Shahadi Wright Joseph
Hi Shahadi, I would love to know how you define yourself and what you are passionate about.
Well, I'm 15 and I'm an actress. I live in New York city and I go to a performing arts high school, which is a lot of fun. I love to play chess and I love to ride my bike. I think that what I'm most passionate about right now is acting and creating.
How have your parents influenced you and your passion and your ability to be creative?
Well my parents have always been a part of the arts. They own a dance company. So, when I was two, they put me into dance and that's kind of where I started out. And then I got more into musical theater and now solely focus on acting. So that's how they've kind of influenced me through that. But I've always loved to act. I feel like I've been a very dramatic kid ever since I was growing up, I feel like that's always kind of been my brand around the house. But I think that doing it professionally is something totally, completely different, but it's so much fun. And I think that it's something that I really want to do for the rest of my life.
That's really amazing to be able to find something you love and are great at really early. What have you found to be some of the challenges that come with moving into your passion and also your profession so early on?
I feel like you really do have to sacrifice a lot. Some events you can't really go to. You have to skip out on some days of school, which I'm not mad about, but you don't get to be a normal kid. And I think that that's something that a lot of people take for granted sometimes, having that freedom. But I think that I've kind of signed myself up for this and I know what I was getting myself into. So, I'm not very worried about that and my friends are really understanding about it as well.
I think it's really great to have a really good, strong support system. Taking a step back now, I want to know who are some of your role models? I know you've worked with some really awesome people already, but who are just some of the feel you look up to?
Oh my gosh, Regina King, I would say, Ava DuVernay. And of course, Cicely Tyson. I literally met her once and only one time. I wish that I could have actually spent more time with her, but she was such an inspiration to me and probably to all black girls in the industry. She was just such an amazing and positive soul.
As you start to pave your way in the world and in your industry, is there something that you hope to be known for?
I feel like I've never wanted to be known as just one thing. I absolutely love writing and I would love to create my own project one day or projects. So I feel like I would want to be known for just being a Creative and being an actress and being a writer and maybe even a director or producer. That would be amazing. I feel like that's why I mentioned Regina King. I feel like she's really shown young black girls that you can be an actress and you can be amazing on and off the screen and I feel like that has a lot of power. So I would totally love to do that.
So as it pertains to expression, how do you like to show up in spaces in which you find yourself?
I tried to present myself all the time as a really positive person. I never liked to spread negativity, especially on social media. But, I feel like I've always wanted to change people with my work, you know, and really affect people and inspire people.
I feel like that's the way that I really want to be known. Someone that someone can say: “This girl inspired me to start acting, or she inspired me to do this and to create this and to start doing this”. I feel like that makes me feel so good when people tell me stuff like that. It's amazing.
That’s really incredible, and I’m so happy you are able to have that influence. So we are now in an age where black girls are getting to see more representation little by little, which is so powerful. If you could speak directly to a young black girl somewhere who is looking up to you, what are some words you would love to share?
Let me think so that I can make this good. I guess this is a little bit like cliche, but I would really say to be yourself, especially in a world where people do not want you to be yourself. Being authentic is something that is really taken for granted and I feel like that's exactly what people aren't doing these days.
So I feel like truly being yourself is something really, really powerful, and it can really impact a lot of people. Like you said we're in a world where people are actually getting representation, which I love. And I didn't have that when I was a kid. And I feel so old for saying that but I literally didn't. I'm pretty sure that the only black girls that I would see on screen were probably like Skai Jackson and Zendaya and China Anne McClain. But we didn't really have a lot of dark skin representation, nothing like that.
It wasn't that broad and it wasn't that vast. So I feel like now I'm really loving what I'm seeing, and I feel like the next generation gets to have this amazing look for themselves and they get to see themselves on screen and it makes people feel so powerful and recognized.
Having worked on Them: Covenant recently and after your amazing performance in Us, I’m curious how you prepare yourself to be in that head space and kind of how you pull yourself away after you've been in those intense scenes.
I've never done any other horror so that was my first horror project. It was just such a new experience for me. And I think that's why I had that much fun. I think the process was so professional, especially with Jordan [Peele], just kind of leading me through everything and letting me ask questions and make my own input and create different lines if something didn't feel right.
He really gave us a lot of freedom, which is what I loved about him. So I feel like that experience is something that I'm never, ever going to forget.
I think that the preparation part has gotten easier over the past few years. Sometimes I need to learn that it's not me anymore. Like I'm not Shahadi once they say that they're rolling, it's not me. I'm Ruby or I'm Zora or I'm Nala or whoever else that I'm playing.
But I've learned to separate myself from the character, which has been great. And I think that it has helped my performance as just an actor, especially with the show, having such deep rooted racial issues in it. And me being a black girl and having experienced some of these things, it was absolutely insane just to see, and I love it.
As you think about projects that you hope to work on in the future, have you though about how you are hoping to create for the sake of creating, while also navigating your identity as a black creator?
I have and I think that's what I really liked about Us, because he never said that anything was really about race. I feel like everybody was just like, “Oh, it's Jordan Peele. It has to be about race”. But I feel like Zora was just a character and the whole family wasn't like, “This black family experiences racism.” It was literally happening to the entire world in the storyline. So I feel like that's what I really liked about it. Having a simple character where the black girl can just be herself, and she doesn't have to be specifically known as like a black girl, I think is great. And usually how I can tell when a character is like that is when I read the character description or the script and she can be replaced with somebody who's not her race and it could still have that same impact.
Speaking of impact, I wanted to know if there is a cause or issue that is particularly close to your heart?
Yes, the foundation that I was talking about with my mom was the African American policy Forum. And they're specifically focused on black women's issues as well and black women's mental health. And I feel like that's really important because as much as black men are being seen in the media, which is incredible, I feel like black women are usually, we know they're probably the most disrespected people on this planet. So when I think of organizations to donate, I would love to support this cause.