Seven years ago, the Atlanta actress was broke and waiting tables. Now she is a bona fide scene-stealer who can turn her hand to any genre
Words by MARTHA HAYES
Photography by JACK WATERLOT
Fashion Direction by PETRA FLANNERY
It’s not unusual for an actor to have a plan B, but Zazie Beetz has mapped out a plan B, C and D. “Recently I was looking into med school,” confesses the 30-year-old, who rose to fame in Donald Glover’s Golden Globe award-winning TV comedy Atlanta. “I’m obsessed with childbirth; it’s a fascinating transition of identity. I really want to get involved in women’s health in general. … I’m also very crafty and I like to paint. … And I love languages. I take classes in my free time.”
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“I’m trying to break out of what is expected of me.”
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Hanging out in her New York apartment in a maroon hoodie, her hair piled on top of her head and her face free of makeup, the German-American actor continues. “I feel like I’m not great at anything, I’m OK at a lot — which isn’t a great feeling,” she says with a nervous laugh. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”
If her burgeoning film career is anything to go by, Beetz won’t need a backup plan. “Jack-of-all-trades” may be a stick she beats herself with, but in Hollywood it’s serving her rather well.
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With scene-stealing performances in the box-office superhero smash Deadpool 2 (2018), the Oscar-winning psychological thriller Joker (2019) and the Netflix Western The Harder They Fall (2021) — as well as her 2018 Emmy nomination — Beetz is carving out a name for herself as a performer who can successfully turn her hand to any genre. Not bad for someone who was broke and waiting tables for a year before being cast in Atlanta in 2015.
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This spring, season three of the fan-favorite show — which follows protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) as he manages his rapper cousin in the Atlanta music scene after dropping out of college — premieres on FX and Hulu. For Beetz, returning to the place where it all began for a “wonderful reunion” with a group of people who “feel very much like family” was a life-affirming experience.
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Starting out in the role of Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Earn’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child) in her early 20s, Beetz recalls “having so much anxiety and being so scared.” But now, “coming back to the show I was like, ‘I’ve really grown! I’m so much more comfortable in myself and less fearful.’”
Beetz is very open about her anxiety. What you see is what you get. In fact, she is as open and engaged in person as she is on social media, where she regularly shares her passions (she records in-depth conversations about climate change) and innermost thoughts (on everything from periods to her first kiss).
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“I’ve really grown. I’m more comfortable in myself. Less fearful”
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She’s currently busy writing scripts with her actor-writer partner of eight years, David Rysdahl. “It’s very outside of my comfort zone but I want to push myself,” she says. “I don’t like that feeling — nobody does — but I’m trying to get used to it, to build my confidence and expand.”
The goal? “I’m trying to break out of what is expected of me,” she explains. “I think I’m often seen as this strong, grounded individual, and so I get cast in strong-women parts, which is great. But I also have a lot of vulnerability that I want to explore.”
Most recently, she was inspired by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. “I’m not a mother, but I find that journey interesting. I read a quote that said, ‘Once you become a mother, you’re no longer the picture, you’re the frame,’ and I was like, ‘What?! That’s ridiculous.’ So I’m enjoying exploring womanhood and how we can be all these different things at the same time even if they’re contradictory and counterintuitive.”
Does she feel that opportunities in Hollywood have changed for the better in the last decade? “I firmly believe that my career wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago,” she points out. “Would a TV show like Atlanta have been made? I don’t think so. Changing times have allowed me to have the career I have right now.”
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Is there a trajectory in the industry she’d like to emulate? “I find Zendaya’s ambition very interesting. I can be very guided by fear, and I really don’t want to be. I want to go out there and throw stuff at the wall but it takes effort and emotional acrobatics to do that. So I really respect the grace with which she seems to be going at it. I draw a lot of inspiration from that.”
Beetz credits Rysdahl and her manager for their mentorship — “My default is to think I’m not good enough, but that is not their default for me, and so I appreciate that!” — along with her parents, a Black American social worker and a German cabinetmaker, who have supported her since acting was just an after-school hobby.
“I find it special that my parents didn’t ever challenge that part of me or make me do something that was going to be lucrative or successful,” she says. For high school, they sent her to New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia performing-arts school (where the 1980 cult film Fame was set). “They were beautiful in making me feel that things were possible.”
Growing up between her native Berlin and New York’s Washington Heights, and spending childhood summers with her German grandparents, laid the foundation for a command of languages (as well as speaking German, she has a bachelor’s degree in French). “I’m so glad my dad spoke German to me at home, because at no cost to me I was able to get another language out of it,” Beetz quips.
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Today, she feels as much a German citizen as she does a New Yorker — anything other than a Hollywood star. “I haven’t spent enough time in L.A., but I find the sun kind of aggro,” she laughs. When she does visit, she eschews fancy hotels in West Hollywood for Airbnbs and samples the eclectic eateries the Eastside has to offer. “I enjoy Kismet for Mediterranean and Speranza for Italian. I used to love Porridge and Puffs [now shuttered]. I took a pickling class there once.”
Of course she did; she’s a jack-of-all-trades. And master of anything she puts her mind to.
Hair by MILES JEFFRIES at The Wall Group using ORIBE.
Makeup by KARA YOSHIMOTO BUA at A-Frame Agency using CHANEL.
Nails by EMI KUDO at Opus Beauty using CHANEL Le Vernis.
Feature image: SALVATORE FERRAGAMO dress, $3,800. PIAGET earrings, $7,250. BUCCELLATI bracelet, $130,000. BULGARI rings, from $3,950.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of C Magazine.
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