Lena Waithe is having a moment. Actually, the Master of None star is having many moments. Some follow each other, one after the other, like dominoes laid out on a massive surface, ready to produce a beautiful mosaic with the push of a finger. Others, like her experience writing the critically acclaimed “Thanksgiving” episode with co-star Aziz Ansari, happen concurrently with other massive projects, like her role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One adaptation. In either case, one thing is clear — Waithe is an entertainment polymath in the making, and she won’t be going away anytime soon.
At least not if she can help it, for as the 33-year-old television writer turned showrunner turned film actor told Uproxx, she wants to be like Mark Wahlberg. “Wait a minute, that Mark Wahlberg?” Yes, the very same man whose acting and producing credits range far and wide. And thanks to his appearance at the 64th Golden Globe Awards in 2007 — in association with at least three different titles, no less — Waithe envisions a career in Hollywood in which she will don just about every hat there is. Judging by her writing for, and performance in, Master of None‘s “Thanksgiving,” we have no reason to doubt her.
It’s really exciting, because at the root of it all, we’re artists and that’s something we always get a little nervous. It’s like dropping your sophomore album after coming out with one that everybody loved and really connected with. There were definitely some nerves. But when I heard we were going to do a second season, I knew that Aziz [Ansari] and Alan [Yang] are the kind of guys who — realizing they have even more freedom than before, which they don’t take lightly — wanted to make sure the show came back swinging. They wanted it to feel different than the first season, but still familiar. They also wanted to take a lot of risks. When I was first hearing their ideas for new episodes early on, like about the religion one, I was like, “Man, they’re really going to go there.” I love that they took big swings with it. So for me, it was really validating because I know how nervous we all were about coming out the second time, but the love has just been wonderful. It’s heartwarming.
Especially since, unlike most major television networks, Netflix tends to keep a tight lid on things. Master of None‘s renewal, for instance, was a long, drawn-out process.
I know people had to wait a little bit longer for us since we took a bit of a longer beat to come back. The thing is, Aziz really gets ideas from his life, as well as from Alan, the actors and the writers’ lives. He really had to go live a little bit, to have those experiences, in order to come back. A lot of people were saying, ‘Why is there such a huge break between the first and second season?’ And I always will tell people, “It’s all about Aziz getting his thoughts together and making sure he’s had enough to give everyone a really strong second season.” It’s not like everything else, and I think that’s what’s so exciting about it. This is a cool, hip way to take in television, and I love being a part of it.
You co-wrote “Thanksgiving,” which is based on your experiences, with Ansari. How did that come about. Did you approach him and Yang, did they come to you, or some combination therein?
Actually, it came about very organically, which me and Aziz loved about it. It’s also honest to how the show works. I went to New York, where the writers’ room was happening, just to sit with the guys. We talked about what was going on with my life. I was being very mindful because I knew we were going to have a second season, so I thought, “Maybe my character will have a girlfriend.” I wrote down all the funny little weird things that have happened between me and my girlfriends. As a result, I came to the writers’ room equipped with ideas, thoughts and real life stories. And in the midst of all that, Alan asked me how I came out. Just out of curiosity. Like, “What was the coming out process like for you?” So I told him about it. I come from a family full of black women, and not just family, because black women were always coming over to the house.
I had a very unique way of coming out to my mom, and I didn’t tell my grandmother because my mom didn’t want me to. It was this big thing in my family. And when I was telling Aziz and Alan this story, they were fascinated by it. The idea became solidified in that moment, because we had a really animated conversation about my coming out and what it was like. Before I got back to my hotel, they called me and said we had to tell that story, and I agreed. But they wanted me to help write it. They said, “We know you’re a great writer, and this is a very specific story to you. It’s very personal. We can’t tell your story, so we need you to help us write it.”
At the time my plate was really full, which made me nervous about writing the episode. I didn’t want to half-ass it. I didn’t want to not do this right. But they wanted to figure it out with me, so we did. I was filming something else in London, so Aziz came to London to write the episode with me. We wrote it in a couple of days in his hotel room. We wrote a lot of stuff in that hotel room, and a lot of it stayed. Maybe 80 percent of it stayed. We would pass the laptop back and forth, and for really personal things, Aziz would get up and leave so I had the room to myself to write. It was really helpful, since being alone in my thoughts helped me remember certain things.
It all started with a natural, organic conversation, and that’s how a lot of things came about — episode ideas and stories — for the show. Aziz and Alan were really gracious about it. They gave me a gift and I didn’t even realize it at the time. I was like, “No, you guys can take it.” After all, they’re like the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of television. But they said “No, you have to co-write this sucker.” And I’m so happy I did. Writing with Aziz was such a wonderful experience. We were so comfortable with each other by that point. We just vibed so well. And the reception has been phenomenal, because you never know what’s going to happen when you do something like that. We never thought we were doing anything all that groundbreaking, but people kept telling us there’s never been a black woman who has come out on television before, and in this way. That was never on our minds. We just asked ourselves if it was honest, real, fascinating or funny. Those are the questions Aziz and Alan are always asking themselves, and I think this one checked all the boxes.
As serious and real as “Thankgiving” feels and is, I love the humor. Even the sillier moments, like when young Denise comes out to young Dev, but dislikes the word “lesbian” and calls herself “Lebanese” instead. The subject matter remains serious throughout, but it stays true to the show’s comedy.
That’s a real thing. That’s how I came out to my college friends. I said I was “Lebanese.” You know the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? Well it’s funnier, too. Calling myself that when I was young was just a vulnerable thing to do, as was putting it into the script. I always love it when people say they enjoy that moment, because that’s a real thing I did, and I wasn’t joking when I did it. I was uncomfortable with the word “lesbian.” And those young actors did a phenomenal job. They had the most heavy lifting to do, and the scene plays so beautifully because of them. It doesn’t feel cheesy. Nor does the moment with the trophy, when Denise tells her mother, Catherine: “I don’t think it tarnishes your trophy.” Me and Aziz were watching the footage and we were like, “This is so lovely and wonderful.” We couldn’t have imagined that the words we wrote together would feel so honest and pure. They’re innocent, almost. And we really love the way it played, and it’s all based on real things I said and did. So why not put that in the fucking episode?
At the same time, I’m intrigued by what you said about co-writing “Thanksgiving” with Ansari. After all, Denise and Dev are lifelong best friends in Master of None, and the episode is also a deep dive of sorts into their history.
We’re literally the product of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. That’s what it is. Me and Aziz — and Denise and Dev — are two people who come from very different walks of life, but have very similar pop cultural references. Me, Aziz and his younger brother Aniz, who I love, are all obsessed with The Jacksons: An American Dream. We talk about it and quote it all the time. We have the same musical reference points. Especially Kanye, who me and Aziz are huge fans of. There are certain things about us that, obviously, people will see and say, “Those are two very different people.” But the truth is, we get along easily. We have a natural vibe that’s so organic. It’s not something you can buy or makeup on the spot. I was very comfortable writing the episode and being on set with Aziz. You can just feel it, the joy of it. I mean, making TV can be hard. It can be really stressful. But the great thing about it for us is, it creates an environment where we can pitch, try and do just about anything. It’s so liberating.
I wanted to return to the “Lebanese” scene, especially Eden Duncan-Smith and Suraj Partha, who play Denise and Dev as teenagers. The young actors were wonderful, but those two were especially delightful. Like when they get stoned and Catherine’s (Angela Bassett) face mask frightens Dev.
They knock it out the park. We knew we wanted the episode to show the characters’ evolution, and that meant finding young performers to play younger versions of Denise and Dev. I thought it was going to be a really difficult process, but it ended up being one of the most enjoyable parts. I watched all of the audition tapes, and sat in on numerous casting sessions when different kids were paired off with each other. Aziz and I did a little fine-tuning on set with line reads and things like that, but it was just great experience. It was so much fun to watch play, and obviously Angela Bassett is a legend.
Kym Whitley is a hero, too. She is phenomenal. Watching the two of them work together, as well as the woman who played Ernestine, Venida Evans, was great. Venida is hilarious and amazing. It was so surreal, you know? Me and Aziz couldn’t wait to get back in there. We were jealous of the younger Denises and Devs during their scenes with Angela, Kym and Venida. We wanted to jump in, but it because a really a nice mixture — putting these younger and more experienced actors together at that dining room table. Just being on the set, watching them run through their scenes, was so much fun. I was there every day since I wrote it. And watching Melina [Matsoukas] do her thing in the director’s chair… it was a beautiful ballet.
How awesome was it having Angela Bassett play your mother? You were a writer’s assistant on Notorious, in which she played Voletta Wallace, though I suspect you two didn’t cross paths then.
No, we didn’t. And actually, I was an assistant for one of the writers on Notorious, Reggie Rock-Bythewood. Him and Gina Prince-Bythewood, in fact. So while Reggie was rewriting Notorious, I was helping him out since he’s not the fastest typer. He would handwrite everything, and I would type them up. That’s why I have that credit. He did me a solid.
I did meet Angela at the Creed premiere, which I’m sure she wouldn’t remember if she was on the phone right now. But I remember it very well. And yeah, she’s phenomenal. A lot of people know Angela Bassett because she’s a legend. She’s a crossover kind of star, but if you’re a black person growing up, she’s Michael Jackson’s mother. She’s Tina Turner. She’s Bernadine in Waiting to Exhale, lighting a car on fire. She’s so iconic to us, and she always will be. She’s literally interwoven into the fabric of our lives. So to have her play my mom was truly God’s own favor. For me to go from when I was scared out of my mind, coming out to my mother 10 or 11 years prior, to recreating that real moment with Angela Bassett… You just don’t get more full circle than that.
A lot of people say were you nervous about it. Honestly, it was the most liberating and cathartic experience I’ve ever had. It was really a celebration of my coming out. It was a celebration of living your authentic life, and because of that, I was really proud when I walked onto the set that day. Mind you, I had no idea how people would receive it, but all I wanted to do was maybe help one person come out, or at least contribute to that difficult process for someone else. That’s what I wanted it to be.
The final shot of the dinner table is something else, speaking of things coming full circle. The women are calling Dev and Denise out for all the times they smoked weed, and the camera pans above to show everyone sitting at the table.
It’s so interesting, because a friend of mine who works in the business — I think that’s why she was paying such close attention to it — said something I love, but haven’t said in past interviews. She said if you’re mindful, we have a similar shot at the top of the episode in which you see the table from the overhead point of view, and there’s an empty chair. The circle isn’t complete, but at the very end Denise’s girlfriend, Michelle (Ebony Obsidian) occupies that previously empty space. Every chair is filled, and the circle is complete. By embracing this woman, the family completes circle so that everyone has a hand to hold during the prayer. It’s just a little tiny nugget that really warms my heart, and Melina fought to get that crane in there. I love that she fought for it, because it really is one of the more memorable shots from the episode. You start at the top with this young kid and all the stuff she’s going through, then you wrap it up at the end. She’s a grown person, she’s very comfortable with herself and her life, and now she has her girlfriend at the table with the family.
Was that intentional, or you, Aziz or Melina’s part, to begin and end “Thanksgiving” with identical shots?
Yes. Melina definitely wanted that shot. She knew she wanted those to be the bookends, but I think the thing about the girlfriend completing the prayer circle was more of a happy accident. Although Melina might say no, that was on purpose. I’m not sure. Either way, it was a nice way to end it. We knew we were going to have another person at the table then, because that’s how Aziz and me wanted to end the episode. So I think it’s partially why Melina wanted to get that point of view with the table.
Your background is primarily writing, but with Master of None, you’ve been thrust into acting, and I’m assuming you were in London for the upcoming Ready Player One adaptation. On the flip side, you created a series for Showtime, The Chi, and you produced Dear White People. That’s a lot of hats. Do you prefer one over another, or do like all of the above?
All of the above. I’ve sort of embrace that this is what my career is, because it definitely wasn’t ever my intention. This wasn’t my plan, but it’s interesting because I will always say I’m a writer first. I’m a television writer first. I was born a television writer, and I’ll die a television writer. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s what I love doing the most. I am most comfortable behind a laptop, writing characters and dialogue. One time somebody asked me, “Who’s your career role model?” And I said Mark Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg minus the acting, since I didn’t foresee my career expanding into acting then. I’ve always been a big fan of award shows. I watch the Golden Globes, the Oscars and all that kind of stuff. I remember watching the Golden Globes one year, and I noticed Wahlberg was connected to three different tables. One for Entourage, another for Boardwalk Empire, and a third for The Departed. I remember thinking, “That’s what I want. I want to one day be at the Golden Globes and have connections to three different tables. Maybe four.”
Of course acting has come into my life, but yeah, that’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s not about the awards, but the fact that I want to be a part of work that makes an impact, that people are talking about, and lots of it. Something I realized — and try to preach to other writers — is being a great writer is fantastic, but if you have some success in your career, why not share it? Why not turn to someone next to you and say, “Hey, what’s the pilot you can’t seem to get made?” Once they tell you about it, you can suggest them and their idea to a production company you might have a relationship with. So the next time somebody says, “Hey, what do you want to do?” Say, “A lot, but this script is really cool and I’d love to help make it. Why don’t we do that together?”
I think that’s a great way to change the face of Hollywood. If everybody stopped concerning themselves with just their projects, and started helping others get their work off the ground, I think it would help. It’s more work, sure, but there’s nothing more exciting or validating than helping and celebrating other’s success. Like Dear White People, which is Justin Simien’s baby. I went to the film’s premiere at Sundance, and even though I was just a producer, it was so rewarding to be there for Justin. To have helped with another person’s dream. I really wish more people would do more of this, because I think that’s how you change the face of Hollywood. All of these young writers trying to get things made only need one person to vouch for them. I’m telling you, if you’re a well-known person that production companies, studios and networks want to work with, they’ll listen when you suggest something.
So when I say I love all of the above, I really do. I love producing. Acting is fun, too. It’s a great way for me to step outside of my comfort zone, stretch some, learn and play. I’ve always been a ham anyways, so I guess I enjoy that aspect of it. But as a writer, I’ve found I tend to be a writer’s best friend when I’m on set as an actor, because I’m always mindful of the work. I’m respectful of their script, asking how they feel about a line, whether they want me to tweak it or say what’s written, and how they want me to say it. It’s a nice kinship. That, or I can look at the producer when I’m on set as an actor and know what they’re stressing out about. I know all the roles, so I tend to describe myself as a well-rounded industry person, and I enjoy it.
Doing it all definitely diversifies your experience. I mean you’re so busy, how could it ever be boring?
Exactly. I’m a person who’s always moving, shaking and doing things — much to my girlfriend’s dismay at times. My brain is always working. I’m always thinking about things. I’m always coming up with ideas. I’m always reading articles or books, because my brain is always converting them into TV shows and movies. My girlfriend has to remind me to take a breath every once in a while, but everything about the process is very educational for me. I’m always learning and working, because I never want to be put into a box by someone else. What I would love to do with my career, if anything, is keep people guessing. Keep surprising them at every turn. Force them not to send me just one thing.
I read somewhere that Ava DuVernay and Kenya Barris were talking about all the things they get sent. “I get the first black this, the first black that, and so on.” Well I want to fuck things up for the people who would try to figure things out for me in that way. I want to confuse them. I want them to send me shit, just to try it on for size. I can totally see them sending me things they think I’d be a good fit for, like a show about a gay black woman in Minnesota, because they want me to tell that story. It makes sense, but I want to be able to tell all kinds of stories. Stories that are different and cool and interesting and have a unique point of view.
The second season of Master of None is available to stream on Netflix.