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Take Five: Zazie Beetz, Star of FX's 'Atlanta'

by Andrew Greene  |  09.06.2016

Whether she knows it or not, Zazie Beetz is having a moment. When FX’s Atlanta premieres Tuesday, September 6, the New York-based actress will be making her television debut.

She stars as Van in the transcendent series from Donald Glover (Community), about Atlanta’s rap culture and the difficulties of navigating fame and societal expectation, something Zazie’s becoming familiar with.

In this chat with Daily Brief, Zazie talked honestly about the hard transition from theater to film, what she learned about the city of Atlanta, and her insecurities about calling the show her “big break.” She does this all while commuting to a doctor’s appointment.

Beetz: I’m on a bus right now.

Daily Brief: That’s very New York of you.

When I was prepping for this interview, I may have stumbled upon your squarespace page.

Oh god no. I’m in the middle of an internet revamping. My boyfriend and my mother are like ‘change your facebook name,’ which I just did. Now I probably need to change my website. What was your impression?

I noticed you grew up as a performer in community theater. What’s different about TV?

TV and theater are really different and it was a very hard transition for me. But camera work is all I do now and I’ve come to really miss doing stage work. There’s something incredibly cathartic about the experience of having this one moment in time that you share with many people. Every night is different and you’re in the space for two hours and it’s done and you leave it. You earn your art and you earn your emotion.

Whereas in film, the out of order thing gets really difficult. I had a hard time with that. I was used to putting my energy out versus internalizing it. I had to learn how to have it be cathartic in a different way. Now I find the small movements of camera to be immensely satisfying and artful as well. I feel like one of the biggest things you learn from theater is connection. That’s also an imperative lesson for camera work. The thing that feels good is when I feel like I’ve connected and communicated.

So I really love this show. Donald Glover has a lot to say about gun violence, street life, rap culture and the city of Atlanta itself with these characters that you don’t get to see a lot on TV. It’s powerful to watch. Does Glover speak to you about his intent?

I know a big thing for Donald is in learning why they choose the n-word, why they choose to be trapped and have guns and get involved with drugs and things like that. It’s not necessarily commentary as much as this is just how people live. He wanted to take these people and say that’s why they’re speaking like that, that’s why they’re making money the way they’re making money. A lot of the show is very location specific to Atlanta and the world that exists there. People are anticipating it to be about music and rap, when it’s more about people living in this city. I even remember there were comparisons to Empire, and I don’t actually watch Empire.

It’s way different.

It’s not like the music plays a character like that. It’s not really about them making music, it’s about them existing in a world where people want to do that. I don’t know if you know this documentary, it’s on Netflix, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s like a documentary drama, it’s called Snow on the Bluff. Do you know it?

I do not.

It was made in 2012 and it is about this man, Curtis Snow, who lived in The Bluff, which is a neighborhood in Atlanta. It’s this classically rough sort of neighborhood, but you’re following this man and all his friends: they have shootouts, they’re dealing hard drugs and it’s their life, and the mother dies. This is actually how people live. It’s like entering a completely different culture, a completely different country, and this is right in the middle of one of America’s biggest metropolises. I watched it to inform myself on parts of the show, even though my character isn’t really in that world. It’s just absolutely fascinating to see, just to textualize this, where and how the values are different from mainstream versions.

I have lived closely with people who are stigmatized, or stereotyped, and I don’t even want to use this word but have this sort of “ghetto” attitude about them. Because I’ve known them for so long in an intimate way, I don’t see them that way anymore. I can see their humanity and I feel protective. When I introduce them, I say you don’t understand. This isn’t all that they are. Atlanta provides a contextualizing of what you see from the outside: a man has a gun, a man lives in this way, a man lives in this neighborhood. But you get to know these characters, so you’re able to put aside what you would normally stigmatize.

All the characters are offered the opportunity to be grounded. Alfred struggles with his fame, even though that’s what he wants. That’s f**ing real. Fame is the weirdest shit in the world and a lot of shows don’t talk about that much.

I find it fascinating that you’ve reached the level where now you have to revamp your social media. You can see the parallel between you and the characters on Atlanta, with Paperboi getting famous, and Atlanta as your big break. Do you see it like that?

I’ve never called it my big break but people have been referring it as my big break to me.

Sorry, I hate that phrase.

No, it’s totally fine. It kind of is, honestly. It wasn’t the job that allowed me to quit my day job, so that’s why the project before Atlanta has emotional significance to me in that way. I was able to leave the service industry. But Atlanta allowed me to sustain that. I remember when I found out that it was picked up to series I broke down crying because I had this realization that my life, at least financially, will at least for the next year, be fine. That isn’t something I have to worry about anymore. That’s a big thing. Especially because while my parents aren’t poor, I didn’t come from…they don’t have money, and I don’t have money, so it’s a strange thing to feel.

It’s a weight being lifted.

Yeah. The closer I’m coming to the premiere, some of the producers have been like, “you’re not ready for the tornado that’s about to hit.” I think I’m being a little bit naive, or maybe it’s denial, but I don’t feel like anything’s going to change. I have more Instagram followers who are Childish Gambino fans, but besides that I can’t imagine what else would change and I also don’t want to let it change.

You probably have seen more people go through that transition, maybe yourself.

Judging by your squarespace, you love to travel. How familiar were you with Atlanta before shooting? What have you learned since?

I didn’t know Atlanta at all. Shooting the pilot was the first time I went to Atlanta and we spent a couple months there during the season.

Maybe it’s because I was spending a lot of time in the Williamsburg version of Atlanta, the relatively gentrified up-and-coming, hip sort of neighborhood, that I was surprised at the creative spirit that it had. A lot of people call Atlanta the black mecca: a lot of African Americans live there. It was really nice to see all these different kinds of people of color in one place. They’re not just one type or how we maybe picture them.

One thing that struck me, there was a lot of black punk culture, which you don’t really see much of. I’m from New York and don’t see much of it there. It felt like there’s this freedom that you can really be who you are. I learned while I was there, that Atlanta, it’s not San Francisco anymore, is the gay capital of the country. A lot of people, myself included, would be surprised by that label on a southern state. I liked that. One of my Uber drivers was talking to me about it.

Audiences can see Zazie Beetz in the near future when Atlanta premieres Tuesday, September 6 at 10 p.m. on FX.

[All images courtesy of FX]

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