This multi-talented LA-native stars as Perri in Academy Award-winning Live Action Short Film, Two Distant Strangers. Written by Travon Free and Executive Produced by stars like Sean Combs and Kevin Durant, the film examines the killing of Black Americans during encounters with the police.
MOD: Tell us a little about your life, growing up.
Zaria: I was born in Los Angeles but when I was younger, my mom remarried and we moved to Chicago—and I’ve always had a foot in Georgia because my dad lived there. My first play that I did was in middle school, and I performed in hundreds of acting competitions in high school. When I went to San Diego State with an International Business major, with an emphasis in French, acting still found me. I loved it so much, I got a café job so I could pay for acting classes on the side.
MOD: At what point did you realize you wanted to be an actress? How did you get your start?
Zaria: I always knew from a very young age that I wanted to be in entertainment. I thought I would be the next Beyonce, but I found that I breathed, ate, and slept acting. From the moment I realized that, there wasn’t anything else in the world I would want to do. I was doing dramatic interpretation for a speech competition and I was so enthralled in it—finding the beat and learning about it. I was so interested, I forgot the most primal things like eating and sleeping.
MOD: Who or what inspires you most and why?
Zaria: I find inspiration from everything—it’s a bit absurd. If I am listening to a song, I get inspiration for another song or poem. But really, just living in the world is my inspiration, as I take the time to see what’s around me.
MOD: In what ways has being a Black woman in the industry shaped your experience?
Zaria: Being a Black woman shapes everything for me, as perception is the prism that each one of us receives from the world. I have strong black women as my mom and stepmom, who shape how I learn to love my curly hair and skin tone and everything that goes with it. There is the challenge to unlearn what the world teaches you at a very young age—that who you are is not necessarily favored in this society.
MOD: Tell us about Two Distant Strangers. What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Zaria: It’s a movie about a man trying to get home to his dog—a simple concept but at the reality of it, for Black people, something that simple is so much more complicated. There are barriers in our way, this cop who finds reasons to execute Carter. The experience played out in the film is not fiction; every scenario is taken from an actual Black person’s experience in America. This film is a resource; it serves different purposes for other people. I see it as a resource for others to learn—a resource to say, “I don’t have to explain how this works, you can tune in to this film and learn how it is for Black people in America every single day.” It can be helpful to show that this is exactly how we feel as a community, for those who don’t experience this reality that Carter goes through—this reality that is so familiar it hurts. If audiences are open to be inspired by empathy, then they can learn from the film.
MOD: What was it like playing the role of Perri, particularly in the midst of the recent Black Lives Matter protests?
Zaria: It was a beautiful, twisted fantasy. It was amazing to use my art to serve a story I believe in. It was beautiful to see the cast and crew band together as much as an Indie film would allow. It was also going through the trauma that we all went through at that time, in the summer of 2020; it was heartbreaking at times, but also it was very hopeful. It reminded me that we are so much stronger together.
MOD: You star alongside rapper, Joey Bada$$ in the film. What was it like working with him?
Zaria: He is just a peach. It is so funny because, first of all, his name is Joey Bada$$ but he is so kind and funny and easy to work with. While filming, he really wanted to workshop the scenes, both as an actor and as a person. Under the circumstances of Covid, we only had five days to film it and those days were much shorter than usual. Joey got in there and did the work and was a great scene partner. He is not the persona that is his rapper image, and to see him fall into the role in such a short amount of time was amazing.
MOD: Two Distant Strangers is now an Oscar-winning short film, with high levels of critical acclaim. How has the positive reception of the project affected your experience?
Zaria: Sometimes, when the director yells cut and it’s a wrap on a shoot, you kiss that experience goodbye and part ways with everyone you worked with. But with this, we were able to go an extra 300 miles to champion this project, and that in itself is beautiful. I don’t think I have wrapped my head around it, and it is a joy and privilege to speak about this story to those who want to understand the experience. It’s really amazing to think people I respect in the Academy are watching me for 30 minutes.
MOD: What are your thoughts on the recent Derek Chauvin guilty verdict? And how do you think George Floyd’s killing will affect the issues of racism and police brutality in this country, long term?
Zaria: I wrote a poem after I heard the news of the verdict and it’s called “This Moment.” It basically portrays the emotion that I felt when the verdict was announced. For me, as a Black woman who is well-versed in the history of Emmett Till and mourns Breonna Taylor, there was no doubt that this was the verdict that should have been called and this person should be held accountable; but there was a sadness still. I struggle with calling it justice because we have not served justice to the living. I was filled with fear that maybe people would think that the problem is now solved, but I also hope that maybe, just maybe, we won’t forget again.
MOD: You also appear in the new Netflix series Dad Stop Embarrassing Me, opposite Oscar-winning actor, Jamie Foxx. What was it like working with him?
Zaria: However cool you think Jaime Foxx is, multiply it by a thousand. He was so welcoming and so friendly and so humble. While on set, if it weren’t for his phenomenal acting, you would almost forget that he is “Ray,” or every character he has played that has wowed the world. He is so funny and ready to take on the scene, take in the moment, and to encourage everyone around him. He is so magnetic that watching him be himself is incredible; it’s like a crowd gathers around him with his energy.
MOD: In addition to acting, you’re also a published writer and poet. Tell us about your latest release, We Got A Lot To Be Mad About.
Zaria: It is a book that kind of narrates the 2020 Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of a young Black woman. It stems from the Ahmaud Arbery killing, basically to the date that the book was published. I was very inspired by the movement and I marched in the largest collective worldwide protest in history. I am a writer at heart and started writing in my notes app on my phone at a young age. When I posted the poems I wrote on Instagram, my friend Dena Smith—creator of Leo Oil, who is a total girl boss and cancer survivor, who owns a beauty company called Astrologiens—suggested I publish it myself and that I didn’t need to wait for someone to publish it for me.
MOD: You also have a passion for songwriting and often work with Grammy nominee, Benny Cassette. Tell us a bit more about your journey as a songwriter. How did you and Benny come to collaborate?
Zaria: I met Benny when I worked as a receptionist. He followed me on Instagram and would see me post poems on my stories and would comment, “hey, you are really good at this.” I didn’t know that he had been signed by Kanye West and that he was a producer by trade, but we sat down at the Urth Café and he told me, “I believe in you and would like to work with you,” with some new artists that are starting out. I have been working with him for a year now and it’s been really inspiring. He has kind of mentored me in this space of songwriting.
MOD: What songs are on your current playlist?
Zaria: I love a range of songs. It mostly depends on my mood. If I’m trying to vibe, it’s Giveon, Alice Aera (who I also write with), Alex Isely, or Michael Kiwanuka. When I need to work out or get motivated, I love Meg Thee Stallion, Bia, Flo Milli, Sech, Bad Bunny, and Nathy Peluso. And if I’m trying to listen to throwbacks, I listen to Marvin Gaye, Roots, Stevie Wonder, Isley Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, Sam Cooke, and Prince. I could go on for hours.
MOD: What’s your favorite travel destination and why?
Zaria: France! I lived there for quite a while and I speak French and I adore the food and the culture.
MOD: Describe your perfect day.
Zaria: I don’t have to drive anywhere, I get driven around
instead, and I am spending the day with the people I love and laughing a lot. Then I go in and do some scenes, and end the day by eating some really great food, then go to sleep by 9.
MOD: What are you most proud of?
Zaria: I am most proud of the people that contact me and tell me a story of something I did when I was younger that stuck with them. I’ve had people reach out and say, “one time in middle school, you stuck up for me,” or something like that, and that is the best thing anyone could say to me. It reminds me that being a good person changes people’s lives and affects them years later.
MOD: What are your guilty pleasures?
Zaria: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures—if it brings you joy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, then it isn’t guilty.
MOD: How would you describe your personal style?
Zaria: I would say effortlessly beautiful. On busy days, it is effortlessly not matching! Effortlessly beautiful lies in things I am comfortable in and make me feel confident. Things that make me feel confident are my favorite things to wear.
MOD: What are 3 beauty products you cannot go without?
Zaria: My Leo oil, my Lashify, and Ivan Pol’s Beauty Sandwich!
MOD: What’s a fun fact people would be surprised to know about you?
Zaria: I designed and sewed my own prom dress.
Follow Zaria on Instagram for updates: @zariazariazaria.
Photographs by Stephanie Girard