Donald Glover on Spider-Man, Stripping in ‘Magic Mike XXL,’ and A Possible ‘Community’ Return
The actor/rapper/writer multi-hyphenate, who stars in The Lazarus Effect, opens up about his journey from being a Jehovah’s Witness to achieving film, TV, and music stardom.
Donald Glover has, in his mere 31 years on this sorta-green Earth, released five rap albums and two mixtapes under the stage name Childish Gambino, served as a writer on the award-winning 30 Rock, and featured in 89 episodes as Normcore nerd Troy Barnes on the cherished sitcom Community.
As a true child of the Internet, he finds himself in a near-constant state of flux; a restless neo-artisan with a penchant for cross-pollination. Thanks to his medium-crossing capabilities, Glover’s emerged as an enigmatic—and intriguing—cult figure in the realm of popular culture, from the Stan Lee-backed Twitter campaign to make him the first black Spider-Man to his confoundingly candid and introspective series of hand-scribbled notes he once posted to Instagram exposing his inner demons.
Now that he’s parted from the aforementioned “six seasons and a movie” sitcom, Glover has angled into film with upcoming roles as a male stripper in the studly sequel Magic Mike XXL and a hush-hush one in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic The Martian. His latest silver screen effort is The Lazarus Effect—a found footage-y horror film helmed by David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) about a team of scientists working on a top-secret serum that will bring dead patients back to life. When one of the lead scientists, Zoe (Olivia Wilde), dies in a lab accident, they use the serum to revive her. Only this ain’t the Zoe they know and love. Oh, no. This is something else entirely.
The Daily Beast spoke to Glover in a candid conversation that touched on everything from the war between modern science and religion to Iggy Azalea.
I remember your 2011 stand-up special Weirdo where you joked about being the first black Spider-Man and all the weird responses you got online. But Andrew Garfield is out, and the role is open now. And a lot of people think that Marvel should go the Miles Morales route or switch things up a bit because it’s the third time they’re rebooting it.
It would be cool for them to go with something different. To be real, I’d be honored to play it, but I just want to see the best choice. I’d love to see any young guy do something interesting—that goes for the director, Spider-Man, Mary Jane, etc. I just want interesting choices that make people question things. One of the reasons The Dark Knight worked is because people didn’t think it was going to work. I’m excited, though. It will be nice to see what Marvel does using him—especially in The Avengers universe.
You’re also in Magic Mike XXL. Are you getting down in that?
[Laughs] I am getting down in that. I just wanted to do it. I think a lot of people slept on the first movie, which is actually one of my favorite movies right now. It’s filled with amazing actors, Soderbergh directed it…
…it does subvert the male gaze in an interesting way.
It’s an interesting reversal, and Soderbergh is definitely aware of that, and Greg Jacobs was really aware of that on the sequel. It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Who doesn’t want to try out stripping? It’s a different world completely.
How is your lap dance game?
It’s gotten way better. It’s gotten way better. It’s all confidence.
It’s like karaoke, right? You just need to go for it.
Oh, yeah. You just need to go for it. Pick songs that only speak to you and it doesn’t matter if you hit the high notes or not, you get by on pure charisma. I’m never going to be able to pull off Channing Tatum’s dance moves, because he’s a genius with that, but I can do me pretty OK.
Have you seen Fifty Shades of Grey?
I haven’t. It’s hard to do something like that movie where the book is like…
…You’ve read the book?
[Laughs] No, but I’ve read parts of it. I feel like the book relies a lot on the build-up, and it’s also a book so you get to bring your own “tease” of it. Can you do that as a movie in two hours? I don’t know. It’s hard.
Right. It’s difficult to project people’s fantasy ideal(s) on film.
Right. It’s a fantasy ideal thing, and that’s hard to pull off.
My read on your new flick The Lazarus Effect is it seems to be about the gulf between science and religion, and the notion of “playing God,” so to speak.
That was part of the reason I wanted to be a part of it. I really like scary movies that have to do with science, like Alien, because they feel realer. We’re always trying to find out what’s scary to people because, to be real, I don’t know what’s scary to a 13-year-old right now because they’re seeing a lot more than when I was 13.
Probably their nude Snapchats leaking online.
Probably! Most of the things people fear have to do with embarrassment now, but with science, it feels like there’s more truth there; the stakes are higher. I’m sorry, I totally didn’t answer the question.
No, the film does seem to be about this ideological war between science and religion.
Yeah. I think that’s everything right now. There’s a big question of, “Is this going to save us? Or do we just keep hoping?: It’s a question everyone is asking. We can do so much now, but are we ready to really take the responsibility? Or are we waiting for somebody to save us?
This ideological war between science and religion does seem to be divided along political lines, with forces on the left being for fighting against global warming and exploring new avenues of research like stem cell technology, versus the right who are mostly opposed to the concept of global warming and, in some cases, don’t even believe in evolution.
There is a debate going on. It’s funny because I feel those things usually don’t actually boil down to what you believe in, but how much money can be made on either side. But deep down, people are still searching for answers.Do you believe heaven and hell?I believe in a good sleep. I really do.
That sounds like heaven to me.
Exactly. If you do good work, and you do the right thing, you can sleep with a good conscience. I know that when I’ve gotten in a fight or do something I’m not proud of, I sleep poorly. And I feel like that is hell. Having heavy banes on you is hell. When you sleep really well and wake up guilt-free, that’s heaven. So, I believe in your own conscience. I do believe in heaven and hell, but only in the sense that it’s in your head; you create your own reality.
This is a horror movie, so I’m curious what fucks you up? What scares you?
Ah! That’s a good question. Not so much death… I feel like if I didn’t do my job here, on earth?
You’re still a pretty young guy!
[Laughs] I’ve still got a little time. It is a fear of my legend. Am I doing the role I’m supposed to be doing here as far as making the world a better and more progressive place? My fear is that that gets taken away from me before I can actually make a difference.
Legacy. I’m worried that when I die, all my tweets and social media pages will outlive me and be these sad, semi-real documents of my time here.
Yeah! But I think more and more people are realizing that it’s not about what you say; it’s about what you actually do. There’s a duality about what you actually do on social media, versus…
Well, there’s room for trolls, too. They’re definitely doing… something. I fuck with trolls. I think it’s good. I remember running into trolls in chatrooms at 18 and being like, “What the?!” but then you realize, “Oh, this is all BS. It’s not important.” Trolls definitely have a place.
I like Charlie Murphy’s description of a troll: “Habitual line-stepper.”
I was just watching that Rick James sketch! That’s such a good term he created.
Back to the religion thing, because it does play a large role in the film, I read that you were raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. What was that experience like?
Being a Jehovah’s Witness was interesting. I think it amplified my own alienness. I was always the odd one out, and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas, you don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, and when you have Jewish kids in the class who don’t celebrate Christmas everyone understands, but when you say you’re a Jehovah’s Witness they say, “So… You come to my door at 9 a.m. and wake my family up? I don’t understand any of your rules.” As a kid growing up in the South, people didn’t know what it was. It gave me a very different perception of what religion is because in the South, everyone is Southern Baptist. Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian, but it felt small and almost cult-like in Atlanta.
Did the constraints of being a Jehovah’s Witness push you to be more creative and artistic? Sometimes constraints can make you find fascinating workarounds—like movies in the ’40s and ’50s under the Hays Code.
I believe it made me see the world differently. Part of the religion is teaching you that the world is an evil place, so trying to reconcile really liking stuff in the world but also being told it’s bad makes you want to figure out, “What is this?” and “Why am I being drawn to this?” My creative outlet was definitely shaped by being a Jehovah’s Witness.
Have you come to grips yet with leaving Community?
Community is always going to be a big part of my heart. It’s strange to me because when we were making it, it felt like we were dancing in our living room with friends and no one was watching, but now it feels like it was a show that everybody watched—at least a little bit. I didn’t know it was a thing when we were making it, it just felt like a fun time hanging with friends. I never thought about leaving. I like endings and crave for endings. I feel like some millennials want endings and some don’t, but I grew up wanting endings because I feel they’re realer.
Are you going to pop up on the Yahoo show?
I talk to a lot of those guys and I’m supposed to be hanging out with them soon, so if the right thing came along. Dan [Harmon] is really good at flipping that stuff and making it not feel like, “The episode where he comes back!” They’re really good at knowing how television works and, for lack of a better word, how to pervert it. If it was right I’d do it.
You’re also obviously in the rap game, and one of the most controversial figures in rap right now is Iggy Azalea. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends about how she is or isn’t racially and/or culturally problematic. For me, I recognize that the music is catchy but there’s a big part of me that can’t get over how clearly problematic it is. Where do you fall on the Iggy debate?
Oh, yeah. I completely understand. It’s a thing where… To be real, I don’t really talk about it anymore. I want there to be a conversation, and want people to talk about these things. I’m not trying to make cupcakes; I want to give people meals, and culturally important meals—which means there needs to be a discussion. I just want people to give me the benefit of the doubt through my work—that I actually care about things, and want progress in human beings, race, women, love, and all people. I feel like with everything I do, you should always view it within the context of what’s happening. And I’m trying to build a canon, eventually. But it’s good. Erykah Badu once told me, “With your art, don’t explain it. Let people do the work.”
Your new FX series that you’re creating and starring in, Atlanta, sounds exciting. Can you tease it a bit?
Honestly? It’s about life. That’s all I can give. I’ve been very quiet purposely about it because I don’t want anyone to think anything about it. I want everyone to bring everything they bring to it, instead of bring what they think about me to it.