Zazie Beetz Talks Being The Lone Woman On “Atlanta,” Street Harassment & Natural hair
I suspected from the commercial that aired after “The People vs. O.J.” that “Atlanta” might be a good show. But after I saw the character I would come to know as Vanessa, wake up next to her boyfriend, with a scarf on her head, I knew it would be.
The scarf was the authenticator that I needed. As I delved deeper and deeper into the season, I saw even more how real Zazie Beetz’s character was. She’s a young mother, raising a child with her on-again-off-again, sometimes boyfriend Earn, who needs to do a helluva lot better. (And to be fair, he is, on most days, trying to.) The show is centered around the male characters. But in the few moments where we witness Vanessa and her struggles, it’s clear that she’s more than ornamental. She has a life outside of waiting for Earn to bring some money into the house. And though the male characters get into enough sh*t to keep any viewer entertained and engaged, I often find myself wondering what Vanessa is doing with her day or at least what she would think if she knew what Earn was really doing out here.
I’ll keep watching to find out. But in the meantime, Bene Viera, for The Frisky chatted it up with the woman who brought Vanessa to life, Zazie Beetz about her role as the only woman, feminism, natural hair and street harassment in NYC.
Check out some of the highlights below.
You were the lead female character, but also one of the only female characters on the show. What was that like being part of the boys clubs?
ZB: I didn’t have a single scene with Brian or Keith [LaKeith Stanfield], so it really was only me and Donald. There were also other women on set. In the sixth episode, “Value,” with my friend Jayde who’s played by Aubin Wise, I kind of didn’t realize how much I missed acting with female energy until we had that. And we really got along. We clicked immediately. It was so fun working together. I feel really honored to have the role of the sole woman on the show. It also feels like a lot of pressure to try to embody as much as I can into one character, which you also have to be careful of because Van isn’t everybody. You can’t represent everyone. She’s one specific person with one specific experience. I don’t want people leaving this show like that doesn’t resonate with me at all.
“Value” was my favorite episode of the season. I liked the perspective on womanhood without picking sides on which one was right or wrong and then being able to see two black women love each other even though they have totally different lives.
ZB: I feel like stuff like that happens with a childhood friend that you used to connect with a lot then your entire situation changes. You of course love them and would drop stuff to be there for them. You understand this person on a deeper level. Even if you disagree with the kind of person they’ve become, you’re like ‘I feel like I know the real you. I know what’s underneath. I know where you hurt. I know what’s intelligent and great even if you’re not showing that right now.’ To be able to see through that is where the connection still lies. I guess I was just thinking of my own relationships that have changed that even if we’re totally different right now underneath it all, I have a lot of love.
One of the first things I tweeted about the show was that Van was taking her bantu knots out, which we’ve not really seen on TV. Have you struggled with whether or not you should straighten your hair for an audition, or if you didn’t get a gig because of your ‘fro?
ZB: Yeah. I think about that a lot actually. I have straightened my hair for a couple of auditions, although I don’t do it often. I do offer. A lot of people don’t have imagination [in this industry]. If you go in one way they don’t realize you can change what you look like so you do have to think strategically. The bantu knot thing is something Donald really wanted like having my hair wrapped up. That’s literally what I do every night. I braid my hair every night and my boyfriend goes to sleep and I stay up and braid my hair for 20 minutes.
I think natural hair is having a moment right now. My mom never let me straighten my hair growing up. It isn’t until the last five years that people were like, “Oh, I like your hair.” Before that never happened. Ever. Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” came out and the reason is because people literally touch your hair! Strangers touch your hair, random people on the street. I would feel something in my hair and I’m like ‘What’s in my hair?’ and it’s somebody’s hand. I think a lot about what role did I get or not get because of my hair. I have gotten things because of my hair like Atlanta. They loved that my hair was natural. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Curly hair is popular now, but I don’t think you will necessarily get casted as the lead in a Marvel movie with an afro.
Tell me about your upcoming film Slice.
ZB: I’m so excited. It comes out next summer. Chance the Rapper’s in it, Paul Scheer. It’s just such a good group of people. It was my first time really shooting something fun. Atlanta was fun, but it was more dramatic than this movie. I’m like kicking ass and doing stunts in this campy, totally different world. This is when you realize, “Oh, this is why big celebrities do kid movies.” This is not a kids movie, but it feels like it because it’s fun and to have the room to play. It feels like a comic book. I play Astrid; she’s a strong character.
Have you ever turned down a role?
ZB: I have. I’ve become more selective than I used to be because I want to do stuff that I feel good and proud about. I have no problems with nudity, but there needs to be a reason for it. I think nudity is great because I think my body is more than just a sexual thing and we all as human beings are naked. If art is depicting reality then it makes sense that sometimes you’re naked. I want to do nudity. I think it’s actually really empowering and beautiful, but I have turned down stuff where a character didn’t feel developed enough to warrant being nude or whatever sexuality was happening.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
ZB: Absolutely. I don’t understand, honestly, when women say they’re not feminists.
I don’t either!
ZB: I don’t even get it. Or when they’re like, “I’m not a feminist because I love my husband.” WHAT? That makes absolutely no sense to me. I 100% identify as a feminist. I’ll talk to my friends and ask are we closer to living in a post-racial or post-sexist society, and sometimes I think we’re closer to living in a post-racial than post-sexist society. I have no idea. This is something I feel about Atlanta that I like a lot — you’re just seeing people of color existing and the conversation isn’t always about “I’m black, I’m black, I’m black, I’m black.” Yeah, my every day is colored by this experience, but me as a woman and me as a woman of color I’m not 24/7 thinking about orange soda. You know what I mean? That’s such a weird way to put it. But I think about is my day to day experience colored more by me being a woman of color or by me being a woman. It oscillates.
I feel this daily reminder that I am nothing but a sexual object and a movement of power for many men just walking down the street. There’s no way to put unless you’ve experienced being hit on on the street every single fucking day of your life. People telling me to smile. Or the other day I was eating something and three men in one block were like like, “Oh, babe, can I have some? Can I have some?” I’m like why the fuck are you even talking to me. Of course it’s not about the food. It’s a power thing. People following you on the street. Literally at two in the morning. What is that? It’s an interesting, weird thing.
Street harassment in NYC is so bad and nobody but women care about it being an issue.
ZB: That’s what this election is saying. Trump has been talking in racist and sexist ways, but I don’t think the majority of the population who voted for him is racist and sexist. They’re hanging onto wanting to upturn the establishment. What is going on right now for some reason our entire country feels disenfranchised. Rural white America feels disenfranchised. People of color feel disenfranchised. Women feel disenfranchised. Why does everybody feel like they’re not being heard? That’s why Trump was elected because people felt like people weren’t listening to them. What’s scary is after Trump people started using his name as an excuse to attack immigrants and people of color and women. This isn’t new. All this stuff like the civil rights movement is living history so it’s something people have seen. My grandmother was like the first black bus driver in North Carolina. That’s in our living history. The year that my mother was born is the year that interracial marriage was legalized. How do we bridge this gap? How do we come together like I see you’re a person, you see I’m a person? I don’t know what to do
You can read Zazie’s full interview here.
Image via WENN