Inside TJ Atoms’ Critically Acclaimed Portrayal Of ODB In 'Wu-Tang: An American Saga'

How do you prepare to play a rap god?

When it came time to cast the different roles for the hit Hulu limited series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, 'heads were concerned, to say the least. The limited series, which is a fictionalized account of the formation of the legendary Staten Island-based supergroup, needed to fill the roles of the younger versions of the respective members, albeit in avatar form. Who could pull off playing these titans of hip-hop? 

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The answers came quickly, and it featured a who’s who of rising stars. Dave East, best known for his work behind the mic, assumed the role of the Method Man avatar, “Shotgun.” Ashton Sanders, perhaps best known for his role opposite one Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 2, led the charge as RZA, the gran capo of the Killa Bees. And Shameik Moore, who played Raekwon, voiced Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse and dazzled audiences as the lead in Dope

So the Wu, or at least their avatars, were in good hands. 


But there was one role that remained tough to cast, one that could prove a breakout role to the actor lucky enough to land the part: Ol’Dirty Bastard, the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, a cross between the Joker and Grandmaster Flash, as outlandish and shocking as his name, and gone before his time. 

Whether TJ Atoms, who plays Ason Unique (the Ol’Dirty Bastard avatar), intended to be the breakout star of the limited series is questionable, of course, but it’s something that he embraces now that it’s here. “I originally auditioned for the role of Raekwon,” he told exclusively. “I thought I did a good job, but then I didn’t hear back from them. Then they called me in again and asked me to read for the ODB part. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, can I even do that?’ But after five auditions, I got the part, and man, it’s been a wild ride ever since.” 

For Atoms, the pressure to perform was double that of his co-stars. Unlike the other actors, who could easily go to their Wu-Tang counterparts for help with the authenticity of the part, Atoms had to go it alone, as ODB (born Russell Jones, and sometimes known as Big Baby Jesus and Ason Unique) died of a drug overdose in 2004. 

To prepare, said Atoms, he had to go to YouTube, the online video treasure trove. “There was a lot of preparation for the role,” he said. “I spoke to his mother, of course, and she gave me her blessing to portray her son. But I couldn’t stop there — I went on YouTube and I studied anything and everything having to do with ODB. I even studied his son (Young Dirty Bastard, a rapper in his own right). But I kept practicing for hours on end to try to get the body language right — I knew I couldn’t mess up.” 


TJ and Ashton Sanders in 'Wu-Tang An American Saga'
TJ and Ashton Sanders in 'Wu-Tang An American Saga'

Ol’Dirty Bastard was one of the most commercially successful solo rappers outside of Method Man to emerge from the Wu-Tang Clan monolith. Though he was wildly talented — Method Man, himself, remarked that Jones was the Ol’Dirty Bastard because “there’s no father to your style” — and underrated, he was also notorious for erratic and wild behavior both on stage and off. 

Years before Kanye West would interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in the greatest publicity stunt of all time — “of all time!” — ODB would crash the stage at the 1998 Grammys after losing Best Rap Album of the Year, where he would deliver the infamous “Wu-Tang is for the children!” speech. Just two years later, ODB would perform one of the wildest shows of his career when he performed live at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom while the NYPD issued a BOLO for escaping a drug treatment center. “I can’t stay on the stage too long!” he told the shocked audience. “The cops is after me!” 

To say, then, that Atoms had big shoes to fill is the height of understatement. “It’s hard to follow the real ODB,” Atoms admitted. “But, I think I did alright. Method Man said he liked my performance, and RZA told me I was doing a good job, as well.”

And Atoms’ performance in Wu-Tang: An American Saga has brought attention to his own music, too. He just released his album, Stay Down, last month, and the surge in his popularity from his ODB role has given a surge to the number of streams and downloads of the album, in kind.

But don’t think Stay Down is a retread of ODB-like songs; the album is as eclectic as Atoms’ roles. “I’ve been playing music since I was 16 years old,” he said. “And I play a lot of different styles. I’ve got jazz influences, funk influences, hip-hop influences of course… I’ve even got a pop song you wouldn’t expect to hear from me.” 

Now that An American Saga has wrapped, Atoms has a few other things in the works. He just finished shooting his part for The 40-Year-Old Version, and had bit parts in the hit CBS series FBI and in the Forest Whittaker-led limited series The Godfather of Harlem.  

But as for his next move, Atoms says it’s not about being his “best move” so much as it is about being a creative person. “I'm a very creative person, so I just see myself being involved in all sorts of creative projects. I want to eventually be behind the scenes and directing movies, and making music — whatever comes along,” he said. “I just feel like I got it — like I knew I could — but now it's necessary for me to stay relevant.” 


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