IN CONVERSATION WITH ZARIA
Zaria is one of the 5 leading stars from the reboot ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’, which premiered on HBO Max this summer. She is best known for her starring role in 2021’s Oscar winning Live Action Short Film ‘Two Distant Strangers’ from Netflix.
Zaria, you are one of the 5 lead stars in HBO Max’s reboot ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’, which premiered this summer. How was it stepping in the shoes of the Original Liars and doing a reboot of such a successful and popular series?
It was so amazing living in this new world that Roberto and Lindsay created. I was really excited because all of us liars really had such a deep connection with the very first ‘Pretty Little Liars’, even way back to the books. We were so excited to step into the story from honestly like a fan perspective, that we were just thrilled to live in that new world that has beautiful nods to the art that preceded us.
What’s your view on the story of this reboot? How would you sum it up in your own words?
It’s a beautiful story of five young ladies coming to terms with who they are as people and also where they are in the world around them. And also of course, battling the very scary force that is ‘A’. And that pulls them together and that gives them a sense of togetherness and kinship. It’s just a beautiful story within the story.
This new series follows a group of teen girls 20 years after a tragedy that struck their town of Millwood. A brand-new set of Little Liars found themselves tormented by an unknown assailant who wished to make them pay for the secret sin their parents committed two decades ago…as well as their own. Why do you believe that the viewers connected with this series and its story, as much as they did with the original series?
I think the viewers liked it because there’s such specific writing and we had five different stories and five different cultures to kind of pull from. And I think that within that specificity, there’s this broad understanding that the viewers can connect to. And that’s the foundation that was laid for us as well. And I also think people got hooked because it’s funny, it’s scary and it’s that really fun experience where you’re trying to guess who ‘A’ is along with us. So it’s almost like this interactive experience as a viewer.
You play the role of Faran, one of the quintet of ‘liars’ in the new series, who is an ambitious ballerina that desires to get out of Millwood. And ‘A’ is not her only villain, as the world of ballet is equally brutal. What is your favorite thing about your character and her story?
It’s hard to pick one because I really love Faran, but I think my favorite thing about her would have to be her ability to focus on one specific thing and her inability to allow Madame Giry or ‘A’ or anyone to break that focus. I think that she is really sure of herself, especially for her age, which was really fun to play because high school is such an unsure place, everything feels unsure there. And she knows she wants to be a ballerina. She knows that that world wasn’t really built for her, there wasn’t many representation, there wasn’t someone she could really look up to, but she’s just very sure of herself in a way that I would’ve loved to see at her age.
Have you done any ballet prior to the show yourself?
I did some ballet. I was on and off. When I was a little girl, I moved around quite a bit, but I started when I was about eight or nine. I took my first ballet class and the thing about ballerina is, it’s something I really admire, and dancers in general. It’s such a sport, it’s so athletic. It’s like the perfect mix of sport and art, I think. And I was really excited to be able to be a part of that community in the acting world and also to be somewhat of a representative in a specific way, because I think that dancers really should get a lot more credit. I think that they’re brilliant.
You are best known for your starring role in 2021’s Oscar winning Live Action Short Film ‘Two Distant Strangers’. Written and filmed during the summer of 2020 in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, the film speaks volumes about the fear the black population experiences when approached by police. How has the experience of filming this been for you?
If I had to sum up filming ‘Two Distant Strangers ‘, it was life changing. We filmed it at the beginning of the pandemic, when no one knew how to work around Covid. We were one of the first SAG approved productions after Covid hit and we were also experiencing these worldwide protests and these worldwide agreements that we’re not being treated fairly.
It was just a beautiful experience to be able to utilize my art in a way that felt like it was saying something important and saying something that a lot of people were feeling. And so anytime that I can use my art to be a loud speaker, to be a voice to the voiceless, I’m always really excited to have that opportunity.
As a woman of color, what is your view on the Black Lives Matter movement and everything that’s been going on in the last few years?
I can’t speak for a community, but I can certainly speak for myself. Experiencing the world in the way that I do, from my specific perspective as a black woman, is interesting and hard to navigate at times. And it is something that is like water or oxygen. You swim in it, you live in it, you breathe it and it’s systemic. I’m just really grateful that as an artist I get to use what I love to do and really say something that I think is important, on a big screen or small screen or phone screen.
You are also a published writer with a book of poetry ‘We Got A Lot To Be Mad About’, that was released last year. It’s dedicated to those fighting for systematic change in the civil rights movement. What made you publish a book of poetry?
I have always loved to write poetry. I’ve always used it as a resource of release and they’re really not at first meant to be public. They’re just my way of getting it out, I guess. I had written something in the past and I just felt, as well as a good friend of mine, Dana, had suggested, like the world needs this right now. I think other people are feeling how you’re feeling and if you can put words to how they’re feeling, it can be helpful. And I felt like if I can be helpful in any way, then let me be helpful in that way.
The civil rights issues are a constantly ongoing matter in the US. How do you think this could be changed? What do you think should be done?
That’s a tough question. I think that we’re all battling with that answer. I think that the most general answer to what can be done is connection and understanding. I think that those with more power have to listen to those with less power. And that’s a really hard thing to do, especially when you feel criticized. So I think that the more we can understand one another and hear each other out, especially listening to those that are mistreated, that’s where we start and see where we.
As we already spoke about, you have a passion for songwriting, and you often write with Grammy nominee Benny Cassette. How would you describe songwriting makes you feel?
Songwriting is so fun because it hits you almost like a lightning bolt. At least it hits me almost like a lightning bolt at times. I can be driving and I just get this tune in my head and I’ll send a voice memo to Benny and be like “Hey, how about this”? And then he’ll send me something back, so it’s this really exciting collaborative thing. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling, except it’s really fun to collaborate with another artist. And also to have someone believe your ideas are worth singing, because I think singing is such a special expression that we do as humans. It’s like an expression of pain, of joy, of it all.
And where do you draw your inspiration from?
It can be anything, genuinely. It can be something I’m going through, something a friend’s going through. It’s almost like a smell, like you can’t describe a smell until you smell the smell. So that’s how the inspiration is like, you can’t describe the inspiration until it hits you. And then sometimes it’s your dog walking, sometimes it’s the bird that flew and sometimes it’s the heartbreak that your friend is going through. It’s really fun to bounce ideas off with such a great writing partner that is Benny Cassette.
Would you say that fashion is also some sort of art?
Absolutely. This is another thing that I did when I was younger, I used to sew. My granny sewed and my great grandmother was a seamstres. And so I would cut up T-shirts and I would hot glue fabric together. I was always creating and I love dresses, I costumes. I love the art of showing who you are through what you wear. I think that it’s amazing to have something that speaks of you before you even open your mouth.
Zaria, what are some of your other upcoming projects that you can share a bit about?
I can share a bit about ‘Irish Exit’, but I can’t say anything about other projects. That’s a secret I can keep.
‘Irish Exit’ is a short film that I wrote and directed and we filmed it in upstate New York. It’s a story about love and loss and the cyclical nature of both of those things and how, ready or not, the seasons change and, ready or not, your love comes and your love goes. I wrote that and Dylan Sprayberry stars in it. It’s really one of my favorite things that I’ve done, so I’m really excited. And it got into LA shorts, which is an Oscar qualifying festival, so I’m really excited to be able to share that to the world soon.
Do you want to do more directing in the future?
Absolutely. I loved directing. It was such an intimate experience with the story that I created. As an actor, you see the world through the actor’s eyes. And as a director, you see the world from more of an omnipotent view and more of like a godlike view. And you also understand the intimacies of your characters. It was such a special way to step into a project and kind of know all sides and it made me a better actor. I would love to direct again.
What would be your message to young girls in the US and around the world?
I believe that when we’re younger, we know what we wanna do in this world and we know how we wanna help. And sometimes the world tells us what we can do and what we can’t do and sets these parameters and these limits around what they’ve experienced, whoever they are. And I would say, follow your heart because your heart knows best.
interview by JANA LETONJA
photography DENNIS LEUPOLD
digital tech KEVIN LEUPOLD
photography assistant WINSTON KINGSTRO
executive producer JOHNNY PASCUCCI
senior producer SARA BIELECKI
production ROBBY FIORE
stylist CHRISTIAN STROBLE
styling assistant KASSIDY NAGY
hair MICHAEL DAVID WARREN @ The Wall Group
makeup FRANCIE TOMALONIS @ Celestine Agency
editor TIMI LETONJA