Sasheer Zamata Talks Hulu's 'Woke' and BFF Nicole Byer's History-Making Emmy Nomination (Exclusive)

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Sasheer Zamata
Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Audibl

Sasheer Zamata is keeping it real.

In Hulu's Woke, Zamata plays Ayana, the progressive editor of fictional independent paper The Bay Arean, who challenges Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris), a cartoonist who is on the outs following a blistering viral breakdown, to confront the racial injustices he's faced as a Black man. A last-minute addition to the series, Zamata's character forces Keef to address his own indifference about the Black experience. That friction between the two unlikely acquaintances propels the series forward as Keef grapples with the complexities of navigating his once-budding career amid a time of social unrest.

"I like comedies for many reasons, but I like that comedy breaks down people's defenses," Zamata, 34, tells ET. "You can learn about something new or have a different perspective on something while you're laughing, and I think that's an easy way to get people to communicate about things and bring people together on certain issues, instead of beating them over the head with a topic or having a TED Talk or making it really dry."

Zamata praised Woke for exploring important topics like interracial dating, police brutality and social commentary by way of art. "I feel like a lot of mainstream shows would shy away from topics like interracial dating and having a white audience when you're a Black artist. And it's just nice that we were able to do that," the Saturday Night Live alum said. 

Here, Zamata talks to ET about the Hulu series, her best friendship with Nailed It! host Nicole Byer and her pal's history-making Emmy nomination.

ET: Before we dive into Woke, how is quarantine life for you?

Sasheer Zamata: Oh just trying to make every day different from the day before. It's a lot, but I'm trying to find things that make me happy and I'm taking up roller-skating and hula hoops, and singing lessons, and I'm just going to be a frigging "26 threat." Then have all the talent by the time I'm done with quarantine.

How did Woke come into your orbit and how were you pitched your character?

I was actually a last-minute addition when they were filming the pilot. They were already shooting it and I think the writers realized they needed an extra element to it -- or at least someone to challenge the main character, Keef Knight, who's played by Lamorne Morris, who is hilarious. And so they brought me to Vancouver very quickly to do this really small part in the pilot. I think once they finished the pilot, they realized, "Oh, maybe this character could actually play a bigger role." Throughout the writing process, they just put me in the show more. I think it's a really cool way to talk about race and people's perception of it -- art, culture. I also love magical realism and adding little animation elements to a live-action story. I didn't have to be pitched that hard to be involved.

What did you originally know about Ayana? 

Ayana is already woke. If the show is Keef's journey becoming woke, Ayana is the guru leading him on that path. And she's already trying to get her community to be more communicative and active and political. There are people like Keef in the beginning of the series who want to reject that and turn a blind eye, but I help him realize that you can't do that when there's so much going on in society and when you have a voice. I think that's cool because that's also what I do with my own art anyway.

The show toes that line of putting a mirror up to what is going on in society and culture today but with some humor weaved in. What's your take on how it toggles between those two sides?

I like comedies for many reasons, but I like that comedy breaks down people's defenses. You can learn about something new or have a different perspective on something while you're laughing, and I think that's an easy way to get people to communicate about things and bring people together on certain issues, instead of beating them over the head with a topic or having a TED Talk or making it really dry. People want to reject that immediately because they feel like they're in school. But if you make it fun and funny, it's easier for people to get on board and maybe learn something they didn't know about before they watched the show.

Woke

Sasheer Zamata (left) plays Ayana, a guru of sorts to Lamorne Morris' Keef in Hulu's 'Woke.'

Liane Hentscher/Hulu

Has your time playing Ayana shifted anything in your personal belief system? 

It's interesting. I didn't use my comedy and my art to talk about issues that are very important to me, which can be political or it can be societal. And Ayana is so doggedly determined to talk about the issues, that sometimes it goes a little too far. I like seeing that; I like seeing that she's not just a perfect character who's always right. Sometimes she's wrong and sometimes you can go a little too far with how woke you're trying to be. I think that's an interesting concept for the series to show, that there's multiple ways to get your voice out there and be heard.

Episode four really stood out to me. "Black People for Rent" started as a cultural art piece for Keef and then immediately transformed into something completely different, which feels particularly relevant today, because of its commentary on performative acts of allyship on social media.

There are so many things in real life that have happened like that, where the message gets misconstrued or it warps, or changes, or it gets away from the original group of people that started the message or the mission and turned into something completely different. It's a cautionary tale, but also a reflection of what has already been happening in art and in pop culture for many, many years. It's a very succinct way of showing how a good intention can be skewed so quickly.

Was there a particular moment or scene or a line that you thought, "I'm surprised they're going there"?

Honestly, I was really pleasantly surprised at how many issues we're tackling with this show. I feel like a lot of mainstream shows would shy away from topics like interracial dating and having a white audience when you're a Black artist. It's just nice that we were able to do that and that the network was welcoming that. It'll be released into the world and people will, I hope, welcome it because it's very timely. I'm glad that we were able to do so many things that, I guess, could have been racy, but are very appropriate right now.

There's a moment in the first episode when Keef has a breakdown at GoldenCon after he realizes he's "the sausage" and he's "the thing that makes the money." Have you had moments of revelation like that in your career?

I think I've had revelations like that with, "This project doesn't really want to concern itself with what's happening in the real world," but thankfully, I've never been in a situation where my career depended on whatever that thing is. I actually feel like I've been very fortunate where my voice has been welcomed to the projects that I'm doing, especially in this one too. They really encouraged improvisation. They really wanted to know our opinions on stuff, and I prefer those types of environments because they're more conducive to creativity and to progress.

If I can shift gears a little bit, I want to ask you about the Best Friends podcast you have with Nicole Byer. With the conceit being interviews with pairs of best friends, who are your dream BFFs that you would like to interview?

When we first started, we did ask for Oprah and Gayle to be a guest on the show. They're a little busy, so we haven't gotten them yet, but we're holding out hope. We're keeping our fingers crossed and feel like maybe if the show gets more popular... because they're the ultimate BFFs. Everyone's been aware of Oprah and Gail for decades, so it would be really nice to get this very public friendship on our show.

Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata

BFFs Nicole Byer (left) and Sasheer Zamata strike a pose on the 2019 Emmys red carpet.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

On a more serious note, you're always candid about things that you're both going through, especially when you're discussing therapy and how important that is. Especially now, that is such an important aspect of remaining sane. Why are you so candid about things like mental health and the stigma maybe surrounding therapy? Why that was important to talk about openly? 

We talk about ourselves. We're not playing characters. We're very much ourselves on the show and we talk about what we're going through and we both are in therapy, and we feel the benefits from it. I don't know if we thought about talking about it in a way that would influence other people to do that, but if it does help people to call a therapist and talk, we love that. I'm recommending it to people all the time. We swear by it and I think the more help people get or the more they're able to admit that they need help is a beautiful thing. We're not ashamed of it. Also, I think therapy or mental health services can get stigmatized in the Black community. We're both Black women who use these services and are very open about it. Maybe the more we normalize it, the more people will feel comfortable trying it themselves.

How happy are you about Nicole getting an Emmy nomination? She's the first Black woman to be nominated as reality host.

Oh my God, ecstatic. It's so, so cool. I am also, like, shocked that she's the first. That's really crazy, but what a beautiful moment to be a part of. Fingers crossed! She's in the category with some really heavy hitters, like RuPaul and Padma Lakshmi, but I think she's got a chance. Sometimes we get surprised at the Emmys and they like to give awards to the newbies. So I think that would be really cool, but just being nominated, it's amazing. It's funny because all of last year she was talking about 2020. It's going to be her year and then we're hit with the pandemic and now fires and all these crazy things, but it is her year despite all that.

Woke is streaming now on Hulu.

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