25-year-old Zazie Beetz made waves over the summer playing Van, Donald Glover's chracter's ex and mother of his child on FX's hit show Atlanta. Her new movie Wolves, directed by Bart Freundlich, just got released and tells the story of the destruction of a prep-school basketball player (Taylor John Smith). Zazie plays the basketball player's girlfriend, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant — and gets an abortion. This year has been a whirlwind of success for the up and coming actress, and she talks to us about her rise to fame, her battle with anxiety and the female forces that have helped guide her through it all.
You are from Germany originally. How was growing up?
I’m half German, half American. When I was a year old, I moved to New York permanently, which is where my mom is from. But, I speak German at home with my dad, who’s the only member of his family who moved to the United States, so every year I go visit my family in Berlin. I spent two or three months with my grandparents there every year, and I am very close to them. So I feel like I grew up in the States, with Germany sprinkled throughout. And I feel very lucky that I was able to have both.
Because of that background, have you considered performing in German or European films?
My dad is always pushing me in that direction. But actually, I think my opportunities are far greater here than they would be in Germany specifically. Because it’s a very homogenous country and the roles I’d be going out for would be much more niche and specific, and much smaller. The default there is definitely white German. So, I think I would be quite consistently be cast as a foreigner or an anomaly. I’m not saying that I don’t get cast as “alternative” here, or for roles that are geared towards white people and they’re like, “oh, maybe she can do that too,” but it would be much more so the case in Germany. I have more room for interesting roles and various opportunities here than there. But I did learn French in college, and that option would be more viable there than in Germany, because they have a much more diverse country. But I’m sure the success that I’m experiencing right now will expand what I can do abroad, and that would be ideal for me; whether it’s in an American film or a foreign film. But I am relatively starting out here, so we’ll see where it goes.
And your 'rise' can be mainly attributed to your work on Atlanta, which not only got a lot of buzz before coming out, but was quite extolled across the board. Usually, there is a lot of debate surrounding a hot new TV show, but this one seems to have swept everyone up.
That was my experience of it, too. I was expecting a more nuanced and niche audience, almost like a bit of a cult following. I really liked the show and FX was so supportive and so enthusiastic, but I was surprised in terms of the reach of demographic that we’ve been getting. And when people approach me on the street about it, they’re all kinds of ages and all kinds of races and they are all super-intelligent, so, it seems like we reached a really cool group of people. I was somewhat surprised about how much it took off. I mean, I knew that Donald had a huge pull, and he’s very intelligent and funny. So, based on him, I knew we would have some popularity within a group of people, but I didn’t expect this. It’s really nice to be a part of something that is widely liked.
And your new film, Wolves that was just released. Did you film that before or after Atlanta?
I filmed Wolves right before Atlanta. Wolves was the movie that allowed me to quit my day job. I got the job on Atlanta while filming Wolves, so that was wild.
So you had no idea what was in store?
I knew that I was going to work with a great group of people, but I had no idea we would be winning awards.
What was your day job?
The usual. I worked as server in New York. I worked at Grey Dog for a while, and right before Wolves I was at Café Mogador.
I love that place!
It was a tough job. And it is crazy that I made more working on one week of Atlanta than a year for six days a week at my job. So you ask yourself, “Was that time less worthy than this time?” and it’s weird. But I genuinely enjoy serving, and I didn’t mind doing that but it is very exhausting if you’re trying to audition and then make it to work on time.
The characters you play on Atlanta and Wolves are totally different. One is a young single mother, and the other is a teenager going through an abortion, but they are similar in that you still play a strong, knowing, woman. But those require such different life experiences, so what was that like for you, being as they were shot in such proximity? And how do you feel about being able to be cast as a mother and a high school student?
I still go out for high-school roles, and I don’t know if I look like that, but I guess I can pull that off. But I think it’s lovely to be able to play both things, and both those desires of being a mother and being an adolescent. Last year, I struggled a lot with identity, depression, and anxiety, and I think that had a lot to do with letting go of adolescent and coming into myself more as a woman, and that narrative might be closer to a high-schooler but also a young mother, so that was an easy connection for me. But I did have the experience of being a high-school girl and have not been a mother. But, I had to research how it is to be a high shool girl that get’s an abortion.
What was that process like?
I am totally pro-choice and I know women who have had abortions, so I pulled a lot from that. It’s an incredibly difficult position. A friend of mine was in that position even though she had a loving boyfriend and we were in our twenties, but she decided to abort and it was really traumatic and took her a long time to recover from. A similar thing happened again to her later, and it’s really difficult if you don’t have a support system. But a lot of it to me is; are you pro-life or are you pro-fetus? Because some politicians talk about how abortion shouldn’t even be an option in cases of rape and incest, and in that case you are not supporting the actual human being, you’re supporting this zygote, and you can protect it while it’s inside the mother’s womb, but as soon as it’s born, you stop caring about it? The same party that doesn’t support abortions also doesn’t support welfare programs and programs that help people out with bad situations. That doesn’t make sense to me. Are you really pro-life or not? But I do understand that if you truly believe that you are killing a baby, how do you not fight for that? I get it. But I do think you need to think about what comes after, and it’s such a gray area.
What other female guiding forces have you turned to?
My mother is the strongest woman I know. She is so open to receiving. And everyone who knows her calls her in crisis because her objectivity is so great. But I also gather a lot from the wisdom of my grandmothers. Last year when I was struggling, both of them gave me insight on anxiety and I find that very beautiful and empowering, when we open each other up as opposed to shushing each other down. But in terms of my craft, I really respect Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. They are all fantastic actors. Also Erykah Badu and Jill Scott!
What are you hoping to see in the future?
For myself or for the world?
I just got out of the aftermath of a terrifying experience with depression and anxiety, and it completely changed me as a human being and I just came up from drowning and I feel this freedom and lightness that I haven’t felt in years, so internally I am in a very hopeful place and I feel that in the people around me. Even though the world is in chaos, it feels like we’ve hit rock bottom, and now people are picking up the pieces and rising again. I would continue to search for patience and love of self. But, for the world, I think there has to be more listening going on. The only way to overcome the disconnect in our country is to meet one another.
Wolves is in theaters and On Demand now.
Photos by Adhat Campos
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