Yara Shahidi says she’s nothing like Zoey Johnson, the character she plays on Grown-ish. “Quite honestly, I’m a square,” she tells me one recent sunny morning at a café in Pasadena. Shahidi certainly doesn’t look square. In Joe’s jeans and a royal-blue Tory Burch track jacket and shoes, her curly bob pulled away from her luminous face, she is at once impeccably composed and casual in a way that can’t be all that casual. Yes, she has arrived with her mom, but they are famously close, and Shahidi is still young.
Eighteen, to be exact—though she’s already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. Her breakout role on the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish led to the spin-off Grown-ish on Freeform, which starts shooting its second season early next year (she serves as producer as well as star). She has discussed political activism with Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, is a brand ambassador for Chanel, and started a voting guide for young people called Eighteen x ’18. She graduated last year from the Dwight School in New York, having received acceptance letters from every college she applied to, and will start at Harvard in the fall. She can tell you the year she becomes eligible to run for president off the top of her head.
Child actors tend to be eclipsed by the characters they play, but Shahidi looms large, as if fame has amplified her. She’s poised and hyperverbal, wearing her precocity ever so slightly on her sleeve.
Black-ish came along when Shahidi was thirteen. What impressed the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, “was the way she approached the role. A lot of actors came in and I felt like they were pushing, pushing, pushing. And there was just an effortlessness to her acting that spoke to me.” Shahidi’s activism emerged in the same natural way. “She’s always been concerned about the world around her,” Barris says. “After her social-media presence began to grow, she began to understand how to use her voice: the things that she talked about and cared about.”
Red carpets, by the way, “could start to feel trivial,” Shahidi says, so she likes to think about a greater purpose. “Like, this one will give me a platform to talk about voting. Or saying to myself, OK, well, it feels a little weird to be at the Teen Choice Awards right after Charlottesville. But then how do I use my position to shed light on what’s happening?”
A tireless evangelist for better representation, more parity, more truth-telling in mass entertainment, Shahidi talks fast just to fit it all in. (As Ross observes, “If you get Yara talking, she will not stop talking. When Yara gets comfortable, she gets comfortable.”) Blending art and activism “is necessary for one’s sanity,” she tells me. “One of my greatest fears is living a self-centric life. I think this industry is bred to create that—especially if your physical body is your tool or your face is what makes you money. I’m trying to understand that and then pulling back to figure out, How do we avoid that? How do we want something and have a greater purpose?”
This article was originally posted on Vogue.
Minor changes have been made by the Quiet Curator editors.