Amid the drama of Hollywood, 14-year-old Yara Shahidi manages to stay grounded. Shahidi plays Zoey Johnson on the hit ABC show Black-ish, but off-screen she’s living life as a (mostly) regular teenager. She’s on debate. She loves Lauryn Hill. She’s interested in history. Your Teen recently caught up with Shahidi to find out how she strikes the balance.
Our Yara Shahidi Interview
Q: Have you ever thought of doing anything besides acting?
Shahidi: I have wanted to be a historian for the longest time, but I keep changing my other desired professions. Last year I wanted to be a CIA agent or part of the FBI, but that ended up changing after I stopped watching so many detective shows.
I was in a movie called Salt, and after watching that whole movie I was like “Oh my gosh, oh my goodness, I want to be in the CIA, I need to be in the CIA!” Right now I am exploring my options. History is always something I have loved, specifically African American, world, and Islamic history. I am also interested in public relations and advertising, particularly to combat gender stereotypes in the media.
Q: How do you keep up with school while acting?
Shahidi: Whenever I am shooting, I am in school on set. When there are media days or I am not shooting, I go to a school in Los Angeles. I think it’s a blessing and curse. My [off-set] teachers are super flexible; the only thing is they are new to the idea of students basically being gone all year and dropping in for a few hours every few months. But they are very supportive.
Q: How do you manage to stay grounded while going through this untraditional childhood?
Shahidi: It’s easy to get caught up in the “I just auditioned for this,” and “I am auditioning for this!” atmosphere in Hollywood, so it’s nice to be at a school where nobody really cares. Not in a mean way, like, “I don’t care about the fact that you are doing a show,” but to my friends I am not Zoey from Black-ish or the girl who acts. I am Yara that they have known since second grade. My friends are interested in what I do, but their main concern is just having a good time and being in a relationship with another human being.
Q: Do you feel like an outsider with your friends?
Shahidi: There are definitely some moments where I am like “Oh, they get to participate in this or that,” but I think it’s a small price to pay to be on a TV show.
Q: You are so poised. Have you ever had any media training?
Shahidi: Thank you. I haven’t really done media training, I have been instructed on topics to avoid such as spewing out political randomness. I am on my school’s speech and debate teams; it comes naturally for me. My parents tell me I’m an old soul.
Q: Do your parents have any restrictions when it comes to social media?
Shahidi: For the most part they trust me. On social media they help me with my posts, making sure my followers know what’s going on in my life. They will say, “Hey, there are a lot of things going on that you just did; you should let people know.” Without them I wouldn’t be posting as much; I’m the kind of kid who would post once a month.
Q: Are there any teen trends that seem foreign to you?
Shahidi: When it comes to clothing, I am on the more conservative side of things. I am not a crop top kind of person, so long-sleeved crop tops kind of bother my soul. I don’t mind anyone else wearing what they want to wear–it’s a form of self expression, and I understand that. But I don’t get the point of wearing a long-sleeved crop top. If you’re cold, why wear long sleeves and have your stomach showing? It’s counterintuitive.
Q: You went to Oxford this summer. Tell us about your experience there.
Shahidi: The program I did is called Oxbridge, and it allows students to spend summers at different universities. I spent the month of July there taking two history classes. At first I was concerned that it was just going to be a ton of work, but the program really gives you a lot of time to explore. I was doing summer projects for my actual school and writing essays at Oxford; it was definitely a busy summer.
Q: Did you know anyone else in the program beforehand?
Shahidi: No, I didn’t, and at first it was like “Oh my goodness, what am I going to do? What if I don’t meet people? What if I am all by myself?” It was a little nerve-wracking, but I enjoyed not going with anybody because it really opened me up to everybody. I was no longer like, “I have to stay with this person and I have to do this and I have to do that.” It let me meet a lot of new and great people.
Q: What’s your favorite book?
Shahidi: The Catcher in the Rye. I think it is something that I can relate to. I don’t think I am as crazy as Holden Caulfield, but he’s a teenager who’s kind of the same age as I am going through this developmental phase trying to hold onto certain virtues and wishing that everything could stay the same, feeling like it’s all corrupted and then realizing that he doesn’t have to corrupt himself. He doesn’t have to become who everyone else is.
Q: What was on your wish list for the holidays this year?
Shahidi: A record player. Last year it was a typewriter; the year before that was a pocket watch; and I think the year before that was some fountain pen. Once someone asked me if I liked the band 1975, but I didn’t hear that part and I thought they meant the year 1975. I went on a whole rant about how I am more of a 1995 kind of person and why I like 1995 better than 1975. She just looked at me like I was crazy and was like, “Yara Shahidi, honestly.”