Lena Waithe, Hollywood’s Busiest TV Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it takes only one show to be a big deal.
As soon as we sit down in the hipster, vegan, tofu-stir-fry café next door to Lena Waithe’s apartment in Los Angeles, she begins multitasking. “I apologize for being on my phone,” she says. “But I’m with you. I’m here. I’m listening. A lot’s going on today.” I’m sure, I say. “Nah, you’re good,” she says.
Waithe, a 31-year-old much-beloved actress-slash-producer-slash-writer (whew!), certainly is busy today. Fresh off a slew of drooling reviews over her appearance in the Netflix original comedy series Master of None — which is less than a week old at the time of our meeting — and shooting the pilot for her own show, she is today on deadline, rushing out to work on her next big project. Sure, she’s already wowing critics and others in the industry — landing on Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” list last year and among The Hollywood Reporter’s 10 TV breakout stars this year — but today I am witnessing Waithe in the midst of some hustle.
I think she was born to be a mogul.
Justin Simien, director of Dear White People
And I’m also in the presence of an emblem of today’s generation of millennial-friendly comics — think Aziz Ansari, the star and producer of Master; Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Peretti; Mindy Kaling. Waithe is one of a crew who jokes comfortably about race and Tinder alike; in fact, she was the creator of the viral video “Shit Black Girls Say,” and co-produced a whole movie that found its inception on YouTube, Tumblr and Indiegogo, the Sundance hit Dear White People. And should you doubt her millennial credentials, there’s also the comparison she earned to Lena Dunham for a Web pilot that generated some buzz in 2013, says Drew Grant, senior editor at the New York Observer. It was “pretty smart branding,” Grant says, “even if that’s not what she intended to do.”
With time tight, we move quickly through the requisite questions, many inevitably about Waithe’s intersectional identity as a Black lesbian in an industry where just 4 percent of expected regular characters for next year were identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to a 2015–16 GLAAD report. “Tell your story, be honest,” Waithe says of her portrayal of Ansari’s BFF on Master, a Black lesbian indeed, but a character originally written for a straight white chick. “We wanted Denise to be authentic,” she tells me, so the casting director took a bet and made the swap.
Sporting a flat-brimmed hat, worn backward, Waithe is a little hard to distinguish from Denise; she exudes confidence (no uptalk here) and speaks in a slow-cadenced voice that seems to bloom from her chest. It’s a bit thrilling to meet what seems like a continuation of a popular character off-screen, but it might not be good for Waithe in the long run, says Grant. She might be a kind of “explainer” character, Grant posits, someone who gives the audience some backstory, or a window into everyday life for a group viewers might not understand. In this case: what it’s like to be a Black lesbian.
But plenty have faith in Waithe: “I think she was born to be a mogul. She’ll have many different kingdoms in her empire,” Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, says. The path to moguldom for Waithe began at age 7, when she decided she wanted to be a TV writer. Raised on the show A Different World — the now-forgotten Cosby Show spinoff — Waithe dreamed of LA, and she made it there after school at Columbia College Chicago, gunning her way through internships, PAing, etc. The breakthrough moment: She landed an assistant position with Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees. Mentorship made a big difference.
Now, Waithe is heading back to her childhood roots — with a show being made for Showtime called The Chi, a coming-of-age drama set in Chicago’s South Side. Her “first love” is writing, she tells me, and she hopes to spread that particular gospel by establishing a writing workshop for young people interested in the biz to “hone their skills,” she says. She’s spending her days doing table reads on scripts and having coffee meetings on Saturdays to lend advice. She’s prone to big statements about mentorship; Simien recalls her saying on set at DWP: “Faith and fear cannot exist in the same space at the same time. If you have faith, you have to give up the fear.”
When our time is up, our star-in-waiting asks the waiter to bring her a doggie bag — and is out the door fast. “Thank you so much for waiting, I appreciate your patience,” she tells me, adding, “Enjoy your food.”