‘Don’t dim your light’: Pitt alumna acts in ‘Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin’


Image courtesy of Zakiya Young

Zakiya Young (right) with other cast members on the set of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”

By Jessica McKenzie, Culture Editor

Zakiya Young, a Downingtown, Pennsylvania native and Los Angeles actress, arrived at Pitt in 1997 with the lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. However, during her sophomore year, she decided to pursue a career in acting and try her hand at Broadway musicals after she graduated in 2001.

Young recently landed her first Hollywood role on teen thriller series “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin,” which debuted on HBO Max in July. The show is an installment to the fictional universe of “Pretty Little Liars,” a television series that ran from 2010-17. Young plays Corey, a mother to one of the show’s main characters. The show takes place in the fictional town of Millwood, Pennsylvania, and Young’s character is from Pittsburgh.

Young spoke with The Pitt News about her journey from Pittsburgh to Hollywood, and how she uses her Western Pennsylvania roots to identify with Corey on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Pitt News: How did you discover your talent as an actress?

Zakiya Young: I always grew up singing and dancing and I loved to perform, but I never really thought of myself as an actress. And then my high school was doing “West Side Story” my junior year, and I auditioned for Anita because I just loved that role. As soon as I stepped on the stage, I just fell in love.

I had wanted to be a doctor since I was little, so that’s really what led me to Pitt, because I knew they had a great medical school, and my sister already went there. So I ended up minoring in theater at Pitt.

TPN: Was there ever a moment when you were a Pitt student that you realized you could make a career out of acting?

ZY: I was in my third semester of science classes at 8 a.m. and I just wasn’t passionate about it. My roommate in Tower A — she was also pre-med. I just saw the determination she had and I was like, “I don’t have that. I don’t know if I want to keep taking these classes.” And I saw a musical on TV and I was just like, “I can do that better than this girl did. Like, I should at least try because I’m not happy in my major. If I don’t try, I’m going to regret it.” 

After I did my year of exploration with my gen eds, I realized I was heading toward minors in women’s studies and theater, and I had a lot of communications classes and I loved them. I ended up majoring in communications and I also did a theater minor.

Zakiya Young on the Pitt Dance Team in 1997.
(Image courtesy of Zakiya Young )

TPN: What was your first Hollywood acting gig and what brought you to Hollywood?

ZY: [“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”]. I actually went to New York right after I graduated because Broadway was always my focus. 9/11 happened right after I moved there. So I ended up working in everything but the entertainment industry, because tourists weren’t coming to New York — the world was just really in upheaval. 

I [later] worked at Sotheby’s, and my boss [there] gave me a book, “Letters to a Young Artist” [by] Anna Deavere Smith … When I read it, it really just reminded me, I did not move to New York to work at an art house. Like, are you kidding me? I need to go back to this. And I went to an open call — it was for the original Broadway cast of “Little Mermaid.” 

So after I did “Little Mermaid,” I was cast in a Broadway play as a standby for two of the main characters in the main cast. They were all Black Hollywood celebrities. So that was my first exposure to people that moved to Hollywood but still can come back and do theater. I started thinking about moving to LA so I spent some more time doing theater, and I moved out [to LA] about five and a half years ago. I had to start all over because LA and New York are very different markets. And you think that they would care about Broadway, but nobody really does. Out here, professionally, they just want to know what was your last on-camera gig. So it took me a minute to get my footing.

When “Pretty Little Liars” came to me, I was actually auditioning to be one of the other moms. But then, I got called in for another role. And when I read [Corey’s] part, I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s me — like, she’s from Pittsburgh.” 

Zakiya Young with her chair on set of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” (Image courtesy of Zakiya Young )

TPN: How do you identify with Corey’s character?

ZY: I went to high school with Sara Shepard, who wrote the original [“Pretty Little Liars”] book series, which is so random. I watched [“Pretty Little Liars”] to prepare for [“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”], and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is seriously like my high school.” I just recognized so much about southeastern PA in the show. There were little easter eggs, like the Wawa mentions. 

There was something about this woman who gets a divorce — I’m also divorced — and she moves away, I also moved away. She will also protect her friends. She doesn’t waste time, and she’s going to fix things, whatever needs to be fixed.

On set we would have Yuengling bottles and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite PA beer!” Even reading the scripts and seeing that [the characters] are watching the Steelers game. There’s something about being from PA — we have such a grit and determination to create the life that we want. And I feel like Corey has that too. Just because your life may take a left turn doesn’t mean that you can’t still work on improving it. So I saw her journey to Pittsburgh and working at a law firm getting out of her small town. I really identified with that. 

TPN: What was the audition process like?

ZY: For my first audition, I wore a blazer and I put on a little bit of makeup — my typical audition stuff. And a note I got back for my callback from the network was “You need to look less glamorous.” I was thinking like, “What are they even talking about?” 

But then I thought about it and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I wore an $800 Helmut Lang blazer that I got in New York while I was working on Broadway.” Then I went back in my closet and I was like, “Let me grab something that’s a little bit more relatable.” I had to really be honest and think about when I go home, and I visit my friends who are raising families there, and they own businesses — dress like that.

TPN: Do you have any advice for Pitt students looking to pursue a career in acting?

ZY: I would say if you have space for a double major, do it. I feel like if you choose to go to a university like Pitt, and not go to a conservatory, make the most of it. Go to football games, go to basketball games, go to parties, go to different cultural events. Really spend time getting to know people outside of your department. Because yes, you have to train to become an actor. Absolutely. But you also have to live your life. Usually, you’re not going to be playing an actor. You’re going to be playing somebody that reminds you of the kids you went to high school with. 

TPN: If you could tell your 18-year-old self one thing, what would it be?

ZY: I would say don’t dim your light because it makes other people uncomfortable. Definitely that special part of you — don’t hide it. Stand up straight, own your space. And if people can’t handle it, then they’re not supposed to be in that space.