Photo-Illustration: The Cut. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images
Last week, Atlanta returned for it’s third season following a two-year hiatus, and we finally got to see Zazie Beetz’s beloved, relatable character Van on our screens once again. “That show is forever going to be in the most sacred space in my heart because that show truly changed my life,” Beetz told the Cut. “I was quite emotional when we ended the show because for me it is the ending of an era.”
While the fourth season will be the series’ last, Beetz has been more than busy with roles in Deadpool, The Joker, and The Harder They Fall. We chatted with her about what draws her to the characters she plays. “My rule of thumb is if I wouldn’t watch it, I don’t want to do it,” Beetz said. “I often get asked, ‘What do you love about action movies?’ I feel like I’m choosing characters that just happen to be in action movies … I am interested in the female body and the female experience in terms of how women are perceived in their sexuality, in motherhood, in being a daughter. … I am very reflective on my experience as a woman.” On the latest episode of the In Her Shoes podcast with the Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples, Beetz discusses what still frightens her about acting and how she wishes to grow. Listen to the full episode now.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lindsay Peoples: Hi, Zazie. Welcome to In Her Shoes.
Zazie Beetz: Hi, thank you for having me.
Lindsay: Of course. Let’s start with the early years. I know that you grew up between Berlin and New York. What was that like, and what prompted your family to move back to the States from Germany? What has that been like for your identity? I just find that fascinating.
Zazie: I feel like there’s this larger narrative that I grew up in Berlin, which I didn’t; I grew up in New York, but I was born in Berlin. When I was 1, my parents moved to New York. My main residence was in New York, but I would go and visit my grandparents in the summers for two or three months at a time and on other holidays as well. So my day-to-day life was in New York, and then Berlin was sort of this additional life, an additional version of me — a lot of my vacation, my escape from daily existence, and yes, engaging with my other identity. I think, because of that, I do have a strong relationship with the culture and the language because there was no other option when I was there.
I spent a lot of alone time with my grandparents, so it is interesting because I do inherently feel American. I am American, I am Black, and a Black American woman, but I think it’s just sort of a wider understanding of different perspectives on the world. In some ways, I am just a person who is made up of two different wholes. I feel very much like my own unique lens, just as everybody else is with whatever identities they have. And it’s easy to be like, “You’re half this, you’re half that, how much of this is that? How much of this is that?” But I think I’m a perfect blend of all the things and that created a new juice, which is me.
Lindsay: I love that. You know, Atlanta’s been such a joy to watch. I’m such a fan of the show and everything that you all have done. What has it been like as you reflect on it being such a big moment in culture and being part of that?
Zazie: It’s been such a wonderful, interesting ride. That show is forever going to be in the most sacred space in my heart because that show truly changed my life. Going into this, all of us — me and Brian, Keith, Donald; Hero, our director; and producers attached — nobody necessarily expected it to have the impact that it did. I know Donald went into it being like, “If it gets canceled the first season, that’s fine.” He just wanted to make something.
I remember on one of the last days of shooting season one, I told Hero, “Wow, right now it’s only like a hundred of us who know about this show, and pretty soon it’s just going to be out in the world, and then we’ll see what happens. It’s not going to be ours anymore.” We had no idea, and we were all terrified. When we were shooting over the last year, Hero and I were talking about how we were both so scared, and it changed, from my perspective, Keith’s life and Brian’s life and Donald’s life.
We will always have this bond, and I’m always going to check in on them and be like, “Are you good? I know we’re going through similar things, and I know we did it together. I’ll always feel like I know you differently because of that.” I was quite emotional when we ended the show because for me it is the ending of an era for sure, but on to new and wonderful other things.
Lindsay: Your character, Van, is beloved for so many different reasons and so relatable as well. How collaborative was the process of developing your character? Did you get to contribute at all? Because I just felt like so many women of color felt like, Oh man, this is how I feel.
Zazie: The show is written and created by Black people for Black people. I think that a lot of the show is pulled from real situations, real life, real people, and Donald’s life. Donald’s brother, Stephen, produces and writes on the show as well. So I think that there is realism there because it’s pulled from life. It’s funny because the Black experience is absurd and it’s wild, and I think it’s being documented on television in an honest way and in a nonjudgmental way.
I think it’s interesting to see people reacting and being like, “Well, that wouldn’t happen.” Even in the episode, wherein season one, where I am using my daughter’s urine with drug tests, I have had so many Black women come up to me be like, “I did that.” And it’s funny. It seems like that because it’s real. And it just happens to also feel absurd and a bit surreal, but I think that’s just the Black experience in America.
So initially season one, I think that was mostly them shaping Van and who she was, but also I think ultimately you hire an actor because some energy will provide a flavor. And I think my energy made Van a bit more boho, a little bit more earthy, but in the subsequent seasons as they got to know me, Donald, and the rest of the team, they started writing in more elements of who I was. For example, in the “Helen” episode, where we are going to this German Austrian thing and having that experience, and even in season three and season four, which I’m not getting into, some of the experiences that Van has are definite mirrors of experiences we’ve all had but I know I felt very close to because they were direct reflections of emotions and feelings I have about life and whatnot.
Lindsay: What was it like to transition from being in Atlanta to Deadpool? It’s a very different genre, but I think it comes with a lot of different pressures, a different approach. What was the thinking behind that, and what was that process like for you?
Zazie: This was a time in my life when everything felt so big and new and wild. I mean, it still does. I still think that there are so many places for me to grow and places where I am still new at it and things that I’m still hoping to do. There are still a lot of things that terrify me. But at that moment when I started Atlanta, I was just mortified of failing and of being bad and of not having earned or deserved this.
Going into Deadpool — that was a bigger budget, a different thing, the comedy element — I don’t consider myself a comedian at all. That’s not my strength. I am not a comedian. And so to be doing comedy, I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing?” I was scared, but everybody on that set was so kind, so warm, so professional, and Ryan Reynolds did such a good job of guiding and helping us. It was a very egoless set. Ryan is the most professional — the first one and last one to leave — and just so warm. And so that helped with me having my internal war, but having people around me that were confident and wanting to support and wanting to make it all feel good.
I feel lucky that was my introduction, and now because I’ve had to face that fear multiple times, I’m more relaxed and less panicked when I go to sets. That’s just exposure and leaning into the fear and trying not to self-sabotage.
It was a transition, but Atlanta was also a transition. Let me tell you, going into that was not a cakewalk. The weekend before I left, I remember for season one, I had a full-on meltdown because I was like, What am I doing? I’m not good enough for this. I remember my partner was kind of laughing because I was freaking out, and he was like, “You’re going to be fine.”
Lindsay: Did you feel like those roles then helped you to continue to branch out into other things? I mean The Harder They Fall is also such a different turn. Did you feel, because you made those leaps of faith, that it set you in a place where you felt like, I can go in different directions, and I don’t have to be pigeonholed into one thing, and I can go and try some different things at first?
Zazie: Absolutely. I think I’m always trying to push the boundary of what is expected of me or the energy people expect me to give because I want to be able to grow and expand in my career. Who I am now is not who I’m going to be in 20 years. I want to set that tone already, that I am somebody right now but I can change and I will change. I don’t want to get caught up in one identity and then, when I grow out of that identity, I can’t work anymore. I would love to keep working until I’m 80, when, hopefully, I’m a grandmother and have a different life experience. If I’m only doing action movies, that’s not going to work.
I want to be leaning into things that make you scared. As you realize, Oh, I can have all these feelings, but it’s not going to knock me over, and I’m going to learn to work and cope with them, and How can I cope with them? And what does that mean? I remember very much in Atlanta, this was a big thing. I know a lot of times that when I feel like I did badly in a scene, I like to be an introvert. I feel like I can’t communicate with people because in my head I’m like, They just think I’m terrible. They just think I’m bad. Why do they think I shouldn’t have even gotten this role?
I have to actively push against that instinct and be like, I still deserve eye contact. I am still deserving of connection, and I’m going to move on, and even if I did my best in the scene, that was the best I could do at that moment given the entire universal context; that’s what was given. And so let’s move on. I needed to train myself to not close myself off and to remain open. Leaving myself vulnerable has allowed me in other projects to keep that mind-set as well.
Lindsay: We do have to talk about the fight scene with Regina King, though, because I was like, This is the best thing ever. It was so amazing. It’s hard to describe because I think we don’t get many of those action scenes between Black women anymore. And so I think it was just exciting and thrilling, and I watched it over and over again. Walk us through the process of creating that and shooting it, and what was that like?
Zazie: Regina and I had a really lovely relationship on set. We shot this during COVID, so it was hard to try and get rehearsals in because everybody was just trying to have distance and not spend too much time together. Regina and I had to figure out times to rehearse, and we would do it all with masks, but we wanted it to look good. On the last day, we shot the fight, because it took a couple of days to shoot, so it felt like this really lovely girl-power moment to end on that note and us coming head to head. But ultimately it’s us connecting and creating this bond through this fight we had.
Lindsay: Do you feel like now that you’ve done all these different genres and had all these different experiences that have just helped you continue to find who you are and what you want to do as a creative person? Do you feel like it’s giving you the freedom to be a little bit more selective about what you do and not feel the pressures of having to be everywhere? I think there’s so much now, and I think just in being a public figure that it feels like everyone is on every social-media channel. It feels like everyone has to be everywhere, and do you feel like those experiences have helped you hone in and feel like you can be selective and still have your process and your creativity outside of it and be more selective on the things that you are doing?
Zazie: Yes. That question touches on many different things. I see people on social media doing all kinds of stuff all the time, and of course, you wonder, Should I be doing more or less? Or what’s right, what’s not right? What feels good versus what should feel good? What shouldn’t feel good? Sure, it’s fun to post on Instagram, but then I try to take a step back and be like, Why is it fun? Is it because I’m looking for validation?
I think there’s a difference between what feels like candy and what is good for me. So in response to that in terms of social media, I don’t have a Twitter because I know I would spend too much time on it. I see already how much time Instagram takes up in my life, and it’s to the point where I deleted it off my phone for a few months at a time because I’m like, I can’t resist it if it’s on my phone.
Lindsay: I delete it very often.
Zazie: Yeah. I delete it a lot. So yes, I can be more selective and I have always felt like, Who do I want to be in this world? Who do I want to be in this space? And I often actually feel very guilty for saying no. It’s hard to say no and to feel like, Am I disappointing my team? Am I disappointing other people? Maybe I want to work with this director, but this project doesn’t resonate with me. When is the next time I would maybe have an opportunity to work with them? And I think finding that balance of doing bigger studio projects that are perhaps broader but that you also still feel passionate about.
I don’t want to be doing stuff I don’t like. Having to do press for that is exhausting. It’s agonizing because it’s an agony to have to promote something you don’t feel in your soul. My rule of thumb is if I wouldn’t watch it, I don’t want to do it. And that’s where I’m at right now. That can also change. I’m 30, who knows how Hollywood reacts to women getting older. That can change. So that’s where I’m at now.
Lindsay: Well, this is a good segue into my next question, though, because when you say you only want to do stuff that you want to watch, what are you working on as a writer and producer in general?
Zazie: It’s funny because I feel like some of my most popular things are action films. And I don’t actually like action films, but I like Deadpool. It’s a different take on that genre. I think it subverts the genre and is interesting and fun. And there’s a whole personality and story around that I enjoy — or like The Harder They Fall, to be also subverting this western thing. So to me, that is less about action and more about: It happens to be this fun and interesting thing that is in the genre of action. But like a straight sort of shoot, shoot, bang, bang, I’m not naturally drawn to it.
I often get asked, “What do you love about action movies?” I feel like I’m choosing characters that just happen to be in action movies. And it’s less about them being action movies but more about I was drawn to working with Ryan Reynolds and the simple character. Then The Harder They Fall, to be rethinking the western was interesting to me, and the character of Mary was interesting to me.
What am I interested in? I am interested in the female body and the female experience in terms of how women are perceived in their sexuality, in motherhood, in being a daughter. Just for me, I am very reflective on my experience as a woman, and I am just fascinated by it, and so that’s what I’m interested in. I love anything around that. And then also I love things that are an exploration of morality and an exploration of what is right and wrong.
I think a beautiful example of something I’m super-drawn to is a film like The Lost Daughter, which is questioning, What is motherhood? What is a good mother? And also the expectation around what you are meant to feel as a mother and the guilt that you showed or shouldn’t have. And we have this narrative that, like, “Yes, once you become a mother, nothing else matters, only your children, and we forget this is a woman. She was a woman first, a human being.”
We put this astronomical expectation on everything you’re supposed to think and feel, and it’s just so much more complicated than that. So I am interested in this psychological exploration of humanity, and that it is not good or bad; we are just humans. We’re all trying our best. So that is what I’m very drawn to. And that’s the wheelhouse I, as Zazie, feel at this moment in my life very drawn to and are the kinds of projects I feel like I’m searching for and writing with my partner and/or trying to develop.