Don’t let those big green doe eyes fool you. Zolee Griggs is a flame. No, quite literally, she is a fire sign, a Leo to be exact. And the young actress attributes her astrological sign to her ability to hold her own in a male-dominated industry.
“There’s a certain level of respect that I require from all the guys being the only woman on set,” explained the 24-year-old actress of her break-out role as Shurrie Diggs on Hulu’s hit series Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
The show, which recently announced its third and final season, gives viewers a never-before-seen look at one of Hip-Hop’s most formidable collectives, the Wu-Tang Clan. Set in the early ’90s during the height of the crack epidemic, the biographical drama focuses on a group of young Black men in New York City as they struggle with poverty, crime, and friendship, all while trying to balance street life and breaking into the music industry.
But beyond the male-centric premise, Wu-Tang: An American Saga also introduces fans to the women behind these men and how they helped shape the icons we know today. One of the storylines that immediately shocked and ironically, endeared fans was that of the secret relationship between the character Dennis Coles/D-Love/Ghostface Killah (Siddiq Saunderson) and Shurrie aka the younger sister of his best friend Bobby Diggs/RZA (Ashton Sanders).
Shurrie is one of the few female characters on the densely populated show. She’s mostly portrayed in a maternal role helping to care for her three brothers and eventually the son she shares with Dennis. (Yes, that did happen in real life! Tune in next week to find how RZA really reacted when he found out.) But there is no question that Shurrie is so much more than just a babysitter and cook. She is a dynamic, feisty young woman focused on her studies and determined to uplift not only herself but the men around her.
“A proud and vocal feminist,” Griggs also aims to elevate like-minded individuals on topics such as entrepreneurship and self-esteem. Through her rising prominence on social media and organizing events such as her 2018 conference, which included a panel discussion with intimacy expert Shan Boodram and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Griggs uses her voice to support and promote female empowerment.
With silver screen projects slated for 2022, the Los Angeles native took time out for some much-needed girl chat with VIBE. Discussing the real-life chemistry she shares with her fictional love interest, continuing Wu-Tang’s legacy of knowledge, and opening up on how she personally feels about Shurrie becoming a teenage mother, Zolee Griggs proves why her fire can’t be put out.
VIBE: Were you familiar with or a fan of Wu-Tang’s music prior to the show?
Zolee: Of course! Even though, yes, Wu-Tang is very much so for the children. They were not for this child though. My mom was not letting me really listen to that much Wu-Tang. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and able to journey into music for myself that I was able to tap into their music. Being a Hip-Hop head and a music head, of course, I knew “C.R.E.A.M,” and it’s a classic. But I wasn’t able to dive into their music until I was a little older, which I think is even better because they were dropping some real knowledge and wisdom that I wouldn’t have appreciated as a 10-year-old versus me being 16, 17. So I’m glad I did do the research a little bit later.
When it comes to your acting, on the show specifically, are you inspired by any Wu-Tang music?
I think their music is extremely inspiring. And when you listen to their second album [Wu-Tang Forever], I feel like they really go deep in their Five Percenter bag, what it means to be a Black person in America, your identity, all that kind of stuff. As Black people continuously go through our journey and our existence in this country, it’s a reflection of that. They were talking about this back in the ’90s and we’re still going through this stuff today and we’re in the 21st century. So, they have wisdom beyond their years.
And it’s just inspiring how they’re talking about brotherhood and unity and that it takes a village. It’s not as cliche as it sounds. It’s really true. So, I hope that the same way that their music inspired their generation, that now that we’re getting to redo this story and tell it for the newer generation and the older generation, from their perspective, I hope that their morals and knowledge sticks a bit more and can inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps. Because they’re great inspiration on what it’s like to be successful with being a family, with being a group. All this individualism isn’t always going to be the answer. So of course, I love their music and their knowledge.
I thought it was really important to speak with you because I wanted to get some input from the female perspective on the show. What do you think Shurrie’s character brings to the show as far as her relationship with Dennis and her role within her own family dynamic?
So, Shurrie’s character, I think, brings, like you said, the female perspective in all this, because it is a male-driven story, male narration, it’s coming from the point of view of all the guys, which makes sense—it’s a male-centered group. But it is, instead of the comedic relief, it’s the feminine relief in the show. It shows you all the sacrifices that the women had to make as well. A lot of these guys confided in their women or their women push them to go further or help with their trajectory in making these life-changing decisions.
As far as the family dynamic, I think Shurrie shows the aspect of the newer generation. Because you have Linda, she’s old school, so her principles and morals align with that. But Shurrie is the newer generation. So, she’s trying to figure out where she wants to take her womanhood and what it’s like to be a mother from her perspective rather than Linda’s. Also, she was cooking and cleaning, and going to school. She was like the second mother of the household but wasn’t being treated with the same respect. So, it kind of showed a little bit of the sexism that comes into play or just the overlooking that the guys didn’t take into account, maybe at first, but later on, was revealed.
How do you feel about Shurrie’s storyline/character arc for Season 2, namely her getting pregnant and becoming a teenage mother?
I don’t really have a yes or a no feeling towards it. I think she did what was best for her. And she really loves Dennis and that’s what would make her happy, it would solidify their relationship. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with women aspiring to be mothers and wives and that’s it. Women are supposed to work and be independent and I agree with that as well, if that is the choice you want to make. But if you want to aspire to simply be a mother and have children, I think that’s beautiful too. That’s some people’s purpose.
Do I want Shurrie to figure out a career for herself? Of course! But also, there’s nothing wrong with showing that she’s just a mother right now and she’s trying to figure out what that is ’cause that is a job! No, it doesn’t pay, but it’s still a job within itself. And I think people have to realize that. You got to put respect on her name for being able to do that at a young age and in the circumstances that she was in. This was the ’90s. The crack epidemic was happening. They weren’t the wealthiest family. She moved away from home to take care of this child with her boyfriend who was also trying to figure it out. This was a serious job, and they were taking on such adult-like roles at such a young age. So, I’m glad that she did what was happy for her. And because of it, they have beautiful kids who now get to reap the benefits of those sacrifices that they made.
As far as Shurrie, I think she’s got a couple tricks up her sleeve. But hopefully, she gets to find herself a little bit more and does take some time just to love on herself the way she loves on Dennis and [her son] Infinite.
Speaking of Dennis and Shurrie, how did you and Siddiq [Saunderson] develop your onscreen chemistry? It’s quite palpable. I would say his character is totally interdependent on your character because that side of him we pretty much only see when he’s with you or with his brothers.
Siddiq is such a sweetheart, and I think we had a close bond immediately just because, well, honestly, we’re both fire signs. He’s a Sagittarius. I’m a Leo. So, we feel like we respond to certain things similarly. And we were both kind of like, not the underdogs, but we were both new to doing television. [Compared to] some of our costars, this was our debut. So, it was easy for us to come together and be friends, especially considering the relationship our characters had. He’s extremely professional. He takes his job very seriously but also knows how to have fun. And I respect that. I think that’s really what it is—I have respect for Siddiq.
But also, we have a good sister-brother relationship in real life. We do talk on the phone and we do catch up with each other. We know that because of this foundation that we have, when it comes time to being a mother and a dad in the scenes, it’s not that hard. It just makes it that much more realistic when we’re on screen. It’s easy, really.
What is it like being on a predominantly male set? Particularly because the characters themselves are hyper-masculine and not just hyper-masculine in the basic sense, but hyper-masculine in the Black sense, which is uber-masculine as we as Black women know.
Exactly. Personally, I enjoy it because, like you said, because we’re all Black we understand each other. There’s a certain language. There’s a certain way that we can all speak to each other. I can be extremely realistic with these guys and it’s not like, “Oh, that was unprofessional, or you shouldn’t have said that.” There’s a certain level of comfortability because we all understand.
We all get to joke around and have a good time. But also, there’s a certain level of respect that I require from all the guys being the only woman on set. Boys will be boys, I guess is what people say as far as language and how they joke about certain things. But when it comes time to get them together that’s when my Leo side comes out. I’m like, “Just as Shurrie needs a certain level of respect from you guys. I do as well.” And I’m appreciative that I am able to talk to them in that way and be real with them. And they have respect for me. They’re like, “Oh snap, we got Zolee here. We got the woman onset guys, get it together.” So, it’s funny how the show just mirrors actual life and vice versa.
So, it sounds like you bring that balance to the boys’ club?
It’s true. I’m the feminine energy onset, period, whether it’s on- or off-screen. And I get to set the record straight or just mix it up. The guys will be like, “Man, we haven’t had a laugh in like 10 hours. It’s been just all of us, all this masculine energy and you walked in, and you made us laugh in five minutes. Thank you so much. We missed you.” I’m like, “Aw, I love you guys. Thank you.”
Executive producer RZA agreed on Griggs’ role within the Wu-Tang: An American Saga family. “Zolee definitely changes their energy and balances it out for those crazy young group of actors we got,” he shared in his upcoming interview and the finale of VIBE’s Wu-Tang Wednesday series. Tune in on Wednesday, Dec. 15.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream now on Hulu.