Zazie Beetz’s Van has come a long way throughout four seasons of “Atlanta,” slowly reclaiming her identity, which had been consumed by motherhood and by her complicated relationship with her daughter’s father, Earn (Donald Glover).
Van’s identity crisis reached a fever pitch in Season 3, and now she’s returned to her roots with the rest of the crew — except this time with more confidence, Beetz told TheWrap in a new interview ahead of Season 4’s debut on FX on Sept. 15.
“She’s really pushing back against what feels confining to her,” the actress said. “I don’t think she knows exactly what it is confining her, why she feels trapped, but she’s becoming braver in her attempts to break out of the mold and the cage.”
Glover has previously said that the final season of “Atlanta” is the most grounded of them all, and Beetz certainly agrees, attributing that to both their characters’ evolutions as well as the growth that they’ve experienced off camera throughout the seven years since they shot the pilot episode.
In a new interview, Beetz speaks with TheWrap about where we can expect to find Van as the FX series comes to a close.
How do you think Van has evolved from Season 1 to now?
I think Van has really grown a little bit into her confidence. In Season 1, she has a young daughter and she’s trying to figure out whether or not she’s together with Earn. She’s the breadwinner, and he’s not as supportive as she would want him to be. She has resentments around that. In Season 2, she wants to be more than just the mom. She wants to be a lover. She wants to have freedom. She doesn’t just want her identity to be like Lottie’s mom, and Earn places that on her, others place that on her. And I think in Season 3, she decides to take that identity of ‘I am a person first and what does that mean for me?’ and she kind of flies with it. I think she has some false starts. By the end of the season, in her crash down to the earth, she is able to finally put some words to her feelings and anxieties and can potentially approach a more healthy way of dealing with them.
All the characters seem a lot more present this season, after Season 3 where they were kind of all over the place. How would you characterize Season 4?
I agree. I think this season is interesting, because we’re all growing up. Donald and Hiro [Murai] will say we started the show in a sort of a more nihilistic place. They wanted to be messy and make fun of the industry, [like] ‘nothing matters and if we get cancelled, who cares?’ But like the pilot, we shot seven years ago. People have had kids and lost parents in the meantime. They’ve continued with life. My mom always says you either get better or you get bitter. And I think when you like create something, particularly creating something like children, you kind of have to approach life in a more hopeful way. Otherwise, what are you doing? I think that really affected the storytelling in a way. Whether or not we’re all in a simulation, whether or not any of this is real, it’s what we’re doing. So let’s do something with it. Season 4 has that kind of heart to it.
As an actor, how have you deepened your understanding of Van, and how has that elevated your performance?
Season 1, I was just terrified that they’d be like, ‘Oh, we hired the wrong person. She can’t do this character.’ I felt like, ‘I don’t seem like I’m a person from Atlanta. Am I not doing homage to the city in the way it needs to be done?’ I was riddled with insecurities around if I was right for this role or not. Those kinds of things affect your performance [and] affect how you feel about your performance. That is in some ways also reflected in Van, I think. She doesn’t take as many risks as she perhaps wants to, and she allows herself to continue in this path of wanting to please people.
When we started shooting Season 3, that was four years after Season 2, so I’ve had an opportunity to grow in my confidence as an actor. I don’t think I could have really done Season 3 earlier than we did it. I’m grateful for that. With each role, I hope I can keep learning, You make stuff, and it comes out a year later, and you’re like, ‘Have I grown since then? Is that the best I can do or not?’ I approach each role trying to keep bettering myself. I’m not jaded yet. In Season 3, particularly the finale, I felt like, ‘This is something I’ve never done before. I’m just gonna go for it, and maybe I’ll fall flat on my face, but I’m just gonna go.’ And I felt much more trusting, much more open to take a risk [and] open to fall. And that’s incredibly freeing. I think that was freeing for Van as well.
As you’ve grown in your confidence, have you consulted more with the writers about where Van’s story is going?
Yes and no. Donald would send a text at the end of a season like, ‘So where would you want to go with Van? What are you into?’ The thing is, all these characters are also reflections of Donald and where he’s at. We’re all written into our characters as well, as the writers get to know us. [Donald and I] talk a lot about my anxiety, and where his anxiety mirrors my anxiety. So I think all the characters in some ways are an amalgamation of all of us, the writers and the actors, and they learn from us as we work. It’s less of like them asking us what do we want, and more of what seems to organically be coming up for all of us in a way.
In that first episode of Season 4, Van and Earn are stuck in a shopping center and they keep running into their exes. What does that say about the state of their relationship, which thus far has been pretty rocky?
I think it’s a marker of the years of them being stuck in a certain phase and trying to move on from it and never really being able to make clear decisions about what either of them want. They can’t make a decision around really defining for each other who they want to be. The Atlantic Station thing is reflections on people not letting go or not pushing to find truth, pushing to make their way out of something that feels almost like a fever dream — the same thing over and over and over again. Then also just in general, you’re able to see their dynamic more with each other, how they interact with each other. Their relationship sort of levels out in this moment.
I think an earlier version of Van and Earn may not have handled that so well.
I agree, and it’s cool to see that evolution.
Do you think shooting Seasons 3 and 4 together changed your performance, as opposed to the breaks you had between previous seasons?
I do. I really liked it. It’s nice to really just spend time with the character and not need to find it again. When we started Season 3, I didn’t remember. So I was rewatching some episodes and being like, ‘do I know this person?’ It’d been so long and we all felt that way. So it’s nice to ease into it seamlessly and to just get the show done. It was nice to be like, ‘Great, we’re not going to wait 10 years for the next season.’ It feels nice to just be like one and done, and then we can definitively all just move on and do other stuff.
How did you ultimately find Van again?
I think I had sort of a gentle start into her Season 3. I wasn’t doing so much heavy lifting, and I just felt like, ‘Oh I know this person.’ I don’t know. It’s just kind of like bike riding or like [seeing] an old friend. [I didn’t want to] make her like a caricature of what I had done before. I think the mistake is to copy it.
How do you feel about where we leave Van at the end of Season 4?
I feel satisfied. I love the last episode. I think it’s very ‘Atlanta.’ I think it’s very soulful and incorporates all our stories.