Is there anything Donald Glover, or his groundbreaking alter ego Childish Gambino, can’t do? Writer, director, movie star, rapper, style maven, father of three – and the guy’s not even 40. From his first days in the writer’s room on 30 Rock – aged only 23 – to his breakout on Community, his scene-stealing turn as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and of course his universally-beloved award-winning Atlanta, the scope of Glover’s brilliance spans across all manner of genres and industries.
With his “Bey-Hive”-inspired new horror series Swarm releasing in a few days, we managed to corner him just long enough to dig into a few of his favorite influences and the cultural staples that helped shape him–be it his undying love of Flamin Hot Cheetos and Tony Soprano, his first car, the movies that leave him sobbing, music that makes him nostalgic, and the lessons he learned from his dad.
What do you read or listen to daily?
Any album by Khruangbin I tend to listen to at some point in the day. It’s helpful. There’s also an album called New Ancient Strings that I listen to—it’s really good for meditating. It’s very instrumental. I listen to a lot of instrumentals now. I just feel like it allows me to have almost like a score for the day. Those two I listen to pretty much every day.
Favorite book growing up?
Harold and the Purple Crayon was my favorite book. Everything I do, I feel like I’m kind of trying to make Harold and the Purple Crayon on some level. That and Shel Silverstein books I feel were very profound and mind-altering books for a child to understand. It’s like—yea, your biggest enemy is yourself. That’s all that’s standing in front of you in doing whatever you want, and give-and-take is the name of the game. Also, my dad used to say I have a head shaped like Harold’s, so I just really liked that book.
Favorite book now?
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I know it’s really hot right now and it’s like red pill-adjacent now [laughs], which I don’t understand. But it’s just good wisdom for anybody. I really think that book captures what it’s all about. If you’re feeling depressed or you feel like, ‘I’m not happy in this job’, or, ‘I’m feeling unsure’, or, ‘I’m feeling anxiety’—there are some really balanced deep-rooted truths in that book. It gives me a lot of comfort and wisdom.
Song, band or album that brings you back.
The No Doubt album Tragic Kingdom kind of brings me back because it was the first album I bought with my own money. I had money for some reason during Christmas time, and I went to a place that was called Media Play in Atlanta, and I bought it. Before that, it was just Prince and whatever my dad was listening to—he had great taste, and weird taste. But that was the first of me awkwardly figuring out what I was into, like, ‘Maybe I’m a ska guy [laughs], or maybe I’m…’ It was the beginning of me building who I am.
Song you blast in the car?
Hot by Young Thug and Gunna. I love that song.
Album that is the soundtrack to your life?
There’s a Khruangbin album, Con Todo El Mundo. I always hear it and think, this feels like my life. There’s a sad part, there’s a really happy part, then it gets sad again. It feels super balanced, but it’s also just a good time. There’s also a song called Hymn on it that’s just beautiful. All of it is just beautiful feelings.
Your first car?
BMW 323. I loved that car. I bought it with my own money and came to LA. It was just, ‘I’m on the show. I actually have money. I want a compact, respectable car.’ It was black, and the inside was light brown. Man, did I love that car. I loved it. It was respectable but fast. It felt very traditional but the inside was just so tailored to me. It never gave me problems. It never broke down. I drove it up the coast; I just drove it everywhere. It was just the love of my life in a lot of ways [laughs]. I had a friend use it while they were in town and just totaled it. I was so devastated. Sometimes I still think about getting that car.
Your dream car?
A Porsche 928 Coupe. It’s discontinued, but that’s my dream car. I just love it, I feel like it speaks to me. I love the 911, it’s a beautiful car, everyone’s kind of like, ‘Oh the 911.’ And yea, me too, but there’s something about this one. Everyone says the nose is too long, but that’s what makes it dope. It’s a statement in a very slight way. It feels like something only an adult can enjoy, which I like.
Favorite video game?
Little Nemo’s The Dream Master. We used to play when I was a kid. And the music in that is so good. I just really like it. It would be a great movie too. [Laughs] I’m gonna talk to someone about making a movie before this comes out.
Favorite junk food?
Flamin Hot Cheetos. I can’t get rid of them. It’s disgusting. I mean, I love them, but it’s like a drug. If I start eating them, I know I can’t stop so I stay away from them. I used to go to The Greenwich Hotel, which is my favorite hotel. They knew I loved them, so I would go and there would be this huge bag waiting for me, and I’d literally almost break down—like, I’m so mad because I know I can’t. I would throw it in the trash, and then leave and go for a walk and then come back and go in the trash… Ugh, that is really bad. So yeah, Flamin Hot Cheetos, with sour cream—are you kidding me? You dip them in sour cream. So good.
Favorite dish your mom or grandma makes?
My mom makes a lot of great stuff I love. She’s what we call a ‘dump cook’—she never measured stuff out, and a lot of it she learned from her mother. She’s taught me how to make salmon patties which I love…It’s funny, when I was a kid I hated them. They had bell peppers and I was just very against bell peppers, and now I crave them. And I love making her sweet potato pies. But our thing that she makes is chicken soup. The chicken soup thing is really great cause I feel like it’s kind of a love language we have where anytime the kids are sick, I just call—I have it written it down, but I just call her and say, “Could you walk me through this?” Every time. And she’s like, “You haven’t written it down?” And she knows I have. And it’s just nice. I feel like it makes the soup taste better to be talked through it for some reason.
What dish do you make when showing off for guests?
Osso buco is what I go to. My wife’s Italian; I made that for her dad when we first met, when she was pregnant. I remember making it, and afterward she told me that he said, “That was a risky move.” [Laughs] “That was a risky move but it paid off because it was good.” I knew it was risky, but I wanted to show him that’s the type of guy I am.
Your go-to cocktail?
In a lot of ways, I’m kind of a very traditional person. So if it’s summer, I love a gin and tonic. I love anything clear and refreshing with some cucumber. If we’re inside and not too warm out, a Martini. Sometimes I do a mezcal, but I feel like a martini is kind of romantic. It’s very classic.
Movie you have seen the most times and why?
By default, I’ve probably seen E.T. the most times cause my brother and sister loved that movie. And I did too, but not as much as them [laughs]. I know it super well. That and Toy Story I could probably do word for word. But the movie I’ve personally watched by myself because I love the the movie is probably Children of Men. I love Children of Men. The filmmaking is great, and I love the long takes, but also—it’s speaking to something deep in me, and just about humanity. I watch that movie anytime I’m about to start a new project to kind of get my head right and go, ‘Okay, this is what you’re aiming for.’
E.T. when he’s all, “You’re killing him!” And then you see Drew Barrymore, and she’s starting to cry. And they play those strings [hums the strings]. And you’re going, “E.T. is dead…”, you feel so bad. Also, honestly, anything about dads. I guess maybe because my dad passed, and he was such a big part of me, anything with dads now just makes me fucking fall apart. The Great Mouse Detective will make me cry. Or American Tail—oh my God, American Tail. All those Don Bluths make me cry. The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, all of those, I sob every time. I leave the room cause I don’t want my kids to see me crying [laughs]. It really reaches down, and not even at the most heart-wrenching parts. I will watch The Land Before Time, and when he thinks it’s his mom, but it’s just his shadow, and he runs up to it and licks it and realizes, ‘Oh, I’m really alone…’ Oh, man, I’m tearing up right now [laughs].
Favorite movie or project you were in and why?
I guess it’s a cop-out, but Atlanta. It’s just very personal. Now I see everything everybody else from the show is doing, and it’s just the kind of thing where you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I didn’t realize that I was working with real ass artists and actors. I was just lucky enough that I got them at that point. Like Zazie, Lakeith, Brian, everybody on that show, even the little parts. These are people who are really, really good and we got them at a point where they were young enough to try things, and it was just very special. Even Hiro. [At the time] it was just like, oh this is just us fucking around, being young, and doing stuff. We’re not making a bunch of money, we’re doing it cause this shit is fun. And it wasn’t until it was over where I realized, oh that’s never gonna happen again. I actually watched the finale again last night, and it’s almost like college or something, where you go, damn, I miss that.
TV series you can binge watch more than once?
Sopranos. I feel like that’s got everything you need in it. And also, weirdly, the Beatles documentary, Get Back. It’s six hours, and I heard the director’s cut was really 10 hours—I could watch 20 hours of that. It’s really interesting for any artist to watch. I was not even a Beatles fan, I didn’t grow up with them. Watching this made me a Beatles fan. I went back and was like, yo, Let it Be is fire [laughs]. I’m watching it going, this is family. It’s really about families. When Paul says, “This is like us writing our love songs together. We’re writing about ourselves.” It’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re brothers, we’ve known each other since we were teenagers, and now it’s kind of done. We’re 30-something and it’s done. I love you, but it’s done.’ And it’s just heartbreaking. We also get to see them just fucking around, being goofballs. I could watch that today and be happy.
Favorite TV show growing up?
I loved all television—because I was with Jehovah’s Witness, I just thought, ‘this is amazing’. When I was a kid, I really liked Batman the animated series. It felt so filmy and real and stylized. But my favorite was The Simpsons. It was the best thing. They could tackle anything in such a funny, silly way—nobody was fucking with The Simpsons. My dad bought me The Simpsons’ show tunes thing, and I knew every song on there. You’d learn all these cultural things through it. I’d think, this is a Charlie Chaplin joke I have to research to get, and so on.
Comedian who had the most influence on you?
I wanted to be Eddie Murphy so badly. He really paved the way for all of that stuff where it’s just, you can see how good he is at such a young age. To be 17 and you’ve already found it. You know who you are. What a burden to carry [laughs]. I was like, oh, you got it. You did it. You don’t have to go through a bunch of shit. You don’t have to be 30 and divorced to go, ‘you know what, here’s what I am and who I am. I’m 16 and I know exactly who I am.’ It was crazy.
Musician who had the most influence on you?
I fight between Prince and Michael Jackson. I love both of their worlds, but one has death and one doesn’t. I think I always go back and forth of which one is better, just as a philosophy. As I get older, I enjoy Prince more because the sadness in it is relatable. But when I was a kid, I preferred Michael Jackson. I would listen to Thriller and think, ‘there’s no death here. It’s just a beautiful place.’ It’s just fun.
Favorite bar in the world?
When I was in New York and going to NYU, there was that magic of New York. You could just literally walk… I remember I was dating this girl. I don’t even remember how we met these people. I think we were just walking down the street, honestly. We had just come from a bar and these people said, “Come, we’re going to another bar. Come with us.” It was just like, okay, we’re in the Lower East Side, we’re off to Delancey. I remember thinking, ‘we’ve never been over here, I don’t know where we are.’ It was a bar and it was open late and it had this cool, kind of Latin vibe and all the alcohol had really spicy chilis at the bottom and all the drinks were rimmed with sugar. So you’d get hit with this really spicy, like—whew! But then the sugar on the rim would just cut it. We stayed until 4:00 in the morning, and the music was great, and we just laughed. I never found that place again.
Favorite restaurant anywhere?
I was just at Carbone, I really like that place, me and my girl likes going there. Locanda Verde always treats us right. I really love another Italian spot, Buvette. That holds a very big place in my heart. Pine & Crane I love. But I think I’m gonna go with a place called Joy, adjacent to Pine & Crane, in Highland Park. This woman named Vivian runs it. People forget, the food can be amazing, but really most of all these experiences are really about how people treat you. And sometimes part of it is just that they’re snooty about it—I like that too sometimes, it’s not just about being treated nice. You go to Philly and they’re like, “What do you fucking want? I’m not giving you that” [laughs]. But Joy is Taiwanese food that is so familial, and they treat you so nice. I brought my kids, and she comes out… and we just felt very taken care of. The experience there is really incredible, the people are great, and the food Is untouchable.
Place that makes you feel nostalgic?
Anytime I drive through a city at night, it’s this deep down feeling. I remember my dad was working nights, and we only had one shitty car, and my mom would have to wake us up at 4:00 in the morning; she’d put us in the back, and she’d have pillows. We’d still be in our pajamas, and she’d put us in a cover. I found out later that that was really hard for her. It was really sad and depressing to her that she had to do this to her kids. But I loved it. I would get to stay up, and I would be looking out the window, and we’d go through downtown Atlanta, and I’d see all the lights. My mom would be playing Anita Baker, or sometimes the radio would be on and the late night DJs would be playing like, [laughs] The Art of Noise. And I’d think, ‘This is what adults must feel like.’ I just remember feeling, ‘I wanna make these feelings when I get older.’ That always makes me feel nostalgic. Just playing cool music late at night, driving through the city. There’s people out there dancing and falling in love, and there’s just so much life happening. I love that.
Workout you always avoid but really should do?
Cold plunge. Inflammation—I think about it a lot [laughs]. So yea a cold plunge, it’s just so hard for me to get in it. But when I do it and I get out, I feel so much better. When you’re bulking up, it’s not great for your muscles to do it, so I’m always going, yeah, yeah, I’m bulking up, I’m bulking up, so I shouldn’t do it today [laughs]. But really, I should do it at least once or twice a week. It’s just so hard for me to get in there.
Morning person or night owl?
I’m a morning person. I used to be a night owl. I used to love to stay up until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, actually. But now I love waking up at like 4:00, 4:30 in the morning, and everyone’s asleep, I get to answer emails, do anything I want, and then go to the gym at like 6:00. It just feels like, man, I really started the day. I can do anything. A lot of artists like recording late at night. I know rappers who come to the studio at 3:00 AM with the girls from the club and start recording, and to me, that is the most insane thing. I literally have a plaque in my studio that says 10 to 5. Banking hours. You need to have a life. This is for living. That’s how I feel, anyway.
How many hours a night of sleep do you need to function?
To be real, like four. I’ve always been that way. I force myself [to sleep more] cause I feel it’s better for you, and it’s probably better for your brain. And I don’t want dementia. I did all the research: I sleep on my right side, I have berries every morning, I go for walks. I do all that just literally for dementia purposes.
Favorite character from anything?
Tony Soprano. I love him because he feels the most layered. You wanna be him, but he’s kind of revolting in a lot of ways—and I don’t mean physically. He’s just bad in a lot of ways. Like he’s a bad father [laughs], but at the same time you see how he cares about animals and how fucked up he is from his mom, you see all these things. He kind of never had a chance—he could have been anything, he was super smart. He’s just a full, layered person. My dad, to me, he was a very Buddha-like figure. I see his life, and I think, it shouldn’t have turned out that way—he probably could have ended up like a drug addict or fucked up. But he didn’t. But it doesn’t always work out that way for some people, some people aren’t strong enough to overcome that. So I find those kinds of characters interesting.
Character you dressed up as a kid.
Ninja Turtles [laughs]. I always wanted to be Raphael. I feel like Raphael was the most like me because he has defiant opposition disorder, and I thought, that’s me a little bit. I always really liked him.
Person you look up to the most?
I definitely look up to my dad the most. Both my parents, but my dad definitely showed me you can change everything just by doing the right thing—you won’t always see it, but doing the right thing, it actually keeps going past you, because people are like water, like droplets of water. The ripple effect is real. So I was very influenced by that.
In another life I would have been_?
I would’ve been a wedding planner. That was something I really wanted to do. Because I like experiences, and there’s something nice about going, ‘Who are you? What do you like?’ And then saying, ‘Ok, I’m gonna tailor an experience directly for you. This is the music, this is the… Oh, you’re a dramatic person? Here, this is…’ I think I really would’ve gotten a kick out of that.
What would you go back and tell your 13-year-old self?
You are more beautiful than you think you are, just like everybody else.
Advice you would leave to your kids.
The only person you can’t let down is yourself. That’s the only person in the world that you should try to never let down. It starts with you. If you have a really good relationship with yourself, you can kind of do anything, and you’re always building that. But once you break trust with yourself, then you can’t do anything. That’s the hardest thing to regain.