The Come-Up: Storm Reid Is Taking Hollywood By, Well, Storm
Feeling euphoric as she makes her prestige TV debut, the 15-year-old has Oprah sending her Bitmojis and is Black Hollywood's "little sis."
Storm Reid is turning red — well, as red as a black girl can — as she sinks into the chair she sits in across from me at a cafe in Studio City, Los Angeles. The 15-year-old is lowering her flushed makeup-free face into her hands and giggling uncontrollably. The catalyst for this overt display of embarrassment is a question about her prom date, Sayeed Shahidi. Yes, as in Yara Shahidi’s brother. Reid went to prom, like millions of other teens around the world, after an elaborate promposal orchestrated by Shahidi with the help of his big sister. Relaying the details of this grand romantic gesture causes Reid to abandon her perfect posture for the first time in our conversation.
“It caught me way off guard,” Reid says after slightly regaining her composure to dish on the specifics. Shahidi surprised her with flowers and a homemade sign that reads,“Storms are rare in LA. I’m lucky I found one. Prom?” while Reid was in hair and makeup for the premiere of her friend Marsai Martin’s movie Little. Shahidi’s promposal was, naturally, shared by Reid to her 420,000 Instagram followers. “I was freaking out,” Reid says. “I couldn't stop smiling. I thought it was really sweet, but I also didn't know what was happening at the time. It was just a lot going on.”
Other teen girls aren’t blockbuster movie stars who say yes to prom while getting glam for a red carpet, but Reid tells this story like a typical high school sophomore would, with a mix of coyness, enthusiasm, and a bit of discomfort. It sounds ripped from the script for a glossy new rom-com; the kind of film you’d expect her to take on after becoming a Disney darling with A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, this summer she’s starring in two of prestige TV’s buzziest new series: Netflix’s When They See Us and HBO’s Euphoria, which'll hit UK screens later this year. One is the harrowing retelling of the infamous 1989 Central Park rape case that wrongfully incarcerated five innocent black teens, and the other is a roisterous and simultaneously disturbing glimpse into what high school kids do when their parents aren’t paying attention. Hint: Drugs. They do lots and lots of drugs.
“I, of course, haven't experimented with that myself,” Reid attests, and I instantly believe her, partly because of her reluctance to even say the word “drug.” It’s also because Reid’s reputation precedes her. If you follow young black Hollywood on social media, you’ve probably seen some of your faves refer to Reid as their “little sis.” Aside from Yara Shahidi, Dear White People’s Logan Browning, If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne, Michael B. Jordan, and Zendaya (who actually plays Reid’s big sister in Euphoria) have all adopted Reid as part of their chosen family.
“I do feel like the little sister of Hollywood,” Reid says. Her bond with this community of young stars who are changing the face of an industry that has been too white for too long is integral to her rise. She says they all feel a responsibility to protect each other. “I've cultivated a great relationship with all these people who are in my corner and really want to see me win. We're able to fight the good fight and not only lift each other up and empower each other but try to give each other opportunities.”
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After starring in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, the studio’s first £100-million film helmed by a black woman (Ava DuVernay) and featuring a black girl lead (Reid played Meg Murry, a nerdy high schooler who has to face evil forces in order to save her missing father), Reid’s opportunities should be limitless, but she’s at the cliché precipice of her career every young starlet encounters: What roles do you take on when you’re trying to show the world that you’re growing up? The thing about Reid is that in person, she doesn’t come off as just another overly-polished prodigy. She feels 15, and she’s not trying to be older. It’s is a refreshing departure from the 15-going-on-50 child star stereotype we’re used to, and she oozes the kind of unjaded naivety you hope the industry never takes from her.
“I pray that this talented, young black actress will have another part as full-bodied as Meg Murry,” DuVernay tells Refinery29 via email. “I hope this industry does right by her, like they did by a young Natalie Portman or Jennifer Lawrence or Jodie Foster. Because she is a real light and a true gift.”
Like Portman, Lawrence, and Foster, Reid’s gifts revealed themselves early. She was born and raised in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles with her mother to pursue acting — her sister moved to L.A. a year later, and her other siblings and father still live in Georgia. At age 3, Reid says she could recite the entire dialogue of Matilda and Shrek. She landed her first big role at 9, in the Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave, which was the first time she realised that acting was “the real deal.” Her mother, Robyn Simpson, is a staple on Reid’s Instagram page and a film producer who Reid says, “Put her dreams on the back burner for me.” After 12 Years, Reid steadily booked small roles in indie films and bit parts on television before DuVernay hand-picked her for A Wrinkle In Time and Reid’s official come-up began.
“I think I'm very strategic in my career,” she says. “I'm a purpose-driven person, and in everything that I do, if it doesn't match up with my morals and my values my mom taught me, then it's not something that I want to be a part of. She's the best mom and my best friend. My older sister, my mom, and I, we call ourselves ‘Three the Hard Way,’ because it's been us since the beginning, and it's just the three of us now.”
Dressed casually in a white Nike jumpsuit and leopard print sneakers, Reid smiles widely, easily, and often. She’s still got that Georgia etiquette (though she tells me she feels “ashamed” to be from the state amidst the abortion bans). Reid refers to strangers as ma’am and sir, and non-family older women in her life as “Miss [insert name]” — her A Winkle In Time co-stars are “Miss Oprah,” “Miss Mindy” and “Miss Reese.” She keeps in touch with all of them, including “Miss Ava” through a star-studded group chat.
The surreal fact that she’s in a text message thread with Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, and Ava DuVerney is not lost on Reid. “I'm pretty cool if you ask me,” she says as she mock flicks her hair off her shoulder — her curls are pulled up in a top knot, but the boastful gesture still lands. “Miss Ava is usually the one to initiate the texts, but there's a lot of GIFs that go in the group chat.” The thought of Oprah sending a GIF already makes me laugh, and Reid takes it one step further: “Oprah once sent us a Bitmoji of herself!”
Last year, Winfrey hailed Reid as this generation’s Judy Garland. “Our little Stormy gets to be that light for girls like herself,” Winfrey told Essence. Reid’s brightness is infectious. She seems to embody the carefree black girlhood pop culture has been craving. I ask Reid about a recent Twitter debate where users expressed their disappointment in the lack of mainstream coming-of-age films starring young black women that didn’t have to do with trauma. She pauses thoughtfully and fidgets with a stray curl.
“There definitely needs to be more of that content, but if the young-adult movies that other races get to play in are just joy, and happy-go-lucky, that’s not necessarily the case for African American women,” she says. “Our experiences are not always carefree and joyous all the time. Our narratives aren't always happy-go-lucky.”
Reid’s latest projects are neither “happy” nor “lucky.” When They See Us and Euphoria are both series about kids losing their innocence. In When They See Us, the five black men at the centre of DuVernay’s story are devastatingly stripped of their childhoods by a wrongful conviction and broken justice system. In Euphoria, the teenagers in Sam Levinson’s story — adapted from an Israeli series of the same name — corrupt themselves, opting for drugs, booze, and sex to escape their adolescence and chase adulthood. Reid’s childhood idol Zendaya is at the centre of Euphoria, and her character Rue finds herself in rehab in the show’s first five minutes. She’s popping pills again before minute 30. It’s the former-Disney star unlike we’ve ever seen her, and Reid’s role opposite “Z,” as she calls her, is a dream-come-true.
“It's crazy when I think about it,” Reid laughs. “That was my idol. She still is. I bowed down to her. Queen!” Reid recalls their first meeting in 2012, when she shyly asked Zendaya for a picture outside of a Ben & Jerry’s. “I totally fan-girled and froze. So, to go from that to being able to share a space with her and actually have her as another big sister is really cool.” In Euphoria, Reid’s character discovers Rue in a pool of her own vomit after she overdoses. Luckily, life doesn’t imitate art: Reid says that when she and Zendaya get together, it’s to watch documentaries. They also text regularly.
As for When They See Us, Reid gets more riled up discussing the four-part series. She plays Lisa, the childhood girlfriend of Korey Wise (gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Moonlight’s Jarrell Jerome), one of the five exonerated men. During the show’s premiere at the Apollo theatre she says “I was crying in the dark and I was so angry.” It’s the first time Reid’s cheery demeanour dims. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I want to find the district attorney, and I want to find these prosecutors, and I want to be like, ‘What is wrong with y'all?’ " This seems to be the natural reaction of outrage from viewers of the series – except a lot less polite — but Reid knows she can’t go troll former prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s mentions (shortly after our interview, Fairstein resigned from multiple boards and was dropped by her publisher due to increased attention over her role in the case).
“Of course, I'm not going to do that,” she sighs. “I want to use my anger to combat the injustices that young African American women and African American men face.”
One way she’s doing that is with #Bamazing, an organisation she founded with her mom to promote self-love and positivity in young girls. It’s the reason she was named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2018. “I also feel like a big sister to the younger girls of Hollywood, which is not a burden in any way,” she says. “It’s more like a responsibility that I'm so grateful to have, because I can pave the way and hopefully make opportunities for them, and just let them know that they are worthy.”
As our time together is wrapping up, I ask Reid if Sayeed Shahidi is, in fact, her boyfriend, and she basically melts into the table and refuses to speak. Reid slips between mortified teen to eloquently speaking to the world’s injustices as easily as she weaves between contrasting roles on screen. In A Wrinkle in Time, and now with When They See Us, Euphoria, and her upcoming role opposite Elisabeth Moss in Invisible Man, Reid is showing range, which is powerful because for so long, black girls in film and TV were just one thing. Reid’s roles are proving that we can be anything.
“I'm a firm believer in representing somebody as a whole person and as a whole being,” Reid says. “If you get to experience us as whole humans, and we're also able to intersect the joy in that, those are the projects I want to be a part of.”