The second you see Zazie Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary in The Harder They Fall, it’s clear that she’s a force. Miss Mary suffers no fools in this 1890s-set, male-dominated Western world, not even the man she loves. She is audacious and loyal, but also fiercely independent. It’s impossible not to root for her as she journeys to help her boo, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), avenge the death of his parents.
Stagecoach Mary isn’t some aspirational, fictional badass created to reimagine Black heroes during an era depicted in film history as overwhelmingly white. She was a real-life, formerly enslaved woman known for her “hard-drinking” ways, who rocked two guns at all times and worked as the first African American mail carrier in the U.S. While director Jeymes Samuel took some serious artistic liberties in creating his version of the Wild Wild West with these real-life figures — inventing relationships, backstories, and, in Beetz’s case, opting for a controversial change to Mary’s skin tone and body type — the 30-year-old actress had a lot to consider before diving all the way in.
“This is something that I think about a lot and consider when contemplating any role that I take. I understand the privilege that I have as a light-skinned woman and it’s always on my mind,” Beetz recently told the U.K. newspaper The Times, adding that her decision to sign onto the film came only after she saw that the other cast members also bore little resemblance to their real-life analogues. “I have, multiple times, turned down roles because I felt I wasn’t the correct choice for the character.”
Vulture recently chatted with the Emmy-nominated actress to talk about prepping for Samuel’s shoot-’em-up Netflix flick, the joy of stepping back onto the set of Atlanta after three years, and how the pandemic has changed her professionally and personally.
How did you prepare to play such a force as Stagecoach Mary?
I love playing period-piece characters because their ways of thinking, social values, and interactions with one another were different. And I find that just fascinating to play with as an actor. With Stagecoach Mary, while we’re carrying the names of these real-life historical figures, the story is fictional. There were a lot of elements that didn’t fit into the actual historical narrative. All of us had to do a lot of fleshing out of our backstories. For example, the love story between [Mary] and Nat never happened. So there was a lot of making it up as we went along. But I did a bunch of reading about the real Stagecoach Mary, the other characters in the film, and in general, Black people living in the West during this time. I wanted to know what kinds of people were moving there, what they were doing, and the type of tenacity they had to survive. I wanted to imbue Mary’s spirit with an amalgamation of all of these people and different stories from doing that work.
The real Mary Fields is such a swaggering historical figure. What do you see of her in yourself?
Like Mary, I am an independent person who values freedom in terms of movement and not [having] attachments to people. Yes, I have a long-term partner, we’ve been together seven and a half years, but there’s a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, which I feel should be required reading. It has all these excerpts on family and friendship and one excerpt on marriage where it talks about how a married couple needs to be two pillars standing next to each other, not leaning on each other. It’s a drink of each other’s cups, but not of the same cup and to be a fully independent individual allows you to give the most and receive the most. That’s Mary. That’s me. Also, I just don’t like being told what to do.
Yes, in the film, Mary is busy operating businesses across the States, doing her. She’s not pressed about Nat, despite loving him.
Exactly. She did her own thing, and in her relationship with Nat, she was very much like, “Listen, I like you and I love you, but spending time with you is a choice. I’m choosing you. But I can thrive on my own as well.”
The Harder They Fall’s cast list is the crème de la crop. I mean, Regina King alone, but also Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and LaKeith Stanfield, the latter whom you already know well. What were they like to work with?
That was a huge reason why I signed on to this film. I think I was one of the last calls to be made for the larger ensemble, and I remember seeing all these incredible people already signed up and was like, “Yes!”
It’s cool to be able to join that group of people I have been watching for years and enjoying in my own space. I can now effectively say, “These are my peers.” I feel this with Regina, particularly because we spent some time together and she was like a big sister to me in a way. There’s a reason why people like Regina are successful. They’re incredibly talented, but it’s also about their character and how they interact with people and the sense of grace they have. On set, Regina commands respect, but she is also so kind. She stood up for everyone around her, asking if anyone needed help. I was watching and learning from her on set and want to emulate that in my work.
Given that this is a Western, there were a lot of firearms on set. There have been a lot of conversations lately about gun safety on film sets, especially after the tragedy that happened during the filming of Rust. Did you feel safe during filming?
I did. The thing is, obviously, I wasn’t [on the set of Rust], so I don’t know what happened, but whatever happened, something clearly went wrong because that is not protocol. So, whether it was a mistake or a fluke, it should not have happened. It was a tragedy for everyone involved, especially for Halyna [Hutchins]. My heart goes out to her family.
In terms of our set, we had an incredible armorer, prop master, and crew that followed protocol, making everybody feel safe. You’re checking, double-checking, triple-checking all the time, and the protocol is if you do not feel safe, you say that, and we cut immediately. That is number one in safety, and nobody cared about anything else.
Shifting gears a bit. What can you tell us about the newest season of Atlanta? We’ve been waiting!
I can’t say much in terms of plot and stuff, but we have shot seasons three and four. Season four is still being worked on, but know that we have things in the can. Something will come out next year.
Three entire years passed between the filming of seasons two and three, including delays because of the pandemic. What was it like to finally be back on set?
Oh, it felt so good. I was so happy to be on set. I just really feel like these people — Donald, Keith, Brian, Hiro, our director, Christian, our DP —they’ve really become family. And I mean that in the sense that this show changed all of our lives completely, including Donald’s. And there is a sort of sacred bond that happens with people who collectively go through an experience that shifts your whole life trajectory. So being with them will always feel like a homecoming.
Atlanta, to me, in some ways, has always felt like my real job and every other project was on the side. That’s what’s so special about TV — at least if you get along with your co-stars — you get closer and closer, and you feel safer and can take different risks, try different things and really lean into these characters in a way where you get to try it again and again and again, versus in a film, where it’s a one and done.
Did you all Zoom over the pandemic?
No, but we have a solid group thread that goes 24/7.
I can only imagine what y’all talk about there.
It’s so good.
Do you feel like COVID has changed you on or off set?
Right before the pandemic, I was feeling a bit burned out. Maybe it was a press tour, Sundance, the BAFTAs, the Oscars. What was I doing? I don’t even remember, but whatever it was, it was a lot of traveling and interviews. People don’t realize these events are like office parties. It’s mad people you don’t really know, so you mingle with somebody you know and then you leave. It’s exhausting. Anyway, so the pandemic happened and obviously, we were all isolated and quarantined and I was just in my own dimension, resting. Because I had the time and was in one place, I revisited some friendships and had conversations I felt like I needed to have. I had like 800 unread text messages.
Yeah. Over the course of two days, I went through all of them and responded or deleted them, caught up with all these things. Not seeing people allowed me to be like, “Oh, I value these relationships,” and yet, I was taking them for granted because I was burnt out. And now, after being alone at home and being with my partner, not wanting to do anything else during the pandemic, there was that moment when I was like, “Oooh, I want to go back to work and do press, meet people and talk to people.” And it’s made me have a much greater sense of gratitude toward interacting with others and being the type of friend I want to be.
Like you mentioned, your work on Atlanta changed a lot for you. Now you’re also in blockbusters like Deadpool and Joker. Is all of it so far what you imagined it to be?
I’m kind of an optimist, and I’ve been marked by blessed things in a way. I don’t know … things always work out for me. That doesn’t mean it was easy. I worked hard. I had day jobs and was running around auditioning and was spreading myself thin trying to succeed. But it felt just like a part of the journey.
Now, I don’t know if success means becoming like Brad Pitt famous, which I’m not. I wouldn’t even venture to say I’m A-list. But to me, my first marker of success was getting any job. And then it was like, I want to pay my bills with this. And honestly, after I reached that, everything on top of that felt like icing on the cake in a way. I’m able to really finance my life, help others around me, travel, do the things I like, and have flexibility in a way that I’ve always wanted. That’s my goal ultimately in acting — having enough success so I can use it as a vessel to do other things I like. And that’s such a wonderful privilege.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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