By Alyssa Shapiro
Zolee Griggs is a 23-year-old actress living in Los Angeles, California—and also a budding humanitarian. Seeing a growing need amid a devastating pandemic for necessities like food and clothing, Griggs sprung into action to open the Inglewood Grab + Go (more on that below). And with an acting career spanning from Disney to Wu-Tang, (Griggs appeared in the That’s So Raven spinoff Cory In The House as an eight-year-old, and now plays Shurrie Diggs in Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga,) Griggs has matured as a young woman alongside her roles on screen. As her commitment to community grows, too, we can’t wait to see what she does next.
Alyssa Shapiro: In terms of your acting career, you’ve gone from Disney to Wu-Tang. I love that trajectory—what was that like?
Zolee Griggs: I started commercial acting when I was four years old—I’ve always been outgoing, always loved performance. In school, I would do the school plays and all that kind of stuff. Auditioning for Cory In The House was life-changing for me as an eight-year-old, just because I loved That’s So Raven, and so I knew in my mind, body, and soul, like I had to book the role. It was amazing for me to actually accomplish that goal as an eight-year-old—that was the best thing that ever happened to me at the time.
Transitioning into being an adult, Wu-Tang [An American Saga] was a challenge because it was a complete 180 from what I had done in the past. Being able to work so closely with, you know, I would say icons and sick rappers, with like a really dope and authentic cast, it was really important for me to, you know, listen to them and take this role seriously. I learned a lot from both stages of life and I'm appreciative to have been able to do both.
AS: Being one of the only female voices in the room on Wu-Tang, you bring a feminine balance to that production. How does allowing space for softness and femininity factor into your own life?
ZG: Being one of the only young women on Wu-Tang really taught me to be always authentically myself. I can't be afraid to speak up for myself no matter what the situation is because I'm kind of representing for not only myself. And sometimes the men need a reminder that, hey, it's not always about just you guys or, you know, the world that you're comfortable in, but there's also me.
I think the importance of sometimes being the only woman in the room is not being afraid of what, you know, preconceived notion of what being the only woman in the room means, you know, not being afraid to use your voice and not being afraid to just be honest with yourself. Like I'm not worried about what the guys might think if I have to be honest about how something made me feel or, you know, no matter what it is, because at the end of the day, they should understand me and they do. And most of the time they're respectful and have my back. So I have to just be authentic the same way that they also have to be.
AS: What does acting do for you? Is it about like self-exploration or self-expression?
ZG: Acting to me has changed over time, since I've been doing this since I was a little girl. I think [for] younger me, it was an outlet to perform and it was fun and I enjoyed making people laugh and entertainment. But now that I'm older, I see how diverse it is and how serious it is. It started when I was taking acting classes and just doing research. I think now I don't only want to limit myself to just doing comedic roles and things of that nature, even though it's a lot of fun, but I see the reward in doing serious roles and taking on dramas and things like that for myself, because it's a challenge and I love to be challenged. I love to be uncomfortable and take myself out of that comfort zone. So now playing serious roles and auditioning for them, I want to do it to prove to myself that I can and to explore what it's like to navigate different circumstances and stories and roles. It's just interesting to find it within myself because sometimes I'll audition for roles that seem intimidating at first, and then after I go through with it, I'm like, it wasn't as scary as I thought. I actually handled that, you know, better than I thought sometimes it proves to myself to like, just to give myself some credit.
AS: Can you expand on that a little bit? That idea of giving yourself credit? That’s something I think most women and people struggle with forever—like the imposter syndrome thing and realizing that you actually do deserve to be in the room. What’s that process been like for you in terms of being more confident, and giving yourself credit?
ZG: Definitely. I think it's a challenge to give yourself credit because even with what I have accomplished, I still look at everything else that I would like to accomplish. Building confidence takes time and it's not overnight. I'm still growing confidence. I will always, for the rest of my life, but I think it's taking it in increments, in baby steps, and realizing that I'm here for a reason and as long as I continue to do the work, do the research...honestly just doing the work like, you deserve to be here. The worst thing that you can do is to not be prepared, you know? So
I prepare myself and do the work and if, you know, if I don't get that role or whatever it is, that's okay. That doesn't mean that I'm not good at what I do. It just means that opportunity wasn't for me, but something will align when it is by the time I've done the work, I've done the preparation, the research, so on and so forth. It's just finding that, you know, that role that was meant for me. So baby steps.
AS: What are some of the things in the preparation for and doing the work—beyond the research, beyond making sure that you're prepared for the role specifically—what are some of the things you do to feel your most confident?
ZG: I'm not afraid to reward myself if I have beat myself up. I try not to be in my head, and we're all our worst critics, but I'll give myself just a quick breather, you know? I take time to be appreciative for what I have and what I have accomplished. So I reflect on that, and then also, you know, if I wanted to go to a certain restaurant maybe, or, you know, order takeout, things like that, like little rewards just to say “it's okay.” And to be present, you know, to remind myself to be present because it's easy to get overwhelmed with where you should be or where you want to be, but then also it's good to reflect and just be like, “You know what? I'm here right now. I know where I want to be. I'll get there, but let me just think about the moment right now. And maybe if I am more present, now, it might help guide me to where I want to be, maybe I can see things a little bit more clear.”
AS: Okay, you mentioned take out and I noticed on your Instagram that you’re always getting these amazing vegan things. Is that you cooking?
ZG: Yes. I cook a lot because I've always cooked. I mean, I live on my own, but because of the shut down, it was like, where are you going to go? You know, definitely, before quarantine, my friends and I were going out to eat like all the time, it was ridiculous. So now, I watch Tabitha Brown all the time on Instagram, and of course she is a vegan queen and I just look at her recipes and I either make them my own, or I just, you know, take her recipes and try them for myself. I cook a bunch of vegan foods, like vegetables, all that kind of stuff. I actually love finding substitutes for meat now; it's like a game, but it's a lot of fun, cause it's also healthy. So I enjoy it.
AS: I think with Disney, there's often a pressure to really carry yourself a certain way and exist in the world in a certain way and to really be a role model for a lot of the people who are watching. And I wonder if you’ve found a way to balance the duty of being a role model with the need to be true to yourself?
ZG: Definitely. I'm always going to authentically be myself, but I'm also aware that I have a platform and I have young girls or girls my age that, you know, that might look to me, and so I wouldn't want to put anything out there that would be harmful or detrimental.
Not even just with being on television, but I think social media has taken on a mind of its own. I think that can be sometimes more influential than television because it's right at our fingertips and so people instantly connect with who they're looking at. If I had a little sister and she was on her phone constantly, I'd want the people who she would look up to to be inspiring and to, you know, put good things in her head if she's going to be so enamored, because that's the thing is like a lot of little girls are looking at their phones and they're enamored and they mold themselves into being, you know, the people that they see on social media until you learn how to have your own identity. And I think a lot of people forget about those times when you're in middle school and things like that, you're very impressionable. So my mom has always reminded me that as well, to be aware of what I say, what I put out there, things like that. I'm very thankful for her.
I just remind myself, like, you know, what is a 13-year-old seeing or what would I want to see as a 13-year-old? But I also can't always cater to being 13 because I'm 23 now. I think it's very easy to balance being myself with also being appropriate.
AS: Do a lot of young girls, or just girls in general, message you, DM asking questions and for advice? And how do you handle that? What’s the approach you normally take to that?
ZG: Well, I started on social media with a blog and so people would ask me questions and DM me directly all the time. It was a fashion blog and then it kind of turned into an advice column, which was really cool. And I would answer through my own experience. I can't tell people what to do, I can't tell people how to react, all these kinds of things because everybody's experience is different and that's what I try to remind people is my experience in life is going to be different than yours, but there's just certain ways you can navigate or handle certain situations. Like a frequent question I get is, “How do you become more confident?” That's something that I always tell young ladies that it's within yourself. It takes time. It's not overnight, but a really smart and imperative thing to do is to have alone time with yourself, is to be with yourself, and not to let outside opinions, thoughts, you know, all these kinds of things intervene with how you feel about yourself. So I just try to be honest with these young ladies. I can't, you know, give them complete answers to everything, because who am I? You know, I feel like it's not up to me to dictate these women's lives and experiences.
AS: Do you find that not being perfect and just exposing your imperfections and your flaws and just being very vulnerable helps the girls that reach out to you?
ZG: Definitely. I think being vulnerable helps everybody just realize that number one, we're all more alike than not. And two, that I'm a real person, because like I said, social media is a beast of its own. And I think people sometimes forget like, Oh, I'm talking to a real person. They don't interact with me in real life. And so being vulnerable and being honest in letting people know that like, hey man, I'm having a bad day today. Like, you know, I feel like this and dah, dah, dah, dah, and whatever it may be. It's like, Oh my gosh. I'm going through that same thing right now, that's so relatable.
You know, I think people get on social media and they think that everything is perfect. And I understand we all are on it and looking at, you know, somebody else like, wow, that looks amazing. But at the end of the day, we're all still humans going through a human experience. And so definitely being vulnerable is like the simplest level to connecting with another human being.
AS: How do you get comfortable being vulnerable? Is that like something that you’ve practiced, or is that something that someone taught you?
ZG: That's funny. I think I've always been vulnerable, maybe a bit too much. I'm learning to know when to, and when not to, and with whom, you know, um, because I think all my life I've always loved acceptance. I've always wanted people to like me. And I think as I've gotten older, I've learned that that's just not how life works. Not everybody's gonna like you. It's not up to me for everybody to like me. All I can do is control myself, what I put out there, what I say to others, what I do, you know, and, and make sure that my intentions are pure and how other people view me is completely up to them, you know?
I definitely think being vulnerable has just... I've always been that way, but it's just learning when to be and when not to, because certain things I do have to, you know, learning and growing with friendships and relationships platonic or romantic, you learn like, okay, I should have dealt with that on my own, or I should have gone through that by myself, you know?
AS: This summer, for your birthday, you established the Inglewood Community Grab + Go. Tell me about how this community market came to be?
ZG: So over the summer because of all that was going on with quarantine and, you know, people not being able to feed their families, I was on Instagram and there was a page that I came across called Alternative Chicago.
They made an alternative market and it was literally just shelves and like hangers for people to place things on. And it was a free community market. And I was like, yo, that is so smart. So I just took it upon myself to do the same thing. I showed it to my dad and he was like, “Oh, that's easy as pie, we could do that [in a] split second.” So we went to Home Depot; we gathered the supplies. My sister and my friends helped me. We sawed the wood, we measured it. We went out to Inglewood, and placed it where the city thought was cool. And we just put it up. We literally just put it up and I made the announcement before my birthday, just so if you know, friends, family, anybody could donate that they could also, you know, pitch in and then to also let the community know like, Hey, there is a place, if you need assistance, if you need, you know, supplies, food, whatever it is, there is a place within the community that you can go now.
Every time I go, it's good to see people using it. People constantly like saying thank you, this means so much. I mean, I stocked it up one day and I saw this lady with no shoes on, and then she went and grabbed a pair of socks and somebody had left shoes already, so she grabbed some shoes. It's just heartwarming to see it actually working and to see it come to fruition and knowing that it's helping the community. So it's a beautiful thing. I'm just grateful that it's still standing and still doing what it's supposed to do.
It’s open 24/7 because it's on Queen and Market Street [in Inglewood, California.] It’s basically a specialized donation center, so people can put up school supplies, canned goods, books, feminine hygiene products, et cetera, et cetera, up on the shelves for anybody who needs it to grab it.
AS: What does it mean to you to be a beautiful person in how you live and through your actions?
ZG: To be a beautiful person is, I think, how you conduct yourself when you're around people and when, you know, people are and aren't looking, I think it starts within—how you treat yourself is a reflection on how you treat others, you know? I think when you're happy within, it shows, you know, you're smiling, you're glowing. You're just exuding a certain type of energy and then it kind of reflects on to others, you know? I think it's really just being nice to everybody in the room, no matter what they could do for you or who they are, you know, and just giving people the benefit of the doubt. Like, hey, we're all on a humanistic level, just people. So I'm going to treat you with the same respect and kindness as I would want in return. It's really the saying, treat people how you want to be treated.
AS: What role do energy and connectedness play in your life?
ZG: I think you can literally feel other people's energy. And so when everybody around you is in a good mood or is happy, and you guys are on the same page, then it's easy to connect. It's easy to reflect off of each other. You know, you learn, you grow, all those kinds of things. But sometimes people just clash and it's just a non-compatibility thing. It plays a big role in my life just to make sure I have whoI want to have around, you know?
Energy is important for me because I want to preserve my own. I want to make sure that I'm giving my energy to the right people, you know, if I'm constantly giving and it's not mutual and I'm also not receiving, then I'm going to be drained. You know, that's kind of just how things work.
I like for things to be mutual and for it to be consistent. And so I like for the people that are around me to be on the same wavelength. All my friends are also hard working and they also have a humanitarian side to them and we all try to have a positive outlook on life—honestly the simple things, but that's not everybody's mantra in life, and that's okay. Like I can't judge, but I like to have people who agree with those things around me, because it makes it easier on me, for all of us.
AS: Yeah. I definitely understand that. Do you have rituals for the times that you need to feel more grounded, more centered, more yourself and kind of like, come back to that positive outlook, come back to all of these things that are important to you?
ZG: For sure. I definitely have rituals. I pray, I journal, I do yoga and meditation. I set intentions as in like, you know, if I need to reset, I will purge in my journal, so I'll write everything that I might not say to somebody, or, you know, if I can't talk to somebody because it's a situation, I'll write it down. And then I have different candles with different intentions and you set those, you light those, you can like say a prayer or just say something aloud and then you light it. Same with yoga—breathing and meditation help so much. I think it also helps with mental discipline, which I really enjoy. I like to discipline myself mentally, cause I think that's, you know, the strongest place you can be disciplined. So those helped me a lot for sure.
AK: I do want to ask the question, because a lot of what we’ve been talking about is really centered around community, but community in different forms. What does community mean to you? It sounds like you’re saying that energy is about building the right community.
ZG: For sure. I think you can build the proper community with people that have the same mantra and ethics and morals as you by just finding people that have the same interests as you, and not just like on a superficial level. I think that's what I've learned is I've had relationships in the past, which I thought were going to be more meaningful, but we only had true connections because they were superficial. And so I had to go not only deeper within myself, but find people who also, you know, went deeper within themselves.
I think my sense of community started with being in the home. I'd always had, you know, my parents supporting me and I grew up in the church and the whole point of church is to be community and for everybody to gather. I really wanted that same sense of community in my friendship circles as well. It was important for me to find friends and loved ones that had that same mantra. Now that I have found it, it's beautiful because I think it inspires other people to also do the same.
LA is a big city and sometimes we can get so wrapped up in individualism that we don't think to come together and, you know, have a sense of community, but it's good to just reach out to people.To build relationships with people you wouldn't think [of], to go to certain neighborhoods and, you know, meet people and things like that to make your voice be heard and known just to let people know like “I'm here if you need, don't be afraid to reach out if you need assistance or help or whatever it is.” To have friends that are also on that same page and helping me do so and helping me make our community a stronger place. It means a lot. And it's like, it's just sweet to know that there are other people who are on that same page who want the same things.
AS: You have talked a little bit in the past about like this pride and love you have for Los Angeles, the city that you're from. There are a lot of different kinds of people here. Do you think that this desire to be open and find a community filled with all different kinds of people stems at all from being from a city like Los Angeles?
ZG: I think my sense of community stems from LA because we have a bad rep in this city for not having a community and not being there for each other. And I think that's because a lot of people know LA as being the hub for entertainment and Hollywood and people get it's easy to think of this city as like a snob hub. I'm trying to think of the proper word, but just to be self-centered, you know, and for people to only think about themselves.
I think what my friends and I try to do is not only show that that's not true, but like, you know, LA is much bigger than that and some people—if you have that mindset that when you come to LA, it's only about self, then you kind of take on that role, whether you know it or not. And so it's like, it doesn't have to be that way. You can join in and come with us and be a part of our community where it's about giving back. And it's not just about, you know, how people perceive us because my experience with LA is different from people who might have just moved here or who might've just lived in a different part of LA.
It's always been a community for me and like the neighborhoods that I've grown up in and the schools that I've gone to. So just to remind people that no, we do have a sense of community here. And then just spread that in general. So people can just not be afraid to tap in with the people around them, not be afraid of the people around them, not, you know, to introduce themselves.
AS: What does it mean to you to Dream Beyond™?
ZG: To dream beyond means to think beyond the limitations of where you think you should be or what you think you accept. It's to dream of what you want, like whatever reality that may be—and it could seem extremely farfetched, but the thing is you have to believe it. You have to put your all in, like, you know what, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to achieve. This is how I want to live. However it is. And then you have to not only go for it, but you truly have to believe it, reiterate that to yourself constantly, you know? And then it's no longer a dream. It becomes a reality because it is a part of you and then it becomes you. So I think not harboring any limitations and to just accepting whatever dream you might have, turning it into a reality, so it really can become tangible.Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy