Whether she’s playing Zoey Johnson or being the powerhouse that she is in real life, Yara Shahidi’s dedication to everything she loves and is involved in is admirable. Her character has evolved so much from the social media-obsessed teenager fans grew to love on black-ish, and now she has spent three seasons as the lead in grown-ish. Her character has struggled to find a place where she belonged since the beginning. After being undecided freshman year, she chose fashion and sociology as her majors, but she still had difficulty balancing her classes and work responsibilities. During the midseason finale last year, she began coming into her own and revealed that she would be quitting school to become a full-time celebrity stylist.
“When we met Zoey on black-ish, she was the super certain daughter that knew exactly what she wanted to do, never really questioned herself, super obstinate. In many ways, I say a replica of her father, Dre (Anthony Anderson), almost completely,” Yara told Complex. “Developing her over the years has been wonderful and even so complicated at times. She has definitely proven that growth is not linear and it's not about waking up and making one mistake and then being better for it the next day, but so many times, you do have to go through the messiness of life to be able to finally learn your lessons. I think it's been important to me to be able to emphasize as much as we hear about her relationship stuff, a lot of what we're tracking, too, is her figuring out who she wants to be as a human and in her career.”
Outside of acting, Shahidi does not play when it comes to her education. She got into every college she applied to, including Harvard University, and Former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote her letter of recommendation. Even so, she still appreciates the non-traditional approach to success Zoey has taken, even if it means pushing her pursuit of a college degree aside. “I was so glad we made that decision. When talking about grown-ish, people often don't know one of the clunkier first names for it was college-ish. Ultimately, the reason why we didn't have a name about college was that [the show] is really about growing up more than being at school. I think we couldn't do justice to the experience of growing up without having characters explore alternative paths, and to have somebody like Zoey be able to make that decision and be able to not sugar coat either experience of being in school or be out in the world, knowing that they have benefits and detriments for every person,” she said. “I think it's also a wonderful time to see Zoey out of her usual context, to see her doing new things with new people and not carrying the baggage of what we know about her or how people view her from previous episodes.”
One of the new people Zoey meets in her new life is a celebrity client named Indigo, played by Saweetie, and Shahidi explains how this character is helping mold Zoey into the person she wants to be. “This is a brand new dynamic that we get to introduce to the show, and I think much of that relationship is really about Zoey coming into her own. I think Saweetie, in such fun ways, is able to continue to help push Zoey in unsuspecting ways to feel confident in her decisions,” the actress shared, adding that the rapper was a “joy” to have on set. “Honestly, I think part of it is that confidence and that swagger, you literally can't replicate. What I love about Saweetie just as a human is that she is so multifaceted. She is a businesswoman, a college grad, somebody who runs her own businesses and is making music. I think that's something that runs through the whole cast, being a multi-hyphenate. That comes through even in her character. You may meet her briefly, but you can't name her character, Indigo, as one thing.”
Aside from Zoey being a college dropout, the friend group is also dealing with an arrest, a friend facing the struggles of being a single mom, while another recommits to her religion. Shahidi knows that the variety of issues they deal with enhances the show and strengthens the bonds between them. “I think not only does it make life more interesting and cooler, but I think a part of growing up and continuing to develop your take on the world is constantly introducing new perspectives. So much of college, I think, is continuing to expand what you thought your world was.”
The actress is a producer on the show, but she says the writers are the ones who keep the show as fresh and relatable as it is. “I should give credit to the writers for really making it a mission statement to actually be reflective of college experiences. We know we're not going to capture everyone's experience and that we could never possibly do justice to that but at the very least, dive headfirst into the experiences we think these characters would be having. I think not only college students, but so many young people, know the experience of how the worlds they used to keep separate come crashing together in your young adulthood,” she shared. “I think what's great is the writers are extremely receptive to the things that we've experienced. Whether it be the prison divestment storyline, which was really reflective of things that I was aware of that were happening on campus at the time and movements that were student-led. I think that dedication to being able to tap into what's actually happening in the world means that even though this was supposed to come out in March of last year, we're still able to come in with a relevant season.”
The show has been on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Shahidi has continued working and even launched the 7th Sun Productions production company with her mom, Keri Shahidi. They are executive producing an upcoming comedy series named Smoakland for Freeform. “It's been interesting this past year, as I know it has been for absolutely everyone. I'll just start by just saying I'm grateful. Even being able to have the privilege of quarantining at home and social distancing and having careers that we’re able to continue in this time. Of course, safety is at the front of our mind, but still being able to, say, have a show in development,” she said.
The Sun Is Also a Star actress has been vocal about her passion for politics and has used her platform to encourage young people to get involved and to vote. The show’s midseason premiere is taking place a day after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into office at the Presidental Inauguration. While Shahidi knows this is a moment of relief for many, she knows the real work is just beginning. “I'd like to be overly optimistic and I am for the fact that there's a new administration, but I know many of us were sitting in trepidation because we know that real humans’ lives are in danger,” she said. “But, it's also a time that I'm hoping to be able to celebrate. I know so many grassroots organizers worked overtime to get certain people elected and get the administration that we have. What we also know is that this is no time to sleep. We have so much work that'll still have to be done post-inauguration. But, it's also a time that I'm hoping to be able to celebrate, hoping to take this moment to feel rejuvenated and then get back into it.”
Season 3 of grown-ish returns this Thursday, Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on Freeform.