Inanna Sarkis' 'ZAYA' Is Paving the Way For the Podcast Revolution

Inanna Sarkis' 'ZAYA' Is Paving the Way For the Podcast Revolution

Photography by Marcus Cooper / Styling by Yael Quint / Hair by Ledora Francis / Makeup by Olivia Barad

It's no secret that we're all familiar with the Hollywood machine and the big-budget projects it's been making over the past few years in response to calls for more diversity and inclusivity. And while there is some progress being made on that front, there's also something to be said about how a creative endeavor funded, produced and written by the old guard can stymy the sort of real storytelling we need, especially when many of the people with something to say are the ones without the resources to jump right in and make their own TV show.

But in a world where all you need is a camera and microphone, actress and director Inanna Sarkis has now proven that you can flip this power dynamic on its head, specifically through her scripted podcast series, Zaya.

Written, directed and produced by the After We Collided star, the show centers around a Middle Eastern student, who discovers some dark secrets about her older brother while searching for him after a brutal kidnapping. And with six episodes with Sarkis as the titular character, a story that's actually representative of the main character's background and a cast including the likes of Suki Waterhouse, Hayley Law and Evan Ross, ZAYA has continued to dominate the Apple podcast chart since its debut last month, which is indicative of how one talented creative can turn an intriguing concept into a hit indie serial with a dedicated fanbase.

So don't be surprised if you keep hearing Sarkis' name, because she's paving the way for a podcast revolution. Read all about ZAYA and Sarkis' mission to change the entertainment industry in our Q&A with her, below.

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What inspired you to write, produce, and star in your scripted podcast Zaya?

I was inspired to write and star in Zaya because I wanted to create a role for myself that had a strong Middle Eastern female protagonist. As much as diversity is being recognized in the entertainment industry, I still feel like my people are being underrepresented as lead characters. I need to tell those stories, especially right now.

I originally conceived Zaya as a TV show, but it wasn’t getting off the ground fast enough. I realized I didn’t need to wait around for someone else to make it happen when I could self-finance and produce it myself as a podcast — to build an audience and fanbase that way. Since it was my first bigger project as a creator, I knew I had to prove its success first to be taken seriously and considered.

What makes Zaya stand out from other podcasts or stories?

The show examines the fast pace of technological advancement against questions of morality and what it means to be an activist for a cause you believe in. On top of that, it was created by and features a Middle Eastern female lead, with a diverse cast while also standing out in its tone as an action-thriller with comedic moments.

What do you want the listener to take away from this series?

I wanted to give listeners a chance to escape. The immersive sound design and storytelling were very important to me, because I wanted people to really use their imagination to play out the scenes in their head while they listen. I also feel like my generation is constantly being bombarded by so much short-form content that it is affecting us mentally. I'd like to change that and offer my young audience a story they can dive into that sparks curiosity. Zaya is something they can look forward to and be engaged with for six weeks.

Can listeners expect a Season 2?

Zaya was very fulfilling creatively, but it definitely took a lot of work to create. I felt like I was writing a TV show with the amount of edits and rewrites it took for each 30-minute episode. I'd like to turn the ideas I have for Season 2 and actually make it into a TV show. That is and always has been my goal with Zaya. I love that I made it a podcast because I definitely learned a lot along the way. It also gave me the experience to develop into a better writer. I'd love to see Zaya on a streaming platform like Netflix or HBO.

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How did you wrangle such an amazing ensemble cast of actors?

I thankfully have a lot of great and supportive friends. Almost the entire cast — Suki, Lamorne, Evan, Jacob, Hayley — are all dear friends of mine. Matthew on the other hand, we live together, so he had no choice.

Zaya has been Top Charted in a number of categories on Apple Podcast. Were you surprised at all by its success?

Honestly, I didn't think we'd make it to the top charts so quickly since only two episodes were out at the time. I figured there are so many other shows produced by companies who specialize in podcasts that my little independent one would just be a needle in a haystack. It's funny thinking about it now because when Realm first told me we hit the Top Charts and were listed at #3, I was excited but immediately was like, "Yeah, but it's not #1." The next day we were #1.

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New episodes of ZAYA premiere every Thursday via iTunes. You can listen to the latest podcast episode here.

Photography: Marcus Cooper
Styling: Yael Quint
Styling assistants: Josh Mooiweer and Heather Sage Blair
Hair: Ledora Francis
Makeup: Olivia Barad
Nails: Zola
Location: Williamsburg Hotel