Zazie Beetz: Atlanta In Brooklyn

Jan 27, 2017
Originally published on July 21, 2017 7:30 am

"I'm really happy to be a part of something I'm proud of, 'cause that's not always the case!" actress Zazie Beetz told host Ophira Eisenberg on the Bell House stage. Beetz plays Vanessa on the FX television series Atlanta, which follows a group of characters trying to make it in the rap music industry. Vanessa plays the only female character, the single mother of the main character's child.

After just one season, the show has garnered major acclaim, garnering a Golden Globe for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy, as well as an award for Donald Glover for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy. Despite winning as a comedy, Atlanta is surprisingly hard to categorize. Beetz told Eisenberg that at the show's pre-screening last year, the audience was "cracking up," but the premiere night, the reaction was more somber. "I feel that sort of dual experience watching it ... when I watch it on my own, I don't laugh that much. I'm a head-nodding place."

How to account for the strong reactions to the show? Beetz attributes this to a few things. "I think Donald Glover is a huge draw." She continued, "And I think it's a little deeper...It's sort of an education on a culture a lot of people don't see. You have sort of this one picture of maybe what black life in America looks like, but this shows the nuance within that."

Born in Berlin, Beetz has spoken German since she was a child. However, she told Eisenberg that her knowledge of Germany is a little lacking. "I talk to my grandpa and my grandma...So I'm a little culturally out of tune," she said. In honour of Zazie's German heritage, we decided to have her identify German customs and cultural phenomena based on their name.


On how celebrities get drunk at the Golden Globes

They're pretty... boyfriend and I went. I was sober, and everyone was reaching that point and so we were like "Meh...let's go home and like make out."

On who she'd like to portray in a biopic

Josephine Baker would be so fun. But I have to also say that Billie Holiday...I play her music when I am feeling emotions...Because I feel like she gets it.

Heard on Zazie Beetz: Atlanta In Brooklyn

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru John Chaneski. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Soon we'll find out which of our contestants, Evan or Laurie, will be today's big winner. But first it's time to welcome our special guest. She plays Vanessa on the FX show "Atlanta." Please welcome Zazie Beetz.




BEETZ: Yeah, thank you so much for having me here.

EISENBERG: And congratulations, "Atlanta" won so many Golden Globes.

BEETZ: Yeah, two.


BEETZ: Two of them (laughter).

EISENBERG: How drunk are people really at the Golden Globes?

BEETZ: They're pretty wasted (laughter).


BEETZ: Yeah. People are - there is a time where you can eat food, but it's only, like, from 4:00 to 4:45. And a bunch of people are kind of coming in and doing photos, so they just miss that window. But alcohol is served all night, all the time and given to you for free.


BEETZ: And then the parties - the Golden Globes are known to be the - like, the fun award.


BEETZ: And there's, like, a bunch of parties. My boyfriend and I went. I don't really drink. And so I was sober and everybody was reaching that point.


BEETZ: And so we were like, let's go home and, like, make out.


BEETZ: So - yeah.

EISENBERG: So your character, Van, is a single mom wondering if her baby's father is going to make it as a rapper's manager. And, you know, for those of you who haven't seen "Atlanta," it's actually kind of a difficult series to describe because it's billed as a comedy.

BEETZ: Yeah.

EISENBERG: But it really captures the day-to-day life of a group of characters who live in Atlanta. Now, you said yourself that you don't really see it as a comedy.

BEETZ: Yeah, no, I don't. I mean, I think that's what's interesting. We had, like, one prescreening before it premiered and that audience was just, like, cracking up kind of, like, laughing. And then the actual premiere was, like, kind of silent and...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's chilling.

BEETZ: So - yeah. So - but I feel that, like, sort of dual experience watching it. And, like, when I watch it on my own, I don't laugh much and I kind of - I'm more, like, in a head nodding place. And...

EISENBERG: So then you're watching it like a real comedian, by the way, if you just watch it and nod your head and you're like, funny. You know, that's...


BEETZ: Life sucks.


BEETZ: You know, it's, like, very surprising that in the first season it's gotten so much traction and so much love, and particularly at the Golden Globes because that's, like, a foreign Hollywood thing...


BEETZ: ...And it's such an American show and very specific, niched American. And so that it sort of received...

EISENBERG: Attention like that.

BEETZ: ...Attention is interesting, yeah.

EISENBERG: So I know why I think it did. But from your point of view, why do you think it did? Do you think it's the performances? Do you think it's the - what these characters' lives are? What do you think it is that is attracting people so strongly in its first season?

BEETZ: I think Donald is a big attraction.

EISENBERG: Yeah, Donald Glover.

BEETZ: Donald Glover. And I think it's a little different than a lot of American television. And maybe this reads as a little bit more...

EISENBERG: Like it's deeper.

BEETZ: Like it's deeper and it's sort of an education on a culture that a lot of people maybe don't see the - like, the minutia of their every day. And you have sort of this one picture of maybe what black life in America looks like, but this kind of shows a nuance...


BEETZ: ...Within that.

EISENBERG: And in sort of a naturalistic style, right?

BEETZ: Yeah. Yeah, in, like, a very beautiful - I mean, I think it's gorgeous to watch. And I'm really happy to be a part of something that I'm actually proud of...


BEETZ: ...Because that's not always the case.

EISENBERG: So if you - it's not always the case. I understand.

BEETZ: I think also, like, when I watch movies I just critique them a lot more. And, you know, I feel with music I'm much more forgiving and like, oh, you know, he just said something bad about women. Whatever. But, like, in movies...


BEETZ: ...I feel - (laughter) I feel a lot more - this is my medium. I am responsible. I see what you did wrong.


BEETZ: But I think I'm much more picky in my, like - I can't do laugh tracks. I cannot.

EISENBERG: Right. Now, season two - what are you hoping to see from your character? I imagine that you have not seen where your character is going, right?

BEETZ: No, I have no idea. I know they've started writing. Donald called me one day and was like, what are your ideas, you know...


BEETZ: ...For season two and stuff? And so I, like, sent him this long thing of, you know, this should happen, this should happen. I would actually love to see more women on the show.


BEETZ: Like, one of my favorite episodes to shoot was the one where I spent time with, like, her friend. And I really bonded with the woman who - Aubin Wise, who plays Eliza in "Hamilton" in Chicago. She's fantastic.

EISENBERG: And she plays Jayde on the show.

BEETZ: She plays Jayde, yeah, in the show. And we just had - we just connected. And it was very nice to have female energy. Not that there isn't in the crew, but, like, to work with that was just lovely. And I would love to have, you know - for myself that'd be really nice.

EISENBERG: Was Donald open to having more female talent on the show?

BEETZ: Yeah. I mean, he was just like, great ideas, so I don't know.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK.


EISENBERG: Hopefully. Who knows? You said if you - in an alternate universe, if you weren't an actor you would be a midwife.

BEETZ: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Why is that?

BEETZ: I love babies. I also have this very deep desire to become a mother. I always thought that motherhood was my highest calling. Oh, my God, it makes me emotional (laughter). I just think it's beautiful (laughter). So...

EISENBERG: You can have my kid.


BEETZ: I know. I know I romanticize. I have a 10-year-old brother, too. And so I, like, know how much it can suck.


BEETZ: But, like, I just feel so influenced by that. And I just love women. And so - and I'm a feminist. And I love saying that. And so I don't know. I feel like all of - like, that's all within that, you know...

EISENBERG: Yeah. Who is your dream to portray in a biopic if you could?

BEETZ: Oh, my God. Billie Holiday or Josephine Baker.


BEETZ: I think Josephine Baker would be so fun. But I have to also say Billie is someone I - I play her music when I am having emotions because I feel like she gets it.

EISENBERG: Yeah. She gets it.

BEETZ: And I feel very, like - this - you got it.

EISENBERG: (Laughter). Yeah. The tragedy...

BEETZ: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Dealing with all kinds of tragedies.

BEETZ: Yeah.

EISENBERG: OK. Zazie, speaking of nontragedies, we have a very ridiculous and fun ASK ME ANOTHER challenge for you.


EISENBERG: Are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

BEETZ: Yeah, I am (laughter).

EISENBERG: All right. Excellent. Zazie Beetz, everybody.


EISENBERG: Zazie, you speak German and spent your childhood summers in Germany. So the next game is perfect for you. Jonathan and I will name a German custom or cultural phenomenon. And then we'll give you two possible definitions for what it could be. You tell us which definition is correct.

BEETZ: OK (laughter).

EISENBERG: All right? And if you get enough right, you get an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube.

BEETZ: Oh, cool.


BEETZ: OK (laughter).

COULTON: It's worth it.

EISENBERG: All right. So how great is your German? How would you say?

BEETZ: It's...

EISENBERG: It's perfect.

BEETZ: Yeah (laughter).

EISENBERG: All right. Can you just give us a little bit just so we know that...

BEETZ: (Speaking German).


BEETZ: (Laughter).


EISENBERG: OK. So here is your first German custom or cultural phenomenon. Tell us which of the two possible definitions is the right one for it. What is griebenschmalz? Is it a spread for crackers or bread made of pork lard and cracklins, or is it a word for when you're annoyed at someone for being sad?

BEETZ: It's a spread.

EISENBERG: That's right. It is a spread. Yes.

BEETZ: (Laughter).


COULTON: What is Topfschlagen?

BEETZ: Topfschlagen.

COULTON: Is it a soccer move popularized in Munich where you headbutt the ball to a teammate, who also headbutts the ball, or is it a game where a blindfolded child tries to hit a metal pot with a wooden spoon?

BEETZ: I'm not very versed in soccer. But based on the word, I would say the wooden-spoon thing.

COULTON: That is correct.



BEETZ: It means pot hitting.

COULTON: Pot hitting.

EISENBERG: Topfschlagen.

BEETZ: Very...

COULTON: Seems like a cruel game.

BEETZ: (Laughter).

COULTON: You put a blindfold on the child. And then he tries to hit a pot with a spoon?

BEETZ: They just hit a pot.


BEETZ: That was me until I was 10.


EISENBERG: OK. How about - what is polterabend? Is it A, a tradition where you break a bunch of stuff in front of a bride's house the night before her wedding, or is it a graphic 1963 German horror film banned in the U.S. under obscenity laws?

BEETZ: I think it's a bride thing. Is it that?

EISENBERG: Yeah, it is.

BEETZ: Yeah. Yeah.



BEETZ: Do you know about this tradition?

BEETZ: I know about the tradition. I just wasn't totally sure what it was called. But isn't there kind of like a thing here where you do that?

EISENBERG: Smash people's stuff before they get married?

BEETZ: Yeah.


EISENBERG: I mean, only if they owe you money.


BEETZ: Maybe not.

EISENBERG: I'm not aware of such custom. It's a little aggressive, right?

BEETZ: Yeah.


COULTON: Some of those dishes are perfectly good. I don't know why...



COULTON: What is a schultute? Gifts given to a child on the first day of school, perhaps to make them feel better about having to go to school, or a horn blown by a teacher to indicate that recess is over?

BEETZ: It's the gifts.

COULTON: It is the gifts. You're right.

BEETZ: Although - and I don't know if this is just Berlin. It's usually called a zuckertute, which means a sugar bag. And what they do for, like, the 6-year-olds - they have a huge cone - I guess, like, a cornucopia thing...


BEETZ: ...And just fill it with candy for the first day.

EISENBERG: Like kinder eggs?

BEETZ: Like kinder eggs? Yeah.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. I like this.

BEETZ: And, like, Haribo - like Gummy Bears - stuff like that. And it's, like, the big thing.

EISENBERG: OK. What is "Schlag den Raab?" Is it a - one of the steps in making sauerkraut, or is it a television show where contestants compete against a German comedian in challenges such as go-karting, badminton and trivia?

BEETZ: Wow. Is it the sauerkraut one?

EISENBERG: No, I'm sorry.

BEETZ: It's the other one.

EISENBERG: "Schlag den Raab" is - there's a comedian named Stefan Raab.

BEETZ: Oh, OK. Yeah, I get it.

EISENBERG: And German - he's a German comedian. And...


BEETZ: I get it. I got it. All right (laughter).

EISENBERG: Do you know the comedian Stefan Raab?

BEETZ: I feel like I know him. I have to say I'm, like - I, like, talk to my grandma and my grandpa. So I'm a little, like, culturally out of tune.

EISENBERG: Right. Right.


EISENBERG: Do you know much about joke telling in German?

BEETZ: I have, like, one joke.

EISENBERG: Yeah, what is it?

BEETZ: It's a bit of a long-form joke.

EISENBERG: Are you going to tell it in German?

BEETZ: Oh. You want me to tell it in English. OK.

EISENBERG: Well, I don't know.


BEETZ: OK. So there's a Prussian...


EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah. OK.

COULTON: Ah, Prussian joke.

BEETZ: (Laughter).


EISENBERG: Zazie, you did great. You win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. Zazie Beetz stars in the show "Atlanta" on FX. Let's hear it one more time for Zazie Beetz, everybody.


COULTON: (Singing in foreign language).


EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton, everybody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.