When Yara Shahidi was a little girl, she ran out of history books to read at school. This was before she had starred opposite Eddie Murphy or Angelina Jolie, before her sitcom roles, when her show business career was limited to a few commercials and modelling gigs. She was six at the time. “I remember I was in one school programme where I finished all my history course material a month early,” she says. “So Mama got me a supplementary curriculum and started back with Mesopotamian history. Might as well go all the way, right?”

This kind of thing wasn’t out of the ordinary. “Like, my education was very intentional,” she says. Her parents carefully and deliberately curated her early reading, even fairy tales; she was encouraged to read as many diverse versions as they could find – not just the straightforward Cinderella, but Korean Cinderella, Persian Cinderella, Egyptian Cinderella. They encouraged autonomous learning. “That is why, I think, I’ve always loved learning. I had the freedom to read those political essays, to read dystopian novels.” She was devouring James Baldwin in her spare time at school by the time she was 13, she says. “My parents have always put me in environments that were intentionally progressive and forward-thinking.”

We’re meeting on a humid New York afternoon, at the tail end of a press junket. She’s here to promote The Sun Is Also A Star, a teen romance film, based on a young adult novel by Nicola Yoon, about immigration. She has been conducting interviews all day, and now her head is bowed a little. Her mother and her publicist sit off to the side, checking their phones, benevolently ignoring our conversation, except when Shahidi looks to her mother to confirm a fact or ask an opinion. Shahidi is sick – “Allergies,” she croaks apologetically – but within moments of a coughing fit she’s turned back to face me, no trace of discomfort on her face, spine straight, eyes sparkling, articulate, elegant responses flowing like she was born to do this – which in a way she was. […]