Zazie Beetz Grew Up With Shel Silverstein and Nina Simone
In “Nine Days,” Zazie Beetz plays Emma, an unborn soul in an otherworldly limbo interviewing to inhabit a human body on Earth, or else vanish into oblivion. But unlike the other candidates in Edson Oda’s supernatural drama, Emma is seemingly unconcerned — she shows up late for her first appointment — with winning over Will (Winston Duke), who will decide her fate. Instead, she approaches the exercises to test her fitness with a guilelessness that at first confounds him — but that ultimately impels him to confront his own tumultuous existence.
“I think that Emma is in some way what we all would hope to be in our purest sense of childhood wonder,” Beetz, who is German American, said. “She’s also somebody who’s very present. She might not have the opportunity to live, but there is something that is a semblance of life right there with her right now.”
Conversing with Beetz, who speaks with an almost wide-eyed enthusiasm, you get the feeling that her onscreen outlook may not be too far from her real one.
Still, the woman has range. An Emmy nominee for the role of Van, who shares a daughter with Earn (Donald Glover), in FX’s “Atlanta,” she will soon star alongside Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba in Jeymes Samuel’s western “The Harder They Fall,” and Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock in David Leitch’s assassin thriller “Bullet Train.”
Beetz was taking a break from shooting the new seasons of “Atlanta” — she revealed no plot details, other than mentioning a foray to Paris, a city that made her list of cultural essentials — when she called from the Minnesota family home of her fiancé, the actor David Rysdahl (who also appears in “Nine Days”). These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy For a very long time after school, I would come home and listen to that every day as my wind-down. It was one of the pieces of music that guided me through my first experiences with anxiety and mood issues. And to this day I think of it as this meditation that guided me through one of my first emotionally very difficult times.
2. Shel Silverstein As a child, I adored Shel Silverstein. I had many of his poetry books that I read over and over and over again. He had a very child-friendly playfulness in his work that also reflected very seriously on how we should engage with the world, a body of work that was philosophical and thoughtful and not condescending. It’s important to not condescend to children.
3. “Fruits” by Shoichi Aoki My dad, when I was 11 or so, he gave me this book, just randomly came home with it one day. It’s photographs, one after another, of Japanese people of all ages dressed in Harajuku street fashion. It changed my point of view on how I could dress myself. My parents tell me from when I was very young, I was very clear that I wanted to clothe myself. And I’m still this way. I’ve always been like, “How do I create my own thing?” And “Fruits” — the colors and the combinations, and no rules around how you can express yourself — was positive and joyful and so unique. The next day, I came to school in this rainbow outfit. And then for years I was known as the Rainbow Girl.
4. Doodling My entire life, all of my notebooks in school, constantly, constantly doodling, just an endless doodle of doodles. I couldn’t sit still without having a piece of paper and a pen with me. Even in note-taking, I was always very interested in making my notes look aesthetically pleasing. I think this is also partially a reason I’m still very analog. I can’t have an electronic planner.
5. Nina Simone One of the first songs I consciously realized was hers that had a very profound impact on me was “Four Women.” I remember hearing that for the first time and I was dancing to it. It’s not just about music and it’s not just about sound. It is about truth. You feel her pain and her human self. That is also femininity and strength in womanhood and her unapologetic approach to her blackness and what she represented during her time. Of course, there are other artists that do a similar thing. But I don’t think Nina Simone makes it pretty, and that draws me in.
6. “Zazie dans le Métro” My namesake is “Zazie dans le Métro,” which is a French book by Raymond Queneau, and [Louis Malle] made a movie of that. I grew up watching this movie. This film is about Paris relatively soon after World War II. The story is about a 10-year-old girl named Zazie who visits her uncle and her aunt in Paris for the weekend, and shenanigans ensue. Even though I would watch the German version, I always felt like I was her and this was me. I felt driven to be able to read my namesake and watch the film in its original language. So I was a French major in college and then I lived in Paris for a year.
7. “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” I am obsessed with midwifery, to the point where I looked into school. I wanted to be a doula. A few years ago, David gifted me for Christmas this book because I am so interested in this transition and in this complete surrender of power in a way. I think women are looking death squarely in the eye as you give birth to a little being who is still, in my point of view, attached to the universe. I’ve never given birth, so maybe I’m romanticizing it all, and it’s terrible. But I want to help women feel empowered on their journey.
8. Knitting When I was 8, my mom taught me very basic stitches. For a long time I could knit in one style: rectangle. Then four years ago, I picked it up in a serious way. I devoured videos on YouTube and bought all these books and taught myself a craft and a trade. And now I’m like: “I’ve learned a skill. I can make things that are useful to people.” I’ve found great pride in that.
9. Period Clothing One of my most transformative moments in acting is when I put the costume on. It informs the character so much. It changes how they move, it changes how they engage with the world and who they are. I am enamored with the Jane Austen world. One of my favorite movies is “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola. And a huge part of that is the costuming and the aesthetic of it all. On red carpets, my inspiration for hair is honestly Marie Antoinette, and in my head that’s what my hair looks like — though obviously not what it looks like in real life.
10. Lianne La Havas I discovered her when I was in college, and I felt this immediate kinship. She’s around the same age as me. She is also mixed race and her hair was similar to mine. At the time, the natural hair movement in the U.S. was just getting its wings, and I identified so much with how she looked. Each album she comes out with, she’s grown up more, and I’ve grown up in this same way. I feel this quiet friend who I’m like, “I know you.”
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