taste test

Yara Shahidi’s Voice Memos Are Music To Her Ears

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Everett Collection, Retailers

Yara Shahidi has been acting since she was six years old. She even continued her career throughout her college years at Harvard University, graduating in 2022 and leaning into a quieter life right now. (Don’t worry, she still is acting.)

It’s the afternoon after the Oscars and the Black-ish actress is already back to work after partying at Vanity Fair’s after party where she wore a black lace and sequin adorned gown. Before the Oscars, Shahidi spent time in Paris attending fashion shows. As an actress at such a young age who had to lean into finding her personal style early, there’s many memorable moments: One being her first pair of Christian Louboutin Kate pumps. (You probably know the one, the iconic and classic red bottoms that everyone has either had on their wishlist or in their wardrobe.) For Shahidi her first pair was at 17 years old, “Kate’s were the first close toed shoes I found that matched my undertones perfectly. They became my staple and still are to this day,” she says.

I feel like we morph into our moms as we get older and I know you and your mom have a really close relationship. Was she a shoe obsessive when you were growing up? Did you get that trait from her? 

Between myself, my mother and my middle brother Syed, we all have what we’d like to call an interchangeable closet. We all have similar style choices especially with sneakers. With my father, I was a shell toe Adidas superstar girl growing up and with my mother, it was about tracking down that one pair of Nike blazers that she got in the South Korean market. Before I got into heels, shoes were always an essential part of our conversation, it was those things that we took great care of and passed to each other or passed down. I had a pretty stellar high top sneaker collection that I’d only wear with skirts through middle school.

Shoes have always been a big part of my story. Even during my Blackish audition, I walked in wearing the same pair of shoes as Anthony Anderson and I swear that’s part of how we knew that I was supposed to be his daughter on the show because we had the same pair of Oxfords on from the same brand.

I read that one of your proudest achievements is work-life balance. What does that balance look like for you?

We’re always finessing it. Today it looked like leaving the Vanity Fair Oscar party at a decent time and getting a good night’s sleep then coming to work today in the morning. There’s been a couple parallel conversations happening in our family that’s really helped. One was when my aunt brought up highest order thinking, which is just the idea of asking yourself, what are my priorities? And not from just a to-do list perspective, but it’s like what fills you up, what moves you? And I feel like this last year, 2023 for us was getting very clear on what those things were in order to then be able to prioritize them. So it’s been good. I feel like 2023 was a year of a lot of forced stops with the strike and such, but we are grateful to optimize that time and now the real challenge is now that things are, at least for the foreseeable future, going, going, going. How do you maintain that?

In learning that, what has been the thing that fills you up?

I feel like the biggest, most cliché, but honest to me would be community. I think especially now, I think being Black and Iranian, there’s just so much happening in our global community and when I say it can at times feel debilitating to be expected to show up and act like our world is not on fire. And so it’s really been that much more important and that much more moving every time we gather with people we love intentionally or unintentionally. I mean, I’m grateful to have grown up in this industry enough to be running into people that mean so much to me. I ran into Yvette Nicole Brown just the other day at a gifting suite of all places and we had a life-changing conversation in the middle of that gifting suite. Those moments really stand tall, and that’s something that my mother and I have even focused on. Even in work travel, taking that time to connect to the people that are there.

The other thing that’s always moving me is music. If you don’t know where to find me, you’ll find me at a concert. It’s like one of the only things that I really feel so moved by and I take voice memos at concerts that I go to. Not to illegally stream it or put it on on my phone for clarity, but I love that when I take a voice memo I hear my friends laughing, I hear us sing along and I will sit and listen to those on my car rides. It really transports me right back to where I was. On airplane rides I don’t watch movies no matter how long the flight is, I just go through my voice memos. You can still put your phone in your back pocket when recording. For me, it’s the perfect balance of wanting to capture the moment and stay present because I think that’s something I always struggle with is like, oh, I do want to remember this and I want a moment from it, but I also don’t want to be holding my phone in front of my face.

What is on your playlist?

I have been listening to a lot of Jordan Ward, who I love. He’s actually been the person for getting ready, that’s been who I’ve been listening to. But I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumentals by the Offline and Fiona Apple. There’s this one song by George Harrison from the Beatles, ‘I’d Have You Anytime,’ but there’s a cover of it that was done by an American Afro Brazilian singer, his name is Ralfi Pagan. That’s kind of been what I’ve been listening to in the morning because as somebody who listens to music at any given moment or a podcast actually, I’m trying to reduce how much noise I intake in day to day to live a quieter life so I’ve been [listening to] a lot of instrumentals.

Since you love quiet so much are you usually sitting in quiet before filming too? What are  your pre-filming rituals like? 

Music is a part of that, I usually make playlists. For me, [music] is the quickest way for me to tap into a certain emotion, especially because there’s a handful of songs related to a pivotal life moment or I know that [a specific type of song] helps me tap into a certain type of thinking because I’m such a lyrics person. It takes one sad lyric for me to be deeply upset and act like I’ve been distraught for my 24 years of existence and it takes one really positive lyric for me to be like, this is the best day ever.

A lot of [my rituals] have also just been being grounded and tapping back into my body. I’ve been grateful enough to work on such nice sets, but there’s so much stimulation and just logistically what it takes to be on set, you’re interacting with all sorts of people and it has nothing to do with the work you’re supposed to do on screen. So much of it has been like, okay, how do I center myself back into the place that I need to be so I can be receptive to these lines as though I’m living it? Even though every time we call a cut, there’s different logistical things to handle; there’s something happening behind the scenes, we’re capturing BTS or we’re handling what next week’s episode will look like. It has really been about maintaining that quiet, doing different breath work and being like, okay, I’m here. I’m fully present and I’m excited to listen.

When it comes to your free time and having time to be fully present with yourself, do you have a comfort re-watch show you enjoy watching in your free time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender, that’s my show and it’s perfect timing. I’m almost done with the live-action one, but I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that whole series. I’d also have to say, Spirited Away is my comfort movie. Growing up, having only really watched an hour of TV every weekend, it was always animated things that we watched and I feel like those are the most comforting for me. So of course, I’m a binge-watcher, I remember I binge-watched Insecure in my senior year [at Harvard], I re-watched all of it and it was the best binge-watch. I think having seen it come out in real time and then being able to do it in three days as a sitting was the best. But, in terms of regular recurring shows, if I’m looking for a certain feeling, it’s always animated. There’s one movie, Kirikou that I love, Secret of Kells is by this animation company called Cartoon Saloon, and I was really happy I got work on it, I got to have a small role in a different project, but their movies are so beautifully animated and I’ve watched them since the age of 10. It’s always animated for me.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations? 

My friend Aires Amor, which is just an epic name. They have always been the friend that I go to events with and such. We’ve always had a shared love of art and food and culture and I have to say a lot of my friends are great for recommendations, but Aires straight up lives in New York, and I’ll be like, what should I do this Friday night in LA?

We share the same values of what fills us up in certain spaces and so they’re always just tapped into the really cool either food scene or culture scenes or we send each other. For my birthday, they got me just the coolest, most thoughtful set of Hayao Miyazaki books, which I had never known that he had actually made a manga. It was also a book on what it is to be black and the use of technology and AI. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I’ll be like, hey, I’m in London. What should I do? Aires knows.

We always need a friend like that, you’re surrounded by such a good community, like you said. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 

I think my mother and my parents have always lived by none of this entertainment stuff is real and not as a way to belittle the impact, but as a way to not get caught up in the world and the stressors. That’s been instrumental in my life and my career, having a life outside of this. They also always said ‘Hollywood is not going anywhere,’ so I think when I went to school, when I’ve made choices that have really prioritized my interests, my hobbies and where I’m at, I got to make them with the confidence that I’m not missing anything, which I think is a big thing, especially for young actors, that is the thing they’re told; that if you’re not here and present and make yourself available 24/7, then you will miss the thing.

My mother has also recently given me the advice of no questions, just statements. The amount of things we leave open to somebody’s response when you state what you want so people can understand your intent better versus asking what’s possible.

And what’s been the worst advice you’ve received? 

I remember in an academic setting, I was told by an advisor figure, ‘if they say no once, ask again. If they say no twice, well that’s just the way it is.’ I have to say that hasn’t worked for me. I knew at the time that it wasn’t going to work, but I feel like so much of what I’ve been shown and so much of what’s worked has truly been ask and ask again, and then ask a third time.

You’re getting in an Uber XL and can bring five celebrities, dead or alive, with you. Who’s coming?

Whoa, what a car.  I have to say James Baldwin, easy. That would be the first half of the car ride before we’re out too late, it would just be us talking, although I have a feeling he’s lived a lot of lives and it’d be great to talk to him.

Okay, I have two people in this Uber XL right now, who else? This is so random, but Damien Marley, because Welcome to JamRock has been an album that I’ve revisited. Can I cheat and say Damien Marley and then I’d bring my cousin Nas? Because the music nerd in me wants to hear that album live, just real quick. I feel like that would really hype me up, that’s hype me up on the way there. Then it feels weird to then not bring my cousin Destiny [Jones], his daughter, because that’s my bestie. Then who else are we adding to this car? Oh, you know what? I just saw Omar Sy and I feel like he’s an actor that I love and admire. And…this car makes no sense.

It’s okay, it makes sense for you. This would be a fun car ride.

Yara Shahidi’s Voice Memos Are Music To Her Ears