Growing up as a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, TJ Atoms could have never guessed that he would one day play the group’s most flamboyant member, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, on television. But that’s exactly what happened when he was cast to play ODB on Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga. In our chat, we discuss the legacy of ODB and the Wu-Tang Clan as well as the responsibility for getting his part right. It’s not easy to play an icon. It’s even harder to play a martyred one. That was the burden laid upon TJ Atoms’ back. One he carries with great pride.
Awards Daily: So, I have to say, when I first saw you onscreen, I began to believe in the power of reincarnation. What did you do to get ready to play Dirty?
TJ Atoms: I did a lot of studying. Anything I could find on Ol’ Dirty Bastard. If I found it on the internet, I watched it a million times. There was never enough stuff for me. So, I went and looked at his son to see how he moves. His son, Young Dirty Bastard, is the closest thing we are going to get to him. Not an imitation, but to see his mannerisms. I feel like the human eye can’t catch Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s movement. The dude moved too fast. He was all over the place. I met with his mother and his daughter too. We talked about what he was like when he was on TV and what he was like off the TV too.
AD: He was one of the most spontaneous people that’s ever existed. That could not have made it easy to slide into this role.
TJ: Not at all! (Laughs).
AD: What kind of feedback have you gotten from his family?
TJ: The family has told me I’m doing a great job. They’re loving it. I haven’t talked to his mom recently. I have to call her and see if she’s caught up on all the episodes. It’s crazy, no one has ever played ODB before. There’s a hundred Joker and Spider-Man movies, but no one’s ever played this character. I didn’t have a real sense if I was doing this right until it came out. People have been telling me they love it. It’s been exciting to hear.
AD: You originally auditioned for a different part. Can you talk about how you came to the show and how you ended up playing ODB?
TJ: I went in for Raekwon one time. I think I did a good job with the audition. So, they called me in for Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I auditioned for that 3-4 times. It took three months before they finally told me I got it. I think it was early January. It took a while. I’m curious to think of who else might have played ODB.
AD: You’re a hip-hop artist yourself, but your rhyme flow is considerably different from ODB. You don’t sound like him at all on your tracks. How did you get into his patterns, rhythms, and that grimy flow of his?
TJ: I had Sean C, and Mathematics, the DJ from the Wu-Tang Clan, on set almost every day to help us get that dialect and his delivery right. I had homework for the role. We knew the day we had to rap we would have four-hour rehearsal sessions. They helped me a lot with finding that flow.
AD: It’s almost like when an actor has to learn an accent for the role.
TJ: Yeah! Yeah! (Laughs). I never looked at it like that! It’s definitely like that.
AD: He had that way of slurring when he talked. I can only describe it as a profound sloppiness.
TJ: (Laughs). I had to catch all those details. It’s such a sensitive character. If I didn’t get this character right, I felt like the whole show wouldn’t be as good. Not saying I’m the most important role, but Ol’ Dirty was such an important character that people wouldn’t respect the whole show if we didn’t get Ol’ Dirty right. I had to pay attention. I had to get those vocal slurs and speech patterns down.
AD: I imagine you felt a lot of responsibility playing someone who was not only a real person, but also who’s no longer living. You are both trying to honor a memory and give a performance.
TJ: It was hard. Like I said, I didn’t have a direct reference. I couldn’t call ODB up and ask, “what would you do?” Shameik (Moore) would call Raekwon up before his scenes. I didn’t have that at all. It was heavy, man. I can’t believe how well people have accepted the character. I was in it for 6-7 months. I started thinking I was ODB! (Laughs). I would ask people who knew me before I took on the role, “Do you think we are similar? That’s not me, right?” (Laughs).
AD: You came to the role as a huge Wu-Tang fan, right?
TJ: I was a huge Wu-Tang fan. I was in a group called the Bakery Boys. We thought we were Wu-Tang Clan. We were heavily inspired by Wu-Tang. Down to the t-shirts we made. They had the double B logo which we replicated to look like the Wu-Tang symbol. We made a song called “The Bakery Boys Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With” which is directly from the “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuttin ta Fuck Wit.” It’s crazy how life works.
AD: What did you discover about ODB that you didn’t know before?
TJ: How cool he was. How smooth he was with the ladies. (Laughs). And how he loved to sing. He wasn’t even all that into rapping. He wasn’t a huge rap fan. He was like James Brown in his head. He loved that kind of music. I feel like he inspired a lot of today’s music. Even down to his hair. All the new rappers are low-key dirty bastards.
AD: I think for a while, like Flava Flav in Public Enemy, ODB was unfairly labeled as comic relief. But when you look at what he was doing on those records, he was coming up with some of the craziest stuff.
TJ: ODB was the bread and butter of the group. Wu-Tang wouldn’t have been Wu-Tang without ODB. ODB wouldn’t have been ODB without Wu-Tang either, but I felt like he made the group that much more legendary because of his character.
AD: When I spoke to Sacha Jenkins (Director of the documentary series, Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men), he said he felt ODB held the group together.
TJ: People don’t even know how important ODB is to the culture of hip-hop and to the Wu-Tang Clan itself. I feel like the show makes people remember him. It makes people miss him. He was such an icon. Hopefully it will inspire people to go back and look at all that he did.
AD: Did you get a chance to see Of Mics and Men before you started shooting?
TJ: I had seen the first part of it. I was pretty excited to have a real Wu-Tang documentary. It was dope. ODB was such a huge character. I feel like people thought he was everywhere during (his time with) the Wu-Tang Clan. But even in the documentary, I feel like he was sprinkled in. Maybe I just wanted more of ODB. (Laughs).
AD: Did you see a lot of the Wu-Tang guys coming in and out during the shoot? I know RZA and Method Man are producers.
TJ: Method Man was there sometimes. RZA was there most of the time during the first couple episodes, and when he wasn’t on tour. He would tell me not to go “over the top” with this scene – just stay in the pocket. He definitely helped me curate my performance. The whole Wu-Tang crew was giving me so much love during the shooting. It made me feel better about doing it and gave me more confidence to deliver it how I needed to. It was all love. It felt amazing to have them behind me. This is a huge thing for them.
AD: It’s a renaissance of a sort. With both the documentary and your series, it reminds people of how significant the Wu-Tang was and still is.
TJ: Younger kids tell me all the time that they weren’t Wu-Tang fans, but that it’s a dope show. So, they went back and started listening to the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s crazy that they are still touching the kids.
AD: People can be fickle about music, but the Wu-Tang really endures. I think if they dropped right now, people would be bugging their eyes out about them.
TJ: People would love it. If the Wu-Tang dropped right now, people would be going crazy!
AD: You were saying what a big deal this is for the group, but it’s also a really big deal for you. This could be described as your big break.
TJ: This is huge for me. I was a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan. For me to be a part of the Wu-Tang Clan by portraying one of the most influential members – that’s a dream come true for a kid. When they say Wu-Tang was for the children, they were talking about me. I can’t put it into words what it’s like to be in this situation right now. I wish I could.
AD: You woke up wanting to be like the Wu-Tang Clan. Now your dreams have become a reality.
TJ: It completely manifested. My dreams are my reality. If you go look at my Instagram with my old shirts from 2015. We were trying to be them. I feel like if I can do it, other people should know they can do it too.
AD: What’s next for you? You’ve got your music and your acting – you’re working on your multi-hyphenate.
TJ: I’m working on my music project right now. I don’t have an exact title for it yet. My single “Stay Down” is out on all streaming platforms. I’m working on designing a few lines for a couple brands that I can’t announce. So, I’m getting into fashion as well. I love designing. I’m a creative, man.
AD: The guys in Wu-Tang got into fashion too. I see you are not holding yourself back.
TJ: They let me in the door, so I gotta go full throttle.