When Hulu released Wu-Tang: An American Saga last year, everyone knew it would be a show about one of the greatest hip-hop groups in the history of the art form. I imagine few expected one of the best performances on the show to come from a young actress named Zolee Griggs. As Shurrie, Griggs supplies much of the heart and soul of the show and expands upon its already significant appeal.
In our conversation, Zolee talks about what it’s like to work on one of the first scripted hip-hop shows, bringing some female energy to an otherwise male-dominated series, and what it’s like waiting for the shooting of the second season to begin in the time of the Coronavirus.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the show?
Zolee Griggs: I auditioned last year around November-December. Then I did a call back, I did a test, and then I did a chemistry read. Literally right before Christmas they told me I booked the job. It was just the most exciting thing. Then we flew out to New York two months later in February to start shooting.
AD: That’s a pretty good Christmas present.
ZG: (Laughs) It was the best Christmas present ever, definitely!
AD: How familiar were you with the Wu-Tang Clan prior to joining the show?
ZG: I was familiar with the music and the group, and I knew that they had individual careers, but I didn’t know the specifics. I don’t think anybody knew they had so much going on in their lives – and still do. It was really good to be able to work with them and meet them one on one and learn their stories. It just made it that much easier, of course, to tell their stories.
AD: Members of the group, especially RZA, are very involved with the show. What’s it like being part of a project that not only details the lives of people who are still with us, but in your case, sometimes on set next to you?
ZG: It’s surreal. Sometimes you get to set and it hits you, ‘I’m working with Wu-Tang.’ (Laughs). I’m the same age than they were when they first started their careers in music. It’s kind of like we are our own version of Wu-Tang. We’re the same age and we’re starting our own careers in the same way that they were. It’s a really good feeling because these are veterans and they know what they’re doing. They know what they like, they know what they want from us, and we know what they expect. So, it’s very motivating, and it’s motivating to know that you have the Wu-Tang Clan behind you and they support you. It’s a really positive environment and there’s a lot of love, and a lot of perspective and criticism too. It’s a great exchange.
Awards Daily: Being a show largely about a group of men making music, it’s a pretty male-dominated cast. However, I often think of Shurrie as the moral compass, if not the heart of the show. She’s both reaching out beyond her station in life with her interest in the arts and then there’s also a part of her that’s very much connected to where she’s from and the challenges that come with that. Can you talk about what it’s like to play Shurrie and what it’s like to straddle those lines?
ZG: Being one of the only girls on set isn’t really that big of a difference, because as a woman you live in a male-dominated society overall. So, you kind of get used to it by the time you’re in your twenties. But Shurrie is so specific because she’s not just in a male-dominated household, but she’s taking care of guys and she’s even taking care of her mom. It’s not just that she’s a woman, she’s a sister, a mother, a girlfriend, and a student. She takes on all these roles at the age of 17. She’s very mature and she knows what she wants. I think what makes it hard for her is that other people around her don’t know what they want, or. they don’t see her in the same light that she sees herself.
They just don’t take her seriously because she’s the youngest one even though she has all these responsibilities – they don’t even realize it. Being Shurrie is amazing because it makes me step back and remember what it was like for me when I was 17. I get to play on a new life in a way. I have a couple brothers and a step-dad – I was constantly around men growing up. I may be working with 12 guys at once now, but it’s not that different. It’s a lot of fun playing her. Shurrie has a lot of outlets and I get to navigate her character.
Awards Daily: I admire how the show avoids drifting into stereotype. Especially when Shurrie discovers she’s pregnant. At first, it feels like something you’ve seen before, but it’s told in a different way. I think a lot of it has to do not only with the way Shurrie is written, but also in the way that you play her – it just feels very real. I’m sure a lot of that comes from the page, but I’m sure much of that comes from you too.
ZG: There’s some truth to both of those things. It’s funny that you mention the stereotypical part, because I remember when we did one episode (where Shurrie discovers she’s pregnant) a lot of people were commenting on social media about the irony of Shurrie saying to another girl how she’s going to get pregnant at the back of a bus, and in the last episode you see me on a bus going to see Dennis and I’m pregnant. It was written that way, but that is actually what happened in real life. It’s like Shurrie manifested her own destiny by being afraid of that happening. I just bring in my experience as a young woman and then I bring in the experience of what I was told by Sophia, which is one of RZA’s sisters. I haven’t met the actual Shurrie yet, but Sophia was able to give me pointers, and tell me about their family life, and RZA was able to do so as well. I just take everything they gave me, the script, and my own personal experience, and then we do the episode. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: The relationship between Shurrie and Dennis is fascinating too. Dennis does some bad things, but you can’t simply pigeonhole him as a bad person. You can see where he can be better than some of his actions, but it’s also about how when you’re in a certain environment sometimes you can’t see past yourself.
ZG: Definitely. I don’t think it’s a matter of good or bad, It’s a matter of circumstances. The guys were doing what they could to survive and so it might be seen as good or bad on the outside looking in, but that’s the life that they have to live because they didn’t have a choice. I think that’s how the guys were thinking about this scenario that they were in. Dennis is definitely a hothead, but he has a lot on his shoulders considering he takes care of his two brothers and his mother and they each have their own health issues. When you’re put up against the wall, you’re not always going to know how to react all the time, or, have the proper outlet for all those emotions. I think it’s good for the audience to not judge the guys as in what’s good or bad but consider the circumstances of their lives. They’re born into Staten Island and in poverty, and their only outlet to make money is drugs. It’s not really their choice. It’s something they have to do to provide for their family. Thankfully, they were smart enough to not have that be their demise and the “end all-be all” to their story.
AD: I remember back in the 80s when Nancy Reagan had her “Just Say No” to drugs initiative, Public Enemy’s Chuck D responded by saying, “If you want people to say no, you have to give them something to say yes to.” These guys didn’t have something to say yes to. I think because the show never drifts into caricature, it allows you to ask yourself, what would I do?
ZG: Wow. That’s a valid point. It’s true. It makes it resonate and you have empathy for it – these people, not these “characters.” You get to see the full story. A lot of times we see things from only one point of view and then we make our minds up, and that’s it. But if you have the full 360 and you see why people do the things that they do – like for instance when Shamiek, who plays ‘Sha’, is angry all the time and robbing people, you’re thinking, what a terrible person he is. And then he goes on top of the roof and you find out he’s homeless and that he only has a sleeping bag and a pair of headphones. It makes you have empathy for him. It doesn’t justify the wrongdoing but it makes us understand it a little bit better, and it make you not want to be as judgmental.
AD: Staten Island is a character in and of itself on the show. It’s not a place we’ve seen depicted often on film or television.
ZG: The majority of the scenes that I did were on Staten Island. Our house that you see on the show is RZA’s actual house that he grew up in. We filmed a large piece – if not the majority of the show – in Staten Island. I think it’s great because even while we were filming I would have people who would see us and they would send us videos on social media so happy we were reppin’ Staten Island. It’s cool because New Yorkers love to rep New York, and there’s people from New York who still don’t give Staten Island the respect that it deserves, because it’s so small and you got to take a ferry to get there and everything. It’s cool because people from Staten Island have dealt with that and they still love their home town.
Awards Daily: There have been a lot of hip-hop movies, but I can’t think of another scripted series like this one. That has to be fascinating to be a part of something that came first.
ZG: It feels good because like you said, it’s the first of its kind and also, it’s historic. Everybody knows the Wu-Tang Clan. Even if you’re a young kid and you don’t know all their music, you probably know Wu-Tang. Having a show is great because now people who were fan back in the nineties can watch the show and people who were born in 2000 can also watch the show. Everybody gets an even playing field to see what it was like to be the Wu-Tang before they were the Wu-Tang – just to see them as people. It’s historical and educational.
AD: The word came down fairly recently that there was going to be a second season, with talks of the new episodes debuting before the end of the year. Can you talk about where things sit with the show in the time of the Coronavirus?
ZG: I’m going to be honest with you, I know as much as you do. (Laughs). I know that we’re in the process of writing currently. That was the last thing I knew of before the world was put on a halt. Everybody was asking us about the second season and we’re just much on a quarantine as everybody else. Sadly, We had not started filming yet. It’s a great time for people to catch up. If you haven’t watched season one, now’s the time!
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is now streaming on Hulu.