Zazie Beetz Hits Her Stride

The actor best known for her role on Atlanta reinvigorates a dusty film genre with The Harder They Fall.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Zazie Beetz wears a Miu Miu dress; Bulgari necklace  and bracelets; stylist’s own gloves.
Zazie Beetz wears a Miu Miu dress; Bulgari necklace and bracelets; stylist’s own gloves.

Zazie Beetz is perhaps best known for her role as the on-and-off-again girlfriend of Earn, played by Donald Glover on Atlanta. But this year, she's taken on a completely different genre—starring alongside Jonathan Majors and Regina King in Netflix’s neo-Western The Harder They Fall. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Beetz discusses her creative journey and the spiritual experience of horseback riding.

You are named after a character in a film.

Yes! My name comes from a book and a film called Zazie dans le Métro. I grew up with the movie. My father saw it and suggested the name to my mom.

Your character in The Harder They Fall, Stagecoach Mary Fields, is a tough saloon owner. How did this role come to you?

I was sent the script and I thought it was good fun. I had a couple of notes and thoughts on Mary, so [writer-director] Jeymes Samuel and I FaceTimed—he's this very vivacious and creative being. I could tell immediately that he had a very clear vision for what he wanted to do and was taking this genre that is iconic, but adding a bit of a modern twist to it beyond the fact of switching the representation within the film. I just thought it was a really great opportunity to give this older thing that so many people love a new edge. Maybe a new audience can find this genre as well.

Could you ride a horse before this?

I actually could, not in a super-trained way, but my family would go to this farm [growing up]. It was a dairy farm, and they had all kinds of animals, including horses. They'd just throw the kids on them, and we'd ride in the field. So I had a little bit of the natural rhythm going on, but no former training. Horseback riding is a very spiritual experience. You have to learn to respect the horse you're with, and they have to respect you. If they don't, it's not going to work. You have to go with their movements. They all have very distinct personalities. And I have to say, it's one of my favorite parts of shooting this Western.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to act for a living?

I've been doing community theater, theater in school, [and theater in] after-school programs since I was a kid growing up in New York—never professionally, but quite young. I think the first play I did, I was 7, but it was a very standard, class-puts-on-play [show]. I enjoyed acting, but I was generally rather creative. I liked to sing. I was very tactile, and I drew and painted and crafted, and my parents let me do those things. Acting was one of my hobbies. I was always all over. I liked clothes, but I also liked languages, and I was like, "I'm going to be a vet, and I'm going to travel." I always feel like I'm jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But the theater thing kept being a through line for me.

And did you think, This is it? I love it. I'm done?

Well, it's interesting, because there was a fork in the road in my life where I was like, "Am I going to go into a graphic design art space, or am I going to go into more performing?" And I felt this way with clothing, too, because I was like, "Maybe I'll go into styling or fashion." But I realized I really like that stuff for me. I couldn't do it for anyone else. Even my mom was like, "Draw me a picture of this." I couldn't really do it unless it just came from me. And I realized I wanted to keep that as my own personal thing.

Zazie Beetz wears a Miu Miu dress; Bulgari necklace and bracelets; stylist’s own gloves.

Do you still sing?

I do. I love to sing. Broadway was always my first love. There's a reason I don't think I'm on Broadway, but I do love to sing. It's so cathartic and wonderful.

What do you sing in the shower?

Everything. I sing Ragtime, the musical. I sing [songs from] The Color Purple. I did sing in The Harder They Fall a little bit, too—very briefly. It's less of a song and more of a statement of power, I feel like. But the director and myself, we recorded it in his house in Santa Fe, which is where we were shooting this movie. And it was rather relaxed. I was a little bit nervous, but I think it ended up working out.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set coordinator: Sarah Hein; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click