“I’m not asking for your permission,” says Zazie Beetz’s character, Stagecoach Mary, in a scene from Netflix’s star-studded black Western The Harder They Fall.
The phrase pretty much sums up her character – a hard-as-nails, gunslinging, straight-talking, risk-taking, fiercely loyal saloon owner loosely modelled on the real-life Mary Fields, who became the first African-American female mail carrier in the US in 1895.
She is exactly the kind of empowered, complex female character that Beetz, a self-proclaimed “avid” feminist, hopes will get more space on our screens in the near future. “I think there have been changes happening in the past few years in the kinds of roles women are getting, in terms of complexity and nuance,” she says.
“I would love for people to feel like films that are largely based on a female narrative can appeal to people from all walks of life. We are expected to identify with a male point of view, but it would be interesting to approach the female point of view as also being universal. I think it will happen in time, but you need a shift on a societal level,” says Beetz, who is also a vocal climate change activist with her own IGTV show, Zazie Talks Climate.
With its all-black cast, which includes heavyweights such as Regina King, Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield, The Harder They Fall revisits a genre that has been almost entirely whitewashed. In the wake of the American Civil War, former slaves moved from the Old South to the West, carving out new lives for themselves in this perceived land of opportunity, but they have rarely featured in films depicting this era.
“I was very drawn to the film in general and the idea of reimagining how we have pictured the Old West,” Beetz says. “Twenty five per cent of the people living in the Old West were black, something I didn’t realise until I started reading up for the role ... This was a great opportunity to get these names out into the collective consciousness.”
By highlighting personalities such as outlaw Rufus Buck, who is played in the film by Elba, cowboy Nat Love, depicted by Jonathan Majors, and Cherokee Bill, portrayed by Stanfield, The Harder They Fall gives voice not only to these characters, but to a whole segment of the population that has been largely ignored by cinematic history. It’s a point emphatically made in the film’s opening credits, where a note maintains that the story may be a fictional one, but “These. People. Existed”.
That the film is not a biopic is something director Jeymes Samuel and Beetz herself have had to reiterate in the weeks following its release. Beetz’s casting has been shrouded in accusations of colourism, given that the real Stagecoach Mary was a plus-size, dark-skinned woman and Beetz, who is of dual German and African-American heritage, is neither.
“Colourism is something I think about a lot,” she says. “I understand my privilege as a light-skinned black woman and the opportunities I have had because of that. I think it makes sense that people are talking about it. It doesn’t deflect from my experience of the film because it’s an important conversation to have.”
She refers to the film as “a very fictionalised, almost superhero fantasy”, a point reinforced by the fact that Buck, played by a 49-year-old Elba, died at 18. “I didn’t feel like I was portraying a historical character, just carrying the name,” says Beetz. “I felt like I was capturing the spirit of many different characters.”
Nonetheless, the real-life Fields proved to be a rich source of inspiration. “I really liked that the historical Stagecoach Mary was this very strong force, but also a very beloved force. She did actually own a restaurant, but ended up going out of business because she kept feeding people who couldn’t afford to pay.
“She also became the first black female mail carrier in later life – I believe she was in her late sixties, which I loved. We all feel this pressure that things must be done while we are young, but she was in her twilight years and really came into her power. I liked that element.”
Beetz, on the other hand, appears to be coming into her power a little earlier in life. The actress is best known for her co-lead role in the Golden Globe- winning series Atlanta, which will return for a third season in 2022 and for which she earned an Emmy nomination. Earlier this year, she starred in Nine Days, which was shortlisted for the coveted Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and, after her turn in The Harder They Fall, will appear alongside Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon in Bullet Train, which is due for release on April 8. She also acted in Joker and Deadpool 2.
She tends not to measure success in terms of film credits or high-profile co-stars, and instead adopts a rather simpler take. “For me, success means contentment,” she says. “I am very protective of my inner life, my mental and emotional life. I don’t do anything at the cost of my mind or my body or my soul. I have ambitions in terms of what I would like to achieve in my career, but my greatest success is having contentment. I want to grow old and be happy. That’s the ultimate goal.”
In September, Beetz received the 2021 Women in Film Max Mara Face of the Future Award, granted in recognition of women who are transforming the industry for the better. “Zazie Beetz is a dynamic actress who personifies the Women in Film Max Mara Face of the Future [with] her professional and humanitarian efforts. Max Mara continually works to empower and inspire women through design and we are so proud to honour Zazie with this unique award,” said Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti, Max Mara Global Brand Ambassador, at the time.
The Face of the Future Award is granted to actresses who are at “a turning point” in their careers, and this is certainly true of Beetz, who is currently also experimenting with writing and producing. She cites “multi-hyphenate women who are down to do everything and are not afraid of it” as a source of inspiration, naming Margot Robbie and Reese Witherspoon, who have successfully made the transition from actor to producer, and Zendaya, who has bridged music, acting, fashion and producing, as examples to follow.
“My partner [actor and writer David Rysdahl] and I are developing things together and we are on the cusp on having some of the those projects materialise, so it feels like a huge shift is about to come,” Beetz says. “I am about to embark on a new journey in terms of creating. There are a couple of TV shows and films, some that are self-generated and some that aren’t, that will hopefully be made in the next year.”
But first, like many women, she has had to get out of her own way. She is depressing proof of the fact that no matter how talented, smart, successful or beautiful they are, women can be very good at holding themselves back. “I sometimes feel like I limit myself,” she says. “I feel like I could engage in a wider array of activities than I allow myself to.
“There is this narrative with women that they are less likely to ask for a raise or advocate for themselves. There’s an element of us being taught that that’s the way to be. I don’t even know if it’s a conscious teaching,” she says.
“We’re supposed to be quieter and kinder, and that stereotype is so ingrained. I experience it myself in how I behave. I am so conscious of not coming across as mean or bitchy, of being kind and gracious, but sometimes that means it is difficult for me to ask for what I need, or to hold an opposite point of view.
“There is a way to express these things in a way that is respectful and not disparaging to other people. Men can get away with a brusqueness that is viewed as empowering, while women are not allowed to have that kind of expression. But we need to try not to let fear guide us.”