Zazie Beetz and I have a lot in common. We both graduated from the same high school as Timothée Chalamet and Nicki Minaj (LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York City). We are both Black female artists with German sides of our families. And we both want to be on the right side of history when it comes to climate justice. (“For the Earth, we have to sacrifice a couple of conveniences so we can live in more harmony,” she says.)
But unlike me, the Emmy nominee is turning traditional television on its head as Vanessa “Van” Keifer, former teacher and baby mama to Earn (played by Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino) in FX’s Atlanta. The show’s season 3 finale airs tonight, but throughout the past few episodes, Van has navigated mental health struggles, career pitfalls, and relationship drama all at the same time.
Beetz recently sat down with ELLE.com via Zoom to remind us—with her natural, unapologetic air—to have faith in our future and trust that things will work out in the end. She also shared what it’s like to work on a revolutionary show such as Atlanta, how her perception of Hollywood fame has changed, and her fascination with motherhood along the way too.
The genre of Atlanta can’t really be pinned down. Blending comedy, drama, and even horror, the show is commonly referred to as “surreal.” What was it like being a part of this genre-bending show and how did you tap into the story?
This show has continued to grow and expand and challenge its own genre and tone. Going into it, I was really just focused on [my character] Van and her arc and was not trying to adhere to any tone. It was interesting to see and watch how it was all pieced together in the end. And see how much of a curated piece it became.
I know Donald has been calling season 3 “The Maximalist Season,” which I agree with. Especially with the things that are still to come in the following episodes. Leaning into that has been really fun. I loved playing with Van this season especially because she is in a different place and is exploring new parts of herself.
How was co-starring and collaborating with Donald Glover? Has it informed the way you approach the entertainment industry?
Donald [Glover] maneuvers within the music, film, and TV industries with very little apology. He presents who he is in such a full way and isn’t afraid to go for it. I was talking with him and he was telling me about the various businesses he’s trying to open and work on. It’s cool to see someone whose mind is so expanded in a way that mine isn’t all the time. His is more in a place of leaning in and betting on yourself. Donald does a good job of really maximizing everything. His health, his family, his work. I admire that. I also want to believe that all of the interests I have can be indulged and that I can think beyond what I even imagined for myself.
Some conversations in Atlanta seemed unscripted. Were there any scenes from this season that were fully improvised?
The best pieces have improvisation. It’s sprinkled through the whole thing. All the plot points are scripted, but Donald and the writers aren’t particularly precious about the words, which I really love. Something can look good on a page but then you say it out loud for the first time and it doesn’t work, so you have to figure things out on the fly.
We certainly improvise to smooth out text or to make it feel right or drop in punch lines or transitions you can sort of trail off. It gives you more freedom and allows you to really feel the scenes and see what is actually coming up and allow that to come out.
Your dad is German and your mom is African-American. My mom is half African American and half Swedish-American. I also have a fully German grandfather. How has being biracial influenced you as an actress?
When you’re biracial you’re often painted as half-half, but I feel whole-whole. My entire life is through this perspective, and all of our individual identities impact every aspect of our lives. So it’s interesting hearing talk about being partly this and partly that because I just feel like a full mix.
I am a Black woman. That’s how I traverse the world. That’s how I look and how people see me. I may not look German, but when my dad and I spend time together, 90 percent of our conversation is in German. Besides him, his entire family doesn’t speak any English at all. So when I spend time with them, which is not infrequent, there is all German culture.
As an actress, I am really drawn to stories about navigating two cultural identities from any background. There is a universal experience of juggling two identities that anyone from mixed descent experiences. So I can bond about that with people from any background who have a half-this-half-that experience.
You’re an alumni of NYC’s LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, where I graduated from as well! What experiences from the “FAME” school still stick with you today?
Community! LaGuardia connects you with a young group of people who are just interested in art. But these are the next generation of creators. As you graduate and you start doing things and maybe you do things for free with each other, a community is formed. And that ends up being the foundation and the building blocks of what you end up doing later on.
There are some opportunities that were the very first stepping stones into my career that had I not had this high school community, they may not have happened. And because we invested in each other in time and relationship and trust, we now can build even more.
So I learned to invest in the people directly around you. Not feeling the need to punch up but to be with the people in your community. Those are the people that are going to grow with you at the same time. It’s so interesting to me to see people 10 years later doing this really cool thing and it’s like oh, ten years ago, we were just broke doing this thing for free! That’s a cool transformation to see.
What advice would you give to your high school self?
Take more chances. There are a lot of things I wish I would have tried out more earnestly. I wish I had inoculated myself earlier to know that it’s okay to fail. It’s ok to try something and not be good. I think I was often safe because I was worried about failing. I still carry that with me to this day. I can still get buckled up by fear. But now I feel like the stakes are higher. In high school, you might feel like the stakes are really high, but they’re not. In 20 years, maybe I will look back at myself now and still think I should have just gone for it. But you don’t just grow out of fear. You have to embrace it and move through it.
Did you have an ah-hah moment that made you think, “Wow! I can really do this. I can be an actress and be successful”?
I never had an ah-hah moment; I just had faith in my future. My whole life, for whatever reason, I just always thought things were going to work out. I never doubted that whatever path I chose; it would somehow just work out.
I studied French in college and purposely didn’t choose a conservatory program because I have a lot of other interests I wanted to engage in. When I graduated from college, I had been acting for so long just for fun, never for money. I performed in my community throughout school. So by the time I graduated I just thought, wow I really love this, why not give it a try?
I felt like wherever this lands, it lands. And if it doesn’t head in a direction I’m super thrilled with, life is long and I’m going to do something else. I went into it loosely and without a very specific expectation. My ultimate goal was simply just to pay my bills by only acting. And I actually reached my goal! So everything I accomplish now is just for fun.
You said previously that if you weren’t an actress, you’d be a midwife. What drew you to that and how do you think we can better support women to fully thrive?
Since I was very young I had a strong calling of wanting to be a mother. I always felt and knew that was right for me and something I wanted to do. Birth is one of the very few things we have in our life that is very common but is this massive undertaking.
We truly brush death’s shoulder as we introduce life into the world. There is something spiritually profound about that. You touch the universe. You give birth to something that is untouched. When I look at newborn babies, they have this mystery in them. There is this connection to—I’m not religious so I don’t want to say God—but a connection to nature and mysticism that we all feel in our bodies. It’s such a pure essence.
I love women and I love what the female body can do. I advocate for the freedom of choice and want to protect women’s health and women’s rights. I know someone who is an abortion doula, and it’s fascinating to choose to support someone through that transition. Midwifery is something I am very passionate about and could talk about for hours.
You have done a lot of work raising awareness about climate change too. Are you hopeful that we will succeed in building a more sustainable future or are we cutting it too close to apocalypse?
I do think there is hope. Ultimately because our planet and nature have been through so much. We have gone through massive shifts and mass extinctions. Nature as an entity will carry on, whether it’s with or without us.
I would rather be a part of the story of transformation. There is a lot of innovation happening. The coming generation, Gen Z, is a lot more aware and a lot more in tune with the need to modify behavior that the previous generations just weren’t.
That’s the beauty of humanity, we’re innovative, and we are smart. That’s our thing, we are smart. So we can figure it out.
Sometimes the mistake is thinking technology is going to fix our issues when I really do believe it will be a shift in behavior and we will have to sacrifice a bit. But you know, if you hold something dear to you, you will sacrifice for anything you love. For the Earth, we have to sacrifice a couple of conveniences so we can live in more harmony.
What would you like to see in the future of film and television?
I would like to see things that embrace our true humanity, which is messy, complicated, and isn’t logical. The industry is undergoing a massive shift in general right now. Real Hollywood stars are less of a thing than they were before because the term “fame” has shifted and accessibility has shifted.
Twenty, thirty years ago, mystery is what kept the Hollywood secret alive. Now, what people are able to share on their own terms, that mystery is being unveiled, which is good, but it changes how we interact with celebrities of our time.
Because of social media, more different kinds of people can tell stories. You see more diversity of storytelling because people can just publish something online and people can watch it. But overall I’m less focused on the future and more on what I am doing now.
What projects are you most looking forward to working on?
Me and my partner David are writing and developing stuff. It’s really empowering to write the stories you really want to be in. You always get scripts that every now and then, something will hit all of the points that are important to you. But most of the time that’s not always the case. It’s amazing to be able to do that yourself. To give birth to something and raise it through development. I’m really excited for these stories.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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