LOS ANGELES – By the time Harvard students grow bored stealing glances at freshman Malia Obama, they’ll have a new classmate to obsess over, a friend of the former first family with arguably even greater star power.
Minnesota native Yara Shahidi won’t move into the Cambridge, Mass., dorms until next fall, though. She’s taking a gap year to headline a spinoff of her ABC series “Black-ish,” in which her character, Zoey Johnson, heads to college herself.
Zoey is far less ambitious than the actress who plays her.
“Oftentimes I’m developing two characters at the same time, figuring out who Yara is and who Zoey is,” Shahidi said from the Disney Studios, where she’s sprinting back and forth between the sets of the Emmy-nominated “Black-ish,” which returns Tuesday, and her new show “Grown-ish,” tentatively scheduled to premiere in January on cable's Freeform.
“How do you make that separation, and embrace this idea that your character is not going to agree with you but still has a valid point of view? It’s been actually kind of fantastic,” she added before slipping in a reference to the rebellious teen in “The Catcher in the Rye,” a novel she first read when she was 14. “I kind of see Zoey as my personal-life Holden Caulfield, because you’re allowed to be somebody that you’re not. As a teenager you really don’t have that privilege in many other spaces.”
Even if her new series flunks out with viewers, Shahidi’s future shines bright.
Michelle Obama was so impressed by the young star’s contributions to her Let Girls Learn Initiative that she wrote Shahidi a college recommendation letter.
The accolades — a BET Award, an invitation to speak at a United Nations summit, an Essence Magazine Women in Hollywood Award — have come largely from her political activism rather than her acting ability. In August, she was recognized at a Black Girls Rock ceremony alongside Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Wall Street power broker Suzanne Shank.
“ ‘White’ taught me what ‘black’ was not,” the 17-year-old said in her acceptance speech. “ ‘Male’ taught me what ‘female’ was not. ‘Straight’ taught me what ‘gay’ was not. ‘Sad’ taught me what ‘happy’ was not. ‘Law’ taught me what ‘equality’ and ‘equity’ were not.
“But our charge is not to live within this negative space of who we are not to be. Who are we not to be, after all?”
Among those blown away by her poise and eloquence is Laurence Fishburne, the Oscar-nominated veteran actor who plays her grandfather on “Black-ish.”
“If she doesn’t become president of the United States, something’s wrong,” Fishburne said. “People like to talk about child actors who don’t do well. Makes better copy, I suppose. But Yara, like Ronnie Howard and Jodie Foster, is really gifted, talented and beautiful. She was kind of born with everything.”
‘She gives me hope’
While other teen stars use social media to promote their latest projects, Shahidi is busy retweeting the Dalai Lama, Pakistani female education activist Malala Yousafzai and Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis. She announced her plans to attend Harvard to her 1.2 million Instagram followers by quoting James Baldwin.
“Every time I talk to her, I realize I don’t know what she’s talking about. I need to go grab a book or something,” said comic Wanda Sykes, a frequent guest star on Shahidi’s series. “She gives me hope.”
Shahidi left Minnesota at age 4, but her work ethic and passion for activism are deeply rooted in the Twin Cities, where her father worked as Prince’s personal photographer and her grandfather still runs a Persian rug store in Uptown. People who tour Paisley Park can see a picture of the young Yara on a table in Prince’s office.
“The travel to London and Hawaii set a precedent for how amazing my childhood was,” said Shahidi during a lunch break from her shooting schedule, which can keep her on set for up to 17 hours a day. “It literally opened so many doors.”
It would have been easy to grow up thinking she was born with a purple spoon in her mouth. But backstage access had just the opposite effect.
“We’re just kind of a grounded family,” said her dad, Afshin Shahidi, whose book, “Prince: A Private View,” will be published this month. “We didn’t make anyone seem extra-special because of what they did.”
Yara’s mother, Keri Shahidi, laid down the law at home, restricting the amount of television her three children could watch. Her oldest daughter was so naive about pop culture that before securing the role as Eddie Murphy’s daughter in the 2009 film “Imagine That,” she had no idea she would be screen-testing with a comedy legend.
“I told her that she was auditioning with the man who voiced the donkey from ‘Shrek’ and that he looked like my brother,” Keri Shahidi said. “She didn’t know him otherwise.”
The two — who recently staged an impromptu dance party in Yara’s trailer on the “Grown-ish” set — are working on a book about mother-daughter relationships.
“We kept all media out of the house,” Keri Shahidi said. “That’s the way I was raised, and I just carried that tradition on. In our house, quoting James Baldwin is sexy. The correlation between [Voltaire’s] ‘Candide’ and the existentialism movement, that’s sexy. We were on the beach during family vacation, and the kids were debating socialism, fascism and capitalism.”
Family on the set
The parents made sure that family ties transferred to the “Black-ish” workplace, where Shahidi has been employed since she was 14. After school, her brothers would join her on set, where they took advantage of the free snacks and played football, helping to normalize their sister’s upbringing.
“I helped pick them out when they were babies,” said the show’s star, Anthony Anderson, of the four young actors who play his kids. “And so with that comes the job of teaching them personally and professionally. I’m with these children more than I’m with my own. It’s an added responsibility that I welcome. It’s been amazing watching Yara grow. She’s going to run the world someday, if that’s what she decides to do.”
It also helped to be surrounded by veteran cast members like her on-screen mom, Tracee Ellis Ross — the daughter of Diana Ross — and grandma Jenifer Lewis, who debuted on Broadway in 1979.
Not that Shahidi isn’t taking advantage of the more posh benefits of being a Hollywood scene stealer. She consistently makes the best-dressed lists on red carpets. At the Emmys two weeks ago, she wowed the fashion police in her beige Prada gown, embellished with green sequins.
“She revels in the fact that clothes can show your personality more than your body parts,” Keri Shahidi said. “It’s not the gown. It’s the human in the gown. Her eyes are sparkling and you know she’s having the time of her life.”
Yara Shahidi may be swamped, balancing two shows at once, but she’s still finding time to read during her gap year. Baldwin’s poetry collection “Jimmy’s Blues,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galápagos” and the Zadie Smith novel “Swing Time” are all on her nightstand.
She’s also hoping to make her directorial debut with a short film she’s co-writing, inspired by “The Red Balloon.”
“Right now, I’ve got the privilege to have this accessible to me,” she said. “I came into this as an all-around creative person, not just an actress. One thing I’ve learned is that anything is possible.”