With festival smash Sorry to Bother You opening July 6, Get Out in his rear-view and The Girl in the Spider’s Web upcoming, the enthralling young actor has arrived. In Playboy's 20Q, he talks aspiration, Atlanta (and not knowing Donald Glover was once on Community) and the truth behind his surreal Oscars cameo.
Your new movie Sorry to Bother You has some of the most shocking twists in recent memory. Without giving too much away, were you prepared for that when you first got the script
No one gave me any warning, which I think is a good way to go into this kind of story—straight in. Once I read it, I was like, “Oh, totally, we have to do this.” It hopped off the page. Normally, to make a movie like this you would need a multimillion-dollar budget. I don’t know what the exact numbers were, but they were pretty low. Sometimes my trailer was a van, you know what I mean? But we found a way to make it happen. We had a vision. Sometimes it’s the best working environment when everyone builds from the trenches together. You can really get on the ground and get dirty.
Your character, Cassius Green, is a telemarketer who, having learned to use his “white voice,” gets a big promotion that comes with increasingly lavish and weird perks. You’re 26 and have been acting for a decade. In your own career, has it ever felt as though you were leaving behind the people you came up with?
Yeah. When I first moved to Los Angeles, it was definitely a big shift for me. Certain people around me didn’t understand why I would be trying to pursue this weird job. I had conversations with people very similar to those Cassius has with Detroit [Cassius’s girlfriend, played by Tessa Thompson]. But it hasn’t really started feeling super weird until now. I was in L.A. recently, in my car at a stoplight, and some dude just runs up to my passenger-side window, takes a selfie and runs off. Just selfie, then gone. I was like, Yeah, that’s never happened before. Something is different.
Cassius also tells Detroit, “I’m just out here surviving, and what I’m doing right now won’t even matter.” Do you share that anxiety about leaving your mark on the world?
No. Cassius wants to be remembered, to leave something behind. I think to some extent we all do, but it’s not my primary concern. Maybe what you leave behind in your work is cool, but I wouldn’t want my work to be ascribed only to me. I’m more of a collaborator. I love family, and I love the idea of leaving things to family and having generational things that can be looked back on—history, generational wealth. But people aren’t as special as we tell ourselves. I think other things are more important than humans, personally.
Do you think it’s ultimately a hopeful movie?
I do. I walk away with a sense of newfound hope, remembering what’s important to tell yourself—especially when you’re rising in terms of fame or money or anything like that. Remembering to try to stay grounded and keep good people around you who will tell you when you’re fucking up or off your square. Sorry to Bother You is a beautiful rags-to-riches story. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true: You can have all the things in the world and be miserable.
Were you raised in a religious household?
Mm-hmm. I was raised very religious. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to comprehend things differently, in a way that was sort of opposite to what I’d been taught. I went through a phase when I dropped all religion, but then I went back, thinking maybe it’s some mixture in between the two. And now I just say, “I don’t know.” But I do like the Bible. It has a lot of real-world implications and seems to be based on some astrological things, so if you’re into trying to connect to something larger than yourself, it’s definitely worth a read. But try to read it outside the confines of any given religion. Read it for yourself and come up with your own conclusions.
What denomination were you raised in?
Protestant—yeah, Protestant. Latter Day Saints, I think it’s called. No. Seventh-Day Adventist! Yeah, they used to say all those words, but I never really knew what they meant. It was a strange one: baptized, drinking the blood of Jesus, eating of the flesh, whatever, and anointments and people falling on the ground, shaking and speaking in tongues. Great music. I was in the choir. Like I said, as of late I’m more in the middle of things. I definitely don’t subscribe to religion, but I think there’s something to be said for spirituality and finding one’s footing in that place.
Where else do you turn when you need -solace or inspiration?
Music helps. I really love music. I like this compilation XXYYXX by XXYYXX. I listen to some Beethoven, some Bach every now and again, Yo-Yo Ma and shit like that. It’s nice and soothing. I like Moroccan music and Black Coffee and sounds of nature. I kind of throw it around.
You recently wrote and directed a short film, The Road. Can you tell us about that?
I wrote and shot that while I was filming the TV show Atlanta. It was inspired by a conversation between Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry about race and power and politics. I was sitting at the table with these two very smart people who were just volleying, and I was in the middle like, “Oh, shit.” It inspired me to take my friend, who worked with me on the project, and sort of make him represent some of those things. And being in Atlanta, which is a really black city, there’s this interesting aspect about race relations and things of that nature.
Do you think you’ll do more writing and directing?
Oh, man, I really want to slowly but surely move into more behind-the-scenes stuff. I’m just trying to take it all in, spend some time with heroes, get out there in the field, try to learn.
You clearly have an innate ability to get in front of people and compel their attention—your career started when you jumped up on a table or chair and started air-surfing in front of an agent. Do you really want to dial back the performance part?
Attention is not always that much fun. I mean, I love telling stories, but I don’t really like having attention on me, you know what I mean? It’s surface level. I’m more into deep connections. I love everyone who supports me, but the interaction on a fame level is just not the same and—I don’t know, it’s not for me.
You recently tweeted a question: “Do you separate artist from art?” What inspired that?
Twitter is an interesting platform. I have fun interacting with people on it and wondering what the overall consensus is on questions like that. In this day and age of information and accessibility to artists, you can get more of an insight into who people are, and it gives you an opportunity to create ideas and judgments about that. Personally I think the less information I have about the artist the better, because it allows me to just enjoy the art. Sometimes those things can influence how you think. So I think it’s better to just be like, “Show the art and shut up.”
Let’s talk about Atlanta. In the first episode we see your character, Darius, baking cookies. Do you think Darius might pursue food as a career, or is there any particular way you see him developing in five or 10 years?
I hope not, because Darius’s recipes are quite a bit stranger than one might imagine. I’m actually there in his body, cooking, so I can tell you that half the stuff he makes—I don’t know if anybody would really want to indulge in it. But you never know. I mean, if you want some pasta with Darius’s foot stuck in it—literally his foot stuck in it—then you might be interested.
Do you see anything else in his future?
I never see his past or his future. Darius is always in the now. In his estimation it’s all the same: Past, present and future all exist right now. Darius is everywhere.
You first met Donald Glover at a party as a fan of his music persona, Childish Gambino, right?
I still call him Gambino. That’s the only thing I knew! I didn’t know he was an actor. I didn’t know he was on Community. I didn’t really watch much TV coming up, and actually I’d only heard a couple of his freestyles. But yeah, I had heard him rap before, and I thought he was very courageous for the way that he rapped because it felt like he was coming from the heart in a way I hadn’t heard in a while. Seeing him at that party, I said, “Oh shit! Yeah, man, I know who you are.” And he was like, “I think you’d be great for this role.” The first thought that crossed my mind was, Wow, I must have some really fuckin’ good dance moves. Because I was on the dance floor, just gettin’ it by myself. I mean, I gotta hit the dance floor; it’s not there for nothing. And I guess he thought I had some good moves; that’s what I thought. Later I found out that he’d seen something else that I had been in and thought I might be good for Darius. But either way, in the moment I was like, “Oh shit. Cool, man, here’s my info.”
A lot of actors can’t stand to watch themselves on the screen. Is that a problem for you?
I definitely get that sense of it. I’m not that interested in looking at myself—but when I’m watching, I don’t really feel like I’m watching me, funny enough. It kind of feels like I’m just watching that character, and I’m able to do it more and more as I go on and remove myself from the equation. Right now I feel it’s relatively easy, because I can let go of my relationship to the project and I can let go of the character. No matter how many times people run up to me and say, “Get out!” or ask to measure my tree, I can still develop a level of distance from the character, because I let it go.
Say you take an average person and plop them right in the middle of an Oscars ceremony; it’s like warping them into a whole nother dimension. And I felt that way.
This year’s Oscars featured a memorable cameo from your Get Out character. When that idea was proposed to you, what was your initial reaction?
That there couldn’t be a better place to do something like this. Say you take an average person and plop them right in the middle of an Oscars ceremony; it’s like warping them into a whole nother dimension. And I felt that way. It was my first Oscars thing. I had been to other awards ceremonies, and all of them had felt the same to me—like a strange twilight zone that you’re being zoomed into. All of a sudden you’re standing next to all these people with lights and cameras flashing all over, and there’s sort of an underbelly, with security and people with guns taking care of jewelry. It’s a strange place.
So playing that character reminded me of the party scene in Get Out—not the sense of the racism but just feeling like I was in a new environment. So in the sense that Andre, my character in Get Out, was sort of taken over by something entering his body, I kind of felt like I was in a foreign body at the Oscars. It felt appropriate to be screaming “Get out!” at that audience.
After that moment, you lingered onstage, which really cranked up the tension. Was that a conscious choice?
Well, I tried to tell everyone after I got done with the “get out” thing that I was sorry to bother them, but they cut my mike. So it kind of looked like I was just standing there, and no one else knows it, but actually I said, “Sorry to bother you.” No one knew I was going to do it. I didn’t even know I was going to do it. It just kind of happened in the moment.
Other than Sorry to Bother You, do you have any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
I just wrapped up a movie called The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is the next installment in the Millennium series, the first of which was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t wait till we see a trailer for it because I think it’s going to be quite the spectacle.
Is that your first big action movie?
I think so, if you don’t count The Purge: Anarchy—I don’t know if that’s an action movie. This time I’m right in the center of the fire. My character is attempting to track down Lisbeth Salander. I can’t release many details as to why, but he’s trying to track her down, and it’s a fun ride watching them duke it out. It’s a big, beautiful-looking film from what I’ve seen so far. There are some other things I won’t talk about [in a posh voice] because I love keeping an element of mysteria.
Speaking of mysteria, last question: Do you have recurring dreams?
I do, actually. One of them is a great, expansive dream where I’m flying around everywhere. That one happened a lot when I was younger and then it went away, but it’s come back recently, which I think is a good sign. I feel like that dream represents some kind of exploration of freedom. I’ve had another recurring dream that isn’t so good, about being pursued by law enforcement for some reason. That dream started surfacing after I did the movie Crown Heights. Now it seems to be dissipating, which is great, because I don’t like those dreams. I’d much rather be flying.