Spoilers ahead for episode six of Atlanta.
Throughout its first season, FX's Atlanta has mostly been seen through the eyes of men, but this week, the show shifted the perspective to its lone woman. In its first stand-alone episode — and Donald Glover's directorial debut — Atlanta put the focus on Van, the mother of Earn's young daughter and the woman with whom he hopes to build a relationship. "Value" finally showed us what Van wants.
Unsurprisingly, she gets a bitter reminder of life's difficulties after getting high with her bougie frenemy, Jayde, who's returned home ever so briefly to pass judgement on Van's choices. Though Jayde's athlete-funded lifestyle affords no immediate consequence, the repercussions of Van's carefree night aren't so easily fixed, as we learn when she gets fired from her teaching job after a drug-test fiasco. Vulture talked to Zazie Beetz — who also stars on Netflix's Easy — about her big episode, the pressure of being Atlanta's only woman, black love, and why seeing her do her hair on TV matters.
How much of Van's story did you know going into the role? Early on, it seemed like she might be a “baby mama” stereotype.
I didn’t get an episode to read, so I auditioned with the scene in the pilot where she and Earn are in bed together. You’d be surprised, I don’t think I got scripts for the season until two weeks before we started shooting. They didn’t tell me anything about the arc or anything. But one big thing that the casting director, Alexa Fogel, emphasized from the get-go was that they didn’t want Van to be an Angry Black Woman. That was my only real indicator into who they wanted her to be.
Who did you want her to be?
I also didn’t want her to be the Angry Black Woman. That was important to me. It’s an honor but also a lot of pressure to be the only sort of representation of women on this show. There are so many different kinds of men, then you’re offered this one version of a woman. I wanted all the things that she worries about to be validated — that she’s not crazy, she’s just searching for the support that she expects. I think it’s also important to remember that this story’s being told through the eyes of a black man. That’s Donald’s perspective and it needs to be respected. Of course, it’d be great if there were more women, if even just to act with. I realized in this week’s episode with Aubin [Wise], who plays Van's friend, that it was so fun to have another woman on set! I’ve pushed for her to have another episode and maybe babysit Lottie. [Laughs.] I really enjoyed having female energy. But that’s not really what the show’s about, so you have to respect the niche and what story it's telling.
Did you and Aubin improvise that dinner scene ? The flow felt like such a natural conversation between two black women butting heads.
There wasn’t really much improvising, but it was fun to shoot! And it’s almost half the episode, I think it was written down as maybe 10 to 12 pages. Initially, we ran through the whole scene a few times and didn’t really break it up into chunks. In film or TV, usually you’re doing one or two pages; it’s not like theater. So I had to memorize and have the whole thing fully prepared to work through. It was so unusual. We did a whole day of that and it just found a flow. We decided that Jayde and Van were best friends back in the day, she was my girl, but then our lives just changed. This is also the only episode where you get to see Van let go. She wants more things than to just be working and providing for her child, but you see that she can’t do that because she has no fallback. Earn doesn’t offer her that opportunity, ever.
Van is a great representation of a single mom. She doesn’t want to be defined by motherhood, but she’s not ashamed of it. I don’t think she’s interested in having Jayde’s lifestyle either.
Jayde judges her, but her value system is just totally different. I resonate with that. I’m still young, but I really want to be a mom. I love my independence and freedom, I value it a lot, but I understand that my highest being, my most meaningful desire, and what will make me the best person is motherhood. That’s my romanticized version of that. With Earn, outwardly, he’s not totally supportive. Van is cultivating fatherhood for him. But I think she can also see deeper than what’s there. He’s an intelligent person and they can also get along. That’s something that comes in a later episode — Van and Earn choose love over conflict. It’s important to see that Van and Earn can work.
What's their backstory?
We thought that maybe Van and Earn ran in similar circles, but didn’t really know each other that well for quite awhile. Then, at a club, they started hanging out, and super-quick after that, they got pregnant. So they never had an opportunity to feel each other out or date, to make it work outside a huge responsibility. I think the contention comes from not really knowing each other.
Do you think Van is settling with Earn, like Jayde says?
Earn’s an asshole. But I also think — and maybe this my bias of knowing Donald — if he wanted to, he could do better. He’s doing that with music. The universe has offered them this opportunity to make it work, because they have a child, and I’m not mad at Van for trying. And when he’s there, he’s a good dad, but his mind is scattered. Van has that feeling of, "If I’m not the one who remembers to buy toilet paper, it’s never gonna be bought." That’s an exhausting position to be in and it’s perpetual for Van. "Yes, I can tell you to go buy toilet paper, but I would prefer if you could just do it on your own." But they both have room to grow. She doesn’t take his passion seriously; it shouldn’t be ridiculed to want to pursue music. And he should just step up more and not judge her frustration.
How was Donald as a first-time director?
Super-chill, I was actually surprised. I think he was kind of nervous, but it’s funny working with different people who have very distinct styles. He was very relaxed and moved along quickly. It was the best, low stress. And we were all so comfortable with each other because we’d already been working together.
I imagine you needed to feel comfortable to get through those later scenes. What did they use for the urine in the condom?
I think it was some sort of sports drink equivalent. Honestly, cutting open the diapers was pretty gross. That shit is nasty. But the condom scene was fun. I noticed this when I was watching, but I’m not really using my right thumb to open the condom. It’s because I had a thumbtack on it that I needed to use to pop the condom instead of biting it, which they CGI’d out. I was so nervous to shoot that scene! I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sell the surprise and the effort of trying to get that condom open.
It’s funny and heartbreaking that she’s ultimately punished for having one night off.
And that’s the point. She gets punished, and then what? They have nothing to fall back on, which is why she’s always on edge. It informs so much of why she’s upset Earn can’t pay for anything. She’s not rich! And if she runs out of money, they run out of money. It’s important for the audience to see why she’s always asking him for rent.
One of the reasons why black people appreciate Atlanta is its attention to the details of everyday black life. Seeing Van wrap her hair at night and take out her twists in the morning is a very real part of being black. Was it refreshing to get to show that?
Definitely. That scene is the biggest thing that black women mention to me and it was actually Donald’s idea. He pushed for that. I love it because it’s the routine. I wear my hair naturally and every single night I put my hair in braids. My boyfriend and I will be laying in bed, he’ll go to sleep, and I’ll stay up another 20 minutes to do my hair. It’s also being comfortable enough with your partner to allow them to see your hair like that. It’s intimate and it immediately informs Van and Earn’s relationship.
It’s a testament to having black writers. Too many shows with white people in charge will have black women going to bed with their hair out. That’s just not how it works for most.
Exactly! It’s a lot of work, even if you have natural hair like I do. I grew up with this. And even though there’s this natural-hair revolution now, it doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle emotionally with having this kind of hair. Yes, I’ve come to love it, but I also have this desire for it to fall on my shoulders. I don’t want people to think it’s cool, I want them to think it’s pretty! But why am I trying to get acceptance from other people? I don’t need it. I remember a year ago, Victoria’s Secret had their first model wear natural hair in their fashion show and I just started sobbing. I don’t know why. I think it was feeling like, "Oh my God, this huge corporation is acknowledging that my hair is sexy." And that sucks. Why do I feel like I need that? But it’s a huge thing because even though natural hair is popular right now, I don’t think it’s really permeated that much of the media.
Atlanta and Easy happened to debut around the same time. Are you getting recognized more often?
I am! I think I’m at the loveliest state of it right now. Twice a day, someone will come up to me and say, "I really like your show." It’s usually Atlanta. I remember Aziz Ansari said something about how he tries to make work that he likes, meaning that his audience will be people that he likes, too. I feel that way with Atlanta and Easy — intelligent, nice, interesting people watch those shows. And it’s all across the diversity board, too. All kinds of people are watching this show, which feels like great validation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.