The scene in Atlanta that gets Zazie Beetz the biggest reaction involves hair. In the pilot episode of Donald Glover’s FX series, her character Van walks into a bathroom and unwraps her headscarf to reveal a head full of Bantu knots. When I tell her over the phone that I slightly gasped at the sight of 1) a headscarf, 2) bantu knots, and 3) the act of a black woman untwisting her hair on television, she says, “Everyone always asks me about that.” Atlanta is outright one of the most heavily favored new shows of the fall and, in it, Beetz, who’s based in Harlem, portrays a single mother among men trying to make it big. In the lightly edited interview below (tonight’s episode centers prominently around Van), we talked about the show’s central relationship between Van and Earn (Glover), black hair on TV, the internet, and the challenge in depicting a so-called angry black woman who has a right to be mad.
JEZEBEL: Let’s start with how you were cast on the show.
ZAZIE BEETZ: It was relatively straightforward. I went out on audition and I left thinking that I hadn’t done a very good job. I wrote it off, and then three weeks later, my agent called me and told me I had gotten a screen test for this show and I didn’t even remember what it was. For the screen test, which is super quick, I read with Donald, and the director Hiro [Murai] was in the room, Paul Simms—one of the producers—and the casting director. I had no idea how many people I was in a pool of, but later that night, I got a call that I had gotten the role for the pilot.
Why didn’t you think you nailed it at first?
I remember feeling like my energy was super low and I wasn’t totally memorized, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It doesn’t mean that’s how it came across, but it felt very fast to me. Honestly, the energy maybe worked for Van. She’s all over the place a little bit and trying to keep it together. One of the first notes also that they gave, which is something important to me—and I also talked about a lot—was to not have her be, that she’s not only an angry black woman. That was the first thing the casting director Alexa Fogel said. That really resonated with me.
I’m interested in that note because the “angry black woman” topic comes up in Van’s conversation with Earn where they’re talking in bed.
Yeah, that was very much an active thing. It’s interesting because the episode coming out [tonight] is one of quote-unquote my episodes, the Van episodes. It does a little bit explaining in terms of why she may come across as an angry black woman. Of course she’s interested in doing other things and has other aspirations, whether it be social or self-care or wanting to be friends, but then when she does engage in those things, you realize that has repercussions and she’s the only one that actively takes care of the responsibility. So she’s not really allowed any space to have downtime.
Right, she’s clearly doing her own thing within the relationship, but you get the sense that she wants to make it work with Earn. The show picks up in the middle of their relationship, so we don’t see what drove them apart. We only know that they have a baby together and they’re kind of trying to rekindle something. How did you view their relationship while reading it?
We went back and forth. Originally, they had the idea of, like, we’ve known each other for a long time and then this happened. But then we decided they knew each other and then they started hanging out but then super quick into that she got pregnant and they never had a chance to actually date. So they never got a chance to see if it could work out. It could have worked out. But this huge responsibility got slapped onto them and so they have basic compatibility things. He makes her laugh. I remember in the screen test, [Donald] talked about how Van is the only person that actually gets Earn in his community and environment. And Earn is the only person that actually gets Van, which as the season goes on, particularly in Episode 8, which was a big thing that I also piped in about, was that you have to see them also love and care for each other. You see a little aspect of that, but that episode fully comes into this idea of choosing love over choosing conflict, allowing an audience to believe they would be together because they do have this energy in common. And had Van not needed to be a mother, I think she would be able to engage or understand Earn’s lifestyle more than she does now.
Right, there’s a purpose to her seriousness. Her main concern is that Earn needs to get it together for their child. There’s the scene where they go on the date and he can’t afford to splurge on dinner. What did you think of that dynamic where the woman is basically taking care of this child and this broke male character?
I mean, I see where that’s also an archetype within itself. Like, hard-working mom and slacking off dad. But I think that’s why it’s important to show that they care for each other and that Earn isn’t just a big ole asshole. And that love exists beneath it all. As I was doing that scene with the date, I was like, man, I think it speaks mountains that he feels like he can’t even tell her that his check didn’t come in. The silence of that, that’s their issue. Yes, maybe she’ll be upset. But the fact that he feels like he can’t communicate it, that’s this sort of thing of men and women choosing to not communicate because they’re afraid or whatever reason when that’s what you need to do. Also, for him to not always assume that I’m going to be crazy or I’m going to be upset, which is something I talked about in that [pilot] episode. He could have still gotten her a drink or taken her somewhere else and said, “I do want to do this for you.” It makes me think of other situations with friends or family where things maybe weren’t said or talked about and it’s not the thing itself, but it’s the fact that why not talk about it. What else is there that you can’t talk to me about.
It’s great to see this weird in-between black relationship. They have this silent language between them. What appealed to you about her character and how she fits in with the show’s overall themes? It’s a show about rap where she’s not the rapper’s girlfriend.
Well, in terms of tone, I feel like a lot of the show—I kind of like to compare it to Louie in terms of it being billed as a comedy but there’s a lot of sadness and slowness. I don’t think the laugh is necessarily the punctuation mark of the show. More that moments and daily reality are. I feel like Earn is sort of the juxtaposition of the Alfred and Darius world versus the Van world. Earn is the person who dreams and then is awake, and then dreams and is awake. And within the show, scenes with Darius and Alfred become surreal. There are literally scenes where surreal shit happens. Like, the sandwich thing is an example, or the lemon pepper wings glowing. And it sort of mimics a dream or mimics Earn dreaming for more and wanting more and those two guys are his pathway to that.
I had to come to terms because I don’t identify as a comedian. At home I’m funny, with my mom, my boyfriend, but if I’m commissioned to be funny or tell jokes, I don’t feel like I’m good at delivering that. So I for a long time was like, why did they cast me, I’m not funny. And I kind of realized, Van doesn’t have to be funny. She’s the reality, she’s the ground, the earth and when Earn wakes up and imagines all these other things, he also has this very real thing that he needs to take care of and this very real thing that isn’t funny. And it can also be lovely. But he chooses to not necessarily take that as a happy path and is resistant to taking on responsibility, being that raising his daughter could also be a dream. Does that make sense?
That makes sense.
I felt Van was the one that always brought Earn back to Earth. That’s tonally how she works. It’s a lot of pressure but also an honor that she’s the only real female figure on the show and I’m glad it’s not a negative one. But it’s also, like, Atlanta offers variations on black men in terms of Earn and Darius and Alfred and then one variation of a black woman. But it’s also the story being told through the eyes of a black man and so that’s his reality and black womanhood is not his reality, so you have to also respect that.
Right, though I definitely wanted more scenes between them.
I want more scenes between us.
Even though this is a story about a rapper and his manager trying to make it, a lot of themes play out. What did you feel like the show was about when you were reading the script?
That’s always a hard question: what’s the show about. I’m always like, alright, you’ve got two cousins trying to make it in the rap scene in Atlanta. But it’s also like, when we were first talking about the pilot stuff before we even shot the season, a lot of comparisons from outside sources were being made to Empire because it’s black and music, which is a totally different world. I feel like music is much more actively a character on Empire, whereas music in this show provides world and tone and feeling and supplement to these characters. It’s not about them making music. I feel like it’s a love letter to the city of Atlanta and to the people and about daily life to the average person living there.
What’s also interesting is Donald’s brand in itself is part of a unique blackness, someone who’s interested in science and technology and a little bit of a nerd and has all these alternative interests outside of smoking weed and oh whoa that’s revolutionary. Media, at large, thinks only people like Alfred come from Atlanta. But Donald literally grew up in Stone Mountain. He’s a product of the city. The show offers that all kinds of black people live there, live all over. Even Alfred’s character, visually people are like, oh, he’s a gun-carrying black man, but when you get to know his character, he has a heart and fame freaks him out and he has feelings and he gets upset and has a range of things and he cares for his people. I feel like it offers a window into all kinds of people’s lives in a much more realistic eye.
You talked about showing the love between Van and Earn. Where would you want their relationship to go just as a person watching the show?
I’m rooting for them. I want them to figure it out. I don’t think Van criticizing his interests is great. It’s something he wants to pursue. I talk about how it’s a high school thing that he wants to do, which is not really fair. I feel like both characters have growing to do in terms of accepting each other, but I like them together. I think Earn definitely can be really selfish. Reading it sometimes I’m like, oh my god, really, come on. I think it’s commendable for Donald to make his lead not necessarily a totally likable guy. He’s sort of the least likable person on the show, which is real. He’s hanging onto a youth thing, which is in his costuming and how he’s walking around with a backpack, lone man, hanging onto something that is not—he’s in his 30s now. You need to move on and that doesn’t mean you can’t be into music; you just have to change how you’re into music.
I want them to have another baby. I want them to do it. I think that might take time. We got our second season now, which is great. I have no idea what’s come up in that. They tell you things way last minute or you get the script two weeks before you shoot, but I’m interested in seeing how that develops. Brian [Tyree Henry, the actor who plays Alfred] and I keep hoping that Van and Brian have more of a relationship because we don’t share a scene with each other the entire season except for the one phone call you’ll see.
There’s been a push for more stories about people of color. It’s weird that “diversity” has become a clinical thing on TV, but this show is obviously part of the good part of it.
I think art in general has to come from a place of reality. So obviously you don’t want to feel like you have to throw in a token black person when you’re talking about a small little white town in Oklahoma or whatever. That’s not speaking to truth, that’s not speaking to reality. I just don’t want to perpetuate falseness. And falseness for a long time was having only white people on TV or in movies and that is not the truth. A big issue, which we’re still working on is when you’re watching TV and if the family is mostly Asian or the family is black, it’s about them being black or about them being Asian, whereas if you watch the show Friends, it’s not about them being white; it’s about them being friends. Yes, I experience the world as a woman of color. I know I experience things differently because I have a mixed background, I see that. That’s always part of your experience, but I’m not thinking about that 24 hours a day, so that other part of my reality needs to be told, too. I just want to see people be in all kinds of stories and the story doesn’t have to be about because of or in spite of their skin color.
I think the idea is to present different types of realities from people of color. Some shows might address race and some won’t. That’s kind of a goal that hasn’t been met yet on TV, but I love shows where it’s just about black daily life. And also the visual language, people like how this show looks, the landscape of Atlanta and the way it shows the city and people. Is that something you noticed while shooting or more so afterward?
Yeah, watching it I feel like it’s a pretty cinematic experience, which I really like. Since it’s a single camera show, shots are chosen. It’s not about what’s convenient but about what continues to tell the story. It’s framed.
I feel like I’ve been seeing more TV scenes that feature black women doing their hair. Being Mary Jane, How to Get Away with Murder, Insecure. In Atlanta, Van goes into the bathroom and takes off her headscarf and her hair is in twists. It’s sad that I kinda gasped at that. It’s a small thing, but what does it mean to you to be able to depict that on TV?
Almost only from women, that is the biggest takeaway. Everyone always asks me about that, which I’m really happy about. And that was Donald’s idea. He really wanted to do that. I love that ’cause as someone who grew up having natural hair and who deals with that everyday, it shows, again, the reality. It’s funny ’cause with my boyfriend, I put my hair in braids every night.
My boyfriend will go to bed and I stay up another 20 minutes and do my hair. I watch a show and then I braid my hair and that’s the ritual. Whenever I was dating someone, to have somebody see me in my braids—the day they saw me with my hair in my braids was a big step for me. I have come to love myself and my hair and grown into loving my brown skin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my hair too sometimes. I still cry about it, be it the difficulty or aesthetically what I wish I had and it’s because you really just don’t see it.
What’s the soundtrack to life like right now? Specifically, have you listened to Solange’s album?
I didn’t hear it, I need to hear it.
It’s really good and there’s a song called “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
I don’t think people who don’t have our hair type realize I have strangers touch my hair all the time. Straight up. I will be on the street and I will feel something in my head and be like, is that a bird? And it’s a person and I turn around and they’re like, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.” And they don’t introduce themselves and walk away. And I’m like, excuse me? That happens all the time. In terms of my soundtrack right now, I think a soundtrack to my life in general is—I really love Billie Holiday. I always go to that when I’m stressed or going through things. That’s my go-to for almost anything. I have a lot of her albums. Josephine Baker. I recently have been listening to a lot of West African music. Amadou & Mariam, they’re great. They’re a blind couple. I’m also very into “single woman R&B,” like Corinne Bailey Rae and Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. I love electro-funk like, modern funk.
Your website says you did a lot of community theater when you were younger. Was that how you got into acting and performing?
Yeah, I didn’t do it professionally until I got my agency two years ago. But I’ve been doing stage stuff since I was like seven. After that, I was always engaged. I did a lot of community theater and was a part of a lot of theater companies, Harlem School of the Arts for example in high school. And I went to LaGuardia High School. I always had my hands in creative things. I was also very much a visual artist. For a long time, it was like, am I going to pursue visual art? My dad was pushing for me to do graphic art and then theater took over. I like to dance, I sing, and I was generally in that mindset for my whole life and ended up doing theater. I do have a lot of other interests that I hope acting will allow me to use as a vessel to pursue. Traveling is really, really important to me and I love language. For a long time I wanted to be a midwife and I want to work with women. For a while, I was having an emotional reaction to whether or not I should continue acting or pursue these other things that I find important too. I feel young still, so I hope those opportunities and options will still be open to me later on.
I noticed you don’t have a Twitter account. What’s the reason for that?
I think the internet is the devil. [Laughs] I really do think it’s the birth and death of all of us and I find myself addicted to it. And I’m not even—since the show is on, I haven’t been on Facebook. It’s a little bit overwhelming and I don’t know how to totally navigate through all of it yet, but it’s all positive. I see how the internet has changed my habits and changed my sort of will to be motivated and my creativity and left me feeling empty and worthless. Every night I used to read or draw or write and I don’t do those things anymore. I feel like I have this urge to numb my mind and I go online for that. I don’t really want to add noise for myself and get a Twitter account. I don’t know. I don’t have a publicist yet, so maybe someone will convince me one day, but I’m a little bit resistant to that.
Have you talked to Donald about that? He had a whole album about the internet...
He’s such a great person. Honestly, almost every conversation with him goes deeply philosophical very quickly and a lot of it has to do with his relationship with the internet and online. Episode 4 was sort of about that. I read some things where people were like that felt too millennial, but that was also a commentary: what are we losing, what are we gaining? The general public having the all-around access to the internet is sort of 16 years old. From 2000 and on, that’s when things really started changing with how we interact online and I feel like we as a society are reacting to it like it’s a teenager. Like it’s new and we’re hormonal about it. We’re discovering and we’re learning how to have sex with it and be in a relationship with it or not. We just haven’t come into adulthood about how to behave with the internet. I feel like there is a pullback already of people rejecting online life. I see that with my friends. I have a friend who reverted back to not having a smartphone anymore. I see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I think we’re still figuring it out.
Are you working on other projects?
I just finished shooting a feature in Chicago that should be out in January. The name keeps changing. I think Slice. And I’m in the running for some other things I can’t talk about. But I’m also very happy to be home. My boyfriend and I moved in together in January and we haven’t had a chance to live together because he’s also an actor. New York is my hometown so I’m happy to be home.