For those of us who fall in love with shows and the characters that shape them, we know how rare it is to find an actor whose presence can make or break a scene. They captivate us and take our breath away with their embodiment of truth. They bring to life the essence of the roles they’ve been entrusted with and transport us to their worlds with something as simple as a glance. Geffri Maya Hightower is one such artist. Her depth of character. Of soul. Of talent. It is something we often see from veterans of the game. Well, in some ways, she is.
Having been in the industry for over a decade, she has the work and the years of someone twice her age; though her star is just beginning to truly rise. With her turn in both All American and Snowfall, two shows that have captured cultural consciousness since the start, Geffri Maya has firmly cemented herself as one of the brightest young talents in the industry. Whether starting for revenge as Khadijah on the latter or mastering the art of manipulation as Simone on the former, Geffri presents to us a young woman who, whether right or wrong, we can always seem to understand. As she prepares to step into leading lady status in All American: Homecoming, The CW’s spinoff of the aforementioned hit, the world is taking notice of her immense talent—and we are here for it.
Iman N. Milner: In your own words, who is GeffriMaya?
Geffri Maya: That’s a great question. I love that! I would just say, Geffri Maya is just growing and blossoming. Leaning into and trusting all that she’s destined to be and all that she’s ever dreamed of. Just a flower blooming and trying to figure her life out. Going with the flow.
IM: You’re playing an array of characters right now between Simone on All American and Khadijah on Snowfall. Both of these women are going through some of life’s hardest struggles, what has it been like to step into their shoes?
GM: I finished All American before joining Snowfall and right as I started on Snowfall, that’s when the pandemic hit. So, once everything got lifted and we were able to go back to work, I was doing both shows at the same time. That was a dichotomy that I’d never experienced. As an artist it pushed me, in a lot of ways, to really dig deep and discover that level of balance that I didn’t even know I had. And then it was a challenge in regards to the artistry because they are two totally different people, interestingly enough, going through similar things from two different perspectives.
It was really interesting to take the time that was necessary to be able to fully and confidently play these characters in a way that I just genuinely felt. There was a sense of vulnerability that I had to have to be able to play these roles in a way that people could connect with them. That’s the point of being an artist anyway: to share and tell stories that people can always and forever be connected to.
IM: Right now, there’s a lot of discussion about how we prioritize and protect our mental health at work. When dealing with these hard subjects on set, how did you prioritize your overall wellness with both of these roles?
GM: As rough as the pandemic was, it was a blessing in disguise for me. Everyone’s pandemic experience shaped them in different ways; especially emotionally and mentally. It just gave me a lot of downtime. To be honest, prior to All American I was going through my own life stuff while I was not working. Going from not working to working, that switch can be a lot. So, having that time to just breathe. Having those moments to really come to terms with self, it gave me time to mentally and emotionally prepare. What we do, it requires so much. It requires, sometimes, us putting our lives in the backseat. There are some people who are so masterful at portraying characters that they can just jump in but what about those moments when you can’t? You have to honor where you truly are in every moment. The love I have for storytelling, it allowed me to just breathe life into those characters but the pandemic also gave me moments to step away. I took those moments seriously.
IM: You’ve been in the game for a while but we all know there can be seasons of waiting in the acting game. In your waiting period, what were the most important things you learned?
GM: After Private Practice, I was in this space of having been a child actor. I was about to go to college and I wanted to take a moment to redefine who Geffri Maya was. If you’d asked me who I was then, I would have identified myself by what I could do. But in that space of transition, I wanted to do something different and didn’t want to just be identified by the things I was good at. I think life requires that. I went to school and discovered my love for writing and directing. I discovered my love for painting and just being in the world. There were moments where I wasn’t doing what I was used to doing, I was working regular jobs and I just lived life. I feel like, without those mementos of just truly living, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Having those ups and downs, being able to have real experiences, that is so necessary to who we are as artists. Acting is not just about what’s on the page, it’s about giving life to these people. Without living, I can’t even dig deep to share certain aspects of myself with these characters.
IM: At one time, when there were less portrayals of us onscreen, there seemed to be this idea that Black actresses shouldn’t play certain characters that presented a respectable image of us. What I love about the roles you’ve been playing is that they are just as important as a Lady Macbeth or any other female character experiencing deep tragedy.
GM: Right. The responsibility is beyond expression or words. A lot of what we experience as Black people, we may feel the need to run from it when it comes to storytelling. Like you said, there were these moments where we didn’t want to look like this or that onscreen. But we have stories that deserve to be told. We have people and lives that are being portrayed in these shows that we love—and THAT is the responsibility. It doesn’t mean that we only have to talk about the things that hurt us but we can’t not be honest about the lives we’ve lived.
It’s also a responsibility for Black artists to tell the stories that make us happy, even the ones that are complete fantasy. We are full of magic and sci-fi and mystical worlds—we have a lot in us that are our inner children deserve to see. We have so many triumphs to share. From athletics to artistry to music to science. There are so many stories that we can tell. Our responsibility is to honor those who came before us and those under us who deserve to know these stories. Just truth.
IM: What are you most excited for people to see on All-American: Homecoming?
GM: Well first, I’m extremely excited for people to be able to embrace HBCU culture if they’re not familiar with it. I grew up in LA and when I went to Clark Atlanta, it was the first time I was surrounded by so many beautiful Black people from all different walks of life. It opened the door for experience, growth, love and community. I’m excited for people to be able to romanticize HBCU culture the same way we romanticize PWIs. HBCUs deserve the same honor. I’m excited for Black joy and culture to be celebrated. I’m excited for kids to have their own A Different World, if we are able to keep telling these stories. I’m excited for them to be inspired by people who look like them. I’m also excited for the All-American universe to continue to expand. Daniel (Ezra) and I were just talking about how the show has truly changed the trajectory of The CW as the number one show on the network. But when it started off, it almost got cancelled and now it has its own universe. That is iconic.