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Home > Donald Glover: Portrait of a Modern Auteur

Donald Glover: Portrait of a Modern Auteur

Donald Glover stars as Earnest "Earn" Marks in "Atlanta."

For Better and Worse, A Man of Uncompromising Vision

“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” says Lando Calrissian, played by actor Donald Glover, to a smuggler in training and future captain of the Millenium Falcon, Han Solo, in the 2018 Solo, A Star Wars Story. As an actor, comedian, singer, rapper, writer, director, producer, and showrunner, there seems to be nothing outside of the man’s reach. But for all his hard-won success, there is another side to this twenty-first-century Renaissance man, one that paints a picture of a man as controversial as he is uncompromising. 

COMEDY PRODIGY

Son of a postal worker and daycare provider, Donald Glover studied at a magnet art school in Georgia and was voted Most Likely to Write for The Simpsons by high school peers. In a bit of serendipity, Glover had just graduated in 2006 from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU with a degree in Dramatic Writing when Tina Fey hired him to write for the NBC sitcom 30 Rock after reading a spec episode of The Simpsons. In a GQ interview from 2023, Glover stated, “It definitely didn’t feel like I was supposed to be there.” The same article cited that Glover was hired because of a diversity initiative at NBC, in which adding a Black writer to your writer’s room didn’t count against your budget. He wrote on the show for three years and would occasionally appear on it, as well as being a featured player in a sketch comedy group called Derrick Comedy on YouTube. In 2009, Glover both co-wrote and starred in Mystery Team, a feature-length amateur detective comedy that was the feature debut for other notables like Aubry Plaza, Ellie Kemper, Ben Schwartz, and Bobbi Moynihan. Premiering at Sundance in 2009, the film would be a first step into a much larger world. 

Between 2009 and 2014, he played college student Troy Barnes on the NBC sitcom Community by creator Dan Harmon. Though acclaimed in the role, in a series of posts on his Instagram account after the 4th season aired, Glover clarified that he was leaving Community to pursue projects of a personal nature that would offer him more independence. In a Screen Rant article from September 2023, it was speculated that while “…some assumed Glover left to grow his music career as Childish Gambino, which certainly did shoot into the stratosphere afterward, the actor revealed the reasoning stemmed from some personal issues.” In a wrap-up for the character, Glover appeared in five episodes of Season 5 before Troy Barnes set out on a sailing trip to obtain Pierce’s inheritance. Rumors of a Community movie had been circulating since the series finale, and in an article in Entertainment Weekly from early February 2024, Glover confirmed the return of Troy Barnes in Community, telling EW: “I was told that the script was done… I’m all in.”  Principal photography on the film is expected to begin in Summer 2024.

TALKING TO HIMSELF

In April of 2022, Donald Glover interviewed himself for Interviewmagazine.com. Styling a conversation with himself at his home farm, Glover posed introspective questions to himself, even arguing with himself at times. Some highlights from that article included that he modeled his career after Willy Wonka, stating, “You have your factory, you make something, put it out, and then close shop to the public for a while. He expanded in the same article that “You make high-quality shit for a large audience, you own it, and you go at your own pace.” 

Asking himself about fear of being canceled, Glover stated, “I believe my value is in my vision…You can get torn apart for anything, true or not.” Later, he added that Blackness was “… diluted in the marketplace.” and that “ If Malcolm X were alive right now and lived the same life, people would say he “rebranded himself.” Interestingly, this article was released around the same time that Atlanta Season 3 was making waves online, returning after a four-year hiatus. Though critically acclaimed, the show was met with controversy upon its initial release. When asking himself what role criticism played in his life, he responded “There’s money and clout in (people) loving and hating you.” The interview had an immediate backlash on social media, with many deeming the article “cringey,” “weird,” and “self-aggrandizing.” NBC News journalist Char Adams stated, “It feels very self-aggrandizing and very much like a way for them to avoid tough questions and transparency.”Vulture and New York Magazine critic Angelica Jade Bastién added. “Let’s let go of auteurism please.”  

The interview spanned a wide gambit of topics, eventually circling to Dave, an FX show about a white, Jewish rapper with insecurity issues. Dave had been compared to Atlanta, which Glover found distasteful. Glover sketched out a version of the show, one where the titular character is “… more successful than his Black peers from the jump. Because he’s more accessible, but what he actually wants is to be part of the culture, but his success keeps him from that, and a lot of his Black peers and friends resent him.” It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Glover’s own body of work, addressing in that very interview claims made against Glover in the community that Atlanta was intended for white viewers and being called a misogynoir. Glover states at various points in the same article, “…people think I’m pretentious. I can be a snob…I hope not in a dictator sort of way.” 

RISING FAME

An intimate feature article about Glover from GQ magazine from late 2023 divided Glover’s career into two hemispheres: “Before Atlanta and After Atlanta.” It is a dramedy created by Glover, who plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, a college dropout who propositions his distant cousin and rising rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles to be his manager and help him navigate the Atlanta hip-hop scene. The show received critical acclaim across four seasons. Not content to simply act and star in his own show, Glover also directed nine of the show’s forty-one episodes. 

Over the eight years Atlanta was in production, Glover also appeared in several films, including the supernatural horror The Lazarus Effect, the comedy-drama Magic Mike XXL, and the science fiction film The Martian, where he played a mathematician. He produced and starred in a short film called Guava Island (with Rihanna, in partnership with Amazon Studios) and lent his voice talents to Disney for their live-action adaptation of The Lion King, where he played Simba. In what would be the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Marvel and parent company Disney, he went on to play Aaron Davis, aka The Prowler, in the superhero film Spider-Man: Homecoming, later returning to the Spider-Verse to voice Miles Morales in the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man. But his biggest breakthrough role as a film star would come in 2018 when he played the cape-wearing, con-artist, gambling iconoclast Lando Calrissian in the space western Solo: A Star Wars Story.

CARD PLAYER, GAMBLER, SCOUNDREL… YOU’D LIKE HIM

Solo, A Star Wars Story was a challenging film. The writers/directors were replaced deep into production. Lengthy and costly reshoots caused the budget to balloon, and media headlines about the mess behind the scenes were only proven right when the film underperformed at the box office. Despite all of this, Donald Glover’s portrayal of the backstabbing pirate with a keen fashion sense was met with universal acclaim, surpassing the praise of the film’s leading man, Alden Ehrenreich. After the flames around the film had cooled, Disney+ expressed interest in continuing Lando’s saga, developing a Star Wars series around Lando Calrissian, with Glover slated to reprise the role.

Donald Glover stars as Earnest "Earn" Marks in "Atlanta."
“ATLANTA” — “It Was All a Dream” — Season 4, Episode 10 (Airs Nov 10) Pictured (L-R): Zazie Beetz as Van, Donald Glover as Earn Marks. CR: Guy D’Alema/FXCourtesy of FX

Dear White People creator Justin Simien was then attached to write the series, but Simien left to direct a 2023 remake of Haunted Mansion, and Glover was offered the role to helm the project (then envisioned as a show) before the start of the writer’s strike.

News broke over the summer that both Donald and his brother Stephen would be co-writing the project but were barred from beginning due to the ongoing strike. Stephen Glover appeared on the podcast Pablo Torre Finds Out this week, where he opened up about Lando. “The idea right now is to do a movie,” Glover explained. “But that’s the thing. Right now, because of the strike, it’s kind of like [a game of] telephone.” This would be one of the first films in the new slate of Star Wars projects after Lucasfilm stepped away from the big screen to instead focus on television and Disney+ shows over the past several years, with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker being the last released film in 2019. While speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Glover provided an update about his involvement in developing the Lando film, explaining that “I feel like I have control” and “control allows for the vision to be singular. And if the vision is singular, people want it more. The less it’s singular, the less people want it because they feel like they could’ve made it.” Control would be at the center of Glover’s most prolific project to date.

THE SMITHS NEXT DOOR

Released on Prime Video in 2024, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a reimagining of the 2005 film of the same name, which starred Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt before Bradjelina was even a thing. Ironically, that film was a reimagining of a 1996 series on NBC starring Scott Bakula and Maria Bello. The new series was created by Francesca Sloane and Donald Glover, starring Glover and Maya Erskine (of Pen15) in the titular leading roles. And much like the turbulent relationship between the special agents undercover, there was plenty of covert drama behind the scenes as well. 

In the same interview where Donald Glover interviewed himself, he cited creative differences with then co-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was then under a three-year deal with Amazon. Waller-Bridge rose to prominence nearly a decade earlier with her one-woman show turned Amazon darling Fleabag, where she starred as both creator, writer, and star. She followed up with a new convert assassin series, Killing Eve, for AMC, which would go on to critical acclaim, especially in the first season she helmed. Waller-Bridge and Glover were originally meant to co-write and co-star in the show, having first worked together on Solo: A Star Wars Story, where she was again a love interest to Lando in the form of droid revolutionary L3-37. But an EW article from early February 2024 highlighted some of the finer points of their separation, explaining to EW that “I think a good relationship is one where you don’t waver from the extremely uncomfortable. And I don’t know if we were ever going to get to a place where we could be completely brutal to each other.” Later, Waller-Bridge expanded that “Fleabag was written entirely by her but, “’This is how I run my ship… I don’t think it can have two captains.”

Waller-Bridge spent six months on the project, rewriting the pilot script. Glover commented about the script, “It’s definitely not my style, but if she’d done it with her in it, we’d all be like, this is a great fucking show.” Upon her exit, Waller-Bridge stated in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter from June 2023, “…sometimes it’s about knowing when to leave the party. Creative collaboration is like a marriage, and some marriages don’t work out.” Waller-Bridge later described herself as “creatively controlling;” butting heads with creatives is a common enough problem in Hollywood, but “I still like her. I assume she still likes me.” Donald stated to himself in the now iconic independentmagazine.com interview from 2022.

THE HOLLYWOOD FARMER

With the first season of Mr. and Ms. Smith behind him, the question is, what will Mr. Glover tackle next? In a long-form interview conducted over several days with GQ magazine in 2023, Glover led a guided tour of Gilga Farm, which is currently raising capital and recruiting collaborators across creative disciplines. Like a tree, Gilga has many branches. There’s the agricultural side of the farm, literally, and over the interview, Glover harvested fresh tangelos to be enjoyed by the interviewer and himself. “The goal with Gilga is only to put out the freshest entertainment and art.” Clarifying, “You know how you go to a farmers market, and you ask for peaches, and they don’t have any because they’re out of season?” Glover says. “Peaches have a season! I’m not gonna sell you shitty peaches just because you want a peach now.”

Peaches, in this case, mean talent. Gilga’s other branch is a talent incubator. Swarm might have been a sort of test run or the catalyst of this new phase of Glover’s career. Swarm was co-created by Janine Nabers and Donald Glover, with his brother Stephen collaborating as writer and director in the shows. The comedy thriller limited series follows Dre, a young woman whose obsession with a pop star takes a dark turn. While Glover’s resources and name lent credence to the show, the work is undeniably not his typical style. In this way, Glover is acting more in the role of an Executive Producer on the project. More recently, Glover helped Malia Ann Obama (yes, the former President’s daughter) with her first short film, “The Heart”. Ms. Obama had previously cut her teeth in the writer’s room for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where presumably early discussions about her short began. “The first thing we did was talk about the fact that she will only get to do this once. You’re Obama’s daughter. So if you make a bad film, it will follow you around,” says Glover, underlining the importance of quality. The film premiered at Sundance in 2024, and critics thus far have not been kind, citing nepotism, uncomplimentary reviews, and even jabs at using a stage name to distance herself from her father, the 44th President of the United States.

Talent incubators aren’t necessarily anything new. American Zoetrope, founded by Francis Ford Coppola, used a similar prospect of cultivating talent (and indeed is one of the reasons George Lucas rose to prominence so quickly, but that’s a story for another day). These incubators cultivate the careers of burgeoning writers, actors, directors, designers, musicians, and producers, who come from more diverse backgrounds than you’d normally find through a Hollywood agency. In some ways, this is a natural expansion of what Royalty, the collective that produced Atlanta and a lot of Gambino albums, wanted to be, but now with a more clarified vision statement. “It’s more about diversity of thought than just, like, diversity for optics.” Whether Gilga Farms will bear fruit or wither and die, come winter is yet to be seen, but what is clear is that Glover has acres of land to build up, with resources and time on his side.

Since 2006, Glover has optimized opportunities, ascending the ranks of Hollywood and doing things his way. Controversial but indisputably talented, the future looks bright for Donald Glover, actor, writer, director, and now it would seem, farmer, feeding the body and nurturing talent. 

Check out Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2024) on Prime Video.

Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian in "Solo: A Star Wars Story."
Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” Image courtesy of Lucasfilm, LTD.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith Season 1 (2024) Official Prime Video Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.