Atlanta, the rookie comedy from FX created by Donald Glover, masterfully weaves together a complex patchwork of nonlinear narratives and experiences to present us with a show that is at once sharply observant, surreal, emotional, and philosophical. The show follows Earn (Glover) as he works towards managing his cousin and upcoming rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). It also explores his relationship with Van, played by Zazie Beetz, his on-again-off-again partner and the mother of their child.
After losing her job, Van needs to network with Monique, a well-connected woman whose husband, Craig, is a white man overstepping his boundaries by appropriating black culture. In episode 9, "Juneteenth," we see Van and Earn visiting the party and attempting to tolerate Craig's inappropriate behavior--like admonishing Earn for not going to Africa to understand his "motherland" -- until it eventually becomes unbearable and Earn voices his discomfort. The episode also advances Earn and Van's relationship, and leaves us wondering whether there will be any romantic resolutions in tonight's season finale.
We spoke with Zazie Beetz about the cinematography and pacing of the show, the limited portrayals of people of color in mainstream media, and what she hopes to see in season two.
A lot has been written about the nonlinear structure of the show, where often entire episodes will be dedicated to one character. I'm particularly interested in episode 6, Value, where we get an in-depth look at Van's social and professional life. Do you feel like that episode is important in Van's character development and the narrative development in general?
Donald wanted each character to have their own voice for at least one episode. I thought that was really cool, as the principal actor, to give room for other actors to show themselves. He originally even wanted an episode where none of the principals were in it.
I thought Van really needed room to explain why she functions the way she does, and why she talks about struggling with money because particularly in episode six, you see what happens when she can't deliver, because she has no safety net. That was important to show in order for the audience to feel empathy for her and not just be like, "Oh leave Earn alone." And to feel, "Oh, ok, of course she wants to have fun. Of course she wants to be like Earn and do her thing, but if she's not careful about what she does, she can't support her daughter, and Earn is not going to help her with that." I really liked having that explanation, which gives a lot of insight into their relationship in general.
I appreciate episode nine for that a lot, too. We see a longer dynamic between Earn and Van than just one scene [when we watch] them interact at the party. We also see that they end up choosing love over conflict in the end. That was something we talked about. Originally, they ended on an argument, and then we changed it to them coming together, which I think was a huge change, and I really liked that, because I feel like the viewer also needed to see why they were together and how they worked. Even though they function a little differently in life, they're still on the same wavelength.
I was actually just about to ask about episode nine, because I especially liked the ending. Obviously it's a very high stress time in their lives, but we also see that they have a connection. As a viewer, I'm always rooting for their relationship. Even though we see that Van unfairly has to take on so much more responsibility, I feel that they really love each other. Do you think the audience is meant to feel this way about their relationship?
I hope they do. There's a reason why they keep coming back to each other besides [their daughter] Lottie. I hope that the audience feels that way too, that you actually see the chemistry and where they align. I think Van, at the end of the Juneteenth episode, also felt [frustrated] with Monique and her husband. Her and Earn feel the same way about things. Because her situation is different than his, she has to navigate through those feelings [about Monique and Craig] differently than Earn does, and he has the luxury of just being frank and being honest and doing what he wants. Van doesn't, so she has to kind of play along until it goes too far.
I like the discovery that she has those feelings too and she thinks this is whack too, or she thinks that's cool, too. Or even "Oh, she smokes weed too!" It just backfired.
The stakes are really high for her.
They should be for Earn, but they're not.
Right before they kiss, Earn says he's sorry for speaking out in a way that might jeopardize Van's ability to get a job, and that he'll apologize to Monique and her husband. He obviously cares about Van and her feelings. Will we see this resolved in the second season?
I have no idea what will happen in the second season. We've talked about some ideas and I've thrown in ideas of what I'd like to see. I think it would be funny to have Van dating, but I honestly want to see them come together. I think they both have growing to do. I don't think its necessarily cool that Van is always like, "You shouldn't pursue music!" As someone who has pursued a creative career personally, I think she should be open to it. But I also feel that maybe Earn needs to approach it in a way that isn't selfish. I feel for her, there needs to be growth in being open and accepting his desires and his dreams, but Earn definitely needs to grow in realizing he's not the only person in the world. So, I think there's room there for discovery to happen, which I hope would bring them closer together. That feel-good thing kind of continues in the final episode, so I like that this season wraps up on a better note for them. I think it's sort of a journey from the first episode to the tenth.
Especially since it's not necessarily one event right after the other, you get this patchwork of their lives.
I was talking to my boyfriend, David, about this. He's fun to talk to because he's also an actor and a filmmaker. He was saying, "It sort of makes me think of The Simpsons or Family Guy, where people can die and it doesn't really matter. Each episode is sort of autonomous." There's a little bit of magical realism that also happens. Things that are weird or off or just don't physically happen. Life itself is not totally linear.
I also think it's interesting that it's being billed as a comedy, because I see it as much more serious. Some people are like, "I was cracking up crying, laughing" and when I watch it, I feel much more that I'm just hanging out and existing. That's the tone and the pace of the show.
I always wonder about that. It feels very existential and very deliberately beautiful in the cinematography. When I think of comedies, the focus is not usually on that--it's on punchy writing and short, scripted episodes.
I agree. The characters are very solid and they're moving through these moments and these happenings. Things are happening to them and they react as their characters. It feels like, as you were saying, an existential, philosophical engagement, rather than an episode of Big Bang Theory, which I really like.
I feel like it's very honestly FX's tone. A lot of the comedies I've seen on FX are permeated with sadness and permeated with reality. Either a character is ridiculous or the situation is ridiculous, but the ridiculousness is met with reality and met with a genuine response.
I read that you and Alexa Fogel, the casting director, spoke about not wanting Van to be the angry black woman trope, and that you wanted to show that her frustrations and predicaments were valid. I was wondering how you thought about those conversations as you were figuring out how to bring this character to life?
One thing I did before we started shooting was I spoke with the mother of a friend of mine who had my friend in her early twenties and who was also a teacher and struggled as she was coming into motherhood, and didn't really have support from the father. I spoke with her about what that was like for her, and that was so interesting and revealing.
It also reminded me of my mother in ways. My father was totally a huge part of my life, but they were both young with children, bridging their backgrounds with their future and trying to figure out their lives. I found hearing her talk and hearing what motivated her and hearing what frustrated her and where she struggled and where she was proud of herself too was really interesting, and I'm glad I spoke with her more in depth about her experience.
I also tried to base Van in caring and in love. Even when she's picking up Earn from jail, she also gets it. There's never a time when she's completely like, "Fuck you." She likes Earn, he makes her laugh, and I think she gets him in ways and he gets her in ways. I hope that grounds her in a space of empathy, with deserved anger or frustration sprinkled in.
I definitely felt that when watching it. She's so present and there for him. In her responsibility she shows her love.
I often also think about TV shows that feature characters of color. Very often the characters of color are written by white writers. When that's the case, the portrayals often oscillate between grossly stereotyping the characters or totally ignoring that race impacts their lives. I think the fact that there are these incredibly nuanced, intelligent commentaries in Atlanta is largely a testament to the fact that the writing staff is comprised of black writers.
Of course, you have to acknowledge somebody's existence in terms of their identity as a person of color. But for me, my day-to-day life is not about being black. Of course then my day-to-day interactions will be colored by who I am and how people perceive me, but my life is about getting food, and finding love, and being with my family, and being with my friends, and worrying about my anxieties. That's what my life is about. That's all colored by my skin color, but I'm not constantly reiterating to myself, "I am black. I am black. I am black." and I feel like that's what happens in a lot of media- when there's a character of color, that's all that their character is about.
I want to see more than just that. If you see a show where the cast is mainly Indian or black or Hispanic, it's about them being that, versus if you watch Friends, it's about them being friends, and obviously about how the characters are affected by them being white, but it's not the main theme of the show. I crave that in television.
When I was growing up, I loved the movie Hitch, and I realized later on, "Oh my god, the lead is black, and the other lead is Latina, but it never is a problem, and they're both the leads, and they continue to just be people that love each other." I feel like subconsciously, I must have connected to it because they are people and it's about other issues too.
I feel like it indicates how normalized whiteness is. White people get this insane amount of nuance in their narratives. As you're saying, their race affects them, but it's never about their whiteness. We get to see all their complexities, every single facet of their lives, all their emotions. It's never just about one aspect of their identities.
Yeah. If a nuanced story needs to be told, then the default is white. I find that frustrating. Which is why I really want to see Moonlight. I haven't seen it, but I know people are loving it. I feel like it's opening the door to the idea that there's more to this existence. Everyone has just as much depth and an ocean of things going on in their lives that goes beyond the color of their skin. I hope Atlanta does a version of that. Of course, the story is being told through the eyes of a black man. Literally, Donald grew up in Atlanta, so it's his story and his view, but I think within the show, we touch on other things besides just being black.
I'm always amazed by the density of the episodes. It really feels like you're watching an hour-long episode even though you're watching 22-26 minutes. I wonder if you feel that way?
I do. I think it has to do with the pacing. I think the pacing is slower, and it doesn't feel like a traditional half-hour show. I feel often, it's mostly about exposition and getting the story to move along rather than having a cinematic experience, which is why in a feature or an hour-long show, you have more room for beauty, and moments, and time, and space. I feel like Atlanta is a really cinematic experience. Every time I watch it I'm like, "Wow that was really good camera work." And I see online people talking about it and saying, "That was a beautiful shot." I think that's a portion if it- It doesn't look like 20 minutes of funny.
Also, I think what happens is these characters are not all existing in the same space. At least the episodes that Van is in, you're telling two different worlds as well. Van's story is one thing, and Alfred and Earn and Darrius is another thing, so we're following two different narratives at the same time. Usually, in half hour shows, everyone is friends and everyone comes together and you see everyone in the same room and things are working together. But here I feel like you're cutting between stories. I wonder if that contributes to the feeling of it being a longer show.
It doesn't have a tightly packaged narrative arc and tidy resolution that most 30 minute shows have.
I think that, particularly in Darius's character, a lot of subtext is playing as well. The characters will maybe say something but a different idea is being presented. I wonder if you feel like you're getting more information because you're reading in between the lines. And you're constantly in thought and using your mind.
It ties to how we were saying it's a very existential show. The pace of existence is maybe a little slower. As we were saying about the cinematography earlier- a lot of the shots are really beautiful. I'm wondering if you talk about these aesthetic elements on set?
A lot really good actors will know what kind of shot [is being used] and will understand that a wide shot will set up the scene, so the decisions you make now are decisions you have to keep later. So knowing those things definitely affects your performance. I try to stay in tune with what's going on.
But, I am also often surprised at how things look in the end. When you're performing it feels different. You have a lot more going on. You have people and lights around you, and it's an exercise in not getting distracted by these other elements. There's a lot of faking that happens. When you see something on screen, it reads so differently from what you experienced, so that's also a cool discovery.
Donald actually said that in general, they chose a lot of wide shots over close ups, because they end up being more emotional than close ups, which is interesting because I've also heard theater teacher say [in response to the idea that actors should be able to cry on command], "If you don't cry, the audience will cry for you." I can sort of see in the wide shot, you have a bigger picture, and maybe the audience can get more from it.
What was your favorite episode to film?
I'm biased- episodes 6 and 9, which are both kind of my episodes. Episode 6 was a lot of fun because it was Donald's directorial debut for the show. He's great and super easy to work with, and the whole condom fiasco is so much fun. But then, I also really loved shooting episode 9 because the director who came in for that, Janicza Bravo, was so funny and so fun, and very specific about what she wanted which was different from Hiro [Murai] and Donald who are much more about feeling stuff out. She had a very specific vision. Being in that house, and the other actors who were there- it was a really ridiculous crazy fun experience, you felt like you were in a different world. It was fun to feel transported, I was really happy to have an episode of Van and Earn. I thought that was important to flesh out.