The 'black-ish' spin-off imagines college life as you'd hoped it would be

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No other college-set show in recent history (save, maybe, Community) has captured the diverse group of people you meet during you freshman year quite like grown-ish, Freeform’s black-ish spin-off, does.

Sure, the woke sitcom, which premieres Wednesday night and is centered on Yara Shahidi’s Zoey Johnson, covers relatable first-year experiences (think: sex, drugs, and midterm exams). But its beating heart is the colorful cast of characters creator Kenya Barris has surrounded Zoey with: Cuban Republican roommate Ana (Francia Raisa), pill-dealing Vivek (Jordan Buhat), and free-spirited Nomi (Emily Arlook).

They may challenge Zoey’s privileged worldview, but isn’t that the point of higher education?

EW talked to stars Shahidi, 17, and Raisa, 29, to get the 101 on this different world.

  • ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Neither of you has been to college. What has it been like working on the show?
  • YARA SHAHIDI: I had a whole lot of firsts on set. Francia was there for, I think, one of my favorite firsts: cursing. I’m not saying I enjoy cursing, but it was a funny moment in which my character had to wake up angry and yell out a curse word, and I was just not used to it. So I literally go, “Fudge!” We looked at each other and started laughing.
  • FRANCIA RAISA: I didn’t go to college, and I’m the oldest one on set. At first I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be the big sister,” but I look up to Yara and [sisters] Chloe and Halle [Bailey] because they’re just so wise and we have such a great chemistry and we have so much fun going to my first frat party, my first Adderall experience — kind of — and dealing with first sexual experiences. It’s fun going back to that time and actually getting a taste of it for myself.

What was the first scene you guys shot together?
RAISA: It’s hard to say without giving any spoilers, but let’s just say that I didn’t go to college, and on my first day I went to my first college party.
SHAHIDI: What’s really interesting is because they shot in chronological order, in particular, our story line in the first episode, it really did set the tone for the beginning of our relationship. The first couple of scenes we’re in together don’t go as beautifully as Zoey and Ana had planned.

This show looks like it’s a blast to work on. Is set as fun as it looks?
SHAHIDI: What I personally love so much about our characters’ relationship is that we’re allowed to, as Francia and Yara, have so much fun on set, and then have those really emotional scenes. [To Raisa] Those scenes we have together are so special to me because I feel there’s just a natural reaction that is evoked whenever I act alongside you. I don’t even have to try and act like Zoey cause I can’t help but feel what you are emitting and emoting.
RAISA: Because we’re developing such personal relationships off-screen, it really comes [across] on screen. We look forward to scenes together. It’s like a party for us, and I feel bad for the crew sometimes because we never hear “Action!” because we’re legit talking. When you watch the show and you see some ad-libbing, those are real conversations.

In your opinion, how will grown-ish stand out from other college series?
SHAHIDI: I feel pretty darn lucky about the cast we’ve been able to create and just our relationship because that really shows through.
RAISA: I grew up in the Saved by the Bell/90210 era, and this comedy is so different. I know that was high school, but even when they went to college, they were more focused on the love triangles. This show has that too, but it goes beyond that. I’ve never seen a show that’s been so involved in today’s world, meaning politics — people’s views are seen and heard. I’ve personally learned so much from it. I think this show really portrays why it’s important to be involved in our society.

Credit: Ron Tom/Freeform

Francia, what attracted you to this character?
RAISA: One, I’m a huge fan of black-ish. So, the minute I heard Kenya Barris and Yara Shahidi, I was like, “Um, yes please!” Like I said, I grew up in the 90210 era, so watching black-ish, I was like — I guess you can say — woke and I started learning a lot of things that I didn’t know growing up. I knew that was going to transfer over onto this show, which is why I was so attracted to being a part of it, because I needed to get woken up and I wasn’t. As far as Ana, I didn’t grow up Republican. My mom is very much a Democrat, and so that was even a challenge for me — even telling my mom that. As I started learning Ana and I started learning her views, it actually started changing my mind a little bit and started getting me to understand more so what I believed. I realized, “Oh, wow, I believed in stuff because my mom told me, but I actually didn’t know the detail of it.” I’ve been enjoying being part of this show. I’m so grateful I’m here, and Yara has been waking me up and introducing me to awesome music.

What have you guys been listening to?
RAISA: Yara has… a lot of different songs in her head.
SHAHIDI: Yeah, I feel like the one thing I say probably every day, “I have a lot of songs in my head,” because they’re playing all at once. That usually consists of Tyler the Creator right now, a lot of Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’, [and] then like the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack.
RAISA: Yep, all of that, and I knew none of it.

What sort of issues will we see Zoey and Ana face this season?
SHAHIDI: Black-ish and grown-ish, like Francia said, are very much socially aware, but I think the way they handle it is both extremely similar and different — if that makes any sense at all. It is the same set up of you have these characters who are so different, [which] allows us to show different perspectives and we don’t necessarily end every episode with “This is the right way of viewing things.” Rather, we just [have] every character express their opinion. A lot of what we’re addressing [on grown-ish] is cultural — this larger college culture. We talk about drug abuse on campus and the concept of safe spaces in such a politically diverse area. Also, there’s the bigger picture of each character addressing the barriers they have and really coming into their own and coming from a world where they had it all together into a space where they not only have to figure out who they are, but they kind of realize that they have no space for knowing who they are. They have to start over.
RAISA: Growing up, we’re all like, “I can’t wait until I’m on my own and I can do whatever I want and my mom doesn’t have to tell me anything.” Then, we have that opportunity on this show and you see them make a lot of choices that you thought were great growing up and then you hit the reality of what it is: dating, the first of a lot of things, drug addiction, peer pressure — all of this stuff where you have to hold yourself accountable, no one else can.
SHAHIDI: We do have, of course, the big episodes like black-ish does where it’s very much about one topic, but I think a lot of these story lines that are socially relevant are subtly weaved in and out of the narrative that we’re telling. So, it isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the audience’s mind until the story comes full circle. It may take five episodes for you to even fully understand: “Oh this is just the narrative we’re telling with this particular story line.”

Did doing an episode on safe spaces change the way you thought about the topic?
SHAHIDI: I think it did teach a lot in that it very much addresses the echo-chamber that we live in many times. We surround ourselves with people that, for the most part, generally agree with our basic values. So, it did kind of push the boundaries of, “How do you start a conversation? How are you in a relationship with somebody you like as a human? How do you respect their opinion?”

The one-hour premiere of grown-ish airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Freeform.

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