Right from the start of season two, “Atlanta” primed its audience to expect the unexpected: an opening sequence centered on a robbery involving characters the audience had never met, and a storyline that ended with a tragedy left unresolved. But nothing could prepare the audience for “Teddy Perkins,” in which the show’s creator and star, Donald Glover, donned a white-face prosthetic mask and played the aging Michael Jackson-like titular character living in a spooky mansion where Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) comes to pick up a piano. The bottle episode was the show’s biggest detour, unfolding like a horror mystery, as Darius can’t tell what danger lies underneath Teddy’s polite demeanor.
For years, Hiro Murai – who has directed 14 of the show’s 21 episodes and also serves as co-executive producer – has been Glover’s go-to collaborator on both the show and Glover’s musical side projects (Murai directs Glover’s Childish Gambino music videos, including “This Is America”). Together, they manage to inject the show with a dreamlike visual logic that allows Glover to walk a tightrope between comedy, the surreal and the tough realities of race in America.
However, according to Murai, “Teddy Perkins” was the biggest challenge to that delicate balance. From the start, it often seemed as though the entire production could collapse into disaster.
“The premise could be a premise for a sketch,” said Murai, in an interview for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “It’s a guy in whiteface in this creepy mansion. It could be a farce.”
Murai and Glover rehearsed the role in private, working out the voice and performance style that Glover would use to play Teddy, but what scared Murai was Glover’s physical transformation, which had the potential to push the episode into feeling like one long, ill-advised SNL sketch. Murai had seen composites of the prosthetics from the make-up team, but it wasn’t until Glover emerged from the make-up trailer the first day of shooting that the director saw what his collaborator would actually look like.
“As soon as I saw him, I just started laughing because I was so relieved. I just knew it was going to work just based on how I felt just staring at him,” said Murai, who could see the prosthetics were both horrific and mask-like enough to pull the audience into the mystery of what’s behind it, rather than be distracted by Glover in white-face. “[Donald] of course he was in character so he didn’t reciprocate or anything, so I recovered and went on with my day.”
Another reason getting Glover’s face right was the crucial role it played in how the story was told. Under Murai’s direction, “Atlanta” is a show with distinct visual style in which scenes have multiple layers – often in the same frame, playing foreground against background in wide-lensed shots – but “Teddy Perkins” would call for a different type of direction and visual style.
“The big thing with that episode was dialing everything back and just letting Teddy’s face do all the talking, and all the small set pieces do all the talking, like the Ostrich egg,” said Murai, referencing the enormous egg that Perkins offers Darius and then eats, in disgusting fashion, in front of his guest. “[The egg] is very real. It smells as bad as you think it does. Our editor was so obsessed with that scene. It was originally twice as long, and it’s [still] too long, but we kind of fell in love with that scene because it’s such a good introduction to Teddy.”
Murai and season two cinematographer Christian Sprenger also conscientiously played with different lighting schemes, so that when Darius pulled into Perkins’ driveway the look of “Atlanta” stopped and the look of “Teddy Perkins” began.
“[It’s] a little more naturalistic and kind of somber feeling,” said Murai. “Because the ‘Atlanta’ look is pretty stylized, both in the color correction and the way it’s lit, but we realized that Teddy’s face just felt so much more uncanny when everything else looked a little more natural.”
The episode’s story also required a more traditional, standalone arc. The stripped-down narrative pivoted on story beats – not unlike those in a Hitchcockian thriller – that played on what audiences knew in relation to the characters.
“There’s a lot going on in terms of what Darius knows, what we know as an audience, what we think Teddy knows and whether Teddy and Benny [Teddy’s brother, who Darius and the audience are not sure exists] are two different people, or the same person,” Murai said. “So it was very mapped out and consciously broken up visually.”
To mirror the characters’ confusion, Murai and Glover also left the crew and cast in the dark about who was playing Perkins. Even Stanfield, the episode’s protagonist and who acts opposite the white-faced Glover in the episode, was left in the dark, while Glover never broke character on set.
“[It] was such a fun process,” Murai said. “Keith didn’t know, at least for a day and half [each episode of “Atlanta” films for approximately four and half days], until he just grilled everyone on the crew until someone gave up the information. Keith had no idea.” Eventually, he began to document the process. “I have this great photo from set where I told Keith to sit next to Teddy so I could take a photo of them,” Murai said. “I can see just pure confusion and horror on his face because he knew somebody was in there – it’s not a natural looking person – but he was just going mad trying to figure it out.”
So much of the episode’s success relies on Stanfield, whose muted performance – as a character who always seems to be in different plane of reality – anchors the show’s tone. “Teddy Perkins” required that balancing act more than usual: The entire episode, including its shocking climax, pivots on Darius delivering a heartfelt monologue in the midst of a shocking confrontation. Murai calls the day they shot the monologue scene the most nervous he’s been on set.
“I had a hunch that it was going to work because Keith, as much as we use him as comedic presence in our show, he’s a very empathetic and human actor,” said Murai. “I also knew we personally, me and Donald, were invested in the humanity of Teddy. As absurd as that premise is it’s a very tragic story and its very much specifically talking about being a black celebrity and how you can lose your identity just being famous.”
Also on the podcast, Murai discusses the “Atlanta” season two finale, how his collaboration with Glover has evolved and shooting “This Is America” – the Childish Gambino music video that went viral.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.