Master of None’s Lena Waithe: ‘If you come from a poor background, TV becomes what you dream about’ | Television & radio


This year’s Emmy Awards saw a new wave of TV makers crash the annual party. The Handmaid’s Tale gave Hulu an unexpected win, new talent such as Donald Glover broke through the glass ceiling and, amid excitement over the awards diversity, some unwanted records were finally broken too.

Master of None star and screenwriter, Lena Waithe, became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing. “Thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago,” she said in an emotional speech that went viral and was reproduced in full on Time Magazine’s website.

Thanksgiving, the episode she wrote that won her the award, was based on her own coming-out process that took place over the course of a decade of Thanksgiving dinners. But Waithe almost didn’t write the episode. “I didn’t think my coming out was that interesting,” the 33-year-old actor, screenwriter and producer says.

Despite her claims, its her own life and experiences that Hollywood and TV companies are investing in. After all, it’s playing and writing about herself and her life – such as in her new drama The Chi, which premieres this Sunday in the US – that’s confirmed her status as one of television’s most intriguing new voices.

“You often see women’s stories, but you don’t often see women of colour who are queer. And I think we need more of that,” she offers as explanation for her sudden demand. “I want to be as honest and as vulnerable as possible so we don’t just have some cheesy black girl following the stereotypes and tropes: like the angry black mom with the Bible. That wasn’t my experience.”

Her experience has always been atypical. While in high school, her mum wouldn’t allow her to work, but once she graduated and enrolled in Chicago’s Columbia College, she found ways to burrow closer to the film and television industry. She worked at a movie theatre, in the media department at Best Buy, and at a Blockbuster store. Requesting a transfer from the latter, she moved to Los Angeles in 2006.

Once there, she worked her way up the TV industry, starting as an assistant to the executive producer of the long-running, highly rated sitcom Girlfriends. But Waithe soon attracted attention in ways she didn’t intend. Set on becoming a screenwriter, she was surprised to be cast in a small role on the sharp Lisa Kudrow HBO dramedy The Comeback. For 12 years, she wrote for Bones, but her big acting break came when Aziz Ansari rewrote a role on his Netflix smash Master of None so that the character, his best friend Denise, resembled Waithe.

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe accepting their award at the 69th Emmys



Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe accepting their award at the 69th Emmys Photograph: Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Ansari made her a pivotal part of the series; a no-nonsense confidant who was elevated above the trope of the “black best friend”, and instead became a fully rounded character. Exactly the type Waithe isn’t used to seeing on television.

“There’s no show on television where the protagonist is a queer person of colour, male or female,” says Waithe. “We still have a long way to go to really show the breadth of what the queer community is. There are people out there like me who exist and we deserve to be on screen as well.”

Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, Waithe realised early on that her face wasn’t reflected back to her from that screen. “If you come from a poor background and you have a single parent, TV becomes what you dream about,” she says. “It’s really important for young brown kids to see other brown kids on television because it’s like you’re seeing a version of yourself that you hoped to be.”

What did seem to be represented, however, was negativity. The South Side was – still is, as is all of Chicago – depicted as a violent, nihilistic and dangerous place. It was that one-dimensional narrative that provided the inspiration for The Chi. The drama opens with a literal bang that sets into motion a cycle of revenge, high stakes and often heartbreaking decisions that cause four characters’ lives to intersect in unexpected ways. “People do get touched by gun violence, and [it] should be reported on. But we want to do it from a very human viewpoint,” Waithe says. “I want to tell a story about where I’m from and the people that are there versus just the headlines.”

DJ R-Tistic, Common, and Lena Waithe at the premiere of The Chi



DJ R-Tistic, Common and Lena Waithe at the premiere of The Chi. Photograph: Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Fellow Chicagoan, actor and rapper Common signed on as an executive producer, drawn to Waithe’s aim of accurate representation. “I’m trying to humanise these people as much as possible,” she says. “They act like it’s a jungle or that the young black males are the problem. In actuality, I think it’s the system. A lot of these problems are way above our pay grade. It’s a complex city. There’s a lot of beauty there. There’s a lot of humanity there. A lot of light, a lot of joy.”

An audition for Steven Spielberg is a highlight for most actors. But for Waithe it didn’t carry the same weight. “I did it for shits and giggles,” she says. Acting and writing Master of None as well as hustling to get The Chi picked up meant Waithe had neither the time nor the desire to attend auditions. But when the casting agents for Ready Player One saw her photo, they wanted her to read.

“I went in out of respect and read in my usual cadence,” Waithe says. After a callback, her phone rang and she heard a sentence perhaps a handful of actors, especially relative newbies, have ever heard: “Steven saw your tape and wants you to play this character.”

She booked a flight to London, where Ready Player One was filming, and dived into the role – about which she can’t yet elaborate. “Steven is a giant that doesn’t make people feel small. He has a lot of women in positions of power on set. I appreciate that in this day and age,” she adds.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t ask her to work hard, which is why she balked when Ansari asked her to write an episode about coming out. She simply had no time. Ansari insisted, flew to London and they wrote the Thanksgiving script in three days. “Ninety-nine per cent of what we wrote is what we shot. When people say they like it, I’m very flattered because it really is me and Aziz’s blood, sweat and guts,” she says.

Still, she says, there’s a long way to go – and she doesn’t necessarily need to lead that charge alone. “I’m fighting to help fix that. Let’s get a series going about people who are intersex, asexual, and really break open some glass ceilings,” she says. “Somebody out there is longing for those characters and those story lines.”

If anyone knows, a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago certainly does.

  • The Chi starts in the US, Sunday on Showtime; Ready Player One is out on 30 March in the UK

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