From cutting hair to rapping to landing a standout role on Empire to her current gig on The CW’s All-American, playing a gay teen at a high school in Compton, Bre-Z is a strong, multifaceted, black LGBTQ standout on- and offscreen. Born in Philadelphia but raised in Wilmington, Delaware, she attended Full Sail University, then moved to Atlanta and began cutting hair. When the opportunity came to move to L.A. five years ago, she couldn’t pass up the sunshine of the West Coast and potential connections to be made here for her music. She soon met the right people — people who saw she had something more to share with the world. L.A. Weekly talked with the hot actress-rapper about her swelling success.
L.A. WEEKLY: You came to L.A. for the music initially, right?
BRE-Z: Yes, I was focused on the music. Me and a friend of mine came out here just really in search for better opportunity. More opportunity, and it happened. The music is what got me into acting, because my first role on Empire was musically driven. My character was a rapper. Of course, that was the key element. Once I got in the door, I began to explore the acting world a little more.
Can you take us back to the days when you were a barber? How long were you cutting hair?
I’ve been cutting hair since I was 10 years old. I come from a family of barbers. My father is a barber. My grandfather, too — rest in peace. My mom used to cut hair. That was just my thing. I loved the barbershop. I worked on MLK in Atlanta. I started at a shop called Philly’s Finest, owned by a guy named Kier Morris. It was just lit. I was the only girl in the shop. I was one of the best barbers. I was making so much money. I loved it.
Was it hard to walk away from that?
It was, because there was a personal fulfillment from cutting hair. Just wanting to please people and make people look good, make people happy. When you get your hair done, you leave with a different self-esteem. A new confidence. I miss it a lot because it was something I really loved to do.
Do people still ask you to cut hair?
Yeah, and I will. I mean, I feel like people don’t want to ask me now, but some people will and I’ll do it. Because like I said, it’s a personal fulfillment. It’s like therapy. It’s like cooking or going to the gym, whatever you like to do to just kind of zone out.
Were you cutting hair when you first came out to L.A.?
Yeah, I was. I worked at a salon called Jasmine Ashley on Wilshire. It was pretty cool. It was a little slower. I was used to clients coming every week, every two weeks. Out here, it was once a month. I don’t know, everyone’s so famous out here. [laughs] Nobody has time. I did it just to see and, of course, they make more money out here. I did it for as long as I could but once I got on television, it was no need.
Can you talk about that first big break or big moment as an actor?
It was probably when I got my first paycheck from Empire. It was like, “Damn!” Then my first day on set. My first day was me, Terrence Howard and Chris Rock. It was like, “Oh shit, this is real real. What am I about to do?” I realized it was not a game. I had to get serious because I play and joke a lot. I’m like, “These are real people, let me get on my game.”
Was it difficult?
It wasn’t, because I was advised to just be myself by Lee Daniels. I had a conversation with him like, “What do you want me to do?” He was like, “Just be you.” I was like, “OK.” That was the best thing he could have told me.
What did you spend your first check on?
Bills. I was filming in Chicago but I still lived in L.A. I still had a home here. I still had a car here, so I had to pay my bills. I don’t think I did anything crazy yet. I’ve just been saving.
What was the greatest moment filming that show?
Every moment was great. To be a new actress, to be able to work around those people who’ve been in this shit for so long, it was just like, “Damn.” Especially with the way it happened to me, because you got people who have been working their whole lives to be that. It kind of just happened for me.
How did you feel getting that role versus someone that’s been in the game for years?
When you look at the TV screen, that particular character’s someone that was a bit rough around the edges. A female who was able to mesh with the guys and just throw down and do whatever. That was kind of missing. I’m thankful to be chosen for that and portray the role of Freda Gatz. The storyline was just crazy. I knew it’d be an inspiration to a lot of young people out here, so I’m always happy to do that. Same with my role now in All-American, it’s another young girl who’s a bit rough but she’s very inspiring and motivational to the viewers. I get that a lot.
How did you land the role in All-American?
It came through just like any audition, through my agent. But once I read the script — because it’s based on a true story — I was just like, “Damn, this would be dope!” It was just a pilot, but we don’t have those shows anymore like Saved by the Bell that have teenagers and things we can actually relate to in our real life. This show is one that’s relatable to the climate going on today. We tackle a lot of issues like suicide, depression, drug abuse and sexuality. These are all topics in conversations that are open today. We give you a visual of what this actually looks like, and I thought that would be perfect. I was hoping and praying for the role, and I got it. [laughs]
Are you big on faith?
Very big. For each character that I get, it’s tailormade for me. I definitely feel like that.
Obviously, Empire was big for your career. Talk about how your fame rose when that show came on.
Shit, Empire took me from zero to 100. Not necessarily a zero, but it just moved extremely fast. I couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, “Oh my God, that’s you! You shot Jamal!” For a while, people would actually believe I was actually that person. I was, “Mmm no, I’m not.” [laughs] It changed drastically but still, I can’t go anywhere without that.
How was it adjusting to that?
It’s cool. I just really have to let people know that’s not real life most of the time. Believe it or not, I have a big fan base that’s incarcerated. I get a lot of DMs from people in jail. Emails. I don’t know how they send it to me [laughs] but I get it a lot. A chick hit me the other day, because my character recently had came out to her mom. Her mom just shitted on her like, “You can’t live here, we don’t tolerate the gayness.” This girl DM’d me telling me how much that helped her relationship with her mom, because her mom did the same thing to her. It let her mom watch on TV what she did to her child and how it affected her. I got a lot of stories like that. There’s gotta be purpose in everything.
Talk about the importance of being a strong black LGBT female on television, and what that means to you.
Regardless of your sexual preference, it’s important to know your strength, period. As women, we curate, create and birth so much. People don’t give the proper recognition to that. A lot of women step down feeling like they’re beneath a male in their particular field or career path, and that’s not the case. As someone that’s in the spotlight, you have to set the example, so people know, “Oh it’s OK, I’m cool.” I’ll be the first to tell you, “If ain’t nobody got you, I got you.” What they gon’ do? You can’t deny talent. You can’t deny your capability. It’s important.
It means everything to me because I don’t want anyone to ever have to deal with some of the things women have to deal with, especially in regards to the #MeToo Movement and all that. Shouldn’t have to deal with none of that. At the end of the day, we got the one thing all men want. We have it. You can’t re-create it, only we can. [laughs]
How did you get the name Bre-Z?
My grandmother gave me that name, she has a story about it. She gave it to me at birth so it’s always been my name to me. I found out once I got in elementary school that it wasn’t my real name. [laughs] Broke my heart, but all good.
How do you plan on further using your platform for the greater good?
I really would love to just continue to tell these stories in hopes that they translate well through the TV and through my music as well, to just help people and encourage people and motivate them. Everything should have a purpose. I don’t want to be famous just for the sake of just being known. I want to be able to reach people and help people. A lot of celebrities appear to be untouchable, I don’t want to be that way. I want to be able to extend my arms as much as I can.
Can you talk about your reaction to the Jussie Smollett news?
My first thought: It sucks that people have to bullied or mistreated because of their own personal beliefs. Again, you have to set the example. What happened to him, somebody’s making that OK — whether it’s not getting enough attention or there’s nothing being done about it, or there’s no one being reprimanded for what they’ve done. It’s just unfortunate. I hope he’s OK. I just hope peace for everybody, because that shit sucks.
What are your thoughts on the police saying it was staged?
I don’t know. I guess I don’t have any thoughts because I wasn’t there. I don’t see why he would lie about it, that just doesn’t make sense. I hope not but … yeah.
Tell us about your EP, THE GRL.
THE GRL was just me peeling back some layers of myself, giving people a little insight on who I am, what I do, what I like, how I do it. I really just wanted to put music out. I hadn’t put music out in a while and really just wanted to drop something.
How do you balance everything?
Man, I’m really just all over the place when it comes to that. When I’m not filming, I’m in the studio. When I’m not in the studio, I’m in front of the camera. Any off time I get from either one, I’m doing the other. I have to because other than that, I’ma sleep.
Did you ever get caught up in the pressures of Hollywood?
No, I didn’t at all. I stayed in my lane and minded my business. I never tried to be too mixy. I never tried to be all in anybody’s face. I just did what I know I could do and played that part. It’s really weird out here. You hear a lot of stories, and I don’t want to experience none of that shit. I’m cool.
Can you talk about your support system here?
My family comes in and out here. I have a good group of friends here I associate with, but I really just chill. Gizzle is my best friend. We kick it, we live next door to each other. If I wanna really talk, she’s very supportive and vice versa. But for the most part, it’s my family. That’s the one group of people that ain’t going anywhere. That’s always going to be my family.