IN CONVERSATION WITH ZAZIE BEETZ
German-born, American actress Zazie Beetz is best known for her co-lead role FX Networks’ Golden Globe-winning series ‘Atlanta’. The show, which premiered its fourth and final season in September 2022, earned Zazie an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She is currently in production for the upcoming crime drama mini-series ‘Full Circle’, which will be available to stream on HBO Max in 2023.
Zazie, you were one of the lead stars in FX Networks’ award-winning series ‘Atlanta’, which just ended this November with its fourth and final season. What are your fondest memories of this long running series?
One of my fondest memories of shooting ‘Atlanta’ is definitely coming back together for season three. It was almost as senior year of school, first day of class, everybody coming back together and just being absolutely chaotic and fun and excited to begin this new thing, the final installment. But we all know each other and our friends and we were just silly and chatting and talking and we just couldn’t stop talking the whole day. And I feel like we were actually probably pretty disruptive on set cause we wouldn’t stop talking. And so that was fun, like friends coming together, friends having a good time and I was so excited to be doing the next two seasons together and that we get to put this show together. I loved coming back together after that long break and just relishing in each other’s company and work.
In ‘Atlanta’ you portrayed Vanessa, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and a mother, who often struggles with the pressure of raising her daughter. With portraying a mother to a daughter in this series, what’s your outlook on raising a daughter in this world nowadays, with everything happening around the world?
That is quite a profound question. I think a lot about being a mother, cause I want to be a mother and I’ve always wanted to be a mother since my first memories. It was something I always wanted, to have a family, so it’s on my mind quite often how I would raise a son or a daughter in this world. Particularly given my concerns around the climate and quality of life down the line. I think a lot about technology and how I would navigate that. Ultimately I think I’m quite simple in my thinkings of parenting. I think it’s about quality time spent together in person and I think the most significant and profound thing you can do is just be there for all of it. My dreams are to be with no technology and experiences over things and to connect with my children as full people and to take them seriously.
I’m very into the gentle parenting ways, which I think some people are trying to rebrand as intentional parenting versus gentle parenting. Just respect my children and treat them as equals with their thoughts and ideas and passions and opinions. They’re autonomous people who deserve as much respect as I do. And independence is huge for me, to allow them to have that confidence to do what they want to do in their lives and that they have the ability to pursue things, that they can be captains of their own lives. And a big thing for me to instill as early as possible is that you can cook for yourself, you can dress yourself, you can make decisions for yourself, obviously all within the parameters of what parenting allows and what children may or may not understand. I will encourage them to eat broccoli for example, because that is healthy versus having them just make cupcakes all day for themselves. I mean, I certainly have some parenting philosophies.
I’m very concerned about the tech element, but I think I’m just gonna try and lean in heavy on person to person interaction. That’s what I remember most. I remember me and my mom or me and my dad and all of our person to person interaction. That’s what stuck. So I hope I do that.
This summer you starred in ‘Bullet Train’, a film about a begrudging assassin who must battle fellow killers while riding a fictionalized version of the bullet train, alongside Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock amongst others. How does filming alongside such A-listers impact your work?
I don’t think filming alongside A-listers impacts my work in the moment or I try to not have it impact my work in the moment. Certainly there’s always an element of this person I’m working with has influenced my life, has perhaps made me interested in even taking this path that I’m on right now and who I respect and want to learn from. And watching somebody like Brad Pitt just be great at what they do, it makes so much sense why he’s so successful. He is just really talented. So I try and not sort of emotionally be impacted by working with these people, cause ultimately they’re people and also they want to be treated like people. And I don’t want to be any different or even too genuflecting cause that takes away from us being able to work together, honestly.
I don’t know if it impacts how people see me in my body of work, depending on who I’m working with. I’m sure every single decision I make has some kind of impact or no impact, but I really try to just focus on the content and if I’m interested in the content and if it’s maybe people I’ve worked with before as well and that’s a fun thing. I try not to focus too much on names as much as do I really find them talented and do I want to work with them and do I find the story interesting.
You’ve received quite some awards and nominations for your work. For your role of Vanessa in ‘Atlanta’ you were nominated for a Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. What do recognitions in the form of awards and nominations mean to you, personally and professionally?
I think awards are interesting because I really don’t know if you acknowledge the acknowledgement from others unless you feel in your own mind and body and head that you deserve it. And that’s something I’ve struggled with in the past, feeling like I don’t deserve things, maybe thinking I’m not good enough to be receiving awards. I think it all comes around to mindset around that. I also feel like a lot of awards can be somewhat politicized in terms of what needs to be nominated or not nominated, or what needs to win or not win. I don’t always think it’s based on talent. So yeah, I think obviously validation in work and to be seen and for somebody to even acknowledge that they appreciate your work is a wonderful, magnificent and humbling experience. But I also think there are still so many things that get puppeteered in those things that sometimes make you wonder in the back of your head, like did I really deserve this? Were there alternative reasons why I was maybe nominated or not, or why I won something or not? Or how much of this was my idea versus me just being a part of a show that’s great. I think it’s just complex. I wonder how I’ll feel down the line as my body of work grows and maybe I’ll make something where I’m like “Wow, I deserve the Oscar”. Maybe I’ll feel differently.
Last year, you starred as the infamous Stagecoach Mary in the first ever all-black American Western feature film ‘The Harder They Fall’ from Netflix. How has this change in more diversity and inclusivity changed the industry in your opinion?
I really do believe that 10 years ago my career wouldn’t have been possible. This industry has really been challenged to have more representation and to have more diverse casting in all kinds of projects. I just think about the trajectory of what I’ve done and how I think there’s so many projects that would’ve potentially not ever been made or would’ve never even considered me to be a character in it, just based on what I look like and my background. I don’t know if I would have a career, so I do think it has changed who has opportunities to work and not work and also to see that all kinds of stories, both people from marginalized groups or women can be relevant for everybody.
And that wasn’t really the default thinking initially. It’s really cool for me to see so much more representation in terms of stories of young black girls, young weird black girls, young black girls trying to figure it out in the world, who have my hair texture, who look like me, who have a similar experience to me. And while I can relate to all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds, it is special for everybody to have somebody that really has traversed a similar path in many other ways, to look at them and to see those stories. I think about even the period pieces. When I was younger I loved them and I really assumed I’ll never be a part of that. It’s really cool to have that changed and to feel like I can make period pieces. That’s a part of our industry now. It’s something very specific, but I think there are a lot of different examples of that.
In 2019 you starred in the Academy Award-winning psychological thriller ‘Joker’, alongside Joaquin Phoenix. How was it being on set with this iconic actor? What did you learn from them?
In ‘Joker’ I really learned to always try to really seek the truth in a scene, figure out what is true. I know Joaquin was always asking himself that or asking all of us together what is the truth in this scene, which I thought was interesting, to always come back to that kind of fundamental question in order to inform how to work this scene, how to figure out how to figure out a scene and then also just to really play. I feel like Joaquin just played and tried all these different things out all the time. And I think for me, I’ve been trying to do that more and it just makes the whole experience more fun and you really run into much more interesting choices, which is important to keep it fresh, keep it real, surprise yourself, surprise everyone.
You are currently in production on ‘Full Circle’, an upcoming drama mini-series, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Tell us more about this project, that is coming out in 2023?
Yes, I am in HBO’s ‘Full Circle’ with Steven Soderbergh who is directing. I’ve had an opportunity to work with him before, so it’s been fun to do that again. It’s about a rich New York family and it follows an investigation into a kidnapping gone awry, with long-held secrets being revealed. It’s like a crime drama kind of.
Zazie, you were born in Germany and are fluent in German. But besides that, you have a Bachelor’s degree in French. Why do you think it is important to have knowledge and be fluent in many different languages? Which is a language that you would like to learn next?
It’s a huge passion of mine in my life. I just love to travel and love exploring culture and customs and different ways of being and thinking and just seeing the full context of humans and how we are and who we are. I love it so much. I love trying cultural foods and seeing history and art. And for me, language is the deepest way to understand and be with people. If you don’t know the language you will always have a barrier and I think it’s just such a cool way to embed yourself in other cultures. I just love to travel and I love to see the absolute colorful variety that humans express themselves in. So I love languages so much. I have on and off been trying to learn Arabic since college and I would love to learn Japanese, but I have so many lingual interests. Those have been on my mind recently though more than others.
You’ve also spent a year living in Paris. How does life in European cities compare to living in the States?
I love Europe and European cities so much. I think I love the age of European cities in comparison to American cities and I think there are benefits and cons to each. The United States has its own special energy as does every country in Europe, but I just love that in Europe you can feel how old it is in terms of structures that you see and art that you see and the way the cities are built. It just feels profound to really be able to see. Obviously humans have been everywhere, all over the world for thousands of years, but it’s just cool to see the evidence of it in front of you, to see a structure that has been there for over a thousand years or to see the evidence that we are, we’ve been here and we’ve always been the same. We have the same desires and longings and feelings and all of our ideas are on repeat. We are inherently who we are and it’s just comforting to me to see that. So I just aesthetically am into it.
I think culturally depending obviously on where you are, how politics work, how all kinds of stuff works, Europe feels a little bit more relaxed to me in certain ways than the United States does. I think in the US we’re quite boisterous and that’s by design and sometimes it can be a lot. Sometimes I just feel calmer in Europe in a way that I don’t always feel at home. That being said, I’m a New York girl and I love me some New York.
And I’ve realized in general, any city that’s walkable, I tend to adore. So I love Chicago, I love New York, I love Paris, I love London, I love Berlin. And I struggle with cities where you can’t walk, so don’t love LA for example. I’m sorry LA, but I just feel so stranded when I’m there. Due to design, I think a lot of European cities are a bit more walkable than the cities in the United States are. We’re a bit more dependent on cars than some other places are.
What’s next for you in your career, besides the projects we mentioned?
Me and my partner, David Rysdahl, who’s also an actor and a writer, have been trying to develop and produce. That’s been really interesting to do, to kind of make and write stories from the ground up, to take scripts that have been sent to us and try to build worlds around that. I would hope to try and get some of those things off the ground. We have sort of multiple projects in the pipeline, TV shows, movies, even some documentary stuff, that we would love to make finally. You would be shocked to know how long it takes to get stuff made. It takes forever and then some things just come together in six seconds. So we are patiently, but diligently trying to create our stories.
So to really produce and to have something made that we have produced is totally what I see for myself in the future. I’d also love to direct down the line. I think it’s a natural progression for actors to eventually do that because it tickles a whole other part of my creative self. And the storytelling element, I am really into building worlds. Right now I build the world of a person and a character, but I’d like to build more than just that. So hopefully that’s in my future.
interview by JANA LETONJA
photography RACHELL SMITH
styling RAZ MARTINEZ
market/styling assistant GRACE CONNAUGHTON
hair LACY REDWAY – Unilever Global Hiarcare brand ambassador
makeup TYRON MACHHAUSEN @ The Wall Group using CHANEL
nails AJA WALTON @ See Management using ESSIE
photography assistants KATE WHELAN & GRACE PUFFER
editor TIMI LETONJA