This story about Zazie Beetz and “Atlanta” first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Over four seasons of “Atlanta,” Zazie Beetz has played some brilliantly strange situations as Van. (See, among others, her mysterious double life in Paris in Season 3.) But in the final season of the groundbreaking FX series created by Donald Glover, Beetz did some of her best work yet, particularly in the acidic “Work Ethic!” episode that satirizes a Tyler Perry-esque studio in which Beetz chases after her daughter (Austin Elle Fisher) after she’s swallowed up, almost Willy Wonka-style, into the dozens and dozens of soundstages overlorded by one Mr. Chocolate (Glover, nearly unrecognizable).
“Work Ethic!” is an incredible half hour of TV. Did it read more comic or more surreal when you first encountered it?
I remember reading it more as a critique of the creative industry, but the mother-daughter relationship stuck out to me the most. I was pretty taken by the comedy around Mr. Chocolate and the commentary about Black art. But the importance of Van’s instincts as a mother and her growth within that and her relationship with her daughter became the heart of it. “Atlanta” does well being surreal and absurd, but it’s always grounded in heart and soul.
I think it solidified Van as an all-time great TV mom.
It’s interesting, because in Season 3, particularly after the Paris episode, my Instagram comments would be like, “How could you leave your daughter?!” And I’m like, “Guys, I’m not Van!” [Laughs] But also, I found it interesting that people didn’t understand what she was going through or that this happens to people. Parents continue to search for their own identities, and sometimes you need space to do that.
You seem able to slip into any genre and fit right into its universe. Is that by design or just luck?
I think it’s a combination of trying to find longevity and being moldable. I keep thinking: What can I do now that could also translate into me being an 80-year-old actor? But I always need to remember that I came into this industry because I had fun acting and I don’t want to lose that fun. Alexander Skarsgård does that really well. He does some intense serious stuff but has the capacity to also be super playful. He told Donald when he did the Paris episode, “I’ll only do the role if I get to wear leopard print underwear,” or something like that. And now he’s [just done] cool work on “Succession.”
You also seem to be a favorite of your directors. Steven Soderbergh, David Leitch and Todd Phillips have all worked with you multiple times.
I feel grateful that people enjoy working with me. Quinta Brunson was recently saying that networking is just community building and genuinely making friends. I do love working with people again. It’s nice having a layer of trust and comfort already there that you can build off and take more risks and have more fun because you’re not so afraid.
Is a musical on your bucket list? You sing a little in “The Harder They Fall,” and you have a movie musical coming out with “Joker: Folie à Deux.”
My first love growing up was Broadway and musicals, and when I was a child thinking about theater, my vision was to be on stage singing and dancing. So I do think I need to do something like that to tell my childhood self that I made it.
Do you miss Van and “Atlanta?”
I miss that whole energy — we had a very special cocoon. I think it’s because we all in some ways grew up together, and the show changed our lives simultaneously. There’s just that special bond that we will never lose.