Minnesota-born Yara Shahidi first appeared in the spotlight when she was six years old, by way of television commercials and the odd bit of print modelling, but it was in 2009 — at the age of nine, when she was cast alongside Eddie Murphy in Imagine That — that she first made a name for herself. Since then she’s played a butter-carving champion (yes, that’s a real thing) in Butter alongside Jennifer Garner and has starred in American action-thriller Salt with Angelina Jolie. For Shahidi, it’s important she selects her roles with care. “Fortunately I feel like every one of my roles has been pretty special,” she says. “It’s either been that the part has been an experience, or that it’s been something close to my heart.” Of course, Shahidi’s most career-defining role to date is that of Zoey, the daughter of two affluent African-Americans, on ABC’s comedy black-ish.
“I remember getting the script, when I read it I felt like someone had been spying on my family. It was just so real. Because it was based on the lives of Anthony (Anderson) and the creator Kenya (Barris) I could relate to the family dynamic in so many ways. I was like, ‘Oh, we had this conversation at home. Oh wow, we were just talking about this subject.’ Even though myself and Zoey are polar opposites it was immediately easy to relate to.”
Despite their obvious differences, Shahidi has drawn many positives from playing Zoey. “It was the best possible way to delve into the complexity of being a teenager,” she says. “On a silly note, I feel as though playing Zoey allowed me to get that typical teenage sassiness out on set. But what I really love about Zoey is her confidence: she’s basically like, ‘I’m gracing everybody else with my presence’. You know? In small doses, that’s not a bad attitude to have and I feel like that’s what she’s given me. I’ve definitely become more outgoing from having that confidence and I feel like that’s opened up so many opportunities for me.”
“I remember getting the script, when I read it I felt like someone had been spying on my family. It was just so real.”
The opportunities Shahidi mentions range from discussing the importance of girls’ education in the US with Michelle Obama, being a surrogate for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, to interviewing representative John Lewis during the election. At the recent Los Angeles Women’s March she appeared on stage in front of 750,000 people and she’s set up her very own Yara’s Club, an extension of The Young Women’s Leadership Network, set up by Ann Tisch, that covers a total of 12 schools in New York. Realising she wanted to be involved in the network on a regular basis but not being located in New York, Shahidi decided to set up her own collective to continue the conversations she started. “It was a way for us to keep in contact, to support one another, to collectively analyse the minutia of our life, to find ways in which we can become active members of society, allowing us to say we have made measurable change.”
As of late, a main conversation topic between members of Yara’s Club has been the election. “Being bi-racial, being Iranian and being black, I’m part of two communities that are really at risk because of this election and because of the policy choices that are being made,” she says. “We thought about how we make changes at home, how we create our own safe spaces.” Shahidi is of that rare breed amongst young creatives and artists using their platform as a vehicle for social change.
Between running Yara’s Club, filming, campaigning and giving speeches on philanthropy, the actor has also been writing her own digital series, the concept for which stems from her school biology notebook. “It was titled Come Evolve With Me. It was a place where I would translate whatever concept I learned in biology into something much easier to grasp, like a pop culture reference. For example, I compared ionic bonds to the bond that Jack and Rose felt sitting on that plank of wood at the end of Titanic.” In other words, what started as an educational series has expanded into Shahidi’s way of approaching the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. “It’s about breaking things down. The balance between our school and social life, communication with our parents. How can we break those things down? The answers, similar to black-ish, start to form a conversation.” By looking at the world around her with thirsty eyes and an inquisitive mind, it’s clear Shahidi possesses the rare and alluring ability to provoke conversations that offer a perspective on society far wiser than her years.