INTERVIEW On writing, acting, music, and quirkiness
Donald Glover sheds light on his role in Community and his upcoming tour
When I participated in a conference call with Donald Glover on Tuesday, I was so excited for the opportunity to talk to the actor who plays Troy on the show Community. Little did I know that I was also going to be talking to Donald Glover the actor, writer, rapper, comic, and awards show host. Some may recognize Glover from his work as a staff writer on 30 Rock, and more recently, his gig hosting the mtvU Woodie Awards this past Wednesday. The awards honor the biggest names in indie rock and hip-hop by bestowing them with a chunk of wood.
When asked how he got the gig, he responded, “I don’t know! I wish I could say that MTV has a formula on the blackboard that they were trying to figure out who was the best host and they left it and I’m a janitor there, so I walk in and I figure out the formula and the answer is me. I really don’t know! Somebody called me and said, ‘This feels like you.’ Also, I’m dating the Situation. We like each other, whatever. Opportunities, whatever.”
Glover clearly has a great sense of humor, which should make for a great performance in his upcoming IAMDONALD tour, which comes to Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on May 13. Glover’s show will blend his stand-up comedy with his rap alter-ego, Childish Gambino. Here, he tells us all about his upcoming tour and how he balances his myriad projects.
Most people are familiar with you as Troy from Community and maybe don’t know as much about your work as a comic and as the rapper Childish Gambino. With your upcoming tour, what do you think will surprise fans most about your act?
Donald Glover: I guess that they’re all the same person. I don’t know what people are expecting when they come to see my stand-up. It’s really funny, I try to immediately tell people that I’m not Troy. I feel like a lot of people bring little kids, and then I start talking about my dick. It’s a really big change. I want people to understand that IAMDONALD is just a show about being able to do whatever you want. Lately I’ve been trying to do as much stuff as possible and before I was afraid that people would be judging me on it, but time’s a-wasting so I just can’t be afraid of that kind of stuff. I feel like with the previous tour, people were like, “Oh, there’s a music portion? This isn’t just stand up?” And I think they all walked out pretty happy. I don’t think any of this stuff is usual, any of this stand-up, music stuff. I don’t want to make anything that’s typical because then it gets boring.
You have taken on a lot of different roles as a actor, writer, comic, and rapper. How do you see those roles relating to each other?
DG: The more I am myself in all of the things I do the more, I think, people respond because it’s not bullshit. I think the fact that I’m rapping about stuff I know, the more people are like, “This isn’t bullshit.” I think Tina Fey does the same thing. Like all of her movies and stuff that she’s done with SNL, that’s her. There are through lines for people to follow. So I try to do that. It’s been a lot of checking in with myself about what I’m trying to do.
Do you lean towards any one role more than another, or do like to be working on everything all at once?
DG: I kind of see them all as the same thing. People are always asking how do you separate them and how do you prioritize? And I sort of see them all as the same thing, which is kind of why I like stand-up the most because you can do all of that. On stand-up you can tell a joke and you can rap and you can do music. I never really see them as “OK, time to put on my rapper hat.” I really do just feel that they’re all the same. They’re not just me putting on costumes, they’re me just stepping out. A lot of jokes and stand-up end up on records that I do.
Having been both a writer for 30 Rock and an actor on Community, how do you think one role has informed the other? Do you find it easier to understand the writing process or acting process as a result?
DG: Yeah, absolutely. In the writers’ room at 30 Rock we would write a joke and it was really perfectly worded and you expected it to be said that way and then somebody would trip up on it, not their fault, but they would trip up on it and then we’d just have to rewrite the joke because it didn’t work at the table read. So at the table read I’m always very cautious, because I know if I mess up in the show [Community], that’s like three hours of work [rewriting.] So I try and do it the right way for everybody to make it as easy as possible.
Your character on Community is not the typical jock football star. He’s kind of dorky and quirky. From the perspective of both a writer and an actor, what do you think makes these quirky or nerdy characters so popular in television and movies right now?
DG: I don’t think any of us really see ourselves as cool and popular. Very few of us see ourselves as cool and popular. I think if you have a scale of one to ten — like how were you in high school — if really cool or popular is a ten, everyone you talk to would put down a five. No one thinks they’re really cool or really nerdy, everybody’s in the middle. But it’s definitely in high school you kind of feel nerdy or alone, at least I did. I think now it’s just that people don’t want to watch what [they] wanna be, as much as [they] wanna watch what [they are.] And I tried really hard at the beginning [of Community] to study football characters, but then it kind of just turned into me. I think you can see that as I start crying more in the episodes. People call it nerdy, but I really think it’s just the way people are. Everybody does weird things, they just don’t show them to everybody. So I think it’s just something that’s happening because people are more willing to look at themselves.
And do you think that it’s also important to bring that quirkiness and vulnerability to your stand-up?
DG: Yeah, I feel like when people do fake quirky … you notice it. With everything that I do, I try to be really truthful. I’m sure that my publicists who are writing my Twitter account probably would not allow me to say or do some of the stuff I say. But I feel like that’s what people enjoy the most because I’m not lying. That persona is out there. Like when that whole Spiderman thing came out [an online fan movement to have Glover play Spiderman in the new movie]. One thing that I thought was kind of ridiculous is that they were like, “Well, there’s no quirky black dudes.” Well, that’s not true. My dad’s a quirky black dude. He totally made me watch Star Wars in movie theaters. Everybody’s like that, that’s not just a thing. So I feel like in everything and in the stand-up I try to do truthfulness.
Be sure to head over to the blogs at techblogs.mit.edu for some bonus questions with Donald that didn’t make it to print!