'Joker' Star Zazie Beetz Pulls Back the Curtain on a Key Scene
[This story contains spoilers for Joker]
Over the past 17 months, Zazie Beetz has experienced the spectrum of R-rated comic book movies. Last year, she starred as Domino in the raunchy action comedy Deadpool 2, and over the record-setting Oct. 4 weekend, audiences watched her performance as Sophie Dumond in the psychological drama that is Joker. When Beetz first heard about the project, she assumed it'd be another run-of-the-mill comic book movie, but once she read Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script, she knew it was something she had to do. Beetz wanted the role so much that she even sent in a second audition tape. That led to an audition with star Joaquin Phoenix, who calmed her nerves by admitting that he was nervous to be reading with her since he still hadn't fleshed out the character of Arthur Fleck — the man who eventually becomes Batman’s archenemy, Joker.
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Like Arthur, the character of Sophie evolved throughout production until director Phillips and his team landed on the notion that most of Arthur Fleck's interactions with his kindly neighbor would be based on Arthur’s fantasies.
"We were finding that character as we were also finding Arthur," Beetz tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Joaquin and Todd were so playful in figuring it out and trying new things. Because they shot so quickly, we were able to fit more in and say, 'Let’s throw in a new scene. Let’s try it this way; let’s try it that way.' So, to find her in this iteration being partially a fantasy, we didn’t really talk much about the second viewing, but I feel like she’s a fruition of all these different versions we tested out and put the hats on of, before landing on this."
Beetz interprets Arthur's incarnation of Sophie as "what he needs and what he wants," noting that early on in the film, she acknowledges his existence, which is a big deal to him since he’s fallen through the cracks of Gotham City’s fractured society. She also recalls the thinking behind a startling scene in which Arthur shows up at Sophie's apartment: "There was this base reaction that Todd and I talked about as the instinct is to immediately protect my daughter and to not flip out because that would be dangerous, potentially."
Joker broke a number of October box office records with $93.5 million over the weekend, the latest in a string of successes for Zazie Beetz (pronounced zah-SEE Bates, as she reminded her half a million Instagram followers recently). In a recent conversation with THR, the actor opens up about navigating success in Hollywood, shooting that revelatory scene with Arthur in Sophie's apartment, her thoughts on the upcoming two-season shoot of FX's Atlanta and her future as Deadpool's Domino.
You’ve now made two comic book movies on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. With Joker, did you remotely feel like you were shooting a comic book movie?
(Laughs.) I think it’s funny because they are inherently completely different in terms of production and how everything came together. One is an action comedy, and the other one is a psychological drama. So, I feel like comic book is plastered on both, but tonally, it’s completely different. But, I think that’s what’s lovely. It’s genre-bending and not prescribing the idea of a comic book story to be one thing. They traditionally do span a great spectrum. There’s a lot of adult comics; there’s also very neutral comics. While Deadpool is still an R-rated story, there’s a youthfulness to it that Joker doesn’t have. I think it’s great to do that in art and to keep pushing what the expectations are as Deadpool does already by being a little raunchier and a little dirtier than what we would normally expect. Hopefully, the genre continues to explore.
Was there anything unusual about the casting process?
Not really. I received the script through my agency, and they were like, “There’s a Joker script!” With the comic book universe completely exploding, I thought it would be just another standard iteration. Then, I read the script, and I was immediately obsessed. When I heard that Joaquin was attached, my ears and my heart perked a lot. Reading the script, I was completely blown away. Ten pages in, I knew that I had to do this movie.
It was sort of a standard audition. I went in to read with Todd [Phillips], and I was a complete nervous wreck walking in because I wanted this role so badly. I wanted to tape again, so I sent in another tape because I just wanted to show my best. I just really fought for the role. Later on, I read again with Todd and Joaquin [Phoenix], and then I booked the role, which was over a process of a couple months. It was a pretty standard booking process.
Since Joaquin’s reputation precedes him, is a chemistry read with Joaquin markedly more intimidating than one with Ryan Reynolds or Donald Glover?
(Laughs.) I don’t know. I have to contextualize it with where I was at in my life. When I had my reading with Donald, I was nine months into my career, and this was my first potential opportunity at completely changing my life. I was quite nervous for that. And with Ryan, it was another massive opportunity to completely change my life. With Joaquin, it was kind of the same. Actually, I felt almost more relaxed because Joaquin hadn’t really prepped for the role yet. So, he led with, “I’m really nervous,” and I was like, “Thank God — me, too.” So, we could meet each other on that, and we were just sort of playing. Obviously, yes, I was nervous. He’s such an amazing actor, but he’s also so human and very empathetic. I would say they were all kind of equal, but different, and at different parts of my life. They all had varying significance, but I don’t know if I can pit them against each other, really.
When you’re performing in a scene with an actor who's doing something as big as Joaquin is, do you ever find yourself being a spectator unintentionally?
Yeah, I do. I find when I am in a scene, I really try to not spectate because that means that I’m also not in the scene, and I’m thinking rather than reacting, listening and just being my character and responding to the person across from me. But, I would say that I definitely go into an observation place in between takes, when prepping for things and when discussing process and how to approach building a character. If I find myself overthinking and being like, “Oh my goodness, this person is so great,” which honestly happens most of the time, I find that it’s hard for me to focus on my job. I try to remove myself out of that and just try to acknowledge them as my peer and that I’m here for a reason. But, of course, watching Joaquin act is unbelievable, and so is watching him do other takes and other things when I’m not in the scene. He’s so playful and thoughtful, but also free in his work. So, it’s definitely a study session for me, but you have to balance it, I suppose. I have to try and get my job done too in a way.
Let’s talk about the big reveal. Besides the implausibility of what Arthur is showing us in regard to Sophie, is there anything we should look out for during a second viewing that distinguishes Arthur’s Sophie from the real Sophie?
That’s an interesting question. I think that Arthur’s Sophie is what he needs and what he wants. He’s placing that identity on Sophie because in their first encounter, Sophie simply acknowledges his existence. Throughout a big portion of the film, he’s trying to find his existence; he’s even questioning himself, “Am I even really here?” Sophie is a person outside of his immediate circle of his mom and his work. Having anybody outside of that just even say, “Here, we’re an equal. This sucks for the both of us, doesn’t it?” is such a validating experience for him, especially coming from a woman, as he doesn’t have an opportunity to have any kind of romantic endeavors just due to his state. I think it means so much to him that he overemphasizes what it meant. The woman he has in his mind is, of course, different from the woman that she is. Realistically, I don’t think it would work between them.
Did you and Todd actually talk about rewarding the second viewing since the reveal would now be in the viewer’s mind?
We didn’t talk specifically about that. I think what’s interesting about Sophie is that she’s changed a lot from her original iteration in the script. As I was talking about at Sundance, we were finding that character as we were also finding Arthur. Joaquin and Todd were so playful in figuring it out and trying new things. Because they shot so quickly, we were able to fit more in and say, “Let’s throw in a new scene. Let’s try it this way; let’s try it that way.” So, to find her in this iteration being partially a fantasy, we didn’t really talk much about the second viewing, but I feel like she’s a fruition of all these different versions we tested out and put the hats on of, before landing on this. I have my interpretation of it all, but I don’t know if I necessarily want to publicly share it. What makes it more interesting is dissecting your own version of it. But, no, I wouldn’t say we specifically, or overtly, talked about any Easter eggs to watch out for.
Do you remember the circumstances in which you found out that Sophie’s role would mostly be a fantasy?
Yes, it was a development as we were doing it. I think we had shot some stuff, and then there were a couple of times where Todd called me and said, “We might shift it in this way.” It was sort of this slow shift, actually. So, I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily from one moment to the next where we were like, “There’s a fantasy element.” But, I think that the entire film is all through Arthur’s point of view, almost the entire thing, so, to an extent, you can question the interpretation of anything in this film. You can question Arthur’s relationship with his mother — and what that was really like or not really like — and then what they tell him in the insane asylum about her. That’s also up for interpretation. Is that the truth of her relationship with him when he was a child, or was it fabricated? I think the movie just really shifted into something where it’s all coming from his brain. In the end, isn’t it all up for questioning? What is reality or what isn’t reality as he questions his own reality and his own existence in the world? So, Sophie just started inserting into his brain rather than necessarily being a whole physical character outside in the story. I think everything transitioned into Arthur’s POV more.
How many times did you perform the scene where Sophie walks into her living room to discover Arthur, which ultimately reveals the fantasy?
I can’t say that it was more than usual. It was maybe the standard five takes per shot, I guess. We had a few shots and a few angles. Obviously, we had some camera angles and shots that didn’t make it into the movie. I’d say we ended up doing it 15 times with all the angles involved.
Was your performance consistent from take to take?
Yes, you always have to account for continuity, but the way that Joaquin would come into the room or the way that he would approach me was different. We also improvised sometimes. There was this base reaction that Todd and I talked about as the instinct is to immediately protect my daughter and to not flip out because that would be dangerous, potentially. Obviously, I don’t know because I haven’t had the experience of somebody just being in my apartment — somebody who was potentially a neighbor and familiar, but should not be here. For me, if I had to protect somebody, I think my knee-jerk reaction would be to try to remain calm. So, there was this overarching base to work off of, but I’d say within that, we definitely stretched and folded to find different iterations of it.
If you had to guess, do you think we’ll see some deleted scenes with Sophie on the Blu-ray?
I don’t know. I could see them leaving the story where it is and not trying to muddle it with other things. Honestly, I’d say probably not, but who knows? I certainly don’t.
Do you, Zazie, feel bad for Arthur up to a point?
Ooh, that’s a question. (Laughs.) I, Zazie, as an actor and a person, always try to reserve empathy for anyone. I think it is important when moving through the world to try to understand where people come from and what their point of view is in order to accurately address people and hopefully change people. Coming at someone with an axe and a torch isn’t always the way to necessarily make people shift, but I try to be like, “I see where these parts of you came to fruition…I see where that happened.” Do I think that killing your enemies is the answer? No, I don’t. But, I understand pain, and I understand loneliness. And, yes, [what Arthur has been through] is incredibly painful. As a human, yes, I understand that pain, and I feel that pain. So, I feel bad for Arthur having that pain.
Actors often tell me that Hollywood feels rather small once you're in it. When you just so happen to reunite with Brian Tyree Henry on the same movie during your Atlanta hiatus, do you get that sense, too, despite not having any scenes together?
Yeah, Hollywood does feel rather small. It’s small, and it’s huge. But, yes, everybody is toppling over each other in the industry, and that’s why when you’re at a party and you’re talking about somebody, you have to be really careful. Everyone knows each other. I have my closest relationships to other actors and directors, and of course, crew as well. The industry is also huge because on a standard set, you can have hundreds of people on a set. I remember one day on Deadpool 2, we had 400 people on set, and that’s just one movie. There are writers that you never meet…and composers, musicians, producers, crew, accountants…. In a whole sense, yes, it’s big, but what is visible is quite small, and because I am a part of the visible part of this industry, I suppose I emotionally associate a lot with that. I know Brian; we all know Brian, and so, yes, that part feels small.
I realize that nobody knows anything right now, but would you be surprised if you never played Domino again?
Is it true that Deadpool 2 affected your availability during Season Two of Atlanta?
Deadpool 2 and Atlanta did overlap in terms of shooting time, but we have wonderful teams that figured it out. So, there was an availability question, but ultimately, we made it work as far as I understand. I hope I wasn’t cut out of stuff because of Deadpool (Laughs.) — but there was a couple of weeks of overlap in terms of shooting.
It was announced that Atlanta is shooting the next two seasons back to back. Is this a response to how busy the four of you are?
Honestly, I don’t actually really know. I’m not really on that end of the planning, but I think there is a feeling of trying to consolidate it and get some seasons in because we are all very busy. We do all have other conflicts constantly hatching up. I know Donald had a big year last year, so a lot of factors have interrupted the flow of the show. But, yeah, I suppose it is an attempt to consolidate everybody and get everyone in the same room for a longer period of time.
You’ve been on quite a run since 2016. Does success feel the way you expected it to feel?
Yes and no. I think I’m a pretty grounded person. In a general sense, I really base a lot of my success on my day-to-day well-being. Am I happy on a day-to-day basis? Do I feel good? While I suppose I am ambitious, I know people can change in this type of work because this work is based a lot on validation, which can quickly turn into vanity and exploded ideas of self and ego. I think people’s behavior changes because people start treating them differently. If your entire circle is starting to worship you or cater to your every whim, it’s hard to find reality and stasis within that. So, I work really hard to never lose touch with me as a person. It actually annoys me a lot when people close to me are like, “Oh, you’re so fancy….” I really don’t like that, and I really just want to be myself. I feel like I’ve separated myself in my mind from the idea of success…I don’t know where I’m at; I’m just sort of living my life and trying to do my thing while these great things are happening alongside of it. That’s wonderful, and I feel really lucky…. It’s also overwhelming and emotionally really difficult, but also really wonderful. It’s been a lot; it’s definitely been a roller coaster. I suppose it’ll get easier to emotionally manage it all. I’m just trying to be like, “I’m cool….” So, I guess it hasn’t felt the way I expected it to feel. (Laughs.)
I’m fascinated by the Hollywood group text. What’s your favorite group text going right now?
(Laughs.) Atlanta has a group text. We’ve had one since the beginning, and it still goes on 24/7. It’s very, very active. So, that’s a nice group text I’d say.
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