ABOVE PHOTO: TJ Atoms as Russell “Ason Unique” Jones aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) in the Hulu original “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.” (Wu-Tang photos: Courtesy of Hulu)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
North Philadelphia native TJ Atoms has always had a knack for the creative. He found himself immersed in the skateboard and rap world simultaneously as part of the Philly-based rap group The Baker Boys. Discovered while skateboarding, Atoms was bitten by the acting bug after being cast in a heavy metal rock music video called “Fault Line” by August Burns Red. His natural flair on camera catapulted him quickly, with him landing the role of the late Russell “Ason Unique” Jones aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) in the Hulu original, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.”
The Hulu original series is executive produced by Alex Tse, Brian Grazer, and Wu-Tang’s own Rza and Method Man. The series stars Ashton Sanders (Bobby Diggs), Julian Elijah Martinez (Mitchell “Divine” Diggs), Siddiq Saunderson (Dennis “D-Love” Coles), Shameik Moore (Sha Rider), Marcus Callender (Oliver ‘Power’ Grant), Dave East (Shotgun Method Man), Erika Alexander (Linda Diggs), Zolee Griggs (Shurrie Diggs), Johnell Young(GZA), Uyoata Udi (Rebel) and Damani D. Sease (U-God). Atoms spoke with the SUN about his breakout role and the process of transforming himself into the late hip-hop legend.
As a rap artist in his own right, Atoms’ experience with The Bakery Boys was the beginning of his preparation for his role as ODB.
“We’ve been making music since I was 16,” Atoms said. “We actually made music over Wu-Tang beats, and we switched our logo to resemble Wu-Tang. So, to play a character in the Wu-Tang series is a full circle moment of believing in yourself, dreams come true, manifestation, and all that good stuff.”
The legendary ODB and his eccentric persona on and off the stage carved an incredible niche in the music world that was all his own. The late rapper died in 2004 of a drug overdose, leaving a hole in the music world. Atoms shared his experience taking on the role of such a beloved icon.
“It’s been a dream come true,” Atoms said. “Playing a character that holds so much weight to the culture, seeing how people react to it… just getting the love that O.D.B should have gotten in real life is one of those things for me. I’m one of those people that believes in manifesting the life that you want. I’ve always wanted to be a figure for the culture, and it’s amazing to be playing such an icon, so I feel like it’s a parallel between that.”
ODB was known for being a force. His wild antics, sporadic behavior, and his ability to bring joy and laughter through his performance still resonates with fans around the world. Embracing the iconic tone, cadence, and delivery of ODB was no easy feat for the young actor. Atoms took the challenge in stride and embodied this larger-than-life character on screen.
“It was one of those things where if I did it wrong, we wouldn’t be here,” Atoms said. “It’s hard to describe. I really had to pour myself into the art and study his cadence.”
“All I did at the time was study how he moved, and I studied his son’s movements, because that’s his son,” Atoms continued. “I did that in order to fully sculpt the arch of the character that I’m playing, Ason Unique. Getting the voice right — that was the challenging part, but I got a lot of encouragement from the cast and the people working on the set. They really put the battery in my back like, ‘You’re killing it.’ That’s what made me fully confident with it, like, ‘Alright, I got it.”
“To be honest, I studied super hard,” he said. “When I first got the role, I was in North Philly, and you know how the environment is there. I got the opportunity to change my life, so I put everything I had into it. I had to pour myself literally into the art and become the character to change my life, so that’s what I did.”
In season 3, episode 3 of “Wu-Tang,” “Dirty Dancin,’” fans are introduced to a more in-depth side of ODB. The episode is brilliantly crafted into an ode to the ‘70s and ODB.
“It was amazing! It’s a movie, first of all,” Atoms said. “Mario Van Peebles directed it. I tell people all the time it’s like a ’90s movie. We’ve got Erika Alexander, we’ve got my man Mario Van Peebles directing it, we’ve got so many icons on it from the culture, and for me to be staring at it is amazing.”
“We get into the mind of ODB,” Atoms continued. “It takes place in the ’70s. I need people to see it. I need people to get as excited as I am about it and just watch it. It’s really a work of art. We all worked very hard on that episode, and we all took the time to really become those characters. You see everybody in a different light from the Wu-Tang show. It’s insane! We all had our characters down on Wu-Tang, so it was cool. Then when we did this episode, I personally saw people take it to another notch, which made me want to take it another notch. I saw people change their whole thing up, which made me want to be like, ‘Wait, hold up –this is my episode; you’re not going to do that to me.’ It was a very dope experience.”
To continue to support TJ Atoms on his journey, be sure to follow him on IG @TJAtoms. New episodes of the third and final season of “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” are available to stream on Hulu every “Wu-Wednesday.” You don’t want to miss it!
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