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Lena Waithe Lifts Every Voice

By February 13, 2023February 16th, 2023Uncategorized
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Interview

Jeff Staple

Photography

Ike Edeani

BTS Photography

Ja Tecson

LENA WAITHE

LIFTS EVERY

Interview

Jeff Staple

Photography

Ike Edeani

BTS Photography

Ja Tecson

Reflecting the “more” made capable by Samsung’s new Galaxy Z Fold3 5G*, we caught up with rising musicians and artists who show us another side of themselves rarely seen by others. New sides can come from a new hobby or secret passion.

The writer, producer, and actress uses her sharp eye and collaborative spirit to create more seats at the table.

No matter where you encounter Lena Waithe, be ready for impact.

And when you ask her how she creates impact, she always starts at the beginning: Chicago. Her hometown is “in her bones,” she says, and remains the source of her endurance and work ethic. In 2006, Lena transported her grind from The Chi to the City of Angels, initially through a job at Blockbuster before landinginternships and getting into writers’ rooms. The rest has been historic.

Lena notably became the first Black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writer for a Comedy series. Earned in 2017 for Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” episode, the Emmy  also shed light on her acting in the show. Like a true sneakerhead and basketball fan, Lena said the win felt like “Jordan in game 6.” It was her acceptance speech, aimed at LGBTQIA+ youth, that set the tone for her advocacy. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers,” she said. “Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape, and go out there and conquer the world.

Because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”

The following year, Lena wore a pride cape to the Met Gala, and in the years since, she’s led by example. When creating shows, she prioritizes representation on- and off-camera. When studios called her after the Emmy win, she gave out the names of her protégées. When hiring talent, she emphasizes potential over seniority. And when founding platforms like Hillman Grad Productions, she pays for writing classes and helps every step of the way.

Mentoring is automatic for Lena, as is collaboration with directors like Melina
Matsoukas and Radha Blank. More than any award, Lena’s commitment to gathering bright minds and empowering the next generation will be her legacy. That said, there’s more to be written. We’ll let Lena tell it.

“I don’t think of my work as work I think of it as purpose. I’m always sitting or standing in my purpose.”

JS These days, Los Angeles is your home. Which other cities and places have you called home throughout your life?

LW Chicago first. That’s my first home, but LA became my home away from home because I built a life here. I built it for myself, which felt very empowering versus the home I was born into. I stayed in London for a bit when we filmed Ready Player One and the most recent season of Master of None. It always feels like a home away from home. London is a really beautiful space for me. For me,

For me, home is just a space that brings me comfort, that I can fill with the things and people I love. Some of the rooms in my house are very organized, and others have a little more going on; it feels like jazz, you know? I also have a lot of records and art made by Black and Brown artists. Being surrounded by those things makes me feel at home no matter where I am.

JS Whether you’re at home or on the move, would you say that observation is key to your storytelling process?

LW I observe a lot. As artists get older and more well-known, oftentimes, their work suffers because they get isolated. Here’s the thing: I’ve always been a person who likes to just walk around. I still go places. Yes, people come up to me sometimes. I just try to make sure I don’t get stuck sitting in the tent by myself. I enjoy interacting and going out into the world. It fuels me. Of course, it’s been tough during the pandemic. At the same time, now we all are more familiar with loneliness and the fact that we are social beings. My hope is that I can continue to move the way I do because that’s important for me as a writer.

JS Speaking of writing, how would you rank the jobs you have in the film industry, from favorite to least favorite?

LW Writing, producing, acting. I’m a writer first and a producer second, even though I’m becoming more of a producer-slash-writer. I get to moonlight as an actor, which is a beautiful thing. To reunite the band with Master of None was a beautiful thing. We were a band that started playing together young, and then we had a chance to mature and create a comeback album. It’s one of the most important seasons of the show.

JS There’s a level of detail and consideration that goes into everything you do. Would you say that you’re obsessive about the look and feel of what you put out?

LW Absolutely. The last eye is mine because my name is on it. I’m good at finding people with great taste who have a great eye. That’s who I’m attracted to. I love being around visionaries. Melina Matsoukas is a visionary. Justin Simien is a visionary. Radha Blank is a visionary. They are all filmmakers I worked with on Dear White People, Queen & Slim, and The 40-Year-Old Version. It’s about voice — that’s what I’m really drawn to. People with vision know how to paint really beautiful pictures. Of course, I’m drawn to Melina’s aesthetic, but what I really gravitate to is who she is. They go hand in hand.

JS How would you describe your approach to collaborating with fellow visionaries?

LW It depends on my role. If I’m a writer, I might be more in dialogue with the director. If I’m a producer, I focus on being supportive and telling the talent to trust themselves. Sometimes, I’m the financier, and I wouldn’t be investing my money if I didn’t believe in the vision. When I sat at Radha Blank’s table as a producer, she came to me and said, “Lena, give me some more criticism.Come on, what do you think?” I said, “I think it’s a beautiful movie, Radha. It’s yours. I don’t want to tell you what I would do. This isn’t my film.” The film went to Sundance, and she became the second Black woman to ever win Best Director in the 40- year history of the Sundance Film Festival. She also got nominated for a BAFTA. It’s not always my job to tell someone to change something. I know when somebody’s on the right path. I don’t have to fuck with everything.

JS How does collaboration shift when you’re acting?

LW I listen to the director. That’s my job. I’m part of a team. I’m a player on the field. What’s the play? What we doing? I’m not here to coach. I’m not calling the play. I’m here to deliver. I’m here to catch the ball and get into the end zone. You just let me know what my position is, and I’ll play it.

JS Entertainment has this amazing power to galvanize people and make them feel seen. Did you always know you wanted to harness that power in your work?

LW It really all started with the movies I grew up on. I remember watching Boyz n the Hood, Do The Right Thing, New Jack City, and Set It Off. Menace II Society was my favorite. I also grew up watching documentaries like Eyes on the Prize, Hoop Dreams, and Jazz by Kenny Burns. Watching these films showed me what I’m entertained by and helped me learn about a group of people I hadn’t met. Even though they were mostly fictional characters, I knew they represented real people, and that always fascinated me. It was real hardcore art in terms of what the art was saying. They were big movies with real messages. Sometimes, I think we forget that movies tell us something about the times we live in. They humanize people. They show us people who look like us, who live in the houses we live in. Then, they show us to people who never had to think about us. I was a Black kid in Chicago dreaming, and when I watched these films, I saw myself. I remember sitting in my room in Chicago, watching Hoop Dreams about kids in Chicago. Years later, I was sitting in an apartment in North Hollywood writing a pilot about the city of Chicago.

JS Storytelling takes so many different forms now, from two-hour films to 22-minute TV shows and 15-second Instagram videos. Does your brain process these forms of communication in the same way? What about when you go on Instagram Live — is it the same as acting or making a movie?

LW Instagram Live is really like live TV. It’s exciting. You never know what’s going to happen. If you add someone, how’s it going to go? Will there be technical difficulties? What if I hit the wrong button? Thenpeople rag on you if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m a fan of variety TV. I love The Carol Burnett Show. I love The Judy Garland Show. It’s like, let me rock with what’s going on. It’s not like when I guest-hosted for my guy, Jimmy Kimmel. It’s like, when Halle Berry kisses you as a surprise, you just roll with it and read the prompter. I like making the most of it, which comes from me being an entertainer and letting the audience know I got them. I’m going to land the plane. We’re going to get where we’re going. It’s going to be alright.

JS You’ve developed myriad mentoring programs, many with your production company Hillman Grad. Why is it important to spend your time talking to the next generation and passing the baton?

LW Without the generation before me, I wouldn’t exist. Access is the first step, though longevity is what I’m after. I won’t just get you a job. I’ll hold your hand and check in with you six months later. If there are politics at the job you don’t understand, I’ll guide you. If you have a question about the hierarchy in the writer’s room, I’ll explain it. Getting somebody a job is like throwing someone who doesn’t know how to swim into the deep end of the pool. Some people will climb and get out, but not everybody does. I ask the people who can’t wait to reach the deep end to stay in the shallow area for a little bit longer. Learn how to kick and breathe; learn how to use your arms. That can be frustrating. People sometimes stay in the shallow end with me for one, two, or three years because they’re working on their craft. Once they have it, I’m like, “Okay, go.” If I survived it, I know they can survive it.

JS Who in the industry helped you learn to swim and make it into the deep end?

LW I have some guides who’ve never met me. I’ve never met the Hughes Brothers, but I watched them in Menace II Society at least two or three times a year. I had bosses who were my mentors, whether they knew it or not, like Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay. Reggie Bythewood, Gina’s husband, emailed me one day asking to be my mentor. I said, “Yes, please.” One time, he sent me an email that said, “What if you won an Emmy one day?” Reggie actually said the words. He could see the drive and the passion. He could see my desire to get better and be good at my craft, not to be famous. Every lesson I know is because of Susan Fales. There’s no me without her. She show-ran A Different World, where the students attend a fictional HBCU called Hillman College. Our production company is called Hillman Grad Productions. I couldn’t have won the Emmy without people like her banging down the door for so many years.

JS Speaking of winning the Emmy, how do you think about making change in your industry? Do you change it from within or burn it down and build a new one from scratch?

LW You need to do both. If everybody rages against the machine, the question becomes, how do we make sure our work gets to the people who need to see it? Once we figure that out, great. I’ve heard people who have been in the business a lot longer than I say, “Once we figure out distribution, it will be a whole new game.” That’s the thing. I need SHOWTIME to air the show. I need Universal to put Queen & Slim in different movie theaters. I need Netflix to make us available in different homes and countries. That’s how I think about the machine. They pretty much rent or buy our work from us. People within the system can rewire or change things within the machine. I like the idea of working both angles at the same time.

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