Once you get Master of None star Lena Waithe talking about Hollywood, it’s hard for her to stop. “If we could get people to really hone their craft, we can really change this business inside out,” she says, arguing that more black writers deserve a chance.
The 33-year-old writer and producer, who studied television production at Columbia College Chicago, co-wrote and co-starred in what many see as the best episode of the second season of Aziz Ansari’s series. In the hilarious and vulnerable “Thanksgiving” episode, Waithe’s character, Denise, comes out to her family, who slowly accepts her sexuality over time. The show, which has earned the actress widespread praise and a spot on The Hollywood Reporter’s Emmy contenders list, borrows heavily from Waithe’s real life and has resonated with many queer people of color who are hungry to see themselves on screen.
Recently, Fusion spoke with Waithe about the reaction to Master of None, her obsession with telling authentic black stories, and why she refuses to downplay her sexuality, even if it makes some in Hollywood uncomfortable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The last time I interviewed you was before the first season of Master of None premiered. Fast-forward to this season: People love the show, but they’re really loving the “Thanksgiving” episode. What does that feel like for you to get such an overwhelming response?
Honestly, it’s surprising and heartwarming and validating all at the same time. Aziz literally texted me yesterday just like, “Holy shit. This episode is freaking huge.”
Every episode [in season two], I know Aziz and [co-creator] Alan Yang particularly want them to feel unique or like a little story all unto itself. There is a little bit of a serialized situation happening where Aziz has a love interest in this season, but for the most part a lot of the episodes live in their own bubble. I think we thought it was interesting to show Denise’s coming out and to show Dev and Denise’s origin story, but I don’t think any of us thought it would have this kind of reaction. I know we got super-excited when Angela Bassett agreed to do it. But we really did not expect people to have this kind of reaction.
For me, I’ll keep it 100: I like the idea that they were letting me be so black and so female and so specific. That was cool to me and [director Melina Matsoukas]. We were like, “This is amazing that we get to do this.” That’s something I really take a lot of pride in, writing black characters. Mind you, I’m always writing from my perspective, but I always want to get us right.
Our history [in entertainment] is that of minstrel shows. It’s blackface, it’s white people playing us, literally and figuratively. So to me, to be a black writer is to be a superhero. Not every black writer has to write about the black experience, but when you do, you get to really tell it from your perspective. And for me, there’s nothing more awesome than watching black characters written by black writers because there’s going to be something in there that’s very specific to us, especially if they’re in a place where they can do what they please and do their thing.
I think that’s why we’re having this sort of resurgence or revelation about how you can see black characters because now, I think, a lot of black writers are being empowered by executives that probably don’t look like them because we still don’t have enough black execs. But I think now there are executives who are like, “Let me get out of the way and let you tell your story because in doing that we’re going to have a better product.”
I recently interviewed Amandla Stenberg about Everything, Everything and she was basically saying the same thing. She was also saying she still has a hard time finding good roles…
Yeah—good, quality roles.
Right. I’m sure people offer her shit left and right, and I’m sure her team has a wall of protection around her.
My big thing has always been—and this is not about Amandla, but a lot of these known brown actors—our people, black folk who have been in the game for a while and have some clout—to me, they should be seeking out who the next Ryan Coogler is. Yeah, you’re excited about Ryan Coogler, but who’s the next person? Big ups to Michael B. Jordan for partnering with him and riding with him. I want more of our more famous, more powerful black actors to seek out the next wave of writers. There’s a young Donald Glover out here in L.A. who’s writing a script and can’t get a job. I want them to be more active about finding these guys.
When I heard Hillary Swank say, many moons ago, that she has her agent send her scripts from new writers to find out what the next wave is, I said, “That’s dope. Are black actors of your stature doing the same thing?” I think sometimes we get caught up in saying, “I want to be in that dude’s movie,” but that dude had to start somewhere.
You reached out to me because you said you never really talked about being black and gay. You share a lot about your girlfriend online and you said you get a lot of side-eyes from closeted gay black people in the business who are all, “We get it, Lena, you’re gay.”
Look at Black Hollywood, right? Imagine we’re at the NAACP Image Awards or the BET Awards, look at all those black celebrities. Now if you’re there and said, “All the out black celebrities in the auditorium come sit on the stage,” you’d have me, Wanda Sykes, RuPaul, Lee Daniels would be up there in his pajamas, Frank Ocean—although I don’t think he’d show up to either of those award shows—maybe Amandla, and maybe Magic Johnson’s son, EJ, would come up looking fabulous.
The numbers don’t add up. There’s no way in that sea of people we’re the only one who are gay. No, we’re the only ones who are out publicly. And that, to me, I want to change.
I feel like a lot of [closeted gay black people] don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. In essence, it’s a financial reason. But the thing that really weirds me out sometimes is look at Ellen. I know she’s a white person, but she went through a lot when she came out and she found her groove. And she’s about the richest motherfucker on the planet.
I know part of the coming out episode on Master of None is from your lived experience and we see it over time where Denise, your character, goes from calling herself Lebanese to admitting she’s gay. Was that ever a consideration for you when you came to Hollywood, to not be out publicly?
No, but I guess I never thought my life would be as public as it is now because acting was never in my trajectory, so this is a new thing for me. But I always hope people would come to know me as a writer, because even when I was coming up, you started to have these rockstar showrunner people like Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin. But I don’t think I ever thought that I would be that famous.
When me and [Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, which Lena produced] were having a conversation after getting into Sundance, we knew there would be a lot of press. I distinctly remember Justin being like, “I’m about to be an out motherfucker. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m going to be an out gay black man.” I remember saying, “Oh, same here. I’m going to be out as fuck.”
And it wasn’t about, “Oh, fuck the man,” it was more about how dope it would have been if we had people to look up to like us when we were coming up.
I mean, I can’t even name many black gay characters on TV who are just normal people and not over the top.
Yeah, exactly. We may need check our facts, but my character may be the first black gay woman to come out on television. I know there’s been gay black women on TV—not a ton, though.
We need more queer women of color on television, period. And not just as a lamp for decoration because a lot of times I think they’re like, “Let’s make this character gay for shits and gigs.” That doesn’t help us either because it’s not exploring that person’s experience. That’s why I want us to tell our own stories because they’re all different. I have to tell my story as honestly and openly as I can and hope that people connect to it and feel something.
Was there anybody’s reaction to the “Thanksgiving” episode that stands out to you?
There’s been so many I lost count. There was definitely one from a teenager who messaged me on Instagram who was saying they wanted to come out and was thinking about it and it reminded them of their family and they hoped when that time comes, their family would come to a place of acceptance. It was really sweet. I try to hit people back as much as possible. It’s impossible to hit everybody back, but I try to say thank you and send them love and gratitude. I don’t just make this for myself. I put my shit out there and for people to receive it like they have feels great.