In Atlanta, Zazie Beetz is beloved for her groundedness — she keeps it all together, her future planned out. But in real life, Zazie is looking for room to do more. To feel more. To be vulnerable, to give in to uncertainty. In her return to Atlanta, back after a two-year hiatus, as well as in her roles in Marvel’s Deadpool and Netflix’s Black western The Harder They Fall, Beetz’s storytelling is both nuanced and elevated. “I do think when we first started the show, I was so shy and afraid. But I’ve leaned into the fear,” Beetz tells Zola star Taylour Paige in conversation for the Cut’s April cover. “I think because acting is always — honestly, it’s quite terrifying for me, and it’s this balance of pain and the ecstasy of creativity.”
When Beetz spoke with Paige last week, right after the premiere of Atlanta’s third season (its fourth will be the last), she said, with a sigh of relief, “I just feel sort of very light and breezy. In some ways Atlanta is not ours anymore. Now it belongs to the world, and let’s just be on that wave.”
Unlike most actresses in her position, who might book ten movies and try to capitalize on this moment, Beetz has decided instead to slow down and take stock of her purpose. In the past, Beetz has been referred to as “a rising star” and “someone to watch.” For us at the Cut, she’s simply someone we want to be friends with — she’s chasing excellence and nothing less, all while being steadfastly committed to being herself.
Beetz and Paige sat down to talk about life outside Hollywood, Black hair, coming into your own, and how they’re both attempting to be more vulnerable.
Taylour Paige: Everyone’s obsessed with Atlanta, so we have to start there — can’t believe it’s ending next season.
Zazie Beetz: We knew when we were shooting that it was going to be the end. And so we were able to be very introspective about that and reflect on it. And I think because we knew it was going to be over, all of our relationships deepened profoundly, and we were all more confident, and so we were all more willing to go there. It was tearful at the end, which was very special and felt sacred.
And now I just feel sort of very light and breezy. In some ways, it’s not ours anymore. Now it belongs to the world, and let’s just be on that wave. And I feel much lighter with this premiere thing than I usually feel, and I’m not quite sure why, but I do.
Taylour: You’re growing up, you’re leaning into who you are, and you know you’re worthy of all the things.
Zazie: It is so nice. I don’t know if you feel this way, but the more I’ve leaned into the fear, because acting is always — honestly, it’s quite terrifying for me and it’s this balance of pain and the ecstasy of creativity. I have a friend who once told me as long as it’s 51 percent curiosity, then you’re good. And I really do feel like the older I get, and particularly in the last year after turning 30, there’s this mental shift that happens. I’ve just felt so much lighter and more confident. Do you feel like you’ve had that experience, too?
Taylour: Oh my God, big time. It’s a different kind of ease and not feeling as rushed and feeling more available to what’s coming, and now it’s like, when things miss me, I’m like, Oh, that’s someone else’s prayer. Something else must be on the way.
Zazie: Yes. I also understand that I’m privileged enough where I have opportunities that come my way, and so it’s maybe easier to feel like, “All right, the next thing.” But I mean, for you, I haven’t really had the experience of really headlining a movie and being a true lead, and I’m sure going through the whole journey of Zola must have been an incredible sort of high.
Taylour: It was incredible in a lot of ways, but it was the little engine that could and kind of heartbreaking because we shot it and then there was the pandemic and then it came out while we’re still in the pandemic. No one was really going to the theater. We didn’t get billboards. We didn’t get to have a real premiere. We didn’t get to do all those things. But as long as you last in this industry, if you can last, keep your spirit up enough to last, you’ll keep going.
Zazie: All of these things unfold over time. Even on our press tour this time around, we all grew up a bit in terms of literally people having children, people experiencing loss and deep loss of parents and close family. Of course, it was still in the middle of the pandemic. We were very isolated because we were all in Europe and we couldn’t bring our partners or any of our family members with us. We really only had each other, and we really leaned into each other. And then also, through growing up a little bit, there was more of an optimism; when you have offspring and you want to create hope in the world, it changes your storytelling, and I think that’ll be also reflected in season three and season four.
This press experience though, we all agreed, “Let’s just enjoy it.” We don’t have to be contrarian like, “Fuck critics,” you know what I mean? Who cares? I think it could be joyful. Why not? Why not?
Taylour: I know, but I love you saying that. Like, yes. We tend to all collectively in the world think of all the many ways that things could go wrong, but we never are like, But what if it all could go right?
Zazie: Yeah, why is it not, I guess, cool to be in bliss? Is radical joy radical?
Taylour: What if something is right? What if, for once, things are just working out for you? Which they are.
Zazie: Yeah, and to trust has made it more fun. Because of our relationships just having deepened and really being intentional about, like, “Let’s become friends.” It makes this whole process a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Taylour: That’s the real work, and that’s the real reward. Did anything change this season in the process of making and developing Van and incorporating parts of yourself into the role?
Zazie: Atlanta, because it’s made by Black people, all the characters are essentially people they’ve had in their lives, right? And I think of Donald and Steven just writing about the Black women in their lives. And I remember season one, when it came out, people questioned the relationship that Van and Earn had. And Donald was like, “This is the relationship my aunt had with my uncle.” A lot of the things that do feel absurd in the show are based quite literally in reality and understanding.
And so Van comes from that part of their lives originally, but as we’ve all been sort of growing together in this show, I think they’ve started to piece in parts of my life and who I am. I also don’t think Van is a reflection of all Black women. A lot of what she goes through is actually a lot of what Donald has gone through. She’s very part of him, too, especially the season-three arc. I see a lot of mirroring of some of my experience but also some of Donald’s experiences as a parent, as somebody like all of us searching for identity. And so, yes, it’s made by Black people and for Black people, but I really do believe it’s very much a human show.
Taylour: Through the lens of the Black experience but universal.
Zazie: We’re all Van!
Taylour: I’m you, you’re me, we’re her, she’s us. Back to you: You grew up mostly in New York, but your dad and his family are all German, right? How do you think your experience of Blackness in America is shaped by growing up between the two?
Zazie: My dad lives in the United States, but his family doesn’t speak any English. I visit very regularly, and I spent a lot of time there. I feel very Black, very American, but then I also do feel very German because my dad is a very German person and I’m very close with him. But going to Germany, I definitely also did feel like an “other” because it’s quite a homogenous country. People are often quite quizzical about, “Well, where did you get your language skills from, and why are they good?” And I did often feel that part of my identity challenged in a way. Versus in the United States, which I am very grateful for — that I was raised in a place where I had people around that did look like me.
Europe has had a different relationship with race just because of the history and the difference between slavery and colonialism and what that is. The Black community in the U.S. has been a lot more like, “We are talking about this.” I actually think a lot of the events of 2020 have begun to introduce more and more conversations in France or in the U.K. around Black identity. They’re starting to sort of reckoning with it now.
Taylour: Did you at all think about how people would view you or see you in this role because of your identity?
Zazie: We shot the pilot right after I turned 25. It was my fourth professional job, so I felt quite timid about my own expression. The costume designer for the first season wanted Van to have this fun, boho energy, and then for hair, they had Philanise West and Shaneika Terry do my hair, who made me feel so lucky.
When I started auditioning for roles, for whatever procedurals and stuff, I was told to restrain my hair, to tighten it or do something. And I tried to do that, but I just was so not used to it. I didn’t really know how, and so I kind of just gave up and waited for someone to book me with how I look.
Taylour: It’s so powerful, though, seeing someone like you on television. Kids get to see that and go, Oh, I actually want to wear my hair like her, I want to leave it alone.
Zazie: I applied for a job when I was 19, and I remember my friend brought me there because she was working there already. And I went in for the interview and I just had my hair kind of out and I interviewed with this guy and then I left and my friend told me he was like, “Does she like her hair? Does she think that’s cool? It looks so weird.” It’s literally how it grows out of my head.
Taylour: You’ve expanded some feelings, girl. You’ve expanded the conversation and given people something to look at.
Zazie: That being said though, I still totally battle with wanting length.
Taylour: The shrinkage is real!
Zazie: I want to toss my hair in the wind and flip it over my shoulder and whatnot. I’m like, Damn it’s blowing, but only the little tendrils and whatnot. Even in our beauty and in our strength and even in the validation, why is there still that desire?
Taylour: I think it’s associated with the privilege of ease. To be able to just wake up and go. And I know for me, I grew up with a Black mother who is Creole, and I think that colonialism and white supremacy have done a number on everyone’s consciousness. I remember my southern family being like, “Oh yeah, she has wash-and-go hair” and that was regarded as better. If you’re lighter, your hair is wash and go. Because basically it probably means you’re mixed in there, which means you’re not going to have as hard of a time as your brown cousin; also known as me, or even my other cousins who are even darker. It all boils down to white supremacy.
Zazie: I wish I could just wake up and go, but then I think, Why can’t we wake up and go? What is there to be concerned about?
Taylour: The crazy thing is you can. Where are so many things you can just do without even thinking: You can dance, you can sing, you can just light up a room. It’s just that society always has this way of twisting things. It’s all fascinating. It’s all silly. And you zoom out of the planet and you’re looking down like, Who gives a fuck?
Zazie: Exactly. All of these things are constructed and can also be actively broken down.
Between now and ten years ago, there are so many more champions of what our beauty is or what our worth is. I remember in college I saw this article online, and it was the first woman who had natural hair on Victoria’s Secret runway show. And she just had a little Afro, and I remember I started sobbing, and I didn’t even realize … I was searching for corporate validation of my beauty? I was shocked at my own reaction. You don’t even know you need it until you see it.
Taylour: Especially as Black women, we’re constantly taking in the world around us, internalizing, empathizing, and filling in the blanks for understanding. And still, with this magical resilience, just somehow, this is how it has to be, so here I go. Did you feel like you could be your full self in all the roles you’ve played?
Zazie: It is very hard to inject vulnerability, and it’s something I’m trying to get away from in terms of playing women that are grounded and Earth-like. In my own life, internally, there is turmoil and there is a lot that also doesn’t feel grounded — that’s the energy I must put into the world. I definitely think that’s how the industry is viewing me, as “She’s strong, and she can fight for herself and her rights,” and then also that translates into “She can actually fight in an action movie” or something. I get a lot of action-strong and She’s cool under pressure. I was talking with a friend recently: “But I feel like I’m a vulnerable person. I feel like I’m open.” She’s like, “Are you though? You share stuff, but are you actually vulnerable?”
Taylour: To analyze what is vulnerability and what is that expression in your own life is deep internal work. But it’s probably because you’ve had to wear that to go through the world. There probably is a protective shield so you don’t fucking break as a person, as an artist. Being able to be a working actress period is a lot. What is it, 0.0001 percent chance? And you happen to be this star, this beautiful star; that’s a lot of pressure, and there probably is a bit of a protective shield.
I think of you as a fairy. We’re both air signs and we’re flighty and we’re fickle and we’re fun. We do have a lightness to us. But with lightness, I know I can speak for myself, there is heaviness. There’s a lot of overthinking. There’s a lot of pain and turmoil.
Zazie: There’s a bit of flightiness, too. I can sometimes have this commitment thing of not wanting to get locked down, tethered down by anything at all, And as an artist, our job is to emote. Everything is on your sleeve, and you’re just a bleeding heart, and that’s where I think also the stereotypes of diva actors or people who are crazy on set come from. When you think about it, to be so open and just pull … To be bleeding out in front of hundreds of people that you don’t know is exhausting. And I don’t say that to ever condone inappropriate or disrespectful behavior, but I just think it’s interesting to think about.
It’s either that, or you have to protect it. I have also dealt with deep anxiety that has crippled me at times, where I cannot work, I cannot function because I’m just so consumed. And my motto in those moments has always been to represent calm for myself and for others. In times when I’ve wanted the warm blanket of somebody’s embrace or kindness, I want to be that for other people.
Taylour: I do think Black women, even most recently with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson — they’re all saying she’s all emotional, but Ted Cruz is looking like a buffoon. And with Brett Kavanaugh, when he became emotional, people were like, “Oh, he feels bad.” And it’s seen differently and shows the double standard. How do you have to keep it together, because otherwise, you’re gaslit: “Oh, you’re such an angry Black woman. Oh, you’re so emotional. Oh, you’re so sensitive.” The amount of internalizing and compartmentalizing and keeping it together, just so that people actually can hear what you have to say, is exhausting.
Zazie: In our line of work, I often think, it’s so much Will there ever be a room for Black women to be goofy or something? I think shows like Insecure are profound in that way. It does feel rare to see that lightness depicted.
Taylour: Or to be a multitude of things. To be able to be silly and grounded. Why, if we’re so diverse, there are obviously so many women living inside of us. You’re not just one thing. You probably today have been five different things before you even got on this call.
Zazie: I’m so curious: How do you feel like the industry sees you? What do you get calls for?
Taylour: I don’t know what the industry thinks of me right now. I think that I just have this thing with myself. I want to live a colorful life. I’m just trying to do different things because it’s fun. I don’t know if it’s childhood, because I couldn’t sit still or pay attention, and I was far less smart than my brother, that people thought I had nothing to offer, and that’s one insecurity I have. I now have this confidence in articulating and wanting to use what I have to tell stories that matter to me.
Zazie: That’s exactly why me and my partner, David, have a production company, Sleepy Poppy, and we are developing stuff. We’re writing and reading scripts, and I’m just interested in, as a woman, the female experience in the world and being able to hold multiple identities at once. A lot of times, for women, intelligence and sexuality can be considered to be mutually exclusive. I just want to challenge that and explore the gray areas.
Taylour: See, you look at you, breaking the expectation of you only being able to present one way of feeling like you’re expected to. You’re amazing.
Listen to the latest installment of In Her Shoes, in which Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner speaks with Beetz about the new season of Atlanta, how she approaches new roles, and experiencing self-doubt: