Justin Bartha not threatened by the prospect of being the white side of restitution in season four of Atlanta. In fact, he was too pompous about it. “I mean, to be honest, this sounds very odd, but I’m so excited and grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity,” he said.
In the second stand-alone episode of the season “The Big Payback,” Bartha plays Marshall, an average white man whose life is brought to an end when the descendants of the slaves his family owned knock on his door. and claim, specifically, $3 million. As a sudden need for restitution sweeps the country, Marshall watches as the white people around him confront the legacy of slavery and their role in it.
Bartha said of Marshall: “I wanted to make sure he was a normal guy. “He’s someone that everyone watching – regardless of their skin color or background – can relate a little bit.” Bartha on the phone with VF to chat about Atlanta easter eggs, dinner in Brooklyn, and the specter of slavery.
How did you get into this season? Atlanta?
It’s not the most interesting story. Legendary casting director Alexa Vogel reached out to my agent to see if I would read with her. I took the opportunity because I was already a big fan of the show. I thought there was no way I would be lucky enough to get into the show, and then it worked out.
Can you tell me a little bit about Marshall? He’s not a super conservative or a liberal – he’s a regular.
You hit it right in the head. My main idea — my instincts from the start — was that Marshall was in the middle. He is a passive participant in life. His opting out is, again, in the script. Like most people in between, he didn’t take a deep dive and consider it his own prerogative. He doesn’t need to consider his social reality – he’s just a guy trying to get through. He is struggling with his personal life, with his ex-wife and daughter. His work isn’t exactly inspirational, but he’s working on it, being a cog in the machine.
It is important [for Marshall] no political leanings. He has a little freedom, but he has no strong beliefs, politics or religion. On the surface, his social stance is to respect everyone, as I think most people in between are. He’s probably a bit averse to conflict. He lets life happen to him. That’s the highlight – this guy’s background.
I love the cookie metaphor, with Marshall mindlessly stealing a cookie at the beginning of the episode. It seems to really emphasize the central argument of the episode and of the claim case: “How did you get the things that you got?”
Cookies are really the key. When [Marshall] Taking that cookie from the coffee shop seems silly, but the more I break down the script, the more I see there are three different metaphors to unpack there. He has the privilege of being able to eat the cookie without thinking about what might happen to him. There is reality [metaphor of] what is involved in creating cookies. And then there is the greater theft, the theft of slavery. Cookie’s journey is about where this guy is [in terms of] consider those three different levels of metaphor. He doesn’t consider any of them at first, and then we’ll see three different metaphors sink deeper into this character as he goes along.
I felt the episode was like a horror movie. What was the hardest part about filming?
The main thing that I took away from its actual filming was the working relationship with [director] Hiro Murai. I cannot sing his praises enough. I think he’s one of the best working people out there right now. He directed the first 4 episodes of the season. Although two of them are chai episodes, they’re all interconnected — especially the two chai episodes, with the first being set in Lake Lanier where you also have a character in this episode. I think the “horror” tone came out a little more in the first scene of that first episode. Then stylistically, it changes a little bit as you watch each new episode, which I think shows you how great Hiro is. Ours [episode] is… I don’t see the horror element at all. Hiro is like Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch. There is a surrealism and eccentric curve.