If Zoe Renee seems familiar in her role as Noni Williams on the BET black college drama “The Quad,” starring Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, it might be due to her celebrity genes.
As the daughter of Arrested Development frontman Todd “Speech” Thomas, Renee’s exposure to the spotlight began early. “I actually grew up home-schooled so I was able to travel with my dad and see the world of entertainment,” says Renee of her childhood in Fayetteville. There her family runs Victory Spot, an arts complex offering a variety of artist development classes that include acting, music and dance.
Despite being surrounded by music her entire life, it just wasn’t her calling. Acting was. So much so that she delayed college. “I actually took a gap year as soon as I graduated,” explains Renee. “I wanted to focus on acting to see if it was something I really wanted to pursue, and I happen to book my first two (jobs) and I said, ‘You know what, let me just focus on this for a while.’”
Last year, the fruits of that decision showed up in the character of Noni, the resident band geek, a saxophonist, at the fictional black college GAMU (Georgia A&M University). “The Quad” films in Atlanta.
Renee, who auditioned for several roles on the show, never doubted this one was for her.
“Once I got the sides and script for Noni, I knew it was a match. I felt completely connected to her. Pretty immediately,” she recalls. “I saw the words and I saw her. I saw her quirkiness and I saw her sometimes awkwardness and her smarts and her charm and her tediousness sometimes, and I was immediately able to put that into my bones.”
That connection hasn’t wavered in the show’s second season, which premiered Jan. 23. As with the first season, she and Noni still share a strong kinship. “Noni definitely grew up,” the 20-year-old Renee says. “Like myself, she’s comfortable in her spot or she’s getting there. We both came into fairly new situations. It was my first TV show; it was her first year of college and, now, we’re a little bit more comfortable in our positions.”
Last season ended on a sour note for Noni, who was accused of espionage that hurt the band, the larger GAMU family and band director Cecil Diamond, played by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson. At the start of this season, she was even more on the outs with Diamond, who, despite her best efforts, has never been her biggest fan. As the season progresses, however, Noni handles that dynamic very differently than before.
“She’s figured out who she wants to be. She’s figured out what she wants to do, and she’s even more focused,” explains Renee. “She’s even more excited and even more of a go-getter this season than ever before.”
Their teacher-student relationship has changed, Renee shares excitedly. “They’re working together in ways we’ve never seen before, but she’s also taking a stand. She’s being strong and she’s speaking her mind. She’s just growing up, but it’s so cool to see because we’re in on it.”
As an actress, Renee is growing, too. Most recently, she starred with Simone Missick, best known as Misty Knight from Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and “The Defenders,” in her first feature film, “Jinn,” a coming-of-age dramedy about converting to Islam. “It’s a big story,” says Renee.
“The religion is extremely beautiful, and I don’t think people are able to see that side of the religion at all or enough. This story, it’s a real-life story, of what it’s like to convert or what it’s like to discover a new religion.”
Renee is living a big story, too, right here in her hometown. “The Quad” even shoots at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse. “Everything started for me right here in Atlanta, and I’ve been extremely blessed to be able to stay here and be with my family,” she beams. “It’s been really awesome.”
“The Quad,” BET, 10 p.m. Tuesdays
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