Introducing Zolee Griggs: sisterhood advocate, humanitarian and one of Hollywood’s new rising stars.
Fans of Disney may be familiar with her role in the That’s So Raven spin-off Cory in the House where she played Tanisha. The actress was most recently seen starring opposite Joe Manganiello in the action movie Archenemy. Later this year Griggs will be reprising her arguably most iconic role to date as Shurrie in season two the critically acclaimed series Wu-Tang: An American Saga alongside Shameik Moore and Ashton Sanders.
Outside of acting Griggs remains passionate about giving back to the community, helping those in need with the Inglewood Grab and Go and supporting young women through empowerment conferences (“GRL:WMN). Her mission is to create a space where young girls can learn how to navigate life, replacing the current lack of these programmes in public schools.
Here’s what happened when Zolee Griggs sat down with 1883 to discuss life in Los Angeles, the films she’s been working on and how she’s remained grounded in the face of success.
From the perspective of someone who was born and raised in LA what are the 3 biggest misconceptions about living in the city?
The first being that it is only boujee. Let’s not lie LA definitely is, it’s the land of entertainment. But I think people stay on Hollywood boulevard and then get disappointed when they don’t see celebrities and realise how dirty it is. [Also] people think that LA doesn’t have a culture but it’s so big that it has many subcultures. So, it’s not going to pop out at you. Finally, that LA doesn’t have good food. It has plenty of good food! But like I said it’s so spread out that [only] certain areas cater to those foods. If you don’t have a car or you just don’t know you’re kind of subjected to whatever food is in your area.
The first role that most people remember you for, was Tanisha on Cory In The House. Being a child actress how did you stay grounded?
I think that’s another thing we can talk about when it comes to misconceptions. I am very blessed to have been a child that was an actress yes, but I wasn’t like a deep child actor. Being a series regular on a Disney show is completely different to being a recurring role on a Disney show. It was easy for me to stay grounded. My mum was always there physically with me on set and my grandmother would sometimes participate. I would go home when I finished working and be a normal girl. Social media wasn’t as big as it is now, so I was very able to go on and have a normal life afterwards. [I could] still go to church, still go to school and still handle my eight-year-old business (laughs).
It’s funny that you mention social media because many people may not know this, but you actually used to be a blogger. Is that something you’d ever revive and how has the influx of social media impacted your career?
I started blogging and social media at 14 years old fresh out of middle school and that was the new trend in high school. Tumblr had just started to really get popular, and blogging was the new rage. I was just joining in because it was fun, I didn’t know that it would turn into its own industry and commercial business. I am a part of the generation that grew up with the internet, so we were always following the wave. It’s definitely something that I still love and appreciate and maybe I would go back to YouTube and do like a vlog or a series but it’s not in the forefront of my mind. I’m really focusing on my adult acting career which is new chapter for me.
On the subject of your adult career, what’s been the biggest change navigating the world of acting as an adult in comparison to booking roles as a child?
I think there’s a different trend happening right now. When I was a little girl there was a mix of genres. In 2010 in that decade there was still a mix. Now that we’re in the 20s it seems that there’s only dramas out right now. Dramas are the rage, and you can even see that with TV shows. Episodes aren’t 30 minutes anymore they’re an hour. The difference is just how serious the roles are, how serious the stakes are and the stories that we’re telling are a lot more serious and a lot more devasting honestly. But if you look at our reality in life that’s the truth, so it goes hand in hand.
What has been your most challenging role to date and why?
I just wrapped up a movie in Greece with Antonio Banderas it’s called The Enforcer. I don’t want to give away too much – it will be out next summer hopefully. But it’s a devastating movie in terms of the circumstances that my character is in and it’s a big reflection on a big problem we have around the world with child sex trafficking and things like that. It was such a heavy role to play. That was definitely a challenge for me but it also a great experience to be able to work with such seasoned actors and with such a great director Richard Hughes. It was definitely the most jarring role that I’ve had yet.
I know you can’t say too much about it, but I do want to ask seeing as the role is so different from what you usually do, how did you get yourself into that headspace?
Just looking at what’s going on around us…I mean I was already up to date with what was happening in the news, when these young victims come out and share their stories about what it’s like. I am really big on those documentaries anyways, so I was watching and referencing that kind of stuff. Then also being a 14-year-old blogger in real life, it was also easy to tap back into being a 14/15-year-old girl and these circumstances because that was an epidemic we went through online as well. You know young girls meeting up with people thinking it would be their friends and it actually being a pervert or something crazy. These lived in experiences are never that hard to tap into because it’s stuff I’ve thought about.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is returning very soon with its second season, which I am sure you’re super excited about. What can we expect from the new season?
Oh Yes ma’am! You can look forward to a lot of new relationships. Shurrie and Dennis have a new relationship, which if you watched the last episode, you could already tell what it’s going to be. But I’ll just let people watch that so they can have a reminder. Then the group of course have a new relationship with each other. I am really excited to see how Wu-Tang transitions from a group of brothers trying to figure it out to Wu-Tang the group.
And how would you say Shurrie’s character develops throughout this season?
Shurrie was a young educated high school student with a secretive boyfriend. This season the relationship is out in the open but she’s not just a student anymore she’s [also] a mother. It’s a completely different world for her. It’s going to be interesting for everybody to see.
Did the success of the first season create any additional pressure to continue elevating the show this time around?
Oh, definitely and it’s not just pressure on the actors. We’re just performing what’s written. It’s really about the writers. What RZA and the rest of the group would like to share with the world. We’re fans just as much as everybody else because we don’t get the full script all at once. We get it per episode so we’re reading the first episode like oh my gosh and we’re on the edge of our seats just as much as everybody else is. There was definitely pressure but the writers, producers and directors we had this season did an amazing job in bringing these stories to life.
This is going to be a little bit of a throwback, but I did want to talk about your role as Indigo in Archenemy. Visually I think everyone remembers her vibrant blue braids which was such an important piece of on-screen representation. How were you able to inject yourself as a Black woman into that character?
It was really fun to play Indigo because she’s what I like to call a ‘free spirited badass’. You think she’s just so ethereal and whimsical and then she does a complete 180 and you’re like oh my god she’s holding a gun. The fun and beautiful thing about Indigo was that Adam the director came to me and said, I love this hairstyle and whatever feels comfortable for you let’s do it. Adam was very aware and just came to me on a human level and we collaborated on the shade of blue and what Indigo would like and things like that. I think the cool thing is that Indigo much like many Black girls is just herself. There isn’t one way to be a Black girl.
Did undertaking this role make you want to be more intentional about the way you represented yourself as a Black Woman within the acting world?
Definitely! I always want to represent us in a positive light even if the stories that we have to tell might be traumatic or scary. Whatever it is they are still our stories and our truths. Black women are a multitude of different things. Yeah, I would love to just have us be happy and healthy and in love and laughter. That would be beautiful because you don’t always get to see that, but the reality is that we’re so many different things. So, I would love to be representing us in a way that’s truthful and authentic. Even if it’s not the happiest of stories if it’s authentic other people will resonate with it.
Outside of your career you’re also an advocate for giving back to the community. I’d love to hear more about what inspired the idea for the Inglewood Grab and Go and what’s happening now.
First of all, giving back has always been instilled in me because I grew up in the church. My grandmother is southern Baptist, so it really started there. Then I went to a high school that was really big on giving back and it was actually a requirement to do 30 hours of community service. That’s the thing when you’re forced to do something, you appreciate it a lot more. When we were younger, we didn’t understand it but now I’m so grateful that was instilled into us. So doing the grab and go I was inspired by an organisation in Chicago called ALT Chicago. They set up a stand that I saw on social media, and I thought this is amazing, I would love to do something like that in the community. It seemed like everybody was struggling but nobody was assisting. Living in LA where there are so many resources, I knew the community could help each other out, it’s just that we don’t always know where to reach out. Building the grab and go bridged that gap. I was appreciative it was able to live as long as it did, but Los Angeles has so many problems that it wasn’t able to live that long. We had a lot of homeless people who ended up living at the grab and go, which personally I had no problems with, but it became a hazard to the city. The city did not reach out to me to see if we could work together on it, which I wish they did. They kind of just took it all down which was really unfortunate and sad. BUT that doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop. Now it’s about how we can work with the city to redefine what giving back looks like, which is what I am in the process of doing.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga Season 2 can be seen on Hulu on September 8th.
Follow Zolee via @zoleeg
Interview Ray Sang
Photography Devin Blaskovich