We first fell in love with Bre-Z on as Fred Gatz on Empire, the spitfire neighborhood rapper and daughter of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious (Terrence Howard) homie from their drug-dealing days, Frank Gathers, played by Chris Rock. Well, the 31-year-old has found a new home on CW’s All American, a drama loosely based on former-NFL star Spencer Paysinger during his high school years in Crenshaw, California.
Bre-Z brings dimension to the series as gay teen Coop, who is comfortable in her sexuality, but trying to get the folks around her on the same page. All American not only explores sexuality but other tough subjects like race, mental health and class systems—topics that are extremely relevant right now.
BET Style got the chance to catch up with Bre-Z about her new role and how folks are already sliding into her DMs about it:
BET: Tell us about your character, Coop, and why All American is a must-see.
Bre-Z: All American is based on a true store story. It's about a guy name Spencer James, who was an NFL player and we follow pretty much from his high school moment exiting and initially making it to the NFL. Unfortunately, like a lot of us, he had a rough upbringing. I mean he grew up in Crenshaw, Inglewood, part of Los Angeles, and he has an opportunity to go to a very wealthy neighborhood to go live with his football coach in Beverly Hills. So he essentially is giving him a better shot at making it to the league. Whether the grass is greener, that's what we find out.
My character is his best friend. She is pretty much his rock, the person that keeps him grounded, but she has her own stuff too that she has to deal with, just being in the streets and dealing with her own sexuality. Her parents kicked her out and said they didn't approve that she is a lesbian. So she’s living on the street, having to figure that out by herself and still in high school. She's still a kid. We touch on a lot of topics, race and sexuality, mental health, upper class and lower class.
I think two of the main things that have stuck out so far is the fact that we have a character on the show who is biracial, and he is very fair skin. His father, who is Taye Diggs, is Black and never had the conversation with him about being a Black man in America. He gets pulled over by the police and is treated just like Black men are treated every day by cops, and he had no understanding as to why he was being treated like that. And then the second one was Coop proving her sexuality. Her parents completely shutting it out and disagreeing with it, telling her it's either their way or no way, and she ends up leaving.
BET: How important do you think it is to have an openly gay Black female character on-screen like Coop?
Bre-Z: I think it's important now more than ever because sexuality-wise, these kids are experiencing so much. We have never seen a depression rate or suicide rate as high as it is now. So I think with Coop, you don't have to like it—you don't—but you have to respect a person living in their truth. You have to know what damage is caused by shutting out a person, denying them or disowning them, especially family and friends. I encourage those who are in their process of coming out, just surround yourself with the people who do understand.
A lot us, we don't understand what we've never experienced, and a lot of people are very close-minded as far as the LGBTQ community goes. It's never been like it is now, it's out. The whole cat's out the bag. Be who you want, do what you want, and be OK with that. Be happy with you, and be happy with the decisions you make, and that's really all you can do. So with Coop, my writers and my executives allowed me the freedom to free my character off the rip. She's free, maybe not to 100 percent but at least 70 percent, and I think that 30 percent is her mom and her dad, and actually just having a girlfriend and saying, "Oh, this is my girlfriend," but she knows what she wants. I want parents to see what you do when you deny your child the opportunity to be themselves, when you should love your child unconditionally.
BET: Do you use your platform as Bre-Z to bring attention to gay community/LBTQ rights?
Bre-Z: After this third episode where Coop had to come out to her mom, I received loads of DMs and emails from fans. I respond to all of that because I got to care even if no one else does, or else I'm just a contradiction to what I'm telling you right now. Somebody has to care and there is somebody who does, you just have to find them.
I had a girl DM me and ask me, "How do I transition to being comfortable in my skin?" People that have been following me when I had a fade know I use to look more masculine, now I appear more to be more feminine. I told her this was my growth as a woman, this was not Hollywood, this was not a friend, this was not my mom. I am 31 years old, and I look exactly how I feel. I feel beautiful, but I had to grow into that. When I was younger I didn't care. I was just trying to get some money and figure my life out. I resembled exactly how I felt at the moment, so now I feel great, I feel bright, I’m glowing. I'm just living in that, so that's just what I'm projecting. I typed all this to her, and I said, "Do you, don't nobody care,” but exert exactly how you feel. That's how people live out loud.
BET: You recently dropped an EP "THE GRL." Tell us about that and your music career.
Bre-Z: When I was doing Empire, which is when everybody got to know me but they didn't really get to know me, they got to know me as a character that they perceived to be me. As far as the music, although everything was written by me and performed by me, it really wasn't who I was. The music was always mine, but that was at a place that I was at during my life. I thought it was time to really be myself, and a lot of people saw me on TV and was like, "That's what you need to be doing," but that's not what I want to do, though. So I completely, just on a whim, put out an EP that I wanted to do. That made me happy. I'm inspired by so much, and that's what I put into it, and if you like it, you like it, if you don't, I am OK with that, too. But it had to sit with well with me, for me to put it out.
BET: We originally know and love you from Empire. Are you still cool with any of the cast? Anyone give you career advice?
Bre-Z: Empire was a great experience, and I very much still speak to the cast. That was like a family. That was my entry-level job into this industry, so it’s definitely something I am going to remember. I enjoyed it and I have moved on, but I definitely still communicate. As long as we have social media, we'll forever be connected.
Terrence Howard, as you guys know, watching it, we filmed a lot together. We actually spent a hell of a lot of time together, and every break we got we sat and talked, and I appreciate his mind and sharing his wisdom through your experience. A lot of people tell me be yourself, don't change how you got here. You being you is why they chose you. That's it. That was kind of the best thing he could've ever told me.
Catch Bre-Z as Coop on All American every Wednesday this fall on The CW 9/8c.
(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)