Zazie Beetz Has Moved On From Fear

With the final season of Atlanta on the horizon, the star reflects on how the series has shaped her—and television as whole.

by Michel Ghanem
Photographs by Julien Tavel

Zazie Beetz as Fleabag in ‘Fleabag.’
Zazie Beetz as Fleabag in ‘Fleabag.’

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

After four seasons on the critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated dramedy Atlanta, Zazie Beetz is finally embracing her own talent. Despite booking blockbuster film roles as Domino in Marvel’s Deadpool 2 and Sophie Dumond in Joker, the 31-year-old says she spent many days on the set of Donald Glover’s groundbreaking FX series second guessing herself. Now, as Atlanta’s fourth and final season is set to air later this year, she’s reflecting on all that she’s learned. “In 2021, which is when we shot seasons 3 and 4, I started to feel more relaxed and was able to glean a lot more joy,” she says. Here, Beetz, who’s reportedly in talks to reprise the role of Dumond in the Joker sequel Joker: Folie à Deux, discusses why she’s so drawn to messy women and the film that’s most influenced who she is today.

What drew you to Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag?

I find the show as a whole concept fascinating and inspiring. I love that the series organically grew from a one-woman show. Phoebe’s courage to write and make content in general is something I admire and respect. I want to be braver; I want to create more. It’s cool to watch something actively shift how we see TV or content. The fourth-wall breaking is so interesting, considering how we’ve treated the fourth wall up until this point.

Not to toot my own horn, but Atlanta plays with format in an interesting way, which is why I think people are also drawn to it or repelled by it, because it doesn’t completely follow formulas that we know. Narrative-wise, in general, I’m drawn to stories particularly about women. I find [I’m drawn to] characters who battle with their morality. Fleabag is constantly in this war-torn place within herself: Is she bad, is she good, what is she contributing to the world, have her actions rippled out, affecting those around her—like her best friend, Boo, or even her relationship with the Hot Priest. Her emotional turmoil, I was so attracted to and could empathize with, and could see and feel.

There are some morality and nuance similarities between Fleabag and Atlanta, particularly in Van’s bottle episodes.

We were actually thinking for the photo shoot I’ll essentially look like Van from my final episode [of season 3]. The whole look is kind of Fleabag, in a way—the lipstick, that haircut. Often I think of Fleabag and I think of her in this striped shirt. I agree; the episodes overlap with darkness and quirky comedy in a way.

Zazie Beetz as Fleabag in ‘Fleabag.’

Do you think that Van and Fleabag would get along as characters?

I was going to say I don’t think so, and then I hesitated. It depends on where Van is. Fleabag is pretty chaotic, and Van, in most of her life, isn’t seeking chaos, but in season 3 she was. Van in baseline would struggle with Fleabag, because Fleabag brings a lot of instability. But in season 3, Van would’ve hung out.

What have you learned about yourself as an actor working on Atlanta?

I was able to go back over and over again—four times to this character. Each season, you can deepen your character because you know them better, you spend more time with them, the writers know you better and can write specifically for you. With Atlanta, we all grew up as well. The pilot we shot in 2015. I was quite fresh and young in the industry, and I felt at the time that I had a lot of growing and learning to do. I was still so insecure about my work and what I was doing; I felt so fearful all the time being on set.

I love acting; I grew up doing it. But it was really hard to translate that into something that is a monetized hobby because there were additional pressures I wasn’t used to. It’s not just about community—it’s also about, are you worthwhile for this role? Are you going to make money? I was internalizing a lot of that and putting a lot of pressure on myself. Being on set was such a painful and devastating experience because I was so caught up in my feelings. I thought I would never grow out of that. It’s really beautiful for me, at least, to now feel like…okay, I’m here to have fun. I don’t need to be the best actor the world’s ever seen; I’m here to do the best I can do, and maybe that’ll yield something absolutely out of this world, maybe it won’t. I’m going to prepare, I’m going to show up having done my homework, and I’m just gonna move on. Because what’s the fucking point? Let me just enjoy myself and connect with people, because that’s the whole point.

What are your formative memories of television?

My first thoughts are cartoons. I have to say, growing up—and still—I didn’t really watch a lot of TV. I lean more into movies. My dad would show me a lot of things that went over my head as a kid. We watched a lot of old films together. Growing up, I watched the movie that is my namesake, Zazie dans le Métro, a French book that was turned into a film in 1960. It resonated with me so strongly, especially the character Zazie, the little girl who was me in my mind. That movie, alongside many [my dad showed me]—I feel like they’ve really shaped the flavor of the person I am.

As an adult, I would say the first show that knocked me into TV consciousness was Mad Men, which I watched in college. I remember thinking very differently about what TV was—which was also around the time TV started changing in general. I grew up on something very different, but Mad Men was the first show that shifted my whole view of television. It didn’t feel like a show that depended on cliff-hangers, or a show that was made to last for 20 years—but something that really had strong narrative and gravitas, and that I was interested in enough to watch the whole thing. TV had never pulled me in before in that way.

Hair by Damien Lacoussade, makeup by Andrée-Line, and line production courtesy of Jim Schachmes.