“I always tell the kids, ‘I don’t want anybody on Leno talking about: “I had money, but my Momma took it,” ’ ” said Keri Shahidi, a commercial actor whose career started in Minneapolis.
Maybe it’s the MBA degree in Shahidi or a natural levelheadedness, but she’s devoted to pushing her three actor children to perform well academically while becoming financially literate, despite other distractions in L.A.
One of those children, Minneapolis-born Yara Shahidi, plays the eldest daughter on ABC’s hit show “Black-ish.” Although only 14, Yara’s in charge of collecting her paycheck from the accounting department. Accountants thought this was too much responsibility for Yara, but Keri views it as her daughter’s money. Besides, Twitter’s @CommercialMommy has explained all the information on the check to her daughter, who spends time with her own financial adviser twice a year.
This interview with Keri Shahidi is chock full of wisdom and priceless nuggets. There’s the prank that comedian Anthony Anderson, who plays Yara’s dad on “Black-ish,” pulled on one of Yara’s brothers. And did you recognize Keri, a Wisconsin native, as a reporter in a Nike commercial starring Super Bowl-bound Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman?
Q: How busy are you juggling the academic and professional commitments of three young actors?
A: Oh, my gosh. Well, today, I do not have an eye twitch so I’m a step ahead. It’s very busy. I think a lot of people can relate — whether it’s for themselves or for their partner or for their kids — when you know what inspires someone in your charge, you have an obligation to pursue it.
Q: What are your children’s inspirations?
A: For my daughter, it’s education. She went to Oxford University and a summer program. Last year we took her to Harvard. We got to spend the day with Skip Gates. She sat next to Jamaica Kincaid at dinner. It was almost surreal. She said, Ms. Kincaid, we are studying you in Honors English. And then for my middle one, he again is an actor and he’s athletic. You could ask him to play badminton. He will become badminton champion. So for him we do things like speed training and travel basketball and tennis lessons. For the little one; he wants to be like his siblings. Be a faster, more refined version of his siblings, which is hilarious to watch. What agents always say, and it’s coming true, is the third one had sat back and watched the process for so many years. He’s been on so many sets. He’s met Sam Jackson, this person, that person, because he was a baby and I had to take him with me. All of that is normal life to him. I said, “What do you like about acting?” just today. He said, “I like Craft Service. If I were to put it in order, it’s Craft Service, I like getting a check, I like acting.” Totally different order than the other kids. When we started working with him in commercials, he reminded us that this is about living your life every single moment. Myself and the [older] kids were thinking, there is a certain way to behave, there’s a protocol. That’s out the window for him. So he kind of brought us back into the joy. Forget about if the commercial’s going to air. Forget about if editing’s going to take you out — have fun. He’s enthralled and intrigued by the set. He’s brought fresh life into something that had felt like a job for me personally because it’s what I do for a living. I love what I do but I’m ready to do something else.
Q: What else would you like to do?
A: I have a couple of business ideas around how we operate. We meditate. We focus on life being abundant; it may not be what you’re lookin’ for but there is abundance around you. So when the kids audition for things, they really pick and choose. They don’t go out for everything. If it doesn’t connect with them, they don’t go out and it’s been like that from Day 1. If they do love something, they may write down an affirmation, as if it’s already happened and they stick it on their mirror and on their desk. So a business around that, kind of how we live.
Q: I can tell your kids’ names are not black names but names that mean something.
A: They all have nicknames. They are Persian names. Yara, 14, means “Someone who is close to your heart.” Sayeed, 11, [who like his sister was born in Minneapolis] means “Blessing.” Ehsan, 6, means “To act as though God is watching,” which he does not. He’s my feisty one. [Their father, her husband of 17 years], Affhin, is an Iranian. He’s basically black. Their food is the same, the family structure is the same. Met him in Minneapolis at where the Loring used to be. We had parked at the top and were walking down the middle of the street. I saw this guy, who I thought was Puerto Rican because his Afro was bigger than mine. I asked my friends, “Who’s that Puerto Rican guy?” They said, He’s not Puerto Rican.
Q: Has Yara suggested story lines for the makers of “Black-ish”? Your kids’ lives have to be similar to those of the characters on the TV show.
A: What’s interesting is what the writers do is kind of get to know the children. Yara’s story line has been the one that they’ve taken their time to develop. Yara’s just an interesting kid. She’s highly academic. She’s got a 4.53. She’s a sophomore; she’s in regular school. She travels the world when she has time. Her new excitement is that the “James Baldwin: The Last Interview” book came out two weeks ago and she had preordered. So that was the highlight of her December.
Q: Remember when “Black-ish” delayed airing an episode on spanking because of the Adrian Peterson case?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: Have you ever had to spank any of your acting darlings?
A: Noooo. You know what’s so funny? It’s just like that episode. Our words hurt to the core, the disappointment. It’s generational. In this generation of children, just having the one-on-one attention of a parent and really seeing that our parent cares for us. I just had this conversation with my son this morning. He was drawing a book cover for a book he’s reading. I said, “This is a great start but I have to tell you I know you’re more creative than this and more thoughtful, so we’re going to start over,” and we did.
Q: Did I read you brought him to Minnesota for a movie?
A: He shot a short film in Minneapolis last winter called “The Sandbox.” I think it comes out in the spring. That was really fun because I got to go back to Moore Creative Talent and visit our agents because they are really the ones who started us. In fact, Richard Moody is the one who started my career.
Q: So it’s true that Twitter’s @RichardTMoody dragged you into Moore Creative?
A: Sure did. You know what he did? I bumped into him on the street, I was mid-20s, but I looked much younger. He said, Have you ever modeled? I was with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. I said, “No.” He said, I think you really should try. He took me to a photographer for test shots, took me into the agency. I’ll never forget. She said, You’re kind of short but WOW absolutely. He started the whole thing. [Moore Creative] started Yara. After I had Yara, I came in about at the six-week mark and said, “Hey guys, this is what my kid looks like, just wanted to say hi, I’m ready to work again.” They took some Polaroids, I thought for the office. The next day I got a call: We have a booking for her. I said, “How can you? She’s not even represented.” And they giggled, We took that Polaroid and sent it to clients. So she [Yara] started working at six weeks.
Q: I’ve run into that talkative Moody at parties and don’t remember him ever mentioning you.
A: Once a year I reach out to him and say, “Thanks again.” Honestly, it’s the compound effect. Had he not done that, I would have never considered this as a feasible line of work. And because I have a business background, I have a master’s in business, I just kind of quantified the work that I did. I thought, “Well, gosh, if I’m doing this, how can I make this bread and butter?” In Minneapolis remember we were fourth in commercial production; had the Target jobs, the Best Buy jobs. I was working all the time. When jobs began shifting to sunny LA and work began slowing down in Minneapolis, post SAG strike, we decided to move to LA (for my husband’s career) and found more success! Richard really started my career, by walking me into Moore Creative Talent. Julie Jorgensen and Alycya Cardwell really got our family working in the Minneapolis market and prepared us immensely for the larger LA market. They demonstrated for me what great agents are like.
Q: From your Twitter photo, I know I’ve seen your face but where?
A: Right now I’ve got a Hampton Inn spot but my hair is straight in that spot. I’m sitting on the bed and Facetiming with my kids. I have an Aleve spot about to run. I just did a spot with Richard Sherman, a Nike spot.
Q: Richard Sherman is hot right now.
A: Yeah, that was such a cool spot to do. I played a reporter. Just him and I standing there. He was so sweet. They asked him to act like he was out of breath, as if running to the sideline so I could interview him. And he was so cute. He looked at the director and goes, Well, it’s going to take a while for me to get out of breath. He’s just so fit. And he’s so young. You can see his youth.
Q: Is college paid for for all your kids?
A: Absolutely. What’s interesting is that if I do a commercial with my three children, which happens often [http://tinyurl.com/ngb64km], we all make the same amount of money. Imagine being a 6-year-old with no mortgage, no car note. It’s all his. So it gets socked away in an account. Their investment banker flies in from New York about twice a year and visits his LA clients. My daughter said to me: Why does he speak to us for so long? I said, “Because you’re liquid” and I explained what liquidity was. And I said, “It’s important that you know that your money can work for you. That’s not my decision, that’s not your dad’s decision. This is money you guys have earned.” They think that they are out here having fun. I think they are going to be shocked when they turn 18. My daughter is starting to know because the first week on “Black-ish” I went to pick up her check for her. Week two I introduced her to the accounting team. They actually said, “Isn’t she kind of young to do this?” I said, “This is her money.” So I showed her how to look at her check before she left the accounting room. From weeks two through 16, she’s the one who picked up her checks. I always tell the kids, “I don’t want anybody on Leno talking about ‘I had money, but my Momma took it.’ ” [We both laughed]
Q: You are so levelheaded, I admire you teaching your kids financial literacy.
A: You know, there’s no other way to be. I think some people think, “Oh, parents get paid for driving them around, parents get paid for this [and that].” No. Honestly, I chose to put them in the business. Now they chose to evolve in the business I put them in and do bigger things. But even if a child is smiling for five hours eating Kraft macaroni and cheese [she interrupted herself]; have you ever smiled for five hours? You should be paid for that. [Laugh.] So that’s why they are paid.
Q: Are the people in Hollywood getting any better about casting black kids in this sense: Too often I see a black child who could not possibly be the progeny of the people playing his or her parents?
A: There are two different perspectives I see. There is the perspective of, “Let’s shake up what America thinks blacks should be,” and then there’s, “Out of a group of black actors, who is the best fit?” and they really don’t know that until they get the kids in a room. So many times it isn’t about, “Well this person matches the other person.”
Q: I assume that Anthony Anderson has pulled some practical jokes on Yara?
A: He. Is. A. Nut. Hi-larious. You know what he did last week? My middle man, Sayeed, had just worked on another set and came to Yara’s set to do some school work. The Crafts Service guys always save an ice cream bar for my son. There is one ice cream bar left and my son unwrapped it and Anthony walked up and snatched it and starts eating and says, Oooooh, this is so delicious.
Q: Anthony Anderson is just wrong.
A: You know what he did? He got in his car and went to the store and bought Sayeed six ice cream bars and came back to the set. He is a nut. We just went to the NAACP luncheon this weekend and the nominees went up, so Yara went up to accept her award. Anthony and Tracee [Ellis Ross] and Marcus [Scribner the older boy on “Black-ish” who retweeted my Twitter observation about @MarcusScribner] bum-rushed the stage, moved the photographers out of the way, took pictures with a camera of Yara’s and then ran up on stage and moved the executives out of the way to take family pictures. If you could imagine, the crowd was roaring, because that’s just how silly they are together. I saw Affion Crockett’s Instagram he took a couple of videos of it.
Q: Anthony Mackie was on NBC’s “Today Show” saying that he wanted his résumé to ultimately include roles as a superhero and cowboy. What roles do your kids dream of playing?
A: [Laugh] OK. Yara wants to be a detective or a superhero. Sayeed just wants to play basketball. If his character can play basketball [he’ll be thrilled], and Ehsan just wants to do whatever his siblings have done, just better. [Laughter]
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch Fox 9’s “Buzz.”