It’s a phrase bandied about quite a lot in the entertainment world, but Donald Glover is quite genuinely a man of many talents. When he’s not preparing to join a galaxy far, far away as a young Lando Calrissian, he’s making vital, thought-provoking music under his alias Childish Gambino. And when he’s not doing that, perhaps he’s creating, starring in, writing, directing and executive producing FX series Atlanta. Or hosting Saturday Night Live. Or DJing under the name mc DJ. Or doing voice work on Disney’s new version of The Lion King. Or just generally being one of the most effortlessly cool guys on the planet.
Oh, and he’s still only 33.
Based on the trailers, promo shots and his vast array of capes, Glover is fully capable of stealing the show from under the nose of the new Han (Alden Ehrenreich) in Solo: A Star Wars Story. And it wouldn’t be his first offence.
In 2015, with only a handful of movie parts under his belt, Glover bagged a small role in Ridley Scott’s excellent The Martian. While very much a Matt Damon vehicle, as he spends most of the film stranded alone on Mars, it’s also an effective ensemble piece. The rest of the story focuses on the crew that left Damon’s botanist Mark Watney behind, believing him dead, and the NASA team back on Earth desperately trying to figure out a way to save their lost astronaut.
The core cast for this portion features a, ahem, stellar line-up, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Benedict Wong. Between them they spend most of the movie devising, debating and attempting to execute a plan to bring Watney home. With the rest of the crew on the long return journey aboard their ship the Hermes, NASA’s best hope is sending a probe to Mars to deliver enough food to keep him alive until the next mission arrives four years later.
But things go wrong when Watney’s habitat decompresses, blowing away a good deal of his food. Then the rocket carrying the probe explodes on take-off. All seems lost. Enter Donald Glover as Rich Purnell to save the day.
That’s right, it’s one hour and 12 minutes into the movie when we get our first glimpse of Glover – and he goes on to have just three main scenes and approximately six minutes of screen time. But it’s enough for him to make a big impression.
Purnell works in astrodynamics at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. We’re introduced to him as he’s asleep on a makeshift bed, fully clothed, in his office. Before this first scene is out Rich proceeds to down some cold, stale coffee before spitting it out into (read: through) a mesh waste bin – which he then spectacularly trips over. But he also comes quickly to a new possibility for solving NASA’s big headache, half vocalising this idea to the frustration of his immediate boss. Straight away we know his character is very intelligent but clumsy and socially awkward.
Glover’s only other major scene a while later is one of the movie’s most pivotal, memorable and funny. After interrupting NASA’s Director of Mars Missions Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) with his theory, Purnell is summoned to present it to the Agency’s other bigwigs. Showing precisely no social graces or understanding of the hierarchy, he asks Kristen Wiig’s PR director and the head honcho of NASA himself, Teddy Sanders (Daniels), to act as props in his demonstration. Then, with the help of a stapler, a pen and some spaceship sound effects, he convinces Sanders to consider the plan before being summarily dismissed. And that’s it, we’re Gloverless for the climax of the film save a quick nod of acknowledgement in the end credits.
The fact Glover can do so much with so little is testament to his great skill as an actor, which is now beginning to earn him meatier roles on the big screen. Writer of The Martian‘s source novel, Andy Weir, has said that Purnell is in fact autistic, but it’s to the actor’s and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s credit that this is inferred rather than overplayed. Glover channels both his own sweet but dumb jock Troy and Danny Pudi’s social misfit Abed from Community, while also playing up the inherent intelligence and confidence he has himself as a performer to deliver a truly scene-stealing performance among a raft of top actors. Bring on Lando.