The last time TV writer and producer Lena Waithe chatted with Chicago, she was busy promoting Dear White People, the acerbic independent comedy about a group of black students at a fictional, predominantly white college that made waves on the festival circuit last year. Since then, the former Bones writer has dipped her toes into the acting waters, nabbing a small role in season two of HBO’s The Comeback and, more notably, a supporting gig on Netflix’s Master of None. In the critically acclaimed series created by stand-up comic Aziz Ansari and former Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang, Waithe plays Denise, a forthright, deadpan lesbian theater critic and friend of Dev, the show's main character played by Ansari. It’s a role that's introduced Waithe to a slew of new fans and has attracted gushing Internet accolades. Chicago recently caught up with the busy South Side native to talk Master of None, her upcoming Showtime pilot, and her thoughts on the Chi-Raq controversy.
The last time we spoke you were not acting on a TV show. Now it seems like you’re blowing up.
Yeah that must have been a while ago. It’s been a wonderful blessing. I went and shot Master of None, had a really great time, and people seem to be really responding to it, which is really awesome.
How did the role come about?
It came to me through Allison Jones. She’s a famed casting director; she’s cast stuff like Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks, and Veep. She discovered me when I was doing press for this pilot presentation called Twenties, which is still available on YouTube—it's in development right now. She asked if I wanted to act and I said I don’t really have any aspirations to do that. She said, "Okay, fair enough, but I want to bring you in for stuff just for shits and giggles."
With Master of None, she was like, "Hey, Aziz is looking for interesting people for his show." I went to his house, met with him and [co-writer] Alan Yang, and the three of us talked about life, love—just random things. Then he asked me to come in and read with him. He and I had an instant chemistry. Initially the character was written as a straight white woman, and the way I read it was naturally funny because of my cadence and my demeanor. Once I got the part, the writers thought it'd be more interesting if the character was not only black, which I am, but a lesbian, which I am too. They pretty much made the character a heightened version of myself.
What aspects of your character were embellished? And was any of the writing improvised?
The script is not improvised at all. That’s a testament to the writing in that it feels as though we’re just going off the cuff. Sometimes in rehearsal, Aziz would say, "Okay, play with it and have fun," and if one of us said a really cool joke that he liked, he’d incorporate it into the script. In terms of things about the character that are like me, she dresses a lot like I do and some of the stuff I said to Aziz put in the script.
Definitely the coconut oil thing [a line about rubbing down a potential romantic partner], the red bone line [a slang term for a light-skinned black person]. Aziz and I genuinely had that conversation in between set-ups one day, and he was like, "We have to work that line right in." I just love that Aziz would take a real conversation and find a way to work into an episode that was organic and made sense.
Did acting change the way you approached your own behind-the-scenes work?
I’ve always been respectful of actors and appreciated what they do. Because I’m such a meticulous writer, I always make sure that the words that I’m writing are words that would make sense for an actor to say. I’m very sensitive to it, and I always have been, but I’m even more so now that I’ve had [this] experience.
Can you talk a bit about your Showtime pilot?
It’s a multi-protagonist story and it’s really about what it means to live on the South Side of Chicago, what that feels like. That’s as much as I can give. We’re going to show the studio and the network very soon. Doing a pilot is like being pregnant and not knowing whether or not you get to keep the baby. It’s cool you’re pregnant and that’s all fun, but after the labor you don’t know if you get to take the baby home or not. Hopefully I’ll get to take the baby home.
When will you know if you get the series order?
We should know either before this year is out or top of next year at the latest.
Have you seen the trailer for Chi-raq? As a native Chicagoan, do you have any opinions about the way people reacted to it?
I have seen the trailer for the movie. Mind you I’m cool with [Spike’s wife] Tonya Lee, I’m very friendly with [star] Teyonah Parris and I’m also a big Spike Lee aficionado. I haven’t really given an opinion or been public about it at all, and I think that’s partly because I’ve been dealing with similar subject matter with my pilot. I may not be approaching it the same way he is, but I think overall, from what I saw in the trailer, it looks a lot like vintage Spike Lee, which is exciting and cool. I’m a producer and I know how the sausage is made—I don’t think you can judge a movie based on the trailer. If people go see the movie and they have an issue with it and they hate it then that’s their prerogative, go ahead write about, it talk about it. But I think people should withhold judgment until they’ve seen the film in its entirety.
What do you think about the criticism about the fact that he’s from New York? Do you feel like that’s a valid point?
Being from Chicago, I do know Chicagoans can be very protective of their city. I don’t think you have to be from a place to tell a story that’s happening from there though. Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple. Look at Beasts of No Nation; Cary Fukanga told that story and he’s not from Africa. It really has to be about how the movie makes you feel ultimately. If the movie moves me, and if it’s well done you’ve got to give props where it’s due. If it’s done well if they end up liking it, who cares where the filmmaker is from?
Do you have any acting roles coming up?
Not that I know of. If I do something, it’d have to be really different from the character of Denise. Right now I’m on my writer grind, but if a cool project presents itself and it makes sense my team, I will definitely entertain it.