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Donald Glover On ‘Atlanta’, Defining Success And Walking In Lando Calrissian’s Shoes

Deadline logo Deadline 6/7/2017 Nev Pierce
© Provided by Deadline

Screenwriter-musician-director-comedian-actor, Donald Glover is responsible for a world shortage in hyphens.

A household face after a starring role in NBC’s Community, he was also a name-to-watch behind the camera, for writing on 30 Rock. Movie audiences have seen him in Magic Mike XXL and The Martian. Yet another demographic knows him as Childish Gambino, a Grammy-nominated musician whose eclectic albums deserve way more time than the comedic moniker may make you believe. For Glover there is no side project—the music, the writing, the TV, the acting, it’s all him, it’s all about story.

Still, though he’s not likely to favor one medium over another, or to choose one creation above all, you could argue Atlanta is his greatest achievement. He created, co-writes, stars in (and occasionally directs) the FX series about a college dropout trying to navigate life in the music industry of Atlanta, Georgia. Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) spots the potential of his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) and sees an opportunity to improve his lot—and that of his on/off girlfriend and his daughter. Dealing with music, celebrity, race, TV, stereotypes, ambition and failure, Atlanta is prescient without being preachy—and really, at its core, it’s about a young man looking for direction; for purpose.

Glover won the Golden Globe for Best Actor—and the show picked up Best TV Series Comedy or Musical, as well as recognition from the PGA and WGA, among a host of others. Season 2 won’t air until 2018, though, as Glover is now in a galaxy far, far away. Deadline talks with him on an unfeasibly sunny day in London, where he is shooting Disney’s untitled Han Solo pic, the second in the Star Wars anthology series of side-stories, after Rogue One. He’ll play Lando Calrissian, Han Solo’s old friend and fellow space smuggler, first made famous by Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back. Glover is having a blast. 33 and thoughtful, he’s quick to laugh and ask questions back—perhaps pointing to a secret to his success: he’s forever inquisitive.

You seem like one of those people who carries their world with them—very confident, very distinct; is that how you feel and has it always been the case?

I’m very confident in my point of view. ’Cause I think that that’s all you can really have. I’m never really going to know what anybody else is going through, so it’s just kind of your job to be expressive with your point of view. So I’m very confident in the way I see things. But I think the balance of being, I guess, a good person is actively looking for and through other people’s points of view. And to make sure that it’s balanced, because otherwise you become a really stagnant and, I think, bad person.

We’re kind of going through a point in time where, if you don’t want to hear anybody else’s point of view, you really don’t have to. So I think it’s about the company you keep. People used to know people who were smart enough to argue the opposite—like, they used to actively hang around with people who have opposing points of view. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.

It feels like people are looking for reassurance rather than looking for the truth.

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s just human nature. But I think now we have so much information people are slowly starting to realize, like, “Oh anything can be true if you want it to be true.” Like there’s always somebody out there—because there’s money in it. There’s money in information now. There will eventually be places where you’ll buy things based solely on the fact that you give them data. That will come soon. Data’s really important and it always has been. Being in London has really taught me how important history is. Just having information of the past. It helps you predict the future, which is all we really have as, you know, humans.

How has being in London led to that?

Oh, you know, Brits have a ton of museums. Britain is really particular about its history. Everything’s old here, obviously, but everyday people are really into the history of things. You can even talk to people who don’t really fuck with the monarchy and they’re like, “Well I don’t want to get rid of it though. I think it’s important because it’s a history thing.” It’s funny to me, because American history is just a couple hundred years. So I think seeing how it works over here has kind of opened my eyes to that.

Brits are happy with the Queen because currently the idea of having a President seems terrifying.

Yeah [laughs]. It’s funny to be over here during that. Hearing people’s conversations. People tend to be more interested in it over here than they are over there. I was watching Gogglebox [a UK reality show in which people react to television shows and the news] and learning a little bit about British politics. It’s more interesting. I know far less than I feel like the normal person here does about American politics.

Is that the way things are or a conscious decision to not overly engage with that stuff? The news can be a bit overwhelming.

I don’t know. I think there’s a generation of Americans coming up who truly consider themselves metropolitan. I don’t know if that was the case before. I think since European countries are so close together, it forces Brits to be interested in that. Brexit affects everything over here. That’s going to affect everyone. So I think it just forces you to see yourself a little smaller. A smaller part of the bigger thing.

We really should talk about Atlanta. I thought it was terrific, which is fortunate, right? It’d be awkward if I didn’t.

Yeah, I think it’d actually be a good interview.

If I hated it?

If you hated it, it would be probably a super interesting interview. I feel like interviewers can’t really do that nowadays. I feel like people would feel very awkward about doing it. Like, how many show creators or whatever could defend their show do you think?

I think a lot of people take criticism really personally, because it feels like you’re criticizing their child—and that’s not the case. You’ve spent a lot of time on it, but it’s not you.

Right. But it is personal. I don’t mean this show specifically—I just mean art in general. It’s a personal thing if you’re doing it correctly. It’s not like something completely objective that you’re just bringing into the world. Hopefully if you’re making art it is personal on some level. But I also see it as a conversation with the audience—like something that seems trite and heavy-handed just needs to be in the right place and right time. 50 years before, or 50 years after, you show it to a different group of society and it’ll hopefully taste different. You know what I’m saying? I think it changes like that a little bit, too. But I do think some people do take it personally. I think that’s because it’s tied to commerce. If it’s something bad then then you can’t make money off of it, then that becomes super personal, I think, for people.

Because it feels like a threat to your livelihood?

Exactly.

And that then becomes primal.

Yes, then it becomes primal.

The other thing is personal/professional is sometimes a false divide—like The Godfather thing, “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business”; well, actually kind of everything is personal if that’s how you spend most of your time.

Time is the most valuable thing we have. So like if you spend 40 years at a job and then you get fired and they’re like, “You know, it’s not personal, it has nothing to do with you,” it’s still personal. That’s 40 years you literally can’t get back. You’re right, everything does become personal, even when it is business. But it’s cool watching The Godfather and The Sopranos, and in my show we dive into that more and more as we go on, just like what business is, and music. Music is something that is truly ethereal and just joyful, but also it’s the music business, and that’s really the opposite. How those things intertwine is almost the heart of the show, like: What’s personal and what isn’t?

Your character, Earn, is in a position where he has to be looking for opportunity, but he also doesn’t want to be a vampire.

I mean, he understands he kind of is, he just doesn’t want to be called out for it. I think he thinks he’s too smart for that or too cool for that. And I think he slowly figures out he’s not as clever as he thinks, as far as this is concerned. ’Cause his back is up against the wall. It’s hard to act like your back isn’t against the wall when it is.

That’s when you find out who you really are.

Yeah, that’s when you do all the worst or best things, when you have no choice. Like, you know, I’ve seen people do really heinous things when they thought, “I was going to die.” I’ve seen people do really amazing things when they thought they were going to die. But that’s when you really are who you are.

And then, if you get through that, you have to live with the knowledge of what kind of person you actually might be.

Yeah. But I think that’s the weird thing now—some people choose to just forget. ’Cause that’s super valuable information when you think of it, to know, like, “Oh, when I’m this situation, I will do this, ’cause I did that.” But I think people tend to ignore that information when they get it.

We tend to spend a large portion of our lives ignoring the facts of where we are and what we’re like.

Yeah. Do you think that’s a survival thing? People being, like, “I have to ignore this or else I couldn’t go on”?

Maybe. Steven Soderbergh said something to me to the effect of “you can either deal with the world the way you want it to be or deal with the world the way it is,” and that really troubled me, because I realized I was dealing with the world in a fantasy way. I think most people live in the land of good intentions, rather than the land of what is actually happening and what they’re actually doing.

Right. That is the problem. The top one percent, they have the resources to build that world around them, sort of like a shield. They kind of reap the benefits of their ancestors seeing the world for what it was and protecting themselves. I think there’s a large amount of people who don’t. It’s hard. To see the world the way it is, you do need advantages. That’s why I like making things, because you need that a little bit to go on. It’s easy to look at a bloody scene if it’s with, like, Lego men. Because then it’s a little disconnected from actuality. It can be as truthful as you want, but it’s not really people, because if it was really people, you might not be able to go on; it’d be too horrible. I think sometimes you just need like a pair of shades in order to keep going.

Something to get you through the day.

Yeah. Something to keep going. But the question is, what are you going for? Everybody has an ancestor. We’re all descendants of people who decided it was more important to keep going.

What keeps you going? You’ve been successful commercially, but at what point did you consider yourself successful on your own terms?

I’m very fortunate I’m able to do the things I’m able to do. But I feel like I would be successful when I’m at the point I don’t have to explain what I do. I’m not saying I don’t want to. I think explaining your ideas is a good way of getting people’s takes on it. But I feel like when I’m at a point where I just don’t have to ask permission, I think that’s real success. That’s real freedom. If Steven Spielberg wanted to make a movie right now about, I don’t know, horses that shit gold, no one’s going to be like, “We’re not going to let you do that.” He has everything. He can really do it on his own if he wanted to, if he wanted to self-finance, if he wanted money from someone else, if he wanted to shoot it on his own, if he wanted to shoot through a studio. There are a plethora of options for him to do that. I think that’s what actual success is, when you’re able to do whatever you need to do whenever you need to do it. I think that’s my definition for it.

On some scale you can’t be far off that.

On some scale I guess I’m not, but there was a general survey asking people, “How much money is enough money?” And everyone said double what they make. Like from the richest to the poorest, everyone said double. So I think that just speaks to people not being satisfied. That’s just what you do. So I’m sure I’m saying that, but I’m sure I’ll find, you know, something else I need to strive for.

What was the genesis of Atlanta—when did you think, “This is something I want to spend years of my life on”?

I just thought about it a lot. Whenever I have an idea I just keep thinking about it. Like subconsciously, it’ll just keep coming back, and I’ll keep writing down things and thinking about it and thinking about it. I had the idea for a long time. It was a more of a sitcom structure when it first started. It felt more like something like 30 Rock or Community or something a little more like a network sitcom, like The Office or something. But the more I kept thinking about it, I think I just became a little more interested in fear. And how fear forces people to do things. And I liked how fear makes people feel. It’s something that people think is exclusive from a lot of other things, but fear and comedy are very related, and I think if you do them well… If you’re scared by something, you’re more likely to laugh. Once that idea came into play, that’s when I started thinking this could be cool. In my head I was like, “That’s going to feel different than most other things.” And I think that’s probably the most important thing to making any sort of art now. That it’s different. Because there’s so many options.

There’s an episode where someone is killed. And what struck me about it was that no one seemed surprised. This wasn’t an event that was going to make their highlights reel of the year—it was just a thing that happened. That was shocking to me. Was that a point you were consciously trying to make?

It absolutely was not a point I was trying to make at all. I just thought it was an honest ending. The year before we made Atlanta, me and my brother went to a club and someone was shot in front of us. And it wasn’t like a top three event in our lives by any means. It was just something that happened. It was sad, but life went on. And we went to Waffle House afterwards. And that goes back to the perspective. I think it is perspective. There’s not a lot of guns here [in London]. It would probably feel different to you than somebody who lives in Atlanta where somebody dies of a gunshot like every hour. But I have heard that actually from a lot of people. They’re like, “It didn’t really matter.” I feel like it doesn’t have to matter to most people. Not in a shitty way. I’m not trying to make people feel like, “Oh yeah, you don’t care.” I’m just saying that’s part of life and it happens a lot.

You directed a couple of episodes of the first season—“Value” and “B.A.N.” Was that because the subjects were particularly important to you, or just practically because your character wasn’t in them as much? 

Both. They were written with that in mind. I knew I wasn’t going to be in those, like the focus wasn’t me. I wanted people to know this isn’t The Donald Glover Show at all. It’s about life in this place.

Can you see yourself directing a feature film at some point?

Absolutely. I think it’d be fun. I just have to have the right idea. I think directing is like everything else; if you’re storytelling, then you have to be really confident in what you’re telling. I think Atlanta only works because I was confident. Even if I was wrong, it had a perspective and I was very confident in what I wanted to achieve. I think eventually I will, but I’d have to be confident in what the story was and what the script was, and right now, I feel pretty good just focusing on Atlanta. It’s kind of scratching that itch for me.

In the episode “Nobody Beats the Biebs”, a TV presenter says to Paper Boi, “Listen, I want to give you some advice. Play your part. People don’t want Justin to be the asshole. They want you to be the asshole. You’re a rapper—that’s your job.” How much is that a reaction to your own experiences in terms of people trying to categorize you as one thing or another?

I feel that’s pretty true. People don’t want you, people want a brand. They want something they can believe in. They want consistency; that every time they go there, it’s going to be the same thing. They want McDonald’s. They want something that’s packaged and easy to understand, because it’s too hard to really see somebody as a full thing. And I think that’s [in] everything: that’s TV, that’s rap music, that’s rock, that’s everything. “I go here for that.” The internet has made that quite clear to me, too. Everybody wants a brand. Not because people think it’s better. I think it’s because it’s very fluid information—not hard to hold. It’s something that’s simple. When something becomes complex, it’s harder to keep in your head.

Was this in your mind when you created Childish Gambino? Was that a way to distance your music from yourself, or make it easier for people to understand it’s a different thing?

I think the ingredient in everything that people tend to forget is time. I just wanted it to be something that was special, but also something where people could ask questions. I think if Drake started making films now, it would be hard for people to understand who he is, because people have invested so much in the Drake brand. He was an actor before. I think it’s hard for large amounts of people that this person does that and does that and does that. And I was aware of that early. Music is important to me, no question. Music is one of the loves of my life. But there isn’t one thing I’d do forever. I don’t believe in things forever. It was just important to me to give myself some fluidity, something that could adapt, you know?

Under the Childish Gambino credit you’ve also directed a short, Chicken and Futility, in which your character says he’s sad about moths flying towards the light because they think it’s moonlight—they’re doing the right thing, by their instinct, but it’s disastrous. How much has that been a personal fear?

I think kind of everybody has that. It’s a weird thing that it’s considered brave to be faithful, to just blindly follow something. And I think everybody has that fear of like, “What if I’m just wrong? You know, I have no idea.” As a species we don’t know if we just fucked up. I think that’s a fear. I think subconsciously we’re looking for clarity.

It’s that sense that life is like coming in halfway through a movie and just trying to figure out what’s going on?

Yeah. I mean, like, one day you were born. People told you how it is. You get older and some of that stuff was fake. We’re just caught in the middle. And then you’re just asked to play a part. What if that train’s going somewhere we’re not supposed to go, you know? Everybody’s looking for the adults to say this is the right kind of thing. We have to do that together. It’s this weird, big, giant Ouija board.

You’re shooting at the moment, but what does the average day look like for you at home?

I have a rough schedule. I just have a little office and I sit at my desk and I just play around with sounds or writing. Some days it’s all work, and I’ll work until two in morning, four in the morning if I’m really on a roll. And then some days it doesn’t feel right and I’ll go to the park with my son. It really depends.

That’s important, if it’s not happening: just enjoy your life.

Yeah. If it’s a nice day, you should go out. I’m not going to look back and be like, “I’m glad I stayed in that day!” Life is about experience. Like everything now is going to be running towards experience. Live concerns are becoming so popular because you can get everything else kind of straight to you through your phone, or your television. It’s hard to have an actual experience. So I’d just rather have an experience.

And how are you finding the experience of being Lando at the moment?

This is probably one of my favorite experiences ever. For working under, like, a huge conglomerate, it’s actually been quite an enjoyable, artistic thing. I get to play him in a way that I think is honest and true and cool. And it’s great ’cause I didn’t have to write anything, I’m focused strictly on being this guy. And I really respect him and I respect the actor who played him before. I’ve learned a lot about this character, so it’s actually been really fulfilling and nice to just turn off everything else and focus on just being someone. So it’s been cool.

Lando is my son’s favorite character…

Lando seems to be a lot of people’s favorite character. It’s cool. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also very exciting. He was my favorite character too. I grew up on Star Wars. It’s just cool to see him again. I feel like people like him ’cause he has a lot of style, but also he’s a complicated character in this world. I think even Han isn’t as complicated as Lando is. From the first time you meet him, you don’t know whether to trust him or not, and you’re constantly not knowing whether to trust him. I like that about him.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

I think it was probably Joel McHale [his co-star in Community]. He told me, “Get a financial manager right now.” He said, “Money isn’t anything, but it is freedom.” I think that helped me a lot. I like freedom and it affords you that. And I think people sometimes think about that as like, “Oh, he needs more money.” But I don’t think you need more money. I think you need to be aware of how much money you need to live how you want to live. It really did force me to think about life and experience.

The balance is working out pretty well for you at the moment.

It’s all right, right now. But right now, I’m having a moment of creative elasticity. It’s easier for me to do it, but I know eventually the rubber band will come back together. So I’m just doing what I can right now. I’m, you know, the word isn’t really “fortunate” because it’s not like luck or anything, it’s just the wave of things—I’m cresting. It’s cool.

TOP PHOTO: Donald Glover photographed exclusively for Deadline by David Vintiner at The May Fair Hotel, London. Grooming by Jennie Roberts/Frank Agency. 

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