Donald Glover Talks 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' and 'The Lion King' Remake
Right now everyone in Hollywood wishes they were Donald Glover.
BY BIJAN STEPHEN with Photographs by David Burton | May 25, 2018 | Film & TV
People like Donald Glover aren't supposed to exist; shows like Atlanta aren’t supposed to get made. And yet here we are, in the early days of anno Domini 2018, witnessing Glover and Atlanta happen at the same time. Looking back now, I find it hard to imagine the pitch—a show about a Princeton dropout who wants to be a rap manager?—although of course Glover remembers, because going from idea to episode 101 took years. “I remember seeing an interview where Dave Chappelle was talking about how it was important to him that the show was personal,” Glover told me. “So I just focused on making it more and more personal. We shopped it around to all these places. I didn’t get too specific about what the show was, because I just felt like trying to explain it was going to be a hard sell.” And it was. Numerous networks passed; in the end, FX was the only one that didn’t blink. “It was a Trojan horse to be able to just tell stories,” Glover said. “I’m just not a person who wants to give people what they want, because I’m more complicated than that.”
Now no one in Hollywood can get enough of Donald Glover or Atlanta. The show that everyone in town rejected is the one everyone invokes to get their ideas greenlit, a show that is shorthand for once-in-a-generation originality. Glover told me a story about someone who had recently pitched a show. The network’s idea: “Is there a way to make this into the Mexican Atlanta?” he said. “Which I thought was, like, kind of—I guess on a certain level is flattering.” But it belies a critical lack of imagination. A hit doesn’t become a hit based on what it’s made of; the sum has to be greater than its parts. “It’s not an A-to-B-type thing,” Glover said. “You can’t take the bones of something and then just, like, direct it, like, something else.” A show has to be its own thing. At thirty-four, Glover has made a career of frustrating people’s expectations of him. After Atlanta’s debut season, Glover earned a pair of Emmys and a twin set of Golden Globes—the former making him the first African-American to win for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. He’s more successful than anybody his age has any right to be, and it’s because of his creative energy and curiosity. “I’m way farther up this never-ending mountain than I thought I would ever be,” he told me. “Not that I thought that I’d never be there.”
Tuxedo and bow tie by Lanvin; shirt by Maison Margiela; loafers by Paul Andrew; socks by Haider Ackermann.
In December, I met Glover in Atlanta. It was a few weeks before Christmas, and chilly, too; the last leaves on the city’s many trees had decided to give up the ghost. He was in a meditative mood. Or maybe he was just tired, having wrapped the second season of Atlanta only a few days before. Whatever the case, there was a Zen stillness about him that was a little eerie.
"PART OF THE REASON I DO WHAT I DO IS BECAUSE I’M THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DO IT.”
It turns out Glover was thinking about the weight of his crown. “Fame definitely doesn’t help me do what I want to do,” he told me as we took our seats in the back of a black SUV. That might be because he wears its trappings lightly. Maybe you know him as the wonderfully cracked voice behind Tracy Morgan’s “Tracy Jordan” on 30 Rock, or as Troy Barnes, the sweet, washed-up quarterback from Community. Perhaps you were introduced to him as Childish Gambino, the musician who managed to coax a serious career out of a collegiate dalliance with a Wu-Tang Clan name generator, or you watched his stand-up specials. Or maybe you first saw him as Earn Marks, the lost boy who’s trying to support his daughter, on Atlanta. As Troy, Gambino, and Earn—and in movies like The Martian and Magic Mike XXL—Glover is impossibly compelling. His acting is very physical: He has that ability, like water, to fill the space he’s given onscreen, even when he’s playing for laughs. His songs function similarly—his bars hold their own on tracks with Chance the Rapper and J. Cole. The shape of his career, wending as it does across television, music, and movies, feels like something very new, or perhaps very old: He’s the sort of cross-genre talent rarely seen since Hollywood’s studio days.
But as big as Glover is now, he’s about to be huge. Besides starring in the long-awaited second season of Atlanta (premiering March 1), he’ll play Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story (May 25). And next year, he’ll costar with Beyoncé in Jon Favreau’s computer- generated animated remake of The Lion King.
As we maneuvered through Atlanta’s labyrinthine streets, I asked Glover what he wanted to do next. His answer was deceptively simple: “I just want more freedom.”
And what will you do with it?
“Make stuff that no one else will make. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I’m the only one who can do it.”
Suit, shirt, and bow tie by CalvinKlein205W39NYC; Tiffany & Co. English 1980s diamons-and-enamel dress set from Macklowe Gallery, available on 1stdibs.com.
There’s no being objective about Donald Glover—not for me, anyway. I realize that his success means that Glover belongs to the world. He’s Lando motherfucking Calrissian, without question the best-known Donald outside the White House.
But for a young black nerd like me, Glover has always been something else, too. His career in show business started in the mid-2000s, and some of his earliest fans were the self-identified weirdos who felt they couldn’t relate to the world as it was then. (That was a time, remember, when Abercrombie & Fitch was hot and the Internet was a maze of bizarre forums and LiveJournal posts.) As he began to make a name for himself in New York’s improv scene, you had the sense that he got it. He looked like us and talked like us, and seemed to be speaking for a segment of young people who were geeky and quirky and mostly ignored. We loved him for it. Glover made such an impression doing improv that when he graduated from NYU, Tina Fey offered him a writing job on 30 Rock, his first big break. He stayed there for three years, appearing in front of the camera in the occasional episode (once as a young Tracy Morgan), until he told Fey he wanted to move to L. A. and try stand-up.
In 2009, Glover quit 30 Rock and was unemployed for a grand total of six days before he was cast as Troy Barnes on Dan Harmon’s oddball NBC sitcom Community. Troy was the resident dumb guy, the character who sold the show’s concepts and writing with his personality; he made Harmon’s universe believable by playing a believably relatable role. Glover’s comedic instincts made him perfect for the job, and he quickly became the heart of the series. By the time he left, during the fifth season, Glover was no longer a quirky unknown quantity with a few side hustles. Now Facebook wine moms and Tim Taylor-esque dads knew him, and Hollywood was starting to realize that he might be a bankable commodity.
Jacket, trousers, cummerbund, and pocket square by Gucci; shirt by Charvet; stud set by Codis Maya.
Just before we reached the Landmark Diner Jr., in northeast Atlanta, which bills itself as the place “where the stars meet at night,” Glover looked out the window of our SUV and idly pointed to a strip club he’d once been to. So when we sat in our booth at the diner, I asked him about the city’s famous strip clubs, which are said to function as third places, no more louche—well, maybe a little—than a Starbucks in Irvine, California.
Glover didn’t visit one until he was well into his twenties. “I knew what it was,” he said, “and I also didn’t have that type of money.” You can’t be broke in a strip club; that might as well be against the law. “I grew up knowing that you go to the strip club to have a good time,” he said. He stopped himself, then added, “Although I don’t know how much fun women have in there.” In 2012, after a broken foot forced him to postpone his first big tour as Childish Gambino, Glover went to Magic City. “People wanted me to stop being depressed. They’re like, ‘Give us that smile.’ I just don’t want to do it all the time. That’s not me. I’m not going to lie and say, ‘That feels good, you’re my girl.’ ”
Glover’s resistance to the pressures that come with his fame—when people want either a piece of your success (read: money) or something from you that you can’t give, like your love—is balanced by the fact that he is, fundamentally, an open person. Until he signed off social media a few years ago, he maintained a Twitter account that was hardly typical for a celebrity of his stature. Glover’s tweets were openly emo, in a 2008 MySpace sort of way, and they often seemed to offer a peek inside his brain. “lets all get crushes,” he’d tweet one day. “learn to code. god codes,” on another.
Glover quit social media because “I realized that connection was too powerful for a person like me,” he said. “I just would get hurt.” When he goes online now, “I try and find subcultures. I try and find communities. I talk to people as a regular person. It’s the only place you can be anonymous.” (As of press time, he began tweeting again—his first tweet, since deleted, was in response to Oprah’s fiery speech at the Golden Globes; his second was a promo for Atlanta’s second season.)
While he was on Community, Glover filmed two stand-up specials for Comedy Central. The first aired in 2010, and the second in 2011. In both, he essentially played himself: a sharp, self-aware twenty-something. The material was mostly confessional, and it gave nearly equal time to jokes about dicks and jokes about race.
The same week his second special aired, he released Camp, his first serious rap album. Glover had been performing under the name Childish Gambino since shortly after college. On the record, he cast himself as a rap outsider. The subjects of his songs spanned everything from past flings to racial alienation. While its critical reception was mixed, Camp debuted at number eleven on the Billboard 200. He previewed it on a cross-country tour called IAMDONALD, a polymathic fusion of hip-hop, stand-up, and sketch comedy that, at the time, felt like a promise that the world was changing. In 2013, Glover dropped his second studio album, Because the Internet. Certified gold, it earned Glover a pair of Grammy nominations and a much warmer reception from music critics. Its follow-up, 2016’s Awaken, My Love!, brought in five Grammy nods. The album cemented Gambino as a radio star and put him on the big screen: “Redbone,” a sultry, George Clinton–inspired funk jam, played over the opening credits of 2017’s Get Out and went triple platinum.
The more consequential happening of 2013 by far, however, was a deal Glover signed with FX to write, star on, and produce what Deadline called “a comedy set against the backdrop of the Atlanta music scene.” Thus came Atlanta, which debuted in 2016 and was an instant hit with critics and viewers. Its premiere drew 1.8 million viewers. Two thirds of them were adults under fifty—the highest ratings for a first episode of a basic-cable comedy since the launch of Inside Amy Schumer three years earlier. That success was unexpected, according to Hiro Murai, who directed seven episodes of Atlanta in its first season and directed or produced all of the episodes in season two: “It really felt like we made this thing in a vacuum.” Much of its DNA came from 2013’s Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, Murai said, a short he and Glover made about a rap star aimlessly moving from room to room in his mansion on some coast, drifting among the friends and possessions he’d collected.
“IF YOU GO IN THE OCEAN, YOU HAVE TO RESPECT THE OCEAN. YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN DROWN."
Atlanta also messed with TV conventions, slyly planting surrealist notes—a black Justin Bieber and an invisible car—into an already-winking show. It developed, Glover told me, as a result of hanging out with his brother Stephen, who’s also a writer for the show. “I started seeing more of the world and getting in more arguments and talking about more shit. Like black women telling me, ‘Black men don’t do shit for us.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, you really feel that way?’ And they’re like, ‘One hundred percent.’ ” The success of the first season was great for Glover, but he’s aware the second season has a lot to live up to. The first day back on set, Murai told me, “just felt like Bizarro World.” They took such a long hiatus that they’d forgotten, at least at first, how to make the show. “It feels like it grew into something else. It’s a little more short-story-oriented.”
“I tried to do the Q-Tip take on it,” Glover said, referring to the cofounder of A Tribe Called Quest. “After their first album, he was like, ‘I’m kicking this sophomore-slump shit in the ass.’ ”
Glover said it was good to be back in the neighborhoods that make up Atlanta’s set: “It felt like we could walk through the hood and people knew who we were.” And then there’s the night they were shooting in Bankhead. “Shots started popping off. Like, pop, pop, pop, pop,” Glover said. The cast and crew stood around, uncertain, until they heard faster return fire. “I wasn’t hearing it hit the leaves yet. Sometimes you hear a gunshot”—here he approximated the sound of, well, bullets hitting leaves—“where you know it’s fucking close.” No one on set wanted to wait to hear that sound. Everyone got low and went inside; production was canceled for the night. “That’s part of the respect,” Glover said. “If you go in the ocean, you have to respect the ocean. You know that you can drown. I don’t want people to think life is a fucking Disneyland, and we’re working, like, ‘Isn’t it cool that people live this way?’ It’s not.”
Over dinner, Glover told me that he gets anxious when he’s close to something real. “I know season two of Atlanta is something because it makes me nervous.” Bullets-whipping-through-leaves nervous.
Jacket by Balmain; trousers by Agnès B.; loafers by Tom Ford
Glover was born in 1983 and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the site of the largest Confederate memorial in the U. S. “If people saw how I grew up, they would be triggered,” he said. “Confederate flags everywhere. I had friends who were white, whose parents were very sweet to me but were also like, ‘Don’t ever date him.’ I saw that what was being offered on Sesame Street didn’t exist.”
When he was eleven, Glover wrote himself a letter, not unlike the one Michael Jackson wrote himself in 1979, when he vowed to shock the world with his talents. Glover’s version read: “I’m gonna try and I’m gonna save the world.” Though his parents raised him as a Jehovah’s Witness—a faith that has strict prohibitions on pop culture—Glover says Star Wars occupied a rare space in his home. It was important enough that his dad took him out of school to see the prequels. (Yup, the prequels.) He remembers biting the lightsaber off his Darth Vader action figure when he was a kid, but recalls his blue-caped Lando Calrissian figurine even more intensely. Until the Jedi Mace Windu came along in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Lando was the only black person in the Star Wars universe. (After Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson, John Boyega’s Finn, from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, made three.) In the original trilogy, Lando goes from a fiercely independent smuggler trying to avoid the Empire’s scrutiny to a genuine hero who saves Princess Leia, Han Solo, C-3P0, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, and R2-D2. “I had a doll that I slept with—the only black doll in the store—that my mom bought for me. And my dad bought me Lando,” Glover said.
Some years ago, he heard a rumor that a movie featuring Lando was in the works. “I told my agent, ‘I wanna be Lando,’ ” but his agent didn’t like his chances. “That was exactly what I needed to hear,” Glover told me, “because I’m the person who’s not supposed to make it, so much so that I don’t think people recognize where I came from and what I’ve done. At a certain point, it does look easy. I do sometimes look like a Mary Sue. I was like, ‘Oh, okay, cool.’ I studied, I watched the movies a lot, and I killed it, because I was ready.”
Glover called his father as soon as he landed the role and told him, “Yo, you’re not gonna believe what I’m going to be doing next year.” The best part, he said, was bringing his father to the set on the Canary Islands, where the production team had built an entire city. Ron Howard, Solo: A Star Wars Story’s director, told me that Glover was so trained and focused that he didn’t always have to use a stunt double. “I loved his take on Lando and his passion for the character,” Howard said, noting how deeply Glover gets the different ways the character can entertain an audience. “It’s charm, it’s humor, it’s an intelligence, there’s a roguishness he understands without selling out the character’s traits,” he said. “You’d be a fool not to engage him creatively.”
Jacket by Balmain; shirt by Ermenegildo Zegna Couture.
Landing Simba in the Lion King remake went similarly. When Favreau offered him the part, he again felt the gravity of the role, and the responsibility to do right by a character that defined his childhood universe. “I get why people don’t like remakes,” Glover said, “and I only want to work with people who understand why people don’t like remakes.”
His obsession with quality—his unshakable sense of his own taste—comes from his mother, who instilled in him a respect for things made well. Glover says it started with fast food. “My mom used to take me to Chick-fil-A. We all know it’s all fast food; none of it’s good for you. But it’s better than McDonald’s. She’d be like, ‘Look at these cups. Look at the color pattern. Look at the way this tastes. Look at how it doesn’t taste great after a couple of hours.’ ”
Glover and his partner, whom he won’t discuss out of concern for her privacy, now have two young children of their own. And while he won’t say how young because he’s ferocious about their privacy, too, he does say that a respect for quality is already something he’s trying to pass down to them—how to recognize what’s good and what’s not, how to consume discerningly.
Glover also allows that fatherhood has had its own peculiar effects on him. “Let me make this short and sweet,” he said. “Every step of your life once you’re an adult, you realize what being a teenager is. Once you’re a teenager, you realize what being a child is.” Each phase, he says, provides context for the one that came before it. “Children are life’s greatest context. Parenthood really does make you something more. It asks you questions that no one is ever ready for, and that you’re always ready for. It’s like ayahuasca.”
Atlanta is the clearest expression yet that Glover has become a genuine creative force in Hollywood and beyond. That’s hard to do even in the most open artistic climates, but it’s rarer still in film and TV, media that tend to reward sameness rather than strangeness. Glover’s genius has been to convince those very real gatekeepers that lazy, reactive, imitative dreck won’t cut it any longer—and to show, through his career and his fans, that large numbers of people really do care about the quality of what they put in their minds. It’s not always true that you are what you eat, but Glover’s success has begun to teach Hollywood the value of eating your vegetables.
Glover accepts the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series award for Atlanta onstage during the 69th Annual Emmy Awards on September 17, 2017 in Los Angeles; Getty Images
After leaving the Landmark, we got in the car again, headed for Inman Park, one of Atlanta’s older, now-gentrifying neighborhoods. “I really do believe in being a citizen of the world,” he said. Home, for him, is a place he builds everywhere he goes. “I haven’t lived in L. A. in over a year. I lived in London and we made a home there and we had a place and we made new friends. Then we moved here and we built something here and made new friends,” he continued. “After this, then I’m going to an island and I’m just going to live there. Just create.”
Just as important as his sense of home is Glover’s tight-knit circle of friends and collaborators. The team calls itself Royalty, after a 2012 Childish Gambino mixtape, and includes Fam Udeorji, Chad Taylor, Kari Faux, Malik Flint, Ibra Ake, Swank, and Donald’s brother Stephen. They managed his Childish Gambino tours, write for Atlanta,and are his most trusted confidants. “I think they’re just a group of kings and queens. Everybody’s allowed to have their own nobility.” We found a tapas restaurant, part of a bourgie market on Krog Street, which is located in Tyler Perry’s old studios. It was early evening, and the vibe was mellow. Nobody, aside from our hostess, gave him a second look. That is, until a tall, tattooed guy wearing a leather jacket walked up to us, told Glover he was a huge fan, and called his girl over. She was willowy and dark-eyed, with a delicate bone structure. They were beautiful together—poised and definitively alt. Glover made time for them. “You never know who you meet,” the guy marveled while talking to Glover. “I love your work. I love how you give it back to the city, broadcasting that shit, bro,” he said.
Glover’s care for black people and the black American experience is undeniable. When he says that he wants “to make stuff that no one else will make,” he means stuff that is going to touch black people. “Black people do not have the narrative over their story. It’s always been written by somebody else,” he said. “I also think it’s like we have PTSD. There’s a lot of things that have happened to us that we don’t completely understand and we’re not getting help to understand. That’s why information is so powerful and necessary. If you understand, then you don’t let it happen again.”
The night of Donald Trump’s election, Glover said, he considered leaving the country with his family. “We understand most people don’t have that luxury, but it’s important, especially as a black person, to be like, ‘I’m not constrained to America.’ Although America is part of me, I’m going to be black everywhere.” That echoes James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” an essay about how American history renders race both unavoidable and idiosyncratic. “The black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe,” Baldwin wrote. “But in America, even as a slave, he was an inescapable part of the general social fabric and no American could escape having an attitude toward him.”
“MATT DAMON [SAID], ‘THERE’S A CULTURE OF OUTRAGE.’ I’M LIKE, ‘WELL, THEY HAVE A REASON TO BE OUTRAGED,’ ”
Glover told me that he’d much prefer racism to be out in the open so that everybody knows where everyone else stands. “It’s like being in a basketball game and you’re like, ‘Hey, can everybody not flop? Can we just agree: If you get fouled for real, that’s fine, but please don’t flop?’ People are like, ‘No, pretending to fall is part of the game.’ ”
At the same time, Glover recognizes people will take whatever perceived advantages they can get, because American life feels structured like a zero-sum game in terms of race—most of us believe that we lose some of our status every time another group makes an equivalent gain. “You can’t get people to be honest about that stuff because if they can have an edge, they’re going to do that,” he said, before comparing racial struggles to the ones women face in Hollywood from the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. “I was actually just reading about Matt Damon and he’s like, ‘There’s a culture of outrage.’ I’m like, ‘Well, they have a reason to be outraged,’ ” Glover said. “I think it’s a lot of dudes just being scared. They’re like, ‘What if I did something and I didn’t realize it?’ I’m like, ‘Deal with it.’”
Glover performs as Childish Gambino at the 60th GRAMMY Awards in January 2018; Getty Images
Glover says that in addition to the new season of Atlanta, and Solo, and The Lion King, there may be another Childish Gambino album. “I feel like that’s not the ending—for me, anyway. I know it’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, but I don’t care that much about what happens to me. The vibrations that I make, that’s for the people.” He went on: “Everybody always wants to change something and go to the next thing. I would love to be something that just gives and gives and doesn’t take.
“All you really want to do is make something that stands the test of time,” he said. “That’s all that matters. I like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. That’s everyday music. That’s music that people just put on and they’re like, ‘Man, this song makes me feel good. This song, it helps me get through the day.’ You listen to What’s Going On—I get a very intense feeling whenever I hear [Gaye] singing. Who’s willing to save a world that is destined to die? That’s such a real, honest thing. It’s like, why even raise children? Why raise a puppy? Why put so much care in something where you know destruction is part of the process?”
Glover is so many things to so many people—man crush, teen idol, creative inspiration, occasional collaborator—and, through his work, gives them so much of himself. But how does he see himself? Near the end of our conversation, I asked.
He threw the question back at me: “Do you think Tupac was like, ‘I know exactly who I am?’ ”
Yes, I said.
“I know everybody likens themselves to Tupac a lot,” he said. “I am the new Tupac in a strange way. I grew up similar. I didn’t have a mom in the Black Panthers, but my parents were very pro-black. Also, my mom made me go to performing-arts high school. She was like, ‘That’s where you need to be.’ Sometimes you have to play a role for people to understand you, even though you’re far more complex than any of that. Sometimes it’s really hard to simplify that so people can eat it.”
He continued: “Storytelling is just simplifying what’s happening to you. Life is just a story. Stuff that happens to you, you just put into story mode. I just take what’s there and put it into story mode on a smaller level so that you can be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s life! I totally relate to that.’ ”
Glover mentioned one of the earliest movies in history, a forty-five-second unedited film by the Lumière brothers that shows a train arriving at a station. “I always think about how the train came at the screen, one of the first moving images, and the audience jumped out of the way,” he said. “The audience didn’t know what it was. I’m like, ‘How do you do that again? How do you make people jump out of the way because they thought it was that real?’”
This article appears in the Spring ’18 issue of Esquire Malaysia.