Zazie Beetz has on a patterned head wrap the moment we’re introduced to her character Vanessa on FX’s new hit series Atlanta. Vanessa’s baby daddy slash part-time live-in boyfriend, Earn (Donald Glover), is lying next to her with headphones cupping his ears. A few playful exchanges about Earn’s wacky dream leads to neck kisses. But before the intimacy goes any further she has one request: “Tell me you love me.”
Less than a minute later she’s standing in the bathroom mirror undoing her bantu knots.
Vanessa yearns for Earn’s love as much as she needs him to step up in the daddy department. Raising a baby takes currency but Earn has little more than hopes and dreams to offer. His goals consist of managing his rapper cousin Paperboi (Brian Tyree Henry) while Van teaches with only time to daydream of her own fashion boutique. Much of her story arc is in relation to Earn, but when she is centered in her own episode, “Value,” for example, she shines. It’s easily one of the best of the season.
Beetz is strikingly beautiful when she arrives sans makeup with her natural hair pinned in an updo. Her style teeters between bohemian chic and hipster. The gold hooped earrings, silver and gold bangles, four beaded necklaces and suede blue ankle boots accessorized with her brown sweatshirt paired with a multicolored long skirt are perfect. Thoughts of Lisa Bonet and Cree Summers if they were millennials come to mind. Born in Germany to a German father and black mother, the New York native studied acting at LaGuardia High School before traipsing off to Skidmore College where she studied French. Before Atlanta she’d mostly done indie shorts and thought she wouldn’t have a successful career in TV. Good thing she was wrong. In 2016 alone she’s starred in Atlanta, the Netflix series Easy and Margot vs. Lily. On the movie front she’s slated to star in the summer 2017 film Slice alongside Chance the Rapper.
If you go digging for dirt on the rising thespian you won’t find much. She doesn’t have Twitter, but not because she doesn’t have opinions. Oh, she has plenty. Beetz thoughtfully answered my questions about being the sole female character on Atlanta, makeup, feminism, her upcoming role in Slice and the election. Here’s what she had to say.
I read that originally you didn’t want to do TV because you said you’re pretentious and have been doing a lot of indie films. Has that changed at all since doing Atlanta?
Television has changed a lot. When I think of TV, I often think of sitcoms and I just don’t think that’s necessarily my type. I just didn’t really watch a lot of that. But with Atlanta, it was a very different tone and it felt super cinematic. It’s not about a laugh track. I loved the Disney Channel growing up, but I just didn’t expect to be successful in television. I went in thinking I’m going to do movies. My kind of bigger success so far has been television. It’s this enjoyable and wonderful thing to create a family because you’re together for a longer period of time. For Atlanta, we did two and a half months. After one season, you really create a group of people that I feel really proud and happy to be part of.
You were the lead female character, but also one of the only female characters on the show. What was that like being part of the boys clubs?
ZB: I didn’t have a single scene with Brian or Keith [LaKeith Stanfield], so it really was only me and Donald. There were also other women on set. In the sixth episode, “Value,” with my friend Jayde who’s played by Aubin Wise, I kind of didn’t realize how much I missed acting with female energy until we had that. And we really got along. We clicked immediately. It was so fun working together. I feel really honored to have the role of the sole woman on the show. It also feels like a lot of pressure to try to embody as much as I can into one character, which you also have to be careful of because Van isn’t everybody. You can’t represent everyone. She’s one specific person with one specific experience. I don’t want people leaving this show like that doesn’t resonate with me at all.
“Value” was my favorite episode of the season. I liked the perspective on womanhood without picking sides on which one was right or wrong and then being able to see two black women love each other even though they have totally different lives.
ZB: I feel like stuff like that happens with a childhood friend that you used to connect with a lot then your entire situation changes. You of course love them and would drop stuff to be there for them. You understand this person on a deeper level. Even if you disagree with the kind of person they’ve become, you’re like ‘I feel like I know the real you. I know what’s underneath. I know where you hurt. I know what’s intelligent and great even if you’re not showing that right now.’ To be able to see through that is where the connection still lies. I guess I was just thinking of my own relationships that have changed that even if we’re totally different right now underneath it all, I have a lot of love.
There was some buzz about the all-black writers room. How do you think that shapes having more diverse portrayals of black people on TV?
ZB: It’s funny because both of my main episodes were written by a woman. I do think that the show is mostly through a male gaze, which makes sense because the creator is telling a story through his experience, which influences how the other characters are portrayed and how you see them. It’s why I like Episode Six…it’s the first time you get a glimpse into Van outside of Earn’s gaze. Without the judgment of somebody else, you’re just seeing her. You’re seeing why she might be upset or why she might feel frustrated or not supported. Because if she fucks up then everybody is fucked.
One of the first things I tweeted about the show was that Van was taking her bantu knots out, which we’ve not really seen on TV. Have you struggled with whether or not you should straighten your hair for an audition, or if you didn’t get a gig because of your ‘fro?
ZB: Yeah. I think about that a lot actually. I have straightened my hair for a couple of auditions, although I don’t do it often. I do offer. A lot of people don’t have imagination [in this industry]. If you go in one way they don’t realize you can change what you look like so you do have to think strategically. The bantu knot thing is something Donald really wanted like having my hair wrapped up. That’s literally what I do every night. I braid my hair every night and my boyfriend goes to sleep and I stay up and braid my hair for 20 minutes.
I think natural hair is having a moment right now. My mom never let me straighten my hair growing up. It isn’t until the last five years that people were like, “Oh, I like your hair.” Before that never happened. Ever. Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” came out and the reason is because people literally touch your hair! Strangers touch your hair, random people on the street. I would feel something in my hair and I’m like ‘What’s in my hair?’ and it’s somebody’s hand. I think a lot about what role did I get or not get because of my hair. I have gotten things because of my hair like Atlanta. They loved that my hair was natural. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Curly hair is popular now, but I don’t think you will necessarily get casted as the lead in a Marvel movie with an afro.
Unless it’s Luke Cage…
ZB: [Laughs] Even the no makeup thing that Alicia Keys is doing right now. I love that she’s doing that because there’s still so much pressure for women to wear makeup all the time. I used to go into casting thinking ‘I need more, I need more [makeup].’ Men don’t go in wearing anything. All they do on men in a movie if the camera washes them out is they powder them so they don’t sweat. But it washes a woman’s face out? It doesn’t make any sense. I think makeup can be fun, but I also go in and out of wearing it regularly so I don’t feel reliant on it. I don’t know why there’s such a thing on totally changing your features. It’s very strange to me.
Tell me about your upcoming film Slice with Chance the Rapper.
ZB: I’m so excited. It comes out next summer. Chance the Rapper’s in it, Paul Scheer. It’s just such a good group of people. It was my first time really shooting something fun. Atlanta was fun, but it was more dramatic than this movie. I’m like kicking ass and doing stunts in this campy, totally different world. This is when you realize, “Oh, this is why big celebrities do kid movies.” This is not a kids movie, but it feels like it because it’s fun and to have the room to play. It feels like a comic book. I play Astrid; she’s a strong character.
Have you ever turned down a role?
ZB: I have. I’ve become more selective than I used to be because I want to do stuff that I feel good and proud about. I have no problems with nudity, but there needs to be a reason for it. I think nudity is great because I think my body is more than just a sexual thing and we all as human beings are naked. If art is depicting reality then it makes sense that sometimes you’re naked. I want to do nudity. I think it’s actually really empowering and beautiful, but I have turned down stuff where a character didn’t feel developed enough to warrant being nude or whatever sexuality was happening.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
ZB: Absolutely. I don’t understand, honestly, when women say they’re not feminists.
I don’t either!
ZB: I don’t even get it. Or when they’re like, “I’m not a feminist because I love my husband.” WHAT? That makes absolutely no sense to me. I 100% identify as a feminist. I’ll talk to my friends and ask are we closer to living in a post-racial or post-sexist society, and sometimes I think we’re closer to living in a post-racial than post-sexist society. I have no idea. This is something I feel about Atlanta that I like a lot — you’re just seeing people of color existing and the conversation isn’t always about “I’m black, I’m black, I’m black, I’m black.” Yeah, my every day is colored by this experience, but me as a woman and me as a woman of color I’m not 24/7 thinking about orange soda. You know what I mean? That’s such a weird way to put it. But I think about is my day to day experience colored more by me being a woman of color or by me being a woman. It oscillates.
I feel this daily reminder that I am nothing but a sexual object and a movement of power for many men just walking down the street. There’s no way to put unless you’ve experienced being hit on on the street every single fucking day of your life. People telling me to smile. Or the other day I was eating something and three men in one block were like like, “Oh, babe, can I have some? Can I have some?” I’m like why the fuck are you even talking to me. Of course it’s not about the food. It’s a power thing. People following you on the street. Literally at two in the morning. What is that? It’s an interesting, weird thing.
Street harassment in NYC is so bad and nobody but women care about it being an issue.
ZB: That’s what this election is saying. Trump has been talking in racist and sexist ways, but I don’t think the majority of the population who voted for him is racist and sexist. They’re hanging onto wanting to upturn the establishment. What is going on right now for some reason our entire country feels disenfranchised. Rural white America feels disenfranchised. People of color feel disenfranchised. Women feel disenfranchised. Why does everybody feel like they’re not being heard? That’s why Trump was elected because people felt like people weren’t listening to them. What’s scary is after Trump people started using his name as an excuse to attack immigrants and people of color and women. This isn’t new. All this stuff like the civil rights movement is living history so it’s something people have seen. My grandmother was like the first black bus driver in North Carolina. That’s in our living history. The year that my mother was born is the year that interracial marriage was legalized. How do we bridge this gap? How do we come together like I see you’re a person, you see I’m a person? I don’t know what to do.
Can you go to Target now without being recognized?
ZB: That’s so funny. No. I get recognized like three to four times a day. When the show started airing I was an hour outside of Chicago shooting Slice. So for the first month of the show airing nobody recognized me. The moment I came to New York it started happening. It’s at a nice place. It’s a gentle ego stroke. It’s respectful and it’s not on some Beyoncé level. If it was more than this I’d find it annoying. So far it’s all been really positive and [all] love.
Original by Bené Viera