PHOTOGRAPHY: The Riker Brothers; HAIR: LaChanda Gatson; MAKE-UP: Harriet Hadfield; STYLING: K+D Styles
LA native Zolee Griggs definitively caught the public eye in the fall of 2019 via the first season of Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, a stylized depiction of the formation of one of hip-hop’s most influential groups—and the interpersonal dramas which almost stopped it in its tracks. In it, Griggs plays Shurrie Diggs, the sister of Wu-Tang’s founder, RZA, and the de facto matriarch of the series.
Though An American Saga represents the start of a promising career on screen, the twenty-two-year-old is no stranger to the entertainment industry writ large. From a young age, she has been acting in commercials and doing photoshoots; and since the dawn of Instagram, she has been building a platform for the social causes she cares about. In addition to being an actor, Griggs is the founder of the mentorship program GRL:WMN, which allows women from ages fourteen to twenty to gather together, promote positivity, discuss mental health, and talk about what’s important to them.
In anticipation of the second season of the Wu-Tang Saga (no official release date yet), BlackBook caught up with Griggs to talk about social distancing, her six-month residency in New York, and the future of GRL:WMN.
How are you dealing with self-isolation?
Going insane—no, I’m doing fine. Just taking it day by day. But it is getting monotonous.
What are you doing to stay productive?
I’m trying to not be so lazy…just the simple things to give myself some kind of order. Getting up, making breakfast, taking care of my dog. Little things. Because that’s all I can do. I’ve watched so many movies and read so many books, I’m running out of things to do in the house.
What have you been watching?
A lot of ’80s and ’90s movies. Yesterday I watched Bowfinger and Woo. And that was pretty funny.
Are you a fan of old comedies?
No, that’s why I’m watching them. When I was younger, my parents didn’t let me watch a lot of movies. They’d keep to the age restrictions. Before I was thirteen, I couldn’t watch PG-13 movies. Now that I’m older, I’m venturing out and watching everything. I’m going back in time and catching up on things I should have seen years ago.
What drew you to acting when you were younger, and has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
I always performed at school and in church, I have been going to church since I was two. My grandmother was really heavy on singing in the church—she’s from the south, and the southern influences trickled down to me. So I was singing, being active with other kids, speaking—I had always done public speaking. I remember in preschool, we had performances with everybody, and that’s really what started it. I was just enjoying my presence on the stage and getting a reaction from the audience or people at church. Everybody just seemed pleasant and happy, and that inspired me to be pleasant and happy. I guess that’s what really triggered my acting.
How did the Wu-Tang role shape your acting?
I think becoming an adult is really what did it—I mean Wu-Tang added onto that—but when I turned eighteen, I had a conversation with my manager and agent, and they told me, “You’re eighteen now. The roles you’ll go out for are not just going to be teenage roles, they’re going to be serious, adult roles.” That’s when I started to take adult acting classes as well. And Wu-Tang, with it being such a serious show, opened my eyes to the fact that not everything is so easy. A lot of people believe think acting is easy; people watch movies all the time and are like, “I could do that.” And not that they can’t, but it’s a lot more than just crying on cue or being happy when someone tells you too. It’s more than just showing emotions for certain reasons.
What did you do to prepare for the roll of Shurrie Diggs?
I think the best thing, besides remembering everything I was taught in class, was moving to New York and working with Wu-Tang one-on-one. It was the best preparation, I’m not going to learn any better than from the people themselves, who actually lived this story—I mean I’m telling their story. And doing this all in New York for six months was even better. I’d been to New York before, but never been there for that long. So picking up everything I had and moving across the country to learn the culture was a beautiful experience. It helped me adapt, it was a fun learning process.
What advice did RZA give you to help portray the character, who’s really a composite of all his sisters?
We would do it based on the episode, we did them one at a time; I didn’t know what was going to happen during the next episode. Before we would start filming, I would get on a phone conference with Alex [Tse, Executive Producer] and RZA, and they would break down the script for me and answer any questions I had before we went over it on set. I was also lucky to have a meeting with Erika Alexander, who is my mom on the show, and one of RZA’s sisters. That was an amazing meeting, for us to sit down and have a personal chat about their lives.
Is it harder portraying a real character?
I take it more seriously, because I’m not making up a character, I’m literally portraying someone who already exists, who has had these experiences in real life. I needed to make sure that I was doing an accurate job while respecting and honoring these people’s lives… because that’s my job.
From an acting perspective, what were some valuable lessons that you left Season One with?
I think not letting your fears get in the way of things that you already know. Sometimes I don’t give myself credit, because I’m not, like, Robert De Niro. To tell yourself, “You know what you’re doing. You got it.” Sometimes those words of encouragement can be muffled by your own thoughts and humility. So I want to be more confident for Season Two, and not let fears hold me back. I feel really good about it.
What did you appreciate most about the experience?
Bonding with everybody outside of work, I really got to know everyone individually. The guys would show me around the city, and I became the little-big sister. Even though I’m the only girl and the youngest, I’m still the only girl. It’s funny, I’m kind of the matriarch in the show and in real life when we’re just hanging out. There’s a mutual bond and respect; I’m really fortunate to work with people who are fun, mature, and talented.
Tell us about your mentorship program, GRL:WMN.
It’s on hold because of everything that’s going on right now. But I’m working on bringing it back so it can be even bigger and better. If I can’t do things a certain way, I’m not going to do them at all. So I’m really taking my time, especially now, since I might have a bigger audience. I want to accommodate all the new young ladies and women.
What do you see for the program’s future?
The long-term goal is to take it on tour and travel around the nation. Public school reform is something that I’m really big on as well. I feel that the relationship that students and teachers have is not the best; same goes for the relationships that students have with each other, especially women. A great part of life is spent in schools, so I would love to be able to take the program to different schools and change the way young ladies interact with each other, change the way they speak with one another, and hopefully change how we interact with adults and teachers. It should be a cohesive unit, but it feels like a dictatorship at some schools—not all, but definitely at some.
And what does the future hold for you?
I have a couple guest-star roles on episodes of Boomerang, for BET. I did an indie film in January called Arch Enemy. I’m not sure when it comes out yet, but it should be really fun. It’s a sci-fi superhero movie—it’s really great. And it’s funny, since Wu-Tang came out I’ve had people tell me, “You would be great as Erykah Badu, if she did a biopic.” So I would love to do that if the opportunity ever arose, that’s a dream. But you know, dreams come true sometimes, so we’ll see.