The red-hot writer, producer, director, musician and now movie star takes a break from Lando duties on the Han Solo movie to dissect his extraordinary rise, 'Atlanta' Emmy hopes, his secret sit-down with Billy Dee Williams (in disguise) and how he plans to conquer Hollywood: "Convince them that you speak old white man."
On a crisp afternoon in late January, Donald Glover arrived for the kind of meeting his younger, nerdier, Star Wars-loving self would never have dreamed possible. Having been cast three months earlier as Lando Calrissian in the eagerly awaited Han Solo spinoff movie, he was there, incognito with a pair of shades and a fake nose, to sit face-to-face in Los Angeles with Billy Dee Williams, the original Lando, for a top-secret torch-passing arranged by Lucasfilm.
Glover found himself frazzled and running behind, as he often is, and was more than a little nervous. Once the formalities were out of the way, he threw himself feverishly into a dissection of Calrissian and his possible virtues: "I was like, 'I've always felt like this character could do this, and he represents this, and I kind of feel like he comes from here, and it's very obvious he has a lot of taste, so maybe he grew up seeing that from afar? Because I'm like that. Maybe he saw it from other planets and was like, 'I want to be that.' " Glover is full-on laughing now as he re-enacts the exchange. "He just let me ramble on and on, and then finally I was like, 'So, what do you think?' And he goes, 'Yeah, I don't know about all that. Just be charming.' "
That Glover would want to search for deeper, nuanced meaning in what's effectively a caricature of a smooth-talking hustler is at once comical and entirely appropriate. After all, what distinguishes the 33-year-old — arguably the most prolific creator of his generation, racking up accolades as a writer, producer, director, rapper, stand-up and, now, movie star — is not only his unique voice and versatility, but also his desire, through his work, to get under people's skin and make them think, even if they aren't always comfortable doing so. It's been a theme of his music (he has sold more than 1 million albums under his stage name, Childish Gambino) as well as his comedy material; but the most stunning example of all came last fall with the introduction of his FX series, Atlanta, a sharply observed commentary on being young and black in today's America that merely masquerades as a comedy about rappers in the southern capital. The show seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly scored the highest half-hour ratings in its network's history, not to mention a Peabody, an AFI award, a pair of Golden Globes and six Emmy nominations, with at least a few prognosticators predicting it'll unseat perennial winner Veep come September. As the head of FX, John Landgraf, puts it, "Underestimate Donald Glover at your own peril."
When I sit down with Glover this summer in London — where he has been living since January, shooting the Star Wars movie that has had as much drama offscreen as it has had on (his thoughts on that later) — I wonder aloud what's fueling his rise. He slurps up what's left of his pea soup then attempts to explain. "I definitely have a chip on my shoulder," he says, "about things not happening the way I think they should." Or as quickly as he thinks they should. Among the first things that one notices about Glover is a palpable restlessness, a steady background hum of dissatisfaction with the status quo and an urgency to change it. This is due, in part, to his age and millennial mindset and, in part, to his upbringing and identity — each factor in its own way relevant as he claws his way to the top of an industry run by people who, at least in these areas, have little in common with him.
"I know it takes time," he acknowledges, "and you have to make people feel comfortable. You have to make them understand that you speak their language — that you speak old white man." A smile has now engulfed the lower half of Glover's intricately bearded face (a trace of Lando, I learn later), and he continues: "I often feel like those explorers who go into the Amazon and then become friends with the tribe, or like Jane Goodall with monkeys, where it's like, 'I'm just going to follow you guys around for a while and then you'll realize, Well, she hasn't tried to steal one of our babies or eat any of our food, so she can't be that bad, you guys. Let's let her see how we mate and stuff; she'll be fine.' "
That's the perspective Glover adopted when walking the halls of Hollywood back in 2013, pitching the idea that would become Atlanta, and in so doing recast himself as an auteur. "I don't think any of the executives we pitched to quite expected this idea from him," recalls his manager, Dianne McGunigle, now a producer on Atlanta. "He was coming off Community, and when you hear it in that stage, it's existential and dark." Once FX bit, Glover proceeded on his terms. He hired an entirely black writing staff, many of whom had never made a frame of television before. Eschewing an office on a studio lot, he assembled them in his Hollywood Hills home, which he ran more as a salon than a traditional writers room. Narrative conventions were upended — intimate scenes lasted several minutes, and entire episodes existed without the series' star. The director, Hiro Murai, part of a creative team that hopscotches with Glover between mediums, was hired without any series experience, and the cast was filled out not by recognizable stars but rather undiscovered talent like Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi) and Zazie Beetz (Vanessa). Glover's goal was less to prove that his way was better than it was to prove that there was another way.
But now he would like to be done having to prove anything to Hollywood, least of all himself. "I want to be like Spike Jonze, in a sense," he says, "where I'm like, 'I do what I want when I want to do it, and trust me because I also want to make you money.' "
Over breakfast in London's Camden area earlier on that same July day, Glover reveals where his talent for what he calls "world-building" began. He was raised a half-hour drive from Atlanta, in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses. His father worked at the post office, his mother as a day care manager, and they populated the house — which his parents still live in — with Donald; his brother, Stephen, now a writer on Atlanta; his sister; two adopted siblings and a rotating cast of foster kids. It was, at alternating points, chaotic, disturbing and hugely informative.
"I saw kids dying of AIDS in our house," he says with a bluntness that startles me. "I saw people getting stabbed. I saw drug dealers stealing people's address books so they could get to my house because people [there] owed them money." Glover's voice trails off, and we sit momentarily in silence. In conversation, his passion occasionally overtakes his ability to be articulate, leaving him tangled in his own thoughts, but on this he's crystal clear: "I wanted to build my own world because then you get to make the world a little safer."
His parents' faith made most of the entertainment options that his friends got to enjoy off-limits in his home. Though he and Stephen — neither of whom subscribes to the religion as adults — would sneak in bootleg audio of Simpsons episodes, their primary source of amusement was their own imagination. "We used to record all of these fake TV shows and commercials, or fake movie trailers where Donald would also do all of the sound effects," says Stephen, who, while sharing a strong family resemblance with his older brother, is quicker to laugh. (When I point this out to Donald, he smiles, and then adds: "I'm definitely more intense.")
Glover found creative outlets at school, too, always involved in a musical or a play. Stephen remembers how his brother would go missing for days or even weeks at a time, as he got swept up in writing and acting and going out to shows. "That's just Donald," he says. "He's always been doing a million things, and he picks things up really quickly." By his senior year of high school, the admissions department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts accepted Glover into its prestigious program. That he lacked the connections and privileged upbringing of many of his classmates never got in his way. "I just never saw the roadblocks," he says with a shrug.
After graduation, as many of those peers toiled away in their parents' basements, he parlayed some funny YouTube videos from his sketch-comedy troupe into a coveted gig in the 30 Rock writers room. He was all of 23, and it would take time for him to get comfortable with his good fortune. "Being the only black writer, you're sort of like, 'Why am I really here?' " he remembers thinking, before his father set him straight. "He'd say to me, 'They're not hiring a bunch of these black kids from middle of nowhere Georgia; there's a reason you're here.' " But after three seasons as part of Tina Fey's Emmy-winning staff, he quit to pursue his next dream: acting. "Normally you're in the position of telling people, 'Maybe pursue it on the side. Don't give up your income.' Because you don't feel like they'll make it," Fey has said. "But with Donald, the answer was clearly, 'Yep. You're wasting valuable time here. Go get famous.' "
And in short order, he did. Glover landed the part of Troy, a washed-up jock on Dan Harmon's NBC cult comedy Community, and, through brilliant, laugh-out-loud improv, made the character his own. "Writers sit in a room for hours — and there are 10 of them and they all went to Harvard — and they argue endlessly about what jokes to end a scene on, but a good portion of the ending lines to scenes in Community would be ones that Donald would just riff on the spot," says Harmon, with whom Glover stays in touch and brainstorms ideas. "I remember there was a transitional point where we literally started writing in the script, 'And then Donald says something funny.' "
Glover lasted four seasons as an actor-for-hire before deciding he was ready to chase the next dream — and Harmon, like Fey, had no interest in standing in Glover's way. "You can't tell that guy, 'Oh, now this is the time you're going to fail, so you should definitely not keep moving forward,' " says Harmon. "Look at his ascent. If I were Donald Glover, I would try eating the moon, because we're not so sure he can't until he tries since everything he tries he succeeds at." Harmon made one request of Glover: Stay on for a few episodes in season five to tie up the character's storyline, which Glover agreed to do. The show would continue for a sixth season, though Harmon acknowledges it was never the same: "I needed to convince myself that Donald leaving wasn't the death of the show, but now that it's all over, I think we can agree that it was."
At different points, that next dream has been music, screenwriting, stand-up and movie stardom. Some of Glover's successes have come easy; others, like his part in this summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming, he seems to have willed to happen. The latter began in 2010 with a tweet from Glover — who has since deleted his entire social media footprint — about wanting to play Spider-Man; it snowballed swiftly into a full-blown fan campaign, which then fueled a debate about the lack of diversity in superhero films and, years later, led to his casting in the July blockbuster. In fact, it was Homecoming director Jon Watts who approached Glover, no longer age-appropriate for the part of Spidey, to play a small but meaningful role, which could prove more significant if the studio decides to greenlight a rumored spinoff about Miles Morales, the nephew of Glover's character. "If you don't do [the part]," Watts told Glover before Homecoming, "we aren't going to [include] it."
In a sense, Glover's career has just been one long continuation of his ever-shifting childhood aspirations. The only boyhood dream he seems not to have pursued is becoming a wedding planner, which sounds like an odd fit until Glover breaks it down. "What you're really doing is giving people an experience," he explains, "and the people are happy already, so you just want to give them something they can remember." The irony, of course, is that Glover himself doesn't believe in marriage. "It doesn't serve the purpose that I would want it to serve," he says cryptically. In the interest of space, I'm forced to leave out the philosophical debate that follows, in which Glover, a New Yorker subscriber who is as comfortable pontificating about Basquiat as he is about American Dad, unleashes a series of rhetorical flourishes. (For the record, he does believe in love.)
Of all the opportunities that have come along in the half-decade since Glover left Community, nothing has vaulted him as high on the Hollywood food chain as the part of Lando. "It's the biggest boat you can be on," he says with boyish giddiness.
The only person who seems more excited about his casting than Glover himself is his father, a Star Wars fanatic who, more lenient than Donald's mother, introduced his son to the franchise when he was a boy. In fact, the first toy Donald Sr. purchased for his son was a Lando action figure, which is why one of the biggest thrills of landing the part was being able to call his father with the news. "He just kept saying, 'Woooow,' " says Glover, who has since hosted his dad on the London set.
But by June, the highest-profile project of Glover's career had hit a snag. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired, ostensibly over creative differences with the studio, and replaced by veteran Ron Howard. Though Glover is uncomfortable elaborating, he acknowledges that the change on set has been dramatic. "Ron is such a legend, and he knows exactly what the vision for what he is doing is … [but Phil and Chris] hired us, so you sort of feel like, 'I know I'm not your first choice …' And you worry about that," he says, picking at a croissant. "To be honest, I don't know exactly what happened. I feel like I was the baby in the divorce, or the youngest child. The oldest child is like, 'We know what's happening, but we are keeping you out of it.' And I'm just like, [Glover's voice rises several octaves] 'Was that scene good? How did you feel?' "
It has been a while since Glover was simply a "color in someone else's palette," as he describes his role on Han Solo, and the lack of control has, at times, been challenging. Which is not to say he won't continue acting. He has already signed on to play Simba in Jon Favreau's Lion King remake, and he's not ruling out a future with Spider-Man. But the remainder of Glover's schedule will likely have him back in the role of idea generator, where he seems most at ease. In January, he signed a sweeping production deal with Atlanta's studio, FX Productions, which is where at least a few of those ideas will incubate. The first of them will be an animated Deadpool series, for which he and his brother have enlisted several Atlanta staffers to help write.
But before any new project can be fully realized, Glover will need to deliver a second season of Atlanta, which begins production in September. It will be a different experience for him, in part because he has added the perspective of a father since the last time he was in the show's writers room. Though he's fiercely protective of his family's privacy — he refers to the mother of his 1½-year-old son as his "partner," but declines to name her or the son, and wants to keep their life together out of print — he acknowledges that he's now better able to relate to his character, an Ivy League dropout struggling to balance his aspirations as a rap manager and his responsibilities as a parent. "I don't spend as much time with [my son] as I want to," he says, "but it's because I want to give him everything."
Glover is purposefully vague on plans for the show's second season, just as he was for its first. "He likes to keep an air of mystery about himself and his process," says FX's president of programming, Nick Grad, who acknowledges that the tactic has presented its share of challenges when it comes to marketing the series. All Glover will offer on this day is that the coming season will need to be "better" than the last: "I don't want to go into season two [with the mindset of] 'Enough people liked it so just keep those people,' " he says, "because then you begin to give your audience a methadone drip of bullshit that keeps them happy as opposed to, 'We did something controversial and more people were interested.' "
To get himself in the proper headspace, Glover watches Planet Earth and whatever animal attacks the internet has to offer. "I just think it's amazing that you can have something that has violence and sex, and you can show it to children and be like, 'Yeah, that's just what it is,' " he says, with a playful smile. "And that's what I want to do with this show. Like, 'This is life; it's not us trying to be provocative.' "
As my time with Glover winds down, I try to engage him on the shape of his career and the extent to which he's driven by the examples of others, like a Ron Howard, who at different points during his career was an actor, producer and director, or perhaps a Louis C.K. or Chris Rock, both of whom he has referenced during our conversation. Or maybe even an Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin, among the few figures I can think of who have succeeded in as many art forms as Glover has.
His answer surprises me. "I don't want to be the next Ron Howard or the next anybody else," he says matter-of-factly. "My job is to do what Ron could have never done."
And as anyone in Glover's inner circle will tell you, he has plenty of ideas already. There will be more music, says his brother, and possibly a musical movie at some point, too. He has a slew of ideas for virtual reality, and likely a play in him as well. Some will be wackier than others — as a Burning Man-style three-day performance he put on in the desert to promote his latest album proved last fall — and it will be up to Glover to convince those in Hollywood that he, like Jane Goodall with those monkeys, can be trusted. And he will, in part because of that chip on his shoulder that he reminds me about at least a few more times, as though somehow I've forgotten.
"I can be a very sweet guy, but I don't like being told what things are and how things are going to work," Glover says as we're getting ready to say goodbye. "Because it's all just a big puzzle, life's all just a big puzzle, and it was created by people before me …" He pauses, thinking carefully about what he's going to say next, and then he continues: "And I'm like, 'Well, they didn't know what I know.' "
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.