"What are you wearing?" I ask Zazie Beetz, promising her my intentions are innocent after the somewhat awkward question leaves my mouth. I should preface by saying this isn’t a typical cover story interview. Beetz and I are not at her favorite local coffee shop or traipsing a buzzy new exhibit together. Instead, she is dialing in from her Toronto hotel, and I’m sitting in a phone room at the Who What Wear headquarters in West Hollywood, so some context is needed. She laughs and gives me the unglamorous truth: “Well, I am, in fact, in bed, so what I’m wearing right now actually is matching thermal long underwear. They are army green, and I got them in Germany from a surplus store.”
The long-distance phone call is a result of Beetz’s relentless work and travel schedule. After wrapping production on the fantasy drama Nine Days in late August, Beetz headed straight to the Venice Film Festival to promote projects Seberg and Joker. Then she was on to the Toronto Film Festival for Seberg (again) and the Natalie Portman–led astronaut drama Lucy in the Sky, kicking off what is sure to be a lengthy award season run. Her choice of arresting looks by Rodarte, Miu Miu, and Valentino for the events foreshadows an exciting red carpet run as well. But for now, during a rare 45-minute break between juggling junkets, red carpet appearances, and parties, Beetz’s choice in comfortable sleepwear is a fitting one.
When I first met Beetz four months ago on the set of this cover shoot, I made a point to listen intently when she introduced herself. “You can think of it like the sea, Zazie,” she says. “The second Z sounds like an S.” It’s important to get the pronunciation correct—not just for future interactions, but because the actress is on the fast track to household-name status. Though, there’s a good chance many of you are already familiar with her. For the past few years, Beetz has successfully double-dipped in film and television, demonstrating her impressive range with projects like Donald Glover’s dark comedy Atlanta (which last year earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series), the big-budget Marvel franchise Deadpool 2, and the Netflix series Easy. But for the moment, Beetz is spending some quality time on the big screen, where she prefers it. “I’ve always been a film girl,” she tells me.
Things kick off this month with Beetz starring opposite Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, Warner Brothers’ highly anticipated origin story of the famed DC Comics character. While this isn’t the first telling of the Joker’s story (or the last, if we had to guess), director Todd Phillips’s interpretation focuses on somewhat humanizing the dark character, pulling back the curtain on the disheartening series of events that ultimately inform his evil stature. It’s a version of the story that has already earned praise from audiences and critics out of Venice. “I think what’s special about this Joker is that it’s a really human story for a character that we don’t necessarily reserve empathy for, or that we’ve historically decided to sort of keep at arm’s length because we’ve labeled him the villain versus really following his arc,” Beetz says. “I think that’s what really drew me to this film, the kind of heart placed somewhere that we usually don’t see.”
Having empathy for even the most unlikable characters is something Beetz credits to being raised between Berlin and New York City. There’s a giddiness to her voice when she speaks of spending her childhood summers, and most winters, with her grandparents in Germany, a place that still feels very much like home to her and where she plans to put down roots in the not-too-distant future. It’s not lost on Beetz that, from a very young age, her unique upbringing has afforded her a more open mind to different cultures and ways of living while also influencing her ability to transform into a mélange of characters, good or bad.
“Germany is different,” she says. “I think there is a lot of me that has been influenced by that. I think my general sense of empathy is much larger. I have a good ability of really putting myself in anybody's shoes, and I think that's partially why I'm drawn to acting. Acting is an interesting profession where, whoever you're playing, you can't judge them. If you're playing a terrible person, you have to empathize with them, and you have to be them and see it from their point of view. I think a lot of that has to do with how I grew up.”
You could say a career in the arts was always in the cards for Beetz. A self-proclaimed creative soul, she dabbled in everything from acting and painting to singing and sewing while growing up. With so many interests, which she partially attributes to being a Gemini, attending a performing arts high school was par for the course. Yet come college, she pursued a different path and embraced another of her loves: languages. Majoring in French gave Beetz the opportunity to study abroad in Paris, turned out to be one of the most important and formative times in her life. But she still couldn’t deny the pull of acting; it had been such a constant in her life since the age of 7 when she got her start in community theater. “I had this strong feeling that I should be auditioning,” Beetz tells me of her final college years. “I don’t know if I was just kind of done with school and wanted to begin my life in more of a real way, or if it was sort of a higher calling.”
A higher calling sounds about right. While most struggle to break into the industry, Beetz found luck with her career right out of the gate. As with most aspiring actors, Beetz waited tables on the side, carrying around multiple outfits at all times and prepared to audition at a moment’s notice. She landed her first small role in an indie project early on and a supporting role in another indie shortly thereafter. “It was just like, Yay, another!” she laughs. She had every intention of going back to the restaurant life when she received the call that would change everything. Beetz tells me her audition for Atlanta was very normal, and although she knew the show’s creator and star Donald Glover had a following, she could have never anticipated the extent to which the FX series would put her, and many of her costars, on the map. The series would line up consistent work and open new doors for Beetz, who went on to land the role of Domino in Marvel’s Deadpool 2.
With multiple buzzy projects under her belt and three award-worthy films hitting screens this fall, it’s clear Beetz’s project-picking philosophy is a good one. She’s at a stage in her career where she can be more selective, something she knows is a privilege in this business. When I ask about her methods, she tells me a new project has to be something she herself would want to watch, which she knows will change as she does. At the moment, those stories range from a humanizing portrayal of a legendary villain (Joker), a biopic about an ill-fated starlet who becomes the target of an illegal FBI project for her support of the Black Panther Party (Seberg), and a science-fiction drama about a female astronaut who loses connection to her life on earth (Lucy in the Sky).
When making a decision, Beetz focuses on the quality of the script. “I think it can be really hard to make a project work if the script isn’t working,” she shares. “It’s the skeleton of the story. If you don’t have that, then there’s nothing for any flesh or blood or organs or skin to sit on. I’m not really interested in exploring easy stories. I always want to see the gray area in the world. I find as I get older I’m functioning more and more in the gray and trying to let go of binary interpretations of life, which I think goes back again to kind of being able to step into empathy for other people.”
Photo:Max Hirschberger. Fashion Credits: Norma Kamali Off-the-Shoulder Polka-Dot Print Jersey Maxi Dress ($305); Alexander Wang earrings; Proenza Schouler Moto Ornament Mules ($1065).
Beetz’s eye for great storytelling can be matched, as we’ve learned, by her eye for fashion. Last year’s Emmy Awards, where she stepped onto the red carpet in a deep crimson bejeweled Ralph Lauren gown, stands out as the pivotal moment I knew this was a girl to be watched. Her love of dressing up really shined through on the set of our shoot, where she indulged in trying on power looks by Paco Rabanne, Norma Kamali, and Acne Studios, and then later when she told me about being inspired by ‘90s harajuku street style. In her teens, she would make her own clothes, taking a page from Gwen Stefani by cutting up old items and transforming them into new pieces. “I just always felt so expressive in that,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s almost like a costume or if it’s a shield feeling. I just always felt very drawn to playing characters with my outfits.”
Beetz’s relationship with red carpet dressing, however, has proven more complicated. “Sometimes it feels like it’s for other people,” she says. “Especially since it can also be a political thing about who you’re wearing and when you’re wearing it, so that has sometimes been a little difficult to navigate.” This is not to say that Beetz hasn’t found her way. She recently started working with stylist Solange Franklin, and together the two are proving to be a dynamic duo. “I love collaborating with Zazie because she has a visceral sense of what appeals to her, and I feel I have the freedom to exercise my vision,” Franklin tells us of working with the actress. “Zazie is a chameleon, but her look is underscored with confidence and subtle rebellion." Beetz echoes Franklin, saying, “I’m learning how to be more forthright with what I enjoy and what is important for me to wear. I think throughout my career, or just in general, it’s always been very important to me to just remain loyal to myself.” If Beetz’s looks at the late summer film festivals (a palatable mix of sultry silhouettes and bold off-the-shoulder numbers) were an amuse-bouche to what is to come from her and Franklin, we can’t wait for the main course.
Eventually a publicist chimes in to let us know it’s time to wrap up the interview, so Beetz leaves me with these perfect parting words: “In the end, it's also just clothes, so let's just play. I just want to play.” I couldn’t have said it better.