Previewing BLACK-ISH with star Yara Shahidi

YARA SHAHIDITonight on ABC, an all new family is welcomed to Wednesday nights when BLACK-ISH premieres at 9:30/8:30c.  Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross star as Dre and Rainbow, well-off parents of Zoey, Junior, Jack, and Diane.  When Dre realizes that his family has started to lose a grip on their family culture (as a family in general and as a family of color), he commits himself to changing things around.

Yara Shahidi, who you may recognize as young Olivia Pope or the amazing butter carver Destiny in BUTTER, stars as popular teenage daughter Zoey on the new show (one of my top picks for fall).  I spent some time chatting with Yara about the show, getting involved, why we should watch, how studying history became a huge part of her life, and what comes next!

Was BLACK-ISH something you sought out, was it a typical audition – how did it all come together?
When I got the script, it was called the untitled Kenya Barris pilot, so we didn’t know what the premise of the actual show was. We got these sides and they were hilarious. It made us seek out more, see what it was about. When we got to figure out that it was a new, modern family, dealing with prevalent ideas, we fell in love with it, and decided to pursue it.

ANTHONY ANDERSON, TRACEE ELLIS ROSS, YARA SHAHIDI, MILES BROWN, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, MARCUS SCRIBNER, MARSAI MARTINWhen people say to you “what is BLACK-ISH,” how are you answering, how are you describing it for people?
If we were to just talk about the show, it’s about an affluent family, in which both parents live successful lives. They feel like in giving their kids this life that they never had, that there’s a piece of our culture that’s been missing. Our father, Dre (Anthony Anderson), throughout the storylines, he’s trying to get us to come back to black culture. It’s not a stereotypical black culture or anything like that. It’s just that we’re always on our phones, not connecting to our culture at all. His attempts to pull us back in and out of our social media about that.

What I really found relatable was that at the very core, it’s about a family simply re-connecting on a very basic level, too.
The thing about BLACK-ISH – it’s really not just meant for black people, the African-American community [laughs]. Really, it’s for anybody, of any ethnicity. We can all connect!

What an incredible cast, too – Tracee Ellis Ross, I have been a fan of hers for years. Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne, not to mention creator Kenya Barris – talk about what that has been like, working with these familiar people?
It’s been pretty amazing. It’s so hilarious on set. We get to sit back and learn from them. Me and my other siblings on the show, we’re always astounded because they can pull improv from anywhere! They make every scene so funny. It’s been a great experience.

YARA SHAHIDIDoes it make it hard to stay in character and stay in the scene?
Yeah, we had that problem last night when we were shooting [laughs]. At one point, we had to say, ok, let’s finish the scene, let’s be serious, we can do this!

What are some of the stories that you can tease that the family will explore as the first season plays out?
I can’t reveal too much about every episode, but in general, there’s a lot going on with Junior because he’s the 9th grader. He’s quirky and nerdy, and you get to see the different relationships. You’ll see the relationship between Dre and Junior and they try to cultivate this relationship. Dre is always getting Junior into stuff to make him stop being so quirky. And then I have a very close relationship with Pops, and we’re always messing with my dad. You get see the relationships and how each character develops as an individual.

ABC has done really well with the family comedies and I think Wednesday nights are kind of perfect this fall! Have you watched other shows that you’re paired with?
I have to say, honestly, I don’t watch a ton of TV. I’ve seen episodes of MODERN FAMILY because I worked with Mr Ty Burrell; he’s hilarious on the show and the show is hilarious. I just don’t watch a bunch of TV; I listen to podcasts.

You have such a crazy busy schedule with summers studying history and everything else you’re involved in, I knew that would be your answer ha! How insane can it get as an actor serious about her craft but also someone who is very serious about schooling? Is it hard to divide the time?
It is a nice sort of chaos, I think! [laughs] I’ve been lucky enough to have a family, teachers, and people on set, to all support me in all that I do. It’s made it easier to pursue both education and acting. What it’s really allowed me to do, despite always having to balance the two, it’s allowed me to live my life and experience so much more that I’ve realized I fell in love with. I absolutely loved my few days at Harvard and my month at Oxford, but I had a fantastic time coming back and shooting BLACK-ISH.

Where did your interest in acting start? Was it one specific moment?
My mom was actually a commercial actress, so in Minnesota [laughs], 12 years ago, we’d do commercials together and print ads, and all sorts of stuff. When we moved to California, it was interesting because I’d start to get TV show and movie auditions. At first, I thought, no, no way, because I was so comfortable with commercials, it was like, I get to work with my family, only a few hours a day. Then the IMAGINE THAT script came in, and other funny scripts came in, like BUTTER. Having one good experience after another, it was like, ok, this is something I want to pursue.

YARA SHAHIDI, MILES BROWN, TRACEE ELLIS ROSSI love that you have gotten to be a part of SCANDAL, too, playing young Olivia Pope – what was that like, being on that set?
For SCANDAL, Young Olivia Pope hasn’t gotten into too much trouble in her life [laughs]. SCANDAL was literally me walking into a room and being myself while they filmed me. I had glasses on and was listening to Michael Jackson in the few episodes that have aired already. It wasn’t that much of a reach for me [laughs]. Zoey on BLACK-ISH, it’s more of a stretch because Zoey is such a popular and social girl. I’m social and I have friends, [laughs], I can promise you that, but I’m not too into my phone and technology. I sit in my room reading a book 24/7.

It sounds like you get to draw a little bit of yourself and explore something completely different.
Yeah, it’s like playing dress up, in a way! She’s always such a fashionista. She’s not going with the trends; she’s creating her own trends. It’s fun to play her, to create this character, and it is something where I have to work more into the role of a teenage girl. I’m never on my phone. It’s to the point where my mom will have to say “Okay, Yara, can you pick up when somebody texts you?” [laughs] I just kind of always forget it places; it’s not even intentional! It’s like, “oh well!”

Switching to talk about school a bit – I know you’re a big history buff. Is there a time in history you love more than others, or were you just naturally drawn to that world?
I’ve always loved European history in general, and then American history. I like World History in general. I love ancient history, so Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the creation of Islam, the spread of Islam. I love those subjects. I think Greek mythology and Ancient Greece is one of the subjects that I’ve loved for the longest amount of time. Growing up, my grandpop was also a history buff. He would always send me Latin phrases and big Greek mythology books that I’d carry around with me everywhere. I was introduced to it as a young age. When we went to Italy, I was like, oh my god, that’s Eros! I was freaking out the whole time, like, I know these guys! [laughs].

I need to get to across the Atlantic one of these days, ha!
It’s great! The food is fantastic! I’m eating the whole time I’m there! The amount of culture, and everything – all of the things are so old, where people have come from, the Coliseum is still standing. There is so much still standing from years and years and years ago!

What philanthropic groups or charities are you involved with these days? I know that’s a passion of yours, too!
It’s still very general – I donate to a different organization every year. It’s kind of the Christmas gift under the family name. We’ll send out a Christmas card that says “oh we just donated this much to this charity in your name.” Every year, it changes, based on what’s going in my life, or what I find relevant. We did the Chicago Breast Cancer Research Foundation when we found out that my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer; she’s lucky enough to have had a full recovery. We’ve done Water for People. Recently, I went to Jamaica to help ICI, which is kind of like Doctors without Borders, to help give care to people who haven’t been giving doctor care.

MARSAI MARTIN, MARCUS SCRIBNER, YARA SHAHIDI, ANTHONY ANDERSON, MILES BROWN, TRACEE ELLIS ROSSBack to BLACK-ISH for a minute! Why do you think BLACK-ISH is a show that people will love and want to sit down and watch on Wednesday nights?
I think because more than just tying into black culture, it connects to anybody in a family. It does delve into family relationships and how a family kind of works and how it survives. We have the nerdy middle brother; the twins are always getting into trouble; the popular teenage sister. It’s one of those things where sometimes you’ll be able to connect to a character as an individual, or you can connect to a situation of just family chaos in general!

What else do you have going on?
As of right now, it’s a secret!

I look forward to learning what comes next – for now, we’ll check out Yara on ABC’s BLACK-ISH, Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30c!