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Sasheer Zamata is a ‘grown-up woman’ who knows she can say, ‘No’

The fifth black woman to join the cast of ‘SNL’ has a new movie out and will drop a podcast later this year

Comedian and actress Sasheer Zamata is reinventing herself.

She’s best known for her stint on Saturday Night Live. She and Leslie Jones were hired at the same time after the show came under fire for not having any black women in its cast. When she was hired in 2014, she was just the fifth black woman to make the cast in the show’s nearly 40-year history.

Zamata has since left the show and moved to Los Angeles. She taped a 2017 stand-up special called Pizza Mind. She reconnected with her Pursuit of Sexiness web series co-creator and friend Nicole Byer — they’re recording a new podcast together that’s expected to drop later this year. She’s also acting on the Comedy Central show Corporate.

And she’s currently promoting The Weekend, a romantic comedy directed by Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything), which is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this weekend. In it, Zamata plays a comedian who ends up taking a weekend trip to her parents’ bed-and-breakfast with her ex-boyfriend (Tone Bell) and his new chick (DeWanda Wise).

I spoke to Zamata about her new projects, her penchant for delivering acid-tongued remarks with a sweet disposition, and how she gets her Afro to stay so perfectly round.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Tell me what it was like to work with Stella Meghie.

I really love working with decisive people, especially directors. And she’s just a person who knows what she wants. We met via Skype, and she told me about the script, and I read it and I really loved it. It felt like a cool character to play because I feel like I play usually sweet characters, agreeable characters, so this is a very sarcastic, cynical viewpoint to display, and it was pretty fun.

You have a way of delivering things that are cutting, but in a way that is really sweet that … you’re like, “Wait a minute, what did she just say?”

People get tricked because I’m smiling, but it’s not always good.

You and Nicole Byer are reuniting for a new project?

I guess we’ve never not been together. We’re going to start a podcast soon. It’s gonna come out in June, and we’re very excited. It’s about best friends, and we give advice to other friends. We don’t know everything, but we have been friends for 500 years, so I feel like we know some things about the ups and downs of friendships.

You must crack each other up. Everyone falls in love with Nicole because she’s just completely shameless.

Yeah, we do crack each other up, and I think we’re each other’s comedic and life foil because we’re very, very similar in the way we think but also very different. A lot of our early days in New York was me wrangling her and trying to make sure she stayed alive! Not like traumatically, but she makes wild, wild choices, I think, that you can hear on any of her podcasts or in her stand-ups. So it’s my job to make sure that she has fun with these wild choices but also comes home.

Is there an inside joke between the two of you that you can share?

Well, we have matching tattoos; it says, ‘Goodnight, world.’ And mine is on my calf and hers is on her arm, on her tricep, and we used to say that to each other when we were saying goodbye to each other on the phone. This is when I lived in New York and she was living in L.A. and we were having a long-distance friendship and we would call each other every day, and as we were saying goodbye we would say, ‘Goodnight, world. Goodnight, Nicole.’ And she would say, ‘Goodnight, world. Goodnight, Sasheer.’ And when we were both at Austin at the same time, we got these matching tattoos, and immediately after we got the tattoos we forgot how to do it. We would try and be like, ‘Oh, goodnight, Nicole, world. Goodbye, world.’ We just forgot what the order was and the cadence, and so we just never did it again even though we got tattoos from it.

Unlike with a romantic relationship, the probability that something terrible will happen is much lower.

She’s the only person I have a matching tattoo with, and I think that’s probably how it will stay.

You said she kind of helped to bring you out of your shell.

I’ve always felt more comfortable onstage than in life, and she definitely brought me out of my shell. I wouldn’t say I was shy now, but I definitely am an introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert. I’m not really sure what category I fall under, but I have introvert tendencies and sometimes I get socially anxious and just like, ‘You know what? I’d rather just be alone or with one other person.’

You’re 32 now. What has changed about the way you see yourself since you’ve entered your 30s?

I definitely feel like a grown-up woman, and I can’t wait to be more of a grown-up woman as I get older. I’m more comfortable saying no to things, which I love, where I feel like younger me was battling with that and I always felt like I had to have a reason for saying no or I had to take every single opportunity that was given to me. But I think it’s typical, I think most people feel that way, especially when they’re starting their career up. You feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t know when the next opportunity’s gonna come up, so I should say yes to everything that comes my way.’ But now I’m being more selective and focused with what I want, how I want to put myself out into the world and put my art out into the world.

“No” is a complete sentence.

Exactly, and learning that is really empowering and freeing too.

What are the things you are dreaming about, that you want to go after and accomplish?

I want to direct. I have directed some sketch videos when I was younger, I’ve directed some plays, but I really want to do more filmmaking. And I’m learning and trying to learn and be more knowledgeable about it because it’s a totally different skill, a totally different beast, but I expect it’s for the journey. I think it would be a great way to get more of my voice out into the world and also just more of myself. Also, I get to be the boss of the set, which is something I love.

Were you a person who enjoyed rom-coms when you were just a regular moviegoer?

Yeah, definitely. I like Love & Basketball, Best Man and all the iterations of Best Man. I think they’re fun. I think there was a period where, as society started to get tired of women being thrust into a situation or being toppled upon and she happens to be saved or needy or something like that, we got tired of that as viewers. So that put a stain on romantic comedies as general, even though not all of them are like that.

There was a time when they were all very cool and women were strong and smart and they were lawyers and they were choosing their destiny, and then there was a weird period where there was all these weird meet-cute situations where you’re bumping your head into somebody or you’re like his personal shopper or his maid and you’re literally serving this man and hoping that he looks at you. But I feel like we’re bouncing back from that and having more stories about women who are full human beings and are choosing who they get to be with, and that’s exciting. I’m excited to see more of that and also be a part of that and get more stories where it’s a story about two people choosing to be together.

And I’m excited for women falling in love with women or men falling in love with men.

I don’t know many queer romantic comedies, but there should be more.

There absolutely should be more, and I think we will get more. We keep asking for more of those voices to be heard in media, and I think there are so many people who are already working and ready to work that will be creating great things. Unfortunately it’s a bit slow, but there is progress, and I think the more we keep shouting and reminding people like, ‘Hey, we like seeing this kind of stuff,’ then the more studios and producers will listen to that stuff and start buying it, because really all they want is money. Some people care about progress, but money talks.

You always seem to have this perfectly shaped ’fro. It’s like a perfect halo over your face, and I’m so curious. How do you get it to be exactly right on all the sides?

Wow, that’s a huge compliment! I don’t think I really do anything crazy, I just do two strands twists and then take them out when I’m working. Sometimes, though, it’s a wig.

Wigs are a savior.

My hair reacts to temperature. If it’s too hot, it just shrinks or absorbs all the moisture in the air, so I’m doing something that needs to be consistent. Because I shot a movie with my hair and then from shot to shot, where they edit it, is like a big ’fro, a tiny ’fro, a big ’fro, a tiny ’fro. Changing from moment to moment. So I was, like, maybe I should do a wig or extensions or something so that it can be consistent. Actually, I just changed my hair again. I shaved the sides and the back, and it’s kind of like a mohawk-y thing on the top, but I love it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.