On the surface, All American might seem like a male-heavy drama about football. Not so fast: While the CW series does feature two male leads (Daniel Ezra as high school player Spencer James; Taye Diggs as the coach who recruits him), that would be only half the story. Where All American really excels is the depiction of James’ home life—and the complicated, fascinating women who affect it.
One of those women who serves as James’ moral compass is his cousin/best friend Tamia “Coop” Cooper, played by Empire star Bre-Z. “She constantly pushes him not be afraid to leave his comfort zone,” Bre-Z tells Glamour. “I love that my character is not one dimensional. I love the positivity within her regardless of what she feels like she has to do because of the environment that she’s been brought up in. And she’s funny as hell.” Most important, “I just love that for women on TV right now, we’re displaying the power that we always knew we had. That’s so exciting.”
And much like All American, there’s more to the Philadelphia native, 31, than what’s on the surface. From her former career as a barber to the story behind her name, Bre-Z wants to share her story. Read on.
What’s your birth name and the story behind Bre-Z?
Bre-Z: My birth name is Calesha [Murray]. It was so funny because I think when I was in fifth grade, my mom got a call home from my teachers and they said, “Your daughter can’t keep writing Bre-Z on her papers.” I thought that was my name. Everybody always called me Bre-Z, so I didn’t know. My mom sat me down and [explained it to me]. Now when people want to call me Calesha, I’m like, “No, it’s Bre-Z! You can’t take it from me again!” [Laughs] Bre-Z is cooler anyway!
So how did everyone start calling you Bre-Z?
Bre-Z: My grandmother on my mom’s side actually gave me that name. I was in the delivery room, crying at the top of my lungs, but they couldn’t figure out why because nothing was really wrong. [It turns out] I was cold. Once they wrapped me up and swaddled me and shut the windows, that was the end of it. My grandmother said, “Oh. She was cold!”
What brought you to Hollywood?
Bre-Z: I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was raised in Wilmington, Delaware. I kind of just knew there was something just special about myself, coming from a place where people rarely make it out. I’ve seen friends and things like that…so many people pass on before we even got to the point where we wanted to pursue a career. Ever since I was in sixth grade, I knew what I wanted to do. Once I had that talk with my mom, I was into music, and she helped and filled out college applications, and I actually did everything I said I was going to do.
I started off as a barber, cutting hair for men since I was 10 years old. I was working in the shop, and that was my bread and butter throughout high school and growing up. I finally got to a place where I wanted to focus on my music, so I pulled back from cutting hair a little bit and eventually I landed up in Atlanta because my mom had a job transfer. I was like 19, and I was there working and making so much money. It was great—but a few years after that, I got tired of it and felt like I hit a plateau in my life. I was just kind of cruising altitude.
And then what happened?
Bre-Z: Me and a friend decided, “Fuck it. We’re just going to move to L.A.” So, we moved out here. I was maybe 24. I’m still a mama’s girl, and we’re very family oriented. I got here, and six or seven months later I was asked to audition for Empire. I’ve been here ever since.
Did you have any acting or music training? Or are you self-taught?
Bre-Z: I self-taught, even as a barber. I felt like I never had the money to afford the training or all the necessary things…I didn’t have it. I was forced to teach myself everything, even when it came to making graphics. I had to teach myself that and how to edit videos, and I’d take my own photos. I was always very artsy and in love with the art, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to teach myself.
Were there any actors you looked to for inspiration along the way?
Bre-Z: I was always such a fan of strong, powerful women like Angela Bassett, Queen Latifah. Now you got Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson. I was always a fan of that. But I don’t think I looked any further than just being a fan. Acting wasn’t anything I was pursuing. That came from God himself. You work so hard to do one thing, and then you’re like, “What? Now I’m a makeup artist?” That’s what it was. I was so in love with being a barber and the satisfaction I got from making people feel good and look good. Then you just drop me on a TV screen…so it really took for me to have a sit-down from Terrence Howard discussing the same thing you and I are, and he was like, “Best thing you can do is just be yourself. You’re very passionate, you’re very sympathetic.” So every time I got a role, he would just tell me to put myself in their shoes. As simple as it sounds, it was the greatest advice he could have given me.
Do you feel most yourself when you’re acting or creating music?
Bre-Z: In my music. The music and being in the studio is one of my most vulnerable places. On TV people perceive me to be a particular type of person. People get so invested in these [characters] they don’t actually know who I am. But my music is a chance for me to say, “This is me.”
Will you get to sing on All American?
Bre-Z: I think it’s only right. So I’m excited. I think so.
Finally, what do you hope other young women take away from seeing you in this role or hearing your story?
Bre-Z: I want women to understand that they can do it. I’m not afraid to tell [my] story. I don’t come from a bad place, but I do come from a place of uncertainty. We don’t know what the plan is going to be for our lives. Your faith, along with your drive, is only going to take you where you allow it to. I really hope women are inspired and not afraid to dream or do it. I think we fear the thought the most. Because when you think about it, nothing actually ever happens because you didn’t do anything.