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Atlanta: Zazie Beetz talks her breakout episode, being directed by Donald Glover

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FX

Up until now, FX’s Atlanta has largely focused on the men at the center of its story: the penniless Earn (Donald Glover), his burgeoning rapper cousin Alfred Miles (a.k.a. Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry), and their friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). However, now it’s time for the critically acclaimed comedy to turn its eye toward the show’s lead female character. 

Tuesday’s episode, titled “Value,” is an episode that’s entirely focused on Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn’s best friend and the mother of his child. The half-hour, directed by series creator Glover, follows Van as she reconnects with a friend and deals with a problem in her professional life — and it’s Beetz’s breakout episode on the show. 

2016 has been big a year for Beetz. In addition to Atlanta, she also starred on Netflix’s Easy and in Wolves, an independent film by Bart Freundlich that screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. “That movie was the thing that allowed me to fully transition into acting,” she tells EW. “Atlanta and Easy, along with a couple of other projects, have definitely allowed me to sustain this lifestyle of just doing my craft, which is such a big gift.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s show, EW chatted with Beetz about her big episode, having Glover as a director, and what she’s loved most about working on Atlanta

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Atlanta and Easythis must be really exciting time for you. How are you handling it all?

ZAZIE BEETZ: I’m feeling good, I guess. A lot of my close family and friends were warning me to be careful about my social media because things are going to change. I was like, “Ah, things aren’t going to change.” They kept pushing it, and as I predicted it, things didn’t really change that much. I have more Instagram followers and stuff like that, but nothing out of my realm of management. I just got some free food from a friend and I was really happy that it was free, so things haven’t changed that much, [except for] in terms of definitely opportunities opening up: getting offered roles I don’t audition for and having access to much bigger projects that I’m not allowed to talk about. But insecurity still exists. I actually just watched the sixth episode [“Value”]. I thought parts I did well and parts I did really badly. So that doesn’t really go away, but I think the show is great and I’m really proud to be on the show. I’m glad I can really say that I feel like I’m part of something good. 

What was your audition for Atlanta like? 

Oh my god, it was so quick. I had an audition, and I don’t even really know if I knew [what I was auditioning for], because you go on so many. I know this is the worst thing to say, but I actually thought I did a bad job. I kind of put it aside, and three weeks later, I got a call about doing a screen test for it. For the screen test, I really prepared — not that I didn’t prepare for the other one, but I really tried to put in my work and did research. Then later that same night, I found out I had booked it. Usually for big things like that, it’s audition after audition after audition, so I was surprised at how fast it was. 

After booking the role, did you ever tell Donald you thought you bombed your audition and ask him why he chose you? 

I don’t know if I’ve actually ever told him that, but I did hear a story that he was watching one of my tapes and a friend of his walked by, a woman, and she caught a glimpse of my tape, pointed at the screen and said, “I relate with her,” and then just kept walking. And he was like, “Oh, okay.” So in terms of my discovery story, I guess his friend discovered me. 

You’ve already seen this episode. What did you enjoy about it? 

The first half of the episode is pretty interesting. I think it’s hard to pull off a scene that’s only seated and between two people, and I feel like a lot of it comes from Aubin [Wise], the woman who plays Jayde, and I really genuinely clicking. That energy comes through in a way. Even though we met once or twice before, there was a familiarity there. It’s also a big part of how it’s cut and stuff like that. I felt good about that initial half. 

Then, the second half: I sometimes feel like I self-sabotage. If I’m afraid of something, I’ll kind of dim my light and won’t approach it or will avoid it. I sometimes feel that in the episode where I’m like, Oh, I could’ve pushed more here. I could’ve done more here, or I didn’t read that correctly. I felt like I blew out my candle here and there because I was afraid to succeed or do better. Ira Glass has a quote, which I’m totally going to butcher, where he says: Almost all artists go into art because you have good taste and you can recognize what’s a beautiful dance or what’s a beautiful piece of writing. But when you first go into it, your ability isn’t as good as your taste yet and you can recognize that your performing isn’t there yet. So you have to continue to push through that before you can get to the point of your work matching your taste. I try to keep that in my head. I also feel like I’m showing this to the world and I hope the world doesn’t think this is the best I can do. I can do better, and I want to do better. I’m young, so it gives me opportunity to grow. 

FX

When I spoke to Donald for our Fall TV Preview issue, he said he viewed this episode as kind of being about Van figuring out who she can trust and who has her back. Do you agree with that description? 

Yes, I guess in saying that it does make sense. I saw this as her time to let go, and where she dares to be herself, but then you get shocked back into her actual reality of like, Oh, she has other responsibilities and other things that some people just don’t help her out with. It’s an explanation as to why she maybe seems ornery, and it’s because she isn’t allowed an opportunity to just be herself, which Earn kind of has all the time. I felt like it was this explanatory background episode that explained she wants to be all these things, she wants to do all these things, but she has to cater to these other responsibilities because nobody else is there to help her, really. Beneath it all, she has desires and spirit and she has laughter, but she has to put that in a place where she has to continue to survive, in a way.

This episode was also Donald’s first time directing. How was he as a director? 

Oh, he’s so loosey-goosey. He was great. He got what he wanted and moved on, and it was really fun. At that point, we had already shot a few things, so we already had known each other a little bit better. It was great to see that other side and get closer to him in that way because I think he was also feeling a little vulnerable, as this was the first episode he was directing and was [on] his show, which is just so much his baby. We [felt] vulnerable together in a way, which was nice. 

What do you love about playing a character like Van? 

I really want to be a mom, so that’s a big, very superficial connection to the role. But what I liked was that I think there was this emphasis on not only playing her angry, and giving her reason for why she would potentially feel like she’s perpetually between a rock and a hard place, and that’s all earned and deserved. She’s a full person. I struggled because Atlanta is being billed as a comedy [and] I don’t really identify as a comedian. At home in my room I’m funny, but if I’m commissioned to be that, I don’t feel very funny. I had to come to peace with Van being a grounded person of the earth and that I should just stay true to that. 

Was it a stretch for you play a mother? How did you go about getting into that mindset? 

No, it’s so much easier to act with a kid because they actually react to you and they’re actually being honest and you’re actually reacting to them because you have to take care of them immediately. I also have a little brother, his name is Justin and he’s nine and was born when I was 15, and a big portion of my income coming into adulthood was babysitting. So it’s nothing that’s foreign to me and I’m very comfortable around children — babies in particular. It’s fascinating working with young children. You have to improvise around them and they’re moving around and doing stuff and you have to be real with them. You have to catch her before she, like, falls out of the bed. That will interrupt a scene, but that just adds reality to a scene. 

Looking back on this first season, what did you enjoy most about working on this show? 

Connecting with people. When it premiered, we had this after-party. With a lot of those things, they’re very industry-led and it can be difficult to navigate who is genuinely interested in my character and who is trying to get a job out of me. It was kind of a weird night. It was fun, but it was weird. I remember at the end of the night before I was leaving — I was there with my boyfriend — I went up to Donald and really thanked him for this opportunity. [Laughs] Now I’m getting really emotional, because it wasn’t really just about thanking, but his energy and his spirit is so calming and fruitful and I really felt that from him. To build that kind of connection, I felt really fortunate to have had the opportunity to do that creatively and personally. I was crying, but I do that all the time. Connecting is my favorite part. 

Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.