, so anything based off a good book.. If anyone ever gets the rights to Catcher in the Rye, please let me know. That would be such a brilliant movie, so so brilliant. I have pages of books that need to become movies.

What books are you reading right now? I am reading a couple. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, I think all of his stuff is amazing. The fact that he has created an entire fake religion in such detail is insane! I am about to start Sula by Toni Morrison. I have some books to read for AP Language and Composition, some books on rhetoric and I love reading essays. I love anything James Baldwin. I have a blog dedicated to my love of him. It’s called Mainstream Anarchist, it’s a Tumblr. It wasn’t meant to be that but over the years I realized it was just a James Baldwin fan page, it was all I posted about. It’s both sad and amazing that what he says still applies to today.

Switching gears completely, I notice you are wearing a lot of amazing jewelry. Are these pieces you wear daily? I love jewelry. You can’t always tell on the show, but I am always wearing my chakra necklace and I just tuck it under my clothes. I used to make my own bracelets—I need to get back to that. I love gold, I think it’s the half Iranian, half black in me. There is something about it that grounds me. It’s my personal flare, you can add it to anything. It’s the consistency in my life. No matter how many times my outfit changes, the jewelry is the same.

You also have a great sense of style. How has your style developed in the past few years? We get a lot of freedom to wear whatever we want. One day Zoey’s in Topshop, the next she is in vintage Valentino. I wear a lot of Valentino right now and I have had so much fun with that. Once, I remember I got to wear these amazing vintage Gucci pants and then the shirt was from Target. Not only was it from Target, but it was a tank top from the little boys section. We have so much fun on that show and it has definitely expanded my view of fashion because I get to use it as a form of self expression. For me, fashion is a warning of who you are about to mess with. It allows you to assess what personality you are about to meet. Function is also a part of it. A good pantsuit is always nice because not only can you do the robot with no restrictions, but it’s like a power suit.

How very Hillary of you… Totally! I am a tailored suit with an oxford kind of gal. I have been dressing from the boy’s section for the majority of my life until like the past three years. I have always loved Brooks Brothers, but at the same time, I loved this beautiful frilly coat in the new Dolce collection.

You are still a teenager. Do you struggle with trying to dress your age as you grow in your career? It’s not really a struggle because I want to dress my age. Part of that is because I will have somewhere to go later in life rather than feeling like I have done it at all at 16. Part of it is also about feeling comfortable. I like feeling comfortable in my own skin and a lot of that has to do with not showing too much skin. It’s also about having fun. I don’t really have to comply to adult rules, I am only 16, after all.

Watch three other young actresses pay tribute to David Bowie