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Best of 2014: Kenya Barris on casting the perfect 'Black-ish' kiddie quartet

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Black Ish
Greg Gayne/ABC

Why is ABC’s Black-ish the fall season’s biggest sitcom success story? Credit a sharp point of view, finely honed jokes, Tracee Ellis Ross (and her glorious hair), a plum timeslot right behind Modern Family… and, perhaps most importantly, the four young actors who keep stealing scenes right out from underneath star Anthony Anderson.

How did the show cast what might be the finest pint-sized ensemble on television? We chatted with series creator Kenya Barris—who says these characters are “loosely based” on his own brood—to find out, going kid by kid. Click here for more stories behind the year’s top TV moments.

Yara Shahidi as Zoey

Being a teenager has changed a lot. We always tell my daughter, “Your only job is going to school.” And now it’s not cool to go to school and get Bs. So she did her job really well. It almost pissed me off, because I couldn’t really complain about everything else she did—which was basically nothing but use her phone and iPad.

We wanted to go away from that stereotypical ditzy teenager. We wanted to make Zoey sort of detached, almost like her parents were a nuisance to her. Her family’s like an accessory that she has to wear, but she hates that bracelet. We wanted her to be beautiful and popular; we also wanted to make her the kid that, more so than all the other kids, was seamlessly fitting into this world that Dre, her father, was having such a hard time understanding. She never had an awkward stage. She automatically was popular.

And when we met Yara, the moment she sat down, she played it so perfect. She’s clearly so beautiful, and at the same time, she’s a 4.6 student. She really spoke to what the character was, and at the same time I loved that it was so far away from who she was as a kid. She’s very humble, very sweet, and very diligent. And she’s kind of a nerd, and she’s beautiful—it’s a really great mix of things. Yara is growing up into a young woman, and there are some dating things that are gonna happen. She’s going to be the person you have to almost worry about: “Hold on, do I have one of those daughters who’s breaking hearts?” Which is a better place to be than having your daughter’s heart broken, but it’s also a different kind of thing.

Marcus Scribner as Junior

They’re all amazing, but Marcus, comedically, is a genius. He’s either a genius or a crazy person. His character on the show was supposed to be the most clueless, and at the same time, he embraced the trouble. He was almost okay with his nerddom, and that’s a really interesting sort of new archetype for kids. Nerd is almost the new cool. And Marcus’s character knows he’s going to be okay.

Marcus is so different from Junior—he’s such a cool and confident kid. But he embraces who this character is, and he’s one of those kids—he can take lines and give you something that you never thought about. And after you hear it, you’re like, “There was never another way the line should’ve been said.” Marcus is like Michael Cera. He has that confident subtlety, and embraces the awkwardness of his character—but does it in such a highly effective way that you just know his comedic IQ is way above someone his age.

Miles Brown as Jack

He was our first offer, because he had another offer for another pilot. We knew that we wanted Miles to be with Marsai because we saw them outside and we thought they were related. We actually had them come in and read together. The was no denying it once you saw. He has this way. I call him Party Time, because he just won’t stop moving. And I’m just like, “Dude, Party Time, it’s time to work!” He’s such an amazing little boy. He does this thing where he almost talks through his teeth. He has the cutest little smile—it’s constantly a smile. You can say, “Are you gonna die, Dad?” and if you say it through a smile then you know you’re going to get a laugh, because that’s how his delivery is. He just has such an upbeat way of looking at life.

[Jack’s] the kid who, of the twins, he got the happy gene. He’s a little bit slower-witted of the twins. He’s almost like the younger brother. He reminds me so much of my son—all the kids will get ice cream, and everyone else will eat their ice cream first. And my daughter will be like, “Aww, I want some more ice cream.” My son will be like, “You can have some of mine!” And I’ll be like, “NO! NO SHE CANNOT.” He will give his last to his family, because that’s just who he is. He’s just a sweet-natured kid.

Marsai Martin as Diane

She is a very special old soul. There was a SAG panel yesterday, and she just brought the house down. They asked her a question like, “How’d you know you wanted to be an actress?” She told the story, and it was very childlike. And at the very end, she said, “I guess there was just the moment that I thought to myself that I want to be”—it’s quiet—”a legend.” It was so who she is.

Diane is sort of the mastermind, and oftentimes she’s a little ahead even of the parents. We kind of feel like we’ve developed a small sociopath genius—she has this part of her that you’re a little scared of. Like, “This person grows up to be president, or Hannibal Lecter.”

[Marsai] allows us to really light those twins up. A lot of times, kids can fall into the background; the parents or someone can take the foreground. Those kids take the foreground right along with Anthony [Anderson], Tracee [Ellis Ross], and Laurence [Fishburne]. They’re a huge part of our show. And she’s a huge part of that. She helps to anchor them.

Together, I have never seen four kids—I should knock on the wood—I have never seen four kids that are really more like siblings. They play, and I have a special part of my heart for them. Because a lot of the time you hear the stories about kid actors. I have none of that fear for our kids, but being a father of five kids myself, I feel like these are my work kids, and their parents are entrusting us to let them live a big part of their life with us. It means a lot to me. I feel like they’re having fun and are still able to be kids.

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