Proud Chicagoan Lena Waithe has been having an excellent 2018 thus far. Following her history-making Emmy win for Master of None, the writer debuted her hour-long drama, The Chi, on Showtime and is set to co-star in Steven Spielberg’s nostalgic Ready Player One.
During our chat with the Hollywood disruptor, Waithe dishes on the new role, shows love to her loyal crew and reminisces on the very best of the 1980s.
How did you become a part of Ready Player One?
Ellen Lewis and Leslee Feldman saw my picture in The Hollywood Reporter. I guess I was on a list of ‘Top 10 Stars to Watch’ for my work on Master of None. At the time, they had been reading a lot of African-American women for the role, and they just hadn’t found someone they liked. They saw my picture and reached out, and my agent let me know they wanted me to read for this part.
The only reason I hadn’t gone in already was because I wasn’t auditioning at the time, but they asked if I wanted to read for a Spielberg movie, and I said, “Sure, why not?”
Mind you, the movie was super top secret, so I didn’t have a script, didn’t know it was based on a book; all I had were these very cryptic sides [a portion of a script provided for auditioning purposes]. I didn’t even know I was playing two characters. Ellen and Leslee were great at giving me direction without telling me too much.
The first reading was just great. I really vibed with them, I was having fun and fortunately, they called me back for a second reading, where they gave me even more direction. Later, my manager let me know Steven saw my tape and wanted me to play Aech in the film, and the rest is history, as they say.
What appealed to you about the character of Aech when you were reading the script?
I liked the fact that she’s a bit of a tomboy and that she chose a guy to be her avatar, because I think she wants to be a part of the guys. She’s not the typical girl, and neither am I. I love that she’s Black, I love that she’s funny, I like that she has a lot of swag and that she’s really great at what she does. All of those things I really related to.
The film is very ’80s pop culture -driven. What are some of your favorite things about ’80s pop culture?
I’m a Whitney [Houston] girl, and that was when she really stepped on the scene. I was born in 1984 so I was a baby, but when I look back at her history, she was launching one of the biggest pop careers of all time.
Also Michael Jackson, who had been around forever as a kid but really found his voice as a solo artist during that time. I also love movies like The Breakfast Club and all those John Hughes films that I found later in the ‘90s. I also love that the year I was born was the same year The Cosby Show debuted.
There was a lot of cool stuff happening back when I was just a wee one [laughs], but I’m happy that when the ’90s hit and I was a bit older, I could really appreciate those things.
At this point in your career, you’ve had plenty of experience both behind and in front of the camera. Which do you prefer and why?
Oh, I love being behind the camera mostly, even though I have a lot of fun in front of the camera, which I hope is obvious. I’m just most comfortable writing scripts and dialogue for other people, but I do have a lot of fun on set as an actor. I worry less as an actor [laughs]. It’s not as stressful.
How was it working with someone as respected and revered in the biz as Steven Spielberg?
Phenomenal. We all know he’s a great director, but he’s also just a really great guy. He’s such a family man. His wife was on set most of the time, his father came to the set and we had the chance to meet, I got to meet some of his kids. He’s just a great person. The biggest takeaway for me working for him was that to be successful doesn’t mean you can’t be nice, and I think he’s the embodiment of that. He’s a nice guy who happens to be one of the greatest directors of our time.
In addition to Ready Player One, you’re the creator and executive producer of Showtime’s The Chi and recently your comedy TWENTIES received a pilot order from TBS. How are you managing so many projects simultaneously?
I have a lot of fantastic people around me. For The Chi, I have an amazing new showrunner named Ayanna Floyd Davis. She’s an amazing writer, a phenomenal Black woman and I trust her completely with the show. I’ll still be involved, but I don’t need to micromanage her.
With the TBS pilot, Justin Simien is set to direct. He’s my best friend, and this will be the first time we’ve worked together professionally since Dear White People.
Again, I’ll be on set, but I trust him and don’t feel like I need to hover over things too much.
I’m also working on something with Kym Whitley that I’m writing and I’m working on a feature that I want Melina [Matsoukas] to direct, so it’s really about managing my time and spacing things out properly. I also have a great assistant, Racquel Baker. She’s so dope, she manages my entire schedule and she’s always on top of things.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.