Zazie Beetz hops out of a yellow cab and right into the mosh pit of late-afternoon Manhattan traffic. She bobs from side to side, like an athlete on the field, waiting for her moment to run across two lanes. The moment comes, a split second in which the universe seems to have momentarily suspended all the cars in place, like fat globules in water, just long enough for her to slide through and dart to the other side. Seconds after she makes it, an ambulance — the first of several that will hurtle down Amsterdam Avenue as we speak on this February afternoon — zooms by. A difference of approximately two seconds, and I would have just watched Zazie Beetz, 26, get hit by a truck.
Instead, Beetz greets me with a hug, and we walk into the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a sugar-scented hangout for Columbia students and local octogenarians. She orders a Celestial Seasonings herbal tea and receives very kind, solicitous service.
“They’re usually not this nice here!” Beetz says as we settle into a table outside. She lives in the neighborhood and grew up around here, so she can point out where the albino peacock lives (the Cathedral of St. John the Divine), and often hangs out at Hungarian Pastry, where she blends in easily among the grad students — especially today, in a laundry-day ensemble of brown Carhartt overalls and a rust-colored hoodie. Maybe, I suggest, the waitress’s friendliness has something to do with Beetz’s energy — a ridiculous opening line, but I can talk like this with someone who wonders, on Instagram, whether she should visit a psychic — and how the calming, peaceful vibes she’s putting out into the universe are clearly being rewarded by traffic and café staff alike.
“Oh, thank you!” Beetz replies. She’s pleased I noticed, though not surprised. In the last couple years of incipient fame, with major roles in FX’s Atlanta and Netflix’s Easy (plus a not-yet-released but well-teased Deadpool sequel), she recognizes the reputation she’s begun to establish for herself as “strong” and “earthen,” with a grounding energy. “It’s a big thing for me, embracing and nurturing calm,” she says.
At this point in my Zazie Beetz experience, the evidence seems to support all that: Even though she’s only 26, she speaks with the wisdom and thoughtfulness of someone a decade or two older. She’s been known to veer into conversational tangents about the oneness of her body, mind, and the Earth. On Instagram, between pictures of her friends and her long-term boyfriend, there are shots of her doing Tai Chi, or showing the totality of process and product it takes to get her hair the way she wants it, or providing instructions for how to make huge jars of homemade body butter at 4 a.m. with ingredients you just have around the house. “The body butter! It’s so easy!” she says, and launches into a detailed explanation of how I, too, could do it at home.
Somewhere in between a discussion of which oils to use and how best to combine them, a pastry chef nearby fires up the loudest dough mixer on the planet. Beetz seems unbothered by the chu-clank-chu-clank-chu-clank, and by the beefy baker who’s yelling over his ancient baking equipment: She barely even pauses, raising her voice just slightly so I can hear her assurances that, yes, the body butter will maintain its whipped consistency.
On Atlanta — the second season of which premieres tonight — Beetz provides a similarly grounding presence, albeit one that has less to do with DIY self-care and more with the hard realities of young adulthood. The show follows an aimless Princeton dropout, Earn — played by creator Donald Glover — who’s managing his cousin’s rap career while trying to make enough of a living to take care of his daughter and prove himself to his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Van (that’s Beetz’s character). It’s not quite a comedy, not quite a drama, and combines hyperspecific storytelling about the lives of black men (honed by an all-black writers room) with heady moments of magical realism (e.g., the black Justin Bieber the show introduces and never discusses again).
While filming the first season, Beetz remembers asking creator and star Donald Glover what demographic he wanted to reach. “And he sat there for a second and thought about it,” she recalls. “And he was like, ‘You know what? I really want young black boys who like camping to watch this show.’ It made perfect sense. He’s a fucking nerd.”
Sometimes it’s frustrating that the audience usually only sees Van through Earn’s eyes: She’s his girlfriend, his keeper, the only woman on the show and therefore the designated emotional laborer, the nagging force of every creative sadboy’s nightmares. Van is the one who pulls Earn toward responsibility and stability, out of bad decisions and mislaid schemes and back into the real world. Which is one reason it was so satisfying when Van finally got an episode all her own: “Value” (episode six of season one) was 25 minutes of just Van — having dinner with an old friend, smoking pot, losing her job. It was one of the best episodes of the whole season, and made me want an entire spinoff series just about Van and her life.
“She’s not the funny one,” explains Beetz. “She’s grounded. Like, all this other surreal, weird shit is happening to him, and she’s the thing that’s bringing him back and being like, you got a kid. You know?” Beetz pauses. She’s squinting at a far-off point past my left shoulder while she slowly turns her feelings into thoughts and into sentences. It’s actually a relief to not make eye contact — her gaze is intense.
“That’s how I decided who she was — and me,” Beetz concludes. “She’s the Earth.”
An ambulance, two police cars, and a red Camry blasting Rick James from open windows all whiz by on Amsterdam Avenue, the noise reaching ear-bleed decibels. Meanwhile, Beetz continues to discuss empathy, unfazed. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m having tea with actual Buddha: In the face of the close-range sidewalk chaos, she remains unflappably Zen. Already she’s missed a teen on a scooter who almost took out an octogenarian enjoying a bag of cream puffs. As she’s describing a childhood spent partially in Europe — “We’d take a couple of weeks to just drive to Italy or the Czech Republic. We would just go all over, and I think that has given me a lot of empathy” — a bird sideswipes my head.
“I — Are you okay?” She asks — she’s noticed my facial expression, though she didn’t notice the bird. “I picked such a noisy spot, huh?”
Beetz was born in Berlin but moved to New York in kindergarten. Her father is white and German, and her mother a black New Yorker, who wanted her daughter to grow up seeing other people who looked like her. Though the family lived in Washington Heights, Beetz spent a couple of months of every summer in Germany with her grandparents. She attributes her ability to look at politics from both sides (and her liberal attitude toward nudity) to those summers abroad, and also to the double-consciousness she experiences as someone who identifies as both a German woman and a black woman.
Her earth-mother pragmatism she attributes to her actual mother, a social worker who supervised programs for victims of domestic violence, among other things. “She’s grounded and she’s calm, but she’s objective. I can come to her about anything and she sees it from all sides, and she’s very gentle with it. I like that part of my mom,” she says, playing with her hair. Beetz’s hair is a point of pride, as it should be: It has the physical structure of meringue, and as she talks, she absentmindedly rearranges the peaks in different directions.
At Harlem School of the Arts and La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, she focused on acting, before going to Skidmore and studying French. When she graduated in 2013, she immediately started auditioning, and, in 2015, she tried out for Van. Later, after she’d gotten the part, she heard that Glover had been watching her audition tape when one of his friends happened to walk by: “She was like, ‘I identify with that girl,’ and then kept walking. So maybe I have her to thank.”
Van isn’t given a ton of backstory in the first season — well, nobody is — but Beetz and Glover spent a lot of time talking about who Van was, where she came from, and how she and Earn wound up together.
“Oh, tell me!” I demand.
“Okay.” She laughs and looks at the sky with a coy smile, like we’re friends at brunch the morning after.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” an elderly Hungarian man interrupts. “Do you mind if I sit here?” He’s gesturing to the café table directly next to ours.
“Of course,” Beetz says. The man and his wife proceed to sit entirely too close, and begin to chatter loudly (or maybe argue) in Hungarian. Beetz keeps on going, though her voice is occasionally drowned out by the passionate Hungarians. “We were just, like, at a club, vibing each other, and then, you know, we were like, Oh, okay, we could hang out. So we’re kind of hanging out, right? Hanging out with each other, like, also sexually. And so we were together a couple of months, maybe. And then, whoops, I got pregnant. We’re still trying to get to know one another, and we’re not sure if we’d actually be together more than casually.” All of which makes sense, even if it doesn’t bode well for the couple’s future.
Beetz often worries about how the show presents Van — about whether this character she so closely identifies with is just seen as a girlfriend, or a mother, or if the character is perceived as a whole person. “The show is about black male ego and she’s always referred to in the context of Earn,” she says. “I’m not always seeing me being a woman.” She takes a beat. “I always kind of wonder, what did [Glover] specifically envision for Van, right?”
At the end of the first season, Glover asked Beetz what she wanted for Van in the second season. Beetz made a list, a long list, of what she wanted to dive into — Van’s family, where she came from, how she spends her days when she’s not with Earn, her relationship to white women, to black women — and gave it to Glover. This season promises more of Van’s life, beyond the context of Earn.
While the show explores many kinds of blackness, Beetz also worries about what Van’s called upon to represent. “I just feel like I’m among so many black women’s stories, right? She is one of them, and I am one of them.” Beetz pauses. “Growing up I definitely, definitely had a bunch of things of, Um, am I black enough? — and I guess specifically, Am I German enough?” She laughs. “Why are we measuring blackness?”
She remembers a lunch break in middle school when someone turned on a song — she’s forgotten which one, but she still remembers how she felt. “Everybody got up and started doing this dance, and I didn’t know it. I was like ‘Oh my god!’” From that day on, she says, for a year or so after, she’d go home and watch BET. “I thought, I need to learn about myself. I’m much more comfortable with things now; I’m just trying to stay real. It’s harder, I think, than people realize.”
Recently, she says, she’s been trying to talk more openly about her struggles with anxiety. “It’s actually like my favorite thing to talk about! I was talking to Donald about this he was like, ‘Oh, I never thought that that would be something that you struggled with.’ And I was like, ‘Ugh, it’s my favorite thing to talk about’ — for hours and hours and days and days and days. It’s, like, my favorite word is ‘I’m triggered!’”
And so we talk about it — interrupted by the loud Hungarians only a few times. She tells me how, days before she was supposed to leave for Atlanta to film Atlanta, she had a panic attack so scary she thought she was going to die. She thinks it had to do with fear of failure. Then, after filming wrapped, she was hit with an episode of anxiety so severe it completely flipped her life upside down. She’s changed a lot of things: She doesn’t have caffeine, she stopped drinking alcohol, and life feels more manageable thanks to breathing exercises, among other things.
Beetz is in a good place right now, she says. “The way I talked about it before I had a big old meltdown was very different than how I talk about it now. My understanding is very different, and my empathy has just, like, bloomed. My heart has just grown so much since that experience.”
It helps Beetz to know that even if she fails — filming the second season of Atlanta is the first time she felt like she wouldn’t get fired — she still has the love of her family and her friends and her boyfriend, so what’s the worst that can happen? Besides, she’s secretly always wanted to be a doula.
She goes on to describe what she imagines it would be like, holding her hands out like she’s catching an imaginary baby from an imaginary birth canal. “I just feel like [babies] are born knowing so much,” she says with a huge, huge smile, beaming with her eyes closed while a woman sitting next to us starts vigorously shooing a flock of crumb-hungry birds. Beetz remains beatific, thinking about that fresh-out-of-the-oven baby she just helped birth.
So if all else fails, there’s that.
But first, she’ll continue to give acting a chance. This summer, Beetz appears in Deadpool 2, opposite Ryan Reynolds. It’s the kind of big-budget superhero comic-book franchise that guarantees Beetz will be everywhere for a while — red carpets, Comic Cons, all of that. She’s portraying Domino, a mercenary anti-hero who works alongside Reynolds. In the original comics, Domino is white, doesn’t have an Afro, and doesn’t have armpit hair (as far as we can tell). Beetz made the decision that Domino will have both of those things. “Why would she care if she had armpit hair! I doubled down on the aspect that Domino is unapologetic. I grew out my armpit hair and just kept it” — and showed it off on Instagram — “I think that’s important for black women: don’t be apologetic.”
In the few months before the movie’s June release, Beetz is savoring her last few moments of being able to sit, unbothered, even amid city chaos, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. “It will definitely change my life. Are these, like, the last couple of months where I can just hang out? I’m sort of mourning that,” she says, thinking about family time in the neighborhood and seeing movies at the AMC on 68th and Broadway with her boyfriend.
The human-bird showdown next to us escalates, and the woman starts hitting birds with her black puffy jacket, sending little sparrows in our direction. Beetz’s eyes snap to attention and she starts laughing, finally sensing the insanity that had been erupting around her for the past few hours.
“Oh my God! What is going on today?”