‘Wu-Tang Clan’s’ TJ Atoms on the pressure of portraying late rap ‘icon’ Ol’ Dirty Bastard

In Hulu's "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," actor TJ Atoms portrays the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard.  Photo Credit: Hulu / Craig Blankenhorn

“You can’t half step” when it comes to embodying founding Wu-Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard, TJ Atoms says.

In Hulu's "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," actor TJ Atoms portrays the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard. 
In Hulu’s "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," actor TJ Atoms portrays the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard.  Photo Credit: NBC / Maarten de Boer

When becoming late NYC rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard in Hulu’s Wu-Tang Clan origin drama, newcomer TJ Atoms knew exactly where to turn for inspiration.

“I studied his son. Young Dirty Bastard is the closest thing to ODB in real life and his mannerisms,” Atoms says. The actor, who’s previously appeared in guest roles on “Orange Is the New Black” and “You,” draws an eerie likeness to the original Wu-Tang Clan member in Hulu’s “An American Saga.” He’s also the only series actor portraying one of the iconic rap group’s founding members who couldn’t reach out to his real-life counterpart for help.

As a rapper himself, Atoms says slipping into the role of the artist who died of a drug overdose in 2004 was nerve-wracking.

“He’s an icon. You have to make sure you get that on point. You can’t half step with that. No one has ever played ODB. As we progressed, I got encouragement from a lot of people and it became a good thing. I’m still learning about ODB now, you know?”

Atoms says he studied videos of Ol' Dirty Bastard (born Russell Tyrone Jones) before filming the series.  
Atoms says he studied videos of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (born Russell Tyrone Jones) before filming the series.   Photo Credit: Hulu / Barbara Nitke

Atoms admits to spending an extensive amount of time watching old videos of ODB, who was known for his unpredictability, from jumping onstage during the 1998 Grammys after losing best rap album of the year, to performing at Hammerstein Ballroom in 2000 while being wanted by the NYPD for escaping a drug-treatment center.

“I can’t stay on the stage too long tonight — the cops is after me,” he told the audience who expected to see Wu-Tang perform sans ODB.

Between music videos, interviews and fan videos capturing such headline-worthy moments sparked by ODB, Atoms wasn’t short on inspirational material. He also helped get a feel for who the rapper was behind the stage persona through telephone calls with his mother, Cherry Jones, and Clan DJ Mathematics.

“His mother is a real sweetheart. We laughed a lot. She reminds me of my mom, warmhearted, good-spirited person.”

And he wasn’t without onset help.

TJ Atoms released his first EP,
TJ Atoms released his first EP, “Atoms,” in 2016. Photo Credit: Chris Ozer

The series is coproduced by founding Clan members RZA and Method Man, who helped cast the roles and keep the script as close as possible to reality. Focused on the formation of the East Coast rap group behind four gold and platinum studio albums, the series brings viewers into the middle of a violence- and drug-stricken Staten Island to show how original Wu-Tang members GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa united.

“Wu-Tang was such a huge influence in my life,” says Atoms, who grew up listening to the group’s albums — like their 1993 debut record “Enter the Wu-Tang.” As a teenager, Atoms was a member of a Wu-Tang inspired rap group called Bakery Boys.

“We thought we were Wu-Tang. We used to rap over their hip-hop beats. We recreated the Wu-Tang logo and made it our own to put on shirts.”

Having a background in rap came in handy when filming ODB’s freestyle scenes in the series, and it helped him land the role to start. He reportedly beat out ODB’s son (also a rapper) for the role.

Atoms, who released his latest single “Stay Down” in September, says the rap scenes were still a challenge despite his experience “because I had to get ODB on point in that delivery.”

“I had to really get down his cadence. His ‘ho, ho, ho.’ He’ll be singing, then he’s rapping, there’s a lot going on in ODB freestyle.”

He says the series’ eighth episode, set to hit Hulu Oct. 9, was the hardest for him to film. “We shot that all in one scene,” without cut breaks, over an hour.

New episodes of “Wu-Tang Clan: An American Saga” hit Hulu every Wednesday.

Meghan Giannotta