“Atlanta’s” oddball characters drive the series, and in its second season, new faces came along to alternately inspire and challenge the show’s core group of friends. These guest stars were often tasked with carrying the bulk of the humor in the scene, which quickly made them fan favorites.
From a flibbertigibbet barber to the best friend who can’t handle being high, these characters managed to become scene stealers in Season 2. IndieWire spoke with Robert S. Powell III and Gail Bean, who revealed how they brought to life their colorful characters Bibby and Nadine, respectively.
Blindsided by Bibby
Veteran stand-up comedian Robert S. Powell III had never acted in his life and was completely thrown for a loop when he realized that “Atlanta” wasn’t just giving him a background part but had created a whole episode in which he carried most of the dialogue. Even more intimidating, he only discovered this fact when he received the script for “Barbershop” two hours before he was supposed to start filming.
“When I first got the part, I was under the impression that I was going to be an extra in the barbershop scene,” said Powell. “I did not know that Bibby existed until 7 a.m. on my first shoot day. And I had to shoot at 9 a.m. I had never seen the script. I didn’t know who Bibby was.”
This was no minor lapse in communication, but a major SNAFU that caused the comedian massive anxiety.
“I had a real-life panic attack,” he revealed. “I let go of my manager who forgot to send me the script. I actually fired him, I fired my agency. I left because of this. I really thought it was unprofessional. They thought they had been sending me the scripts but what they had been sending me was this travel PDF that they thought the script was attached to.”
And even though Powell had been receiving these documents, he never realized that he was really missing scripts because he didn’t expect to have any real lines.
“I was thinking I was going to be an extra in a barbershop scene; how many jokes could I have on this show? This Golden Globe, Emmy-winning show?” he said. “I can’t have that much of a say to begin with seeing that I’m not an actor and this is my first time ever acting, this is my first time ever being on a television set in my life. I can’t have much to say. But maybe that’s why my people didn’t send it to me.
“And when I get there, they told me, ‘We got you a new trailer.’ I’m like, ‘Why the hell would an extra need a new trailer? What would I need a new trailer for?’ I didn’t think none of that either because I’m new and I’ve never been on TV before. And then when they brought the script and how the day was going to go, yeah it was a bit of an ordeal. But it worked out.”
Despite the shock, Powell rallied. “I started cramming as much as possible. I decided to take this almost shot-by-shot and try to memorize as much as possible,” he said. “I hid notes around the set for myself, things of that nature. I just tried to start cramming real hard and try to not let the people know who had entrusted me with the entire episode that I did not know what I was doing. So my goal, honest to god, was just trick them all day.”
A Natural Fit for Nadine
Gail Bean, who has appeared on “Chicago PD” and “Insecure,” had a far more straightforward experience landing her role. She felt it was her destiny to play Nadine, one of the friends who goes with Van (Zazie Beetz) to a house party at Drake’s house in the episode “Champagne Papi.”
“When I got the email for the audition invitation, I immediately was like, ‘Oh this is me,’” said Bean. “It read, ‘A nice girl, a bit of a tease. While her friends see her as naive, Nadine can hold her own in any social situation. She’s a bit on edge from work-related problems… And unlike all the other girls who ooze sexuality, she offers friendship and relationship advice to men around her.’ Now that’s me in real life. I have a lot more friends, I have five older brothers, I’m the only girl. So I’m extremely comfortable around guys in a homegirl way. I don’t use the whole sexuality thing.”
For her audition, Bean did two scenes that could have taken place at the party.
“It was just me in line at the bathroom and somebody was cutting in and bumping into us, and I said something, but Zazie’s character Van is the one who got a little hostile,” she said. “I believe the second scene I did for the audition was… It was a whole weird thing where I was talking to Young Thug, and he was having a situation with one of his females and I was supposed to be giving him advice on how to handle it. And then Darius shows up, of course, like he always does and I’m like, how does he know Young Thug, and he’s like, ‘Oh, he was my ride for the party.’”
Bean is from Atlanta originally but moved to Los Angeles to act, which makes appearing in “Atlanta” that much sweeter.
“I never shot anything in Atlanta [before this],” she said. “When I left, a lot of people said, ‘You never made it. Why would you move to LA? It’s much bigger. If you didn’t make it here, what makes you think you can make it in LA?’ So it was really nice to go where the dream started and be with my family. If that’s going to be my first project that I shoot at home, why not be the award-winning ‘Atlanta,’ which is true to the city?”
In “Barbershop,” Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) goes in to get his hair cut by Bibby (Powell), who seems to be doing 10 things at once, and none of them are actually his job. He’s committed himself to so many tasks, in fact, that he has to take Alfred along with him on his errands around town before finally ending back up at the barbershop hours later.
Even though Powell didn’t know he was playing Bibby at first, the character was familiar to him because of his own personal experiences. The comedian estimates that he’s spent four to five hours in the chair before for a cut that should only take 15 minutes.
“My barber was almost as bad as Bibby. He’d sit down and eat a whole barbecue plate in the middle of cutting my hair,” said Powell. “I’ve had barbers leave and come back in the middle of cutting my hair. Most African American barbershop experiences you need to be prepared to be there for four hours and do what you need to do. Your haircut is between 8-12, it’s like cable [installation] or waiting on the gas people.”
Powell based his performance of Bibby on several people, including one person close to him that he even names in the episode.
“My impression of Bibby was four or five friends of mine that I just crammed together that always needed to be doing one thing but couldn’t focus on that and always had seven or eight balls in the air at one time,” he said. “They had so much going on that they would give you anxiety. You don’t have going on what they had going on but it would still make you uncomfortable for you to even think about. So I tried to convey that as much as possible.
“The best friend of mine, who has since passed in a motorcycle accident, he was almost exactly like Bibby,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I say his name at the end. If you remember the last scene when I get out of the truck and I’m walking up the stairs and my phone rings and I say, ‘Smooth, I can be right there,’ that’s my friend that died in the motorcycle accident.”
Since Powell hadn’t acted before, he requested very specific instructions from Donald Glover, who directed the episode. “At one point, I even had to ask Donald, ‘Show me the face that you want me to make that I’m not doing right now,’” he said. “So he had to boil it down sometimes to that level for me, but he did it, and it worked out. It was fantastic. And I can tell how well or how bad I did based on how fast he got to me during the cut. If it was really bad, he got to me very fast.”
Despite his lack of experience, Powell was trusted to do some improv after he had done the scenes as written for a few takes. His ad-libs included Bibby’s physical mannerisms, such as when he physically leans on Alfred’s head at one point while talking on the phone.
“I didn’t ask [Henry]. It was just impromptu,” Powell said. “I started to ask him but I needed the reaction from him that I wanted to get so I didn’t tell him at all. We had done it the correct way like nine or 10 times before I started doing things of that nature. There’s another time that I included something like that too, at the very end where I’m playing with this little scruffy thing on this guy’s head that they included in there. I didn’t think that was going to be in the shot. I was just doing that to make the crew laugh on the set but that wound up in the thing.”