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Great Expectations with Yara Shahidi

She’s the breakout young actress from Black-ish who has been singled out as President-in-waiting by Oprah, yet YARA SHAHIDI is taking it all in her stride, finds LUCY WALKER. Photographs by CASS BIRD. Styling by ELISSA SANTISI

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Alright, world. Exhale. You can relax. Yara Shahidi has arrived, and the future? It’s all going to be OK. The 19-year-old American actress, known for her roles in hit TV series Black-ish and Grown-ish, has been called the “voice of a generation” – to which, after meeting her, I must add the heart, the soul, the brains, the conscience. And yep, the hair too. I’m not the only one taking comfort in the promise this young talent represents. When Oprah Winfrey was recently asked, in a video Q&A, what gives her hope, she said, “Yara Shahidi, of course. I hope I’m still around when she becomes President of the United States.”

Shahidi, who was born in Minneapolis and moved, aged four, to Los Angeles due to her father’s job, started acting when she was six; three years later she was starring in her first feature film, Imagine That, opposite Eddie Murphy. But it was being cast, aged 14, as Zoey Johnson in ABC’s smash hit Black-ish (currently in its fifth season, it has amassed a raft of awards, including three for Shahidi), that proved her big break. Her lead role in ABC’s equally successful spin-off Grown-ish centers around Shahidi’s character Zoey as she heads off to college – just as Shahidi herself did last September to Harvard (Michelle Obama wrote her college application letter of recommendation), to read sociology and African-American studies. But while Grown-ish may be about the college experience, it’s a very different one to Shahidi’s. Zoey is not political or smart, she’s a party girl. Whereas, to get an idea of what makes Shahidi tick, her 18th birthday party last year was ‘voter’ themed and included a registration booth for her friends, building on a non-partisan platform – Eighteen x 18 – she founded to encourage young people to vote in last November’s midterms.

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I meet the actress, who is accompanied by her mother, at her favorite restaurant on LA’s Fairfax Avenue. She greets me warmly, dressed in a T-shirt bearing the image of novelist James Baldwin (whose image is also her Twitter photo), jeans and clear Perspex earrings. Her hair is pulled back and her face is makeup-free, conjuring the look of a no-fuss student – albeit one with a preternatural social conscience. She credits her background for shifting her sense of what’s possible. Her African American mother Keri and her Iranian father Afshin (who was Prince’s official photographer) encouraged Shahidi and her two younger brothers that they could do anything, provided they worked hard enough. “I felt like my family had already achieved much of the impossible. It’s a unique perspective, being black and Iranian, and coming from two persecuted peoples. On one side of my family is the list of people who can’t enter the US from certain countries,” she says, referring to President Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban, “and on the other side are those who are familiar with what it’s like being black in America.”

In person, Shahidi’s eloquence and poise are astounding, and she chalks up her confident thinking to her parents, who always asked for her opinion. “There’s an expectation at the dinner table that conversations are for us to engage in. At a young age, I was able to figure out how to verbalize my feelings, fine-tune them, and then fine-tune them again. Whereas many people hit that age where all of a sudden, boom, they’re considered adults and they are supposed to have their opinions figured out. But they haven’t been given a free space to do that safely, in a way you are not judged or harmed by it.”

Family is clearly a refuge for the young actress and she admits the toughest part about college is the long stretches away from home. She works hard and describes herself as a “quadrilateral”; so square that she doesn’t let 50 hours a week of acting work stop her from putting just as much time in again on her school work: “I’ve wanted to be a history teacher longer than I’ve wanted to be an actor.” Her new year’s resolution was to go out and have more fun, even though, as her profile rises, hanging out at the mall is getting to be a bit of a hoopla. She insists she’s had no time for dating, though you can’t help suspecting she’s smart enough to protect some private areas for herself.

It’s a unique perspective, being black and Iranian, and coming from two persecuted peoples. On one side is the list of people who can’t enter the US from certain countries, on the other side are those who are familiar with what it’s like being black in America.

Like many teenagers, she loves music – Tobi Lou, Noname, Jorja Smith, Aminé, Lizzo, Tyler, the Creator – and fashion, though this teenager is a Chanel ambassador, has starred in a Tory Burch campaign and was recently announced as the face of Bobbi Brown cosmetics. She credits her stylist, LA’s in-demand Jason Bolden, with understanding how she likes “to move” in her clothes. If this sounds like it should feature in the Gen Z manifesto, she doesn’t take herself too seriously and can laugh at her many fashion identity phases: “There was one where I’d only wear skirts, high tops and really baggy shirts. And then it was all knee-high socks, Oxfords and boys’ suits.”

Shahidi talks gratefully and joyously about identity politics, something she has had the chance to explore further in her upcoming film The Sun Is Also a Star. Adapted from the novel by number-one New York Times bestselling author Nicola Yoon, and directed by acclaimed female director Ry Russo-Young, Shahidi plays Natasha, a Jamaican teenager whose family is being deported but whose 11th-hour meet-cute with a Korean-American boy forms the backbone of the narrative. “What felt parallel to me was Minnesota being the place that I’d most definitely consider home, but at the same time also struggling with St. Cloud proposing a Somali ban,” she says. “It’s that strange paradox of, ‘How do I feel so strongly attached and how have I done everything to contribute to my community and my city, and that same respect isn’t given to me?’ I love the way this film examines that duality.”

But when it comes to being nominated as the voice of a generation, she’s excited to be seen as just the opposite. “A defining mark of Generation Z has been this desire to be undefined and to have some autonomy over self in terms of saying, ‘This is how I identify. And I should have the right to live freely.’ Even just looking at my friendship groups, I see the spectrum of sexuality, gender identity, immigration status, being the first person in the family to go to college. I feel like there’s a variation now that you can’t deny. And as that expands with our generation, there will come a very natural point at which you can look at the world and say, ‘That’s why I believe all these other people deserve similar rights.’”

Her references are so well-chosen, so meticulously on-message and enthusiastically delivered, that it’s hard not to think that here are the makings of a future politician. She consistently cites the African Americans who inspire her – model and trans activist Hunter Schafer, who like Shahidi is 19 and one of Teen Vogue’s “21 under 21”; journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas; artist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors, as well as Cullors’ activist partner Janaya Khan – as if to chip away at culture’s racial imbalance and bring attention to those deserving of it.

It may be a premature question to ask a freshman, except it feels like the most natural in the world: is she interested in becoming President? Alas not. Not yet, at least. “I’ve seen so many people around me inform politics through cultural ways, and I think that’s the route I’d love to take.” Politics, she adds, is just one of her interests. “I realized pretty early on that all my interests come just from a general investment in human beings. And so that makes it easy because everything feels very connected in a way that I’m really grateful for – the ability to have my day job as an actor, while also connect deeply with the work that I want to do in terms of voting, registration and civil engagement for my generation.”

A defining mark of Generation Z has been this desire to be undefined and to have some autonomy over self in terms of saying, ‘This is how I identify. And I should have the right to live freely.’ I feel like there’s a variation [in this generation] that you can’t deny.

This “general investment in human beings” is of course the marker that defines her generation. But when you mix it with the fluent articulacy of someone like Shahidi and the platform of her fame, change – or at least the possibility of – is almost assured. Or to put it another way, thanks to people like her, the best of her generation are getting the attention they deserve. As we step out into LA’s spring sunshine, I watch Shahidi gambol across the road. The future shimmers with hope for what her generation, and of course Shahidi herself, will do as they hit their stride.

The Sun Is Also a Star is out May 17 (US); August 9 (UK)

Read the full version of this interview in PORTER’s Summer 2019 issue

PRESS PLAY

Take a sneak peek behind the scenes of YARA SHAHIDI’s shoot, captured on film by photographer Cass Bird.

See the full shoot in PORTER’s Summer 2019 issue

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