BY ANTONIA BROWN Sasheer Zamata is a young comedian, actress, and writer perhaps best known for her tenure as a cast member on SNL, her appearances on the Stephen Colbert Show, or her own live variety show called Sasheer Zamata Party Time. Her new stand-up special Pizza Mind is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Starz. She’s been in numerous short films as well starring in The Weekend, a new rom-com with a cast that is a who’s who of hot young black Hollywood that just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She is a contributor to public radio’s This American Life. She is the voice of Sally in the first-person shooter “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.” Off screen, she tackles social justice issues as the ACLU’S Celebrity Ambassador for Women’s Rights. In advance of her upcoming shows at Punch Line Philly (November 15th to the 17th) we got her on the horn to talk shop about her career, what made her want to pursue comedy, her work with the ACLU and the trials and tribulations of navigating the colorist Hollywood casting system as a darker-skinned female.
PHAWKER: So how did you become interested in comedy? Who were some of your early comedy heroes, and what was your ‘a-ha!’ moment when you decided this is what I am going to do with my life?
SASHEER ZAMATA: I started loving comedy when I was younger, I would watch MADTV, SNL, and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I loved improv and seeing improv and then I started doing it in high school but stopped doing it because it interfered with my choir rehearsals but then I picked it back up when I went to college, I was doing musical theater and plays and stuff and one of my directors suggested that I audition for the improv group at school, didn’t make it, started my own group and that was like so much fun. Then moved to New York thinking that I was going to do theater and Broadway and stuff but then I kept going back to improv, there was this theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre that I was obsessed with that I used to go to all the time then I eventually started taking classes, and then started doing sketch and stand up shortly after that, and then I was hooked. Then I was like I think comedy is where I’m headed and what I need to focus on and it turned out to be really beneficial.
PHAWKER: You play Zadie in a new film called The Weekend that just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. What can you tell us about the film? Do you have any amusing or interesting stories you can share about working on the production?
SASHEER ZAMATA: Zadie is a comedian and it’s fun for me to play a comedian in a production because I’m trying to make this version of the character different then me as a comedian, and that was a fun exercise to try and figure out how I would come off as an completely different comedian than me. Zadie is more sarcastic than I am, a bit more blunt which is hard to do because I’m pretty blunt and the whole production was so fun. We shot a few weeks in Malibu and the cast is amazing. I love DeWanda Wise, Y’lan Noel, Tone Bell, Stella Maghie is the writer and director and it was just like really fun, it didn’t feel like work that much because everyone was laughing so much and we were having a blast and I can’t wait for people to see it!
PHAWKER: When does it open?
SASHEER ZAMATA: I don’t know exactly when it’s going to be distributed but I know it’s going to the AFI Festival in LA this weekend, or this coming weekend and hopefully it’ll be nationwide soon.
PHAWKER: In a piece you wrote for TIME, you spoke about what an important formative experience your time at UVA was, particularly the opportunity you had to play Lady Green in “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” written by Ntozake Shange, who just passed away. For readers that are not familiar with play, could you explain the play, the meaning of the title, the role you played and the importance of this play for young women of color coming of age?
SASHEER ZAMATA: Yeah that show means a lot to me because it was my first serious role in a production and the show is “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” which seems very heavy and depressing but there’s a lot of like rejuvenation and celebration in that show too and it’s a choreopoem so it’s written like poetry and I feel like that helps people connect to it in a different way than in like a regular play. The director of the show I was in, I did this in college at UVA, Theresa Davis was the director and she still teaches and directs at UVA, she would tell the students in the show to go out and talk to the audience members after the show, and the audience members were just so enraptured with it and really moved in different ways. It was so cool to talk to people who were older than me and younger than me, or a different race than me, gender, and they just totally got the words for whatever reason and I love that they were able to connect to the show, in a way that I can connect with a show, or in a way I could connect with a show. After I had did that production, I really pivoted my interest to performance because I just wanted to keep making people feel something after they see something that I am in, I just want you to feel anger, sadness, happiness, joy, whatever, I want you to leave the theater feeling something after you see me perform, so yeah that show was very important to me in a special way.
PHAWKER: Tell me about being the ACLU’s Celebrity Ambassador for Women’s Rights — what exactly does that entail and can you share a story or two about an especially rewarding experience or eye-opening encounter you had during your work with the ACLU?
SASHEER ZAMATA: Yes. The ACLU reached out to me years ago, which I took as a huge compliment because they saw my work and thought it aligned with the work they’re doing and I think that’s really great because I think it means that I’m doing something right. My job as the Celebrity Ambassador of Women’s Rights is to be a mouthpiece to whatever issues they want to highlight at the time. So, I will write essays for them, I will write videos for them, I’ll do talks or speeches, and I feel really excited to be apart of this new wave of people who are trying to get young people involved with the ACLU and get us more educated on these issues, more educated on our laws and our rights and which laws are being infringed upon and see what we can do to actually help our community that we live in and help the communities that we don’t live in too. So I feel like the ACLU is doing a lot of good work and I’m honored to be apart of it.
PHAWKER: You have spoken out against colorism, and explained how you believe your darker skin tone has caused you to lose roles to POC actresses with lighter skin tone — could you explain colorism for the benefit of readers who may not know, and how it often pits POC against each other, why this happens and what can be done to undo these warped standards of beauty based on the darkness or lightness of your skin?
SASHEER ZAMATA: Well colorism, is an example of privilege and it’s basically the preference of people who are not white who looker closer to white than other people in the race. So you know a lot of people get preference who are lighter-skinned or have euro-centric features and that kind of excludes people who are darker skin and that happens within the race, that happens to people who are viewing the race from the outside. But I think the more we talk about it, the more we call it out the better it will be, I’m surprised when I hear people who don’t know that term or don’t know that it exists or that is a thing that affects all people but I think the more we educate each other on this thing the easier it will be to fix it in the future.
PHAWKER: What are the things you say to yourself when you have dealt with a “no” in this industry?
SASHEER ZAMATA: Well when I get a ‘no’now, I don’t take it personally because I know that it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not good for the job or that I didn’t do a good job or anything like that, sometimes it means that they were just more excited about somebody else or that I wasn’t a good fit. Like going back to college days, I auditioned for an improv group, didn’t make it because they said I wasn’t a good fit, but not necessarily cause I wasn’t funny. So after that I created my own group and that was way more beneficial, I had probably way more fun than I would have had I actually just got cast in that first group, so that’s kind of been the theme of my whole career is like just because this one thing didn’t work out doesn’t mean that it’s the end of my journey, I can start my own thing and that turns out to be way more fun and beneficial for my career than the thing that I did, would’ve done in the first so I don’t necessarily look at no’s as a bad thing, just a new opportunity for something else.