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Interview: Zazie Beetz (Van) about her breakthrough role on FX's 'Atlanta'

This was posted on Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Talk blog on Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Zazie Beetz's role Van on FX's "Atlanta" appeared limited in the early episodes as creator Donald Glover focused on his character Earn and his buddies Darius and Paper Boi.

She played the responsible one, his baby's mama, his good friend who occasionally let him sleep in her abode.

But episode six, which aired three weeks ago, is the first time we got to spend time with her away from Earn. She is the focal point, with Earn only on screen for a couple of minutes.

"It was sort of important for Donald to get let everyone have a voice, have an episode," Beetz said in a recent interview.

During that episode, she hangs with a friend Jayde who lives a glamorous life sleeping with athletes. They throw shade at each other's circumstances but then bond over some pot.

"I guess you shouldn't knock either of them," she said. "Her value of what's important lies in a totally different space from Van's. I really like how the two come together in the end."

But Van has a major problem: the next day, she has a drug test at her school where she's a teacher. So she goes through all sorts of contortions to get around the urine test, including squeezing urine from her daughter's diapers and sticking them in a condom to use for the test instead of her own. ("While we were shooting that scene, people kept saying it was like 'Breaking Bad.' ") In the end, she gets fired in a completely unexpected way.

"I was literally gasping as I was reading the script," Beetz said. "It was actually surprisingly hard to get that condom open. It's so funny. I don't use my right thumb because I had a thumb tack so the condom could bust open."

She also enjoyed hanging with a fellow female actress Aubin Wise, who played Jayde. "I actually suggested to Donald they bring her back and do an episode where she babysits [their daughter] Lottie. I'm usually the only woman ever around. It's nice to have another woman on set to bring some feminine energy."

Van will be back for more this Tuesday night in an episode where Van drags Earn to a Juneteenth Party, a celebration of the emancipation of African-American slaves in the Confederate South in 1865.

She is in need of a new teaching job and figures this is a good way to network since her friend is uber rich and the party is at a fabulous mansion.

This episode helps deepen our understanding of their relationship and why they remain close.

"He makes Van laugh," she said. "She makes him laugh. Earn is the only person that actually gets Van. And Van is the only person that gets Earn. They're both little pariahs within her community which allows them to understand each other. Earn is a determined to get his music thing going. It's too bad his energies aren't directed more toward the pressing things at hand like being with his family. He has potential. I see his drive. I just wish he didn't make me feel bad wishing that drive went toward us. I see the goodness in him even though he can be such a dick. They love each other. They do!"

She said she sees some of Glover in Earn "in his independence and desire to be independent he's like Earn. But he's a really nice guy. His energy is super calming, which to me was very therapeutic and healing. I was freaking out while shooting 'Atlanta.' I was full of anxiety. It was nice to have that grounding energy around."

Beetz, who lives in New York and grew up in Berlin, said except for her two months this spring has never been to Atlanta. "Everything was blossoming," she said. "It was beautiful. I left just as it was getting hot. It was a really nice time."

She was not at all surprised the show received a good reception from critics and viewers.

"I didn't really doubt it," she said. "I knew it was a good show. I'm glad to be on something I'm really proud of. I have friends who work on things to make money and don't necessarily feel good about it."


"Atlanta," 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.