Becoming a household name as the privileged, popular and highly intelligent Zoey Johnson in ABC’s critically-acclaimed comedy Black-ish—a role she booked only a few short years ago—Yara Shahidi was challenged recently to step to center stage for Freeform spin-off Grown-ish, a series that sees the Johnson’s eldest daughter go off to college.
For Shahidi, the opportunity to step up to first billing with the college-set series had an “art-imitating-life” kind of quality to it, coming as it did when the actress was filling out her own set of college applications—eventually being admitted to Harvard, where she plans to study down the line.
For the spin-off, Shahidi tapped into her own understanding of a young adult’s moment of transition, finding that the Zoey of Grown-ish was a far cry from the young woman she had come to know—equally capable, but more vulnerable and less self-assured.
Navigating an unusual situation with Grown-ish, departing a successful, continuing comedy series to lead a spin-off, the actress had to reintroduce herself to a character she thought she knew well, in order to authentically depict what it is to grow up.
What did you discuss with Kenya Barris in early conversations about Grown-ish?
It was honestly just a conversation about figuring out all the places that Zoey could go. He was talking about the idea, which really resonated with me, that her growth will be stagnant if we can’t follow her onto this next leg of her journey, meaning that [Grown-ish] is such a large opportunity to witness what life is like through her lens. Black-ish is the origin story. I loved Black-ish, [but] it’s through Dre’s lens. We get to experience characters’ growth, but it’s altogether a different story when you hear it through the lens of Zoey.
So we were on the phone talking for maybe an hour, also about the idea that it makes room for us to go places that we never even thought of, in terms of, Zoey isn’t going to be like Yara. We established that in Seasons 1 through 4 [of Black-ish], but now, in a way, you’ll see a huge differentiation between what Zoey gets into, versus what Yara will, or definitely will not get into.
Then, we had our first meeting and it’s interesting because the idea had morphed from when it was initially supposed to be on ABC. At first, it was supposed to be an upstairs/downstairs kind of sitcom, in which it’s administrative troubles, and the troubles of the children, and how they intersect.
Then, when we did our backdoor pilot and moved to Freeform, Freeform was so supportive in saying that they didn’t have a problem with a 17-year-old lead, and they didn’t have a problem with what subjects we were going to tackle. They wanted it to be authentic, so it allowed us to go into the Adderall storyline; it allowed us to go into all sorts of storylines with each character, without having to give a beautiful ending, all wrapped up in a little bow. It’s been a fun metamorphosis.
You’re planning to continue your education at Harvard. Has it been strange acting out the trials and tribulations of college life before experiencing them yourself?
It’s been a nice trial and error. What’s funny is that I’d already planned on taking a gap year. With Grown-ish starting, fortunately, it wasn’t like, Oh, I delayed my college plans for this. If anything, it really aligned beautifully. In this trial run of college, what I love is the fact that Zoey and Yara will have very different experiences, so any initial hesitation towards, “Am I killing the fun of experiencing college for the first time?” went away. I don’t know if having been in college for a year would have informed who Zoey is.
Are there ways in which you identify with Zoey—as we see her in Grown-ish—despite differences in your experiences?
Definitely. When I say “far apart,” it’s more in terms of storyline. There’s certain storylines that Yara, as a square, just wouldn’t get into. But in terms of who she is as a human, I’d have to say what I really appreciated about her was the fact that it’s the first time you really see any uncertainty in her.
It was nice because it’s what I saw not only in myself, but in a whole lot of my friends. In the Johnson family dynamic, Zoey’s always been very sure of herself. If anything, she’s always the one who’s extremely grounded in the idea that she doesn’t get caught up in the hysterics of the Johnson family. It was interesting because if anything, Black-ish taught me a certain bravado level of confidence; then, Grown-ish taught me how to be comfortable with uncertainty.
That was a major flip and I feel like it was really apropos given that it was a moment of uncertainty in my life. Our journeys are parallel just in that we’re both doing some major growing up.
In what sense have you had to rediscover or reexamine Zoey, going through the first season of Grown-ish?
Going to college meant that a lot of her emotions and a lot of the storylines were very unprecedented for what we had already established on Black-ish. I don’t know a better way to describe it than like a second coming of the character. [In Black-ish], she was a big fish in a small pond. She’s upper middle class, borderline wealthy.
Her family had always been very blunt, in terms of talking about politics and social issues, bringing those into conversation. Even though Zoey’s had an opinion in all of these conversations, it’s been very theoretical on her part. She hasn’t had to experience it in real life, in the world. She’s had that kind of socioeconomic, beautiful little bubble around her. In college, she realizes that you can no longer talk about things in theory. What Aaron and Ana push her to do is to realize that she can’t have a theoretical opinion. As beautiful as it is to say, “I believe in friendship,” she has to figure out what that means in the real world, how that translates.
Was there a particular moment in Season 1 that resonated strongly with you?
I loved every time all the girls got together to talk. I feel like that debate was hilarious. It led to a hot mess of foolishness on set. It was one of those chances where we really got to improv—there’s that level of back-and-forth. I feel like anybody who has any sort of friend group can relate to that level of banter. Just a side note: Grown-ish has meant that I’ve been able to give great theoretical college advice to all of my friends who are first years right now. Zoey’s troubles and all of the antics her and her friends get into, it’s been really useful.
As a person coming of age, Zoey isn’t perfect. But it seems like her vulnerability and her open displays of imperfection are what have made her resonate as a role model for young women.
Like I said before, we didn’t want Zoey to be Yara. There was no reason to be like, “Oh, she has to be a square. She has to be perfect. She can’t get into trouble,” or whatever it may be. The one thing that we were cognizant of, moving into this new journey, was the fact that we didn’t want to do anything for shock value. Just the pure level of, “Wow, I can’t believe she did that.” There had to be a deeper meaning or reasoning behind everything that was happening.
A good example is the Adderall storyline. That was Episode 2, which means we were only at Day 5 on set, and my character has two love interests and is on Adderall. It was a moment to really dive in—to figure out, what’s the plan? One, Adderall is a real thing on campus; we’re not making this up. I think you can turn to most any college student and they’re either well aware that it’s happening, or in it themselves. It was like, OK, this is important for us to address, and to not gloss over.
I feel like the larger point with that storyline was not so much, “Wow, I can’t believe she’s on Adderall; what happened to our little Zoey?” But more so, just the normalization of drug use on campus, how that affects somebody. I really appreciated the fact that that was basically an eight-episode arc, of it either being mentioned or seen in the background. It’s not a pretty storyline; it’s not one that’s even expected.
Grown-ish has been renewed for a second season. What’s your take on how Season 1 wrapped up, and where would you like to see Zoey go as the series continues?
I feel like the end of the season really got into those more political topics like safe spaces that I really appreciated. I also love the fact that by the end of the season, Zoey has more of a certain opinion. It seems as though she has her life together, temporarily. I guess I’m looking forward to having some more episodes to play with—the more mundane conversations, and going to class.
Those will be fun things to explore—and it’s time to choose her major. I’m looking forward to the more academic pressure of it, her thinking she has her social stuff figured out from Year 1, once you become a sophomore and feel like you’ve gained all this wisdom. She should take on a freshman mentee, and guide her in all the wrong ways.
Outside of Grown-ish, is there a dream role you’d like to pursue?
There are two things that I’ve always wanted to do, for the longest time—a superhero and a sociopath. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m obsessed with the Marvel franchise, so that would be, I guess, a dream come true. Especially because the Marvel franchise has always been very political, if you turn to the comic books and look at the X-Men tied to the civil rights movement; and later, the LGBTQ movement. That would be incredible, [to remain] a part of the Disney family—hint, hint. But also, I would have to say, a sociopath is always fascinating. I love detective shows and always have, so I feel like something on that end of the world would be interesting.