Radiant, apple-cheeked Zelda Harris was a high school senior when I first met her during Pre-Frosh Weekend 2003. We were standing together awkwardly with Amy Widdowson—Zelda’s host and a friend of mine—on the gray gravel path behind Nassau Hall that gets all murky and disgusting when it rains. And it had been raining—for days, if I recall correctly—leading me to believe that none of these damned regular decision kids were going to be choosing clammy, gross Princeton over sunny, stupid Stanford and thus we were just going to wind up with a bunch of snot-nosed, over-achieving, early-decision douchebags come the following fall.
We were talking about theatre.
“Zelda wants to know about theatre on campus,” said Amy, as if she didn’t know.
“Tell Zelda about theatre on campus,” said Amy, now the publicity director of Theatre Intime.
So I did, because I’d been vaguely in and out of the “theatre scene” on this campus for a bit and considered myself to be knowledgeable of the dramatic land’s lay, so to speak. By this point, I’d already played a sort-of white teenager who is strangled with a pair of shackles for being annoying in Men Without Shadows, and a racist white gangster from the lower West Side in Dail Cha ‘02’s legendary hip-hop bastardization of West Side Story, as well as a white South Afrikaaner who is enchanted by the quips and tricks of a gay, black hustler from the New York City streets in Six Degrees of Separation. (I’m black.)
The point being: I took one look at her, this rather reserved but bright-talking, mahogany-skinned, silky-framed pre-frosh and thought, ‘She has to go here!” Regarding race and talent, I thought: here was our campus’s equivalent to Phylicia Rashaad! Our next pre-Catwoman-circa-Losing-Isaiah Halle Berry! And, disregarding race but still emphasizing talent, I alternatively thought: here was our next Meryl Streep! Our next Hilary Swank!
If all went according to plan, I’d get the credit for discovering her.
Well, just kidding. Because, apparently, I first met Zelda eleven years ago when my mother took me to see the then-brand-new Spike Lee Joint Crooklyn, which I guess means Spike Lee gets the credit for ‘discovering’ her. In it, an eight year-old Zelda plays Troy, the movie’s main protagonist who witnesses the good and bad times of her small Brooklyn family in between trying to navigate a rambunctious inner-city childhood. I remember very little of the movie itself (I was in the fourth grade), but I do recall a song about the Devil and Zelda’s performance as being impressively nuanced and assured for a pre-tween.
I didn’t put two-and-two together until late last year when someone, in a conversation about pre-teen lit’rature, casually brought up the fact that Jessi from The Baby-Sitters Club movie was a member of the class of 2007. Curiosity got the better of me, I IMDB’d the movie, and sure enough it was Zelda Harris, ten years tinier. Feeling like the last person to know, I soon confronted Zelda about her deep, dark past, and, in reply, she sort of guffawed uncomfortably and ran away—the typical fight or flight response of any former Child Star. Since then, I’ve been able to successfully convince her of the fact that I’m not using her to get to the girl from Alex Mack or the original red Power Ranger.
Over Spring Break, I sat down with Zelda in Café Viv to talk about her celebrity, which was pretty weird for the both of us.
“Please don’t make me look silly,” she said. “I hate talking about myself.”
I had caught her during a one-hour reprieve between errands and a rehearsal for William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which opened up this past week at Theatre Intime. She is playing The Queen, Cymbeline’s wife cum murderous villainess with a scheme cooked up to have her son crowned King of Britain.
Surprisingly enough, this is Zelda’s first foray into the acting world since coming to Princeton. Instead of immediately taking the campus theatre scene by storm, as might have been expected, Zelda spent a good year and a half just being your average molecular biology then EEB then English major. When questioned as to why it took her so long to come to her humanities major senses, she responded, “I’ve always loved science.” A self-proclaimed Trekkie, her favorite movie is Gattaca and she considers Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap to be “the best television shows of all time.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that Zelda, in all her geeky ambition, has completely abandoned performance. She has been a member of Culturally Yours (“a cappella with soul”) since her freshmen year and this fall made her debut as the new lead singer for the campus’s only Afro-Beat all-star group, Sensemayà. This, she finds, has been a pretty interesting change of pace.
Music—almost as much as acting—has always been a major part of her life. I remember pulling all-nighters in the Mathey computer cluster my sophomore year and hearing the sporadic sound of timid fingers on a keyboard come floating down the dining-hall-stank corridor. Sometimes I’d even catch snatches of a voice singing certain fragments with a tone as sweet as honey but often faint as a mosquito’s buzz. Upon further inspection, I’d find a sleepy-eyed Zelda crouched over a piano, making notations on a score. She would be writing songs. However, her musical talents aren’t merely restricted to vocals; she has played the jazz saxophone since high school and sometimes studies the Juilliard School homepage in wistful moments of contemplating what-could-might-been. Her favorite artists include John Coltrane, Chick Caria, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
“Jazz,” she claims, “is where my heart and soul throbs.”
According to Zelda, acting was the result of one big accident. Her Dad, a professional tennis instructor, took Zelda, at the tender age of two, to the 1988 U.S. Open, where she was discovered by an agent who literally tripped over her.
“I remember it so well,” Zelda said. “I was just being my normal, old hyperactive self, and playing on the fence or whatever and just sort of fell back into her. She talked to me for a little bit apparently told my parents, ‘This little girls got something.”
Within a year, Zelda was doing commercials for Burger King and Life Cereal; she then spent five seasons on Sesame Street. It was right off of Sesame Street that Spike Lee plucked little Zelda up for the lead role of Troy in Crooklyn, billing her as “Introducing Zelda Harris.” A year or two after Crooklyn, Zelda played Maretha in the Emmy-nominated TV-movie adaptation of The Piano Lesson and Jessi in The Baby Sitters Club. Since then, she’s made over a dozen television appearances, including Law & Order and the short-lived ABC family series Second Noah, in which she starred as the adopted black daughter of a zookeeper. Fond memories include being peed on by a boa constrictor.
“It was so gross,” she recalled, half-grimacing half-chuckling. “It was all over me. Have you ever tried to stop and think about how a boa constrictor pees? I remember to turning to the girl next to me and being like, ‘Um, hey. I think your perfume expired.’”
Though the list of her TV work stretches on a little father than her screen credits, she says she “prefers film,” but she admits that it is fairly difficult for a young African-American woman to find work that doesn’t border on disgraceful. “More often than not,” she remarked with a sort of bemusement, “I find myself getting called in to read for female crooks/prostitutes between the ages of fifteen and seventeen who may or may not be pregnant, may or may not have been involved in a robbery, and who are probably meeting their father for the first time.”
It doesn’t help that the pool of young black screen actresses is fairly limited. “We all know each other,” Zelda said. The one person Zelda runs into the most—and to whom she has probably lost the most roles—is Vanessa Lee Chester of Harriet the Spy and Lost World: Jurassic Park II fame. In the latter, Chester played Jeff Goldblum’s mysteriously African-American daughter.
In spite of the fact that she’s taking a break away from it all “for college,” Zelda is still offered decent work from time to time. “Sometimes things can be good… things that inspire you to bring life to it. You just sort of have to be careful and be on the look out.”
Coming to college as opposed to jumping straight into an acting career was an easy choice. “Being in the thick of [show business], Zelda said, “can really take the joy out of it. It comes to a point where you just have to walk away.”
Zelda is happy to have the freedom to be “taking academic and intellectual risks” at this point in her life. “I just wanted to be a normal kid with a normal college experience,” she said, “you know?” Sometimes people recognize her, sometimes people don’t. Of all of things she’s done, people are most likely to remember her for her work in Crooklyn, which is weird, because, to her, that was ages ago. “It’s awkward,” Zelda told me. “I mean, it’s like: Yes, I really love eight year-old me, too.”