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Hollywood is having a Lena Waithe moment.
As an actress, she made her big-screen debut this weekend with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, where she plays Helen/Aech, a loyal best friend to Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) in the virtual universe of the OASIS. The film’s opening comes on the heels of a buzzed-about Vanity Fair cover and Waithe’s Showtime series The Chi concluding its first season.
Acting in a blockbuster movie is something of a departure for Waithe, who is known for more intimate styles of storytelling and won an Emmy last year for writing on Netflix’s Masters of None. And while she says she doesn’t have ambitions to be the next Marvel star or filmmaker, she is already dreaming of a next passion project — a biopic of her TV hero Mary Tyler Moore.
“I don’t think people are expecting that from a black lesbian from the south side of Chicago. But, I read her autobiography more times than I can count,” says Waithe. “Because I was obsessed with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was, like, who is this woman? Who is this person that everybody is wanting to be, that everybody was so happy when she came onscreen?”
In a conversation with Heat Vision, she also discusses working with Spielberg, keeping her Vanity Fair shoot stylist-free and why a Moore biopic could be even more interesting than people might realize.
In Ready Player One, the common theme is escapism and adventure. What is Helen trying to escape from or looking for when she plays this game as Aech?
She is just trying to be seen as one of the guys. You know what I mean? It’s very interesting, it’s a real political statement. But I feel that she likes being a woman but wants to be treated like a guy. Meaning she wants to be treated equally, fairly and with respect. And that’s why she’s gone in the OASIS. It’s to escape sexism, I believe.
What is something that you enjoy doing that helps you escape from the day-to-day for a while?
Honestly, as cheesy as this is — people say, “Oh, what do you for fun?” I watch TV, I watch movies. That is my escape. Even though I do it for a living, I am a fan first. So, for me, given the chance to watch movies and go to the movies, that stuff makes me so happy. Nothing makes me happier than walking into [a movie theater] with my friends, or my lady. To go see something, to be wowed. Because you never know what you are going to get. You will probably get surprised. It is, like, when you walk into the theater, you don’t know. It could be really great or it could be really bad. And that is the joy of it. Because you are sitting there with so much anticipation. And this thing could be something that is going to change you, that is going to make you forget that you had bills you got to pay. It will make you forget that you broke up with your boyfriend last week. I think that is why it is so magical. And you are in a room full of strangers. What other activities do we have, other than going to the movies, where you do that? Where we are experiencing the same thing at the same time. We are laughing together; we are all crying together. When we walk out, and don’t even speak to each other. You know what I mean? Very interesting experience, but I love it. And watching TV, it inspires me.
Now that you have had your first feature film working with someone like Steven Spielberg, has your process to get ready for a film role changed vs. when you’re acting on television?
Well, the thing about Master of None was that I had time to grow the character. You get to know the character, to define the character. Being in Ready Player One, it is already defined. The director, obviously more so because it’s based on a character in a book, Steven already has a vision for it. So I just come in and make sure I rise to that occasion.
In TV, you really are a part of creating that character. You can say: [Friends creators] Marta Kauffman and David Crane, did they created Rachel Greene? Sure, they dreamed her up in their heads. But Jennifer Aniston has as much ownership of that character as they do. But in a movie, I feel like that is different. The director and the writer really create the character. And you have to come in and make sure you are accurate.
Nostalgia is at the center of this film. When you think of the 1980s and 1990s references that Ready Player One leans on, what are ones you would want to incorporate from your own memories that meant a lot to you from you growing up?
I mean, one of the [references] is there, which is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I used to watch that a lot when I was a kid. Sonic [the Hedgehog]. But you know, I think for my time in the ’80s, the only thing that I wish could be in there is a Whitney Houston reference. Because I am such a Whitney fan. There is so many references in there, but Whitney — I am always willing to shout her out.
With this film opening and the first season of your Showtime series The Chi ending its first season this month, have you had a second to take it all in?
A little bit. I was recently in London for the London premiere. And my fiancée [Alana Mayo] and I decided to stay back a couple days, because we love London. And I think those couple days, after the premiere and I was done with press, I really got a chance to just take a breath. I spent time with my lady, and just had fun. That’s when I took it in. I also got the Vanity Fair digital copy in London the night before it went live. So I got to read it, and look at it, and my lady and I got to digest that before the world did the next day. So, yeah, those quiet moments with my lady are always times for me to reflect.
But also, you can’t get too caught up in it. Because you know what? Somebody else is going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair next month. There’s going to be another movie poster that will replace Ready Player One in a few days. You can’t get too caught up in your own hype. If you do that, it is dangerous. You really have to enjoy the moment, appreciate it and keep doing the work.
With a breakout TV series, a historic Emmy, and a propulsive role in Steven Spielberg’s #ReadyPlayerOne, screenwriter-producer-actress @LenaWaithe is re-writing the rules for the next generation. Read the full cover story at the link in bio. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz. #VFxLena
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Speaking of the Vanity Fair cover: it is one of the buzziest covers of 2018 so far. Your style was dripping all throughout the pictures. It felt like you stayed true to what we know you as, and that you did not have to conform to a certain look that we expect from female magazine cover stars. Is maintaining your personal style something that you keep in mind when you consider a role?
Well, I do want to be able to step into characters and bring myself to it, so it’s hard not to have that. But the great thing is, I like working on projects where the director, or the writer, likes what [I] bring to the table and wants to use that in a show or in a movie. That is what warms my heart, and gets me excited because I can’t help but bring that. And those are some things that I gravitate towards.
But what was so exciting about that cover was that [Vanity Fair editor-in-chief] Radhika [Jones] wanted me to really shine through. Even with my pictures, I’m not styled — those are clothes I’m wearing around my house. You know, the shorts, the Well-Read Black Girl T-shirt, that’s stuff I wear around my crib. So [photographer] Annie [Leibovitz] loved that and said “Great!” There was no stylist, there was no hair people, there was no makeup. It was, like, this is me. And that’s what I want people to get. Because you get this idea, you see these airbrushed covers, like, “Oh, these people are far away. These people are superhuman.”
I don’t want somebody to think that about me. I want them to know that we are made up of the same stuff. We were all born from our mother’s wombs, and we go through the same shit. We may look different, we may sound different, we may use different language, but we are all fucking human. So that is what I want them to know about me, I happen to be a human that does something big and crazy for a living. But, ultimately, I always want to be accessible, I want people to know that they can be doing exactly what I am doing if they put in the work and hustle. Because the more we make this business accessible, the better it will be. Because for a long time, this was the place for pretty white people. But if we say, “No, there is a place for everybody,” then the content that comes out of Hollywood will improve.
Your work is known to be very human and very personal. Do you have aspirations to do more blockbusters down the road, either writing for or acting in? For instance, is a Marvel movie something you’d be interested in?
Honestly, I think my lifestyle is too grounded for that. But if somebody would disagree with me, cut to a Marvel exec being, like, “No, come on, Lena!” But I just like writing two people in the room talking. That’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t feel like I have to go to a Marvel movie to feel like I made it. Or do this big-budget movie for that to be a landmark in my career. I never know what I am going to be inspired by tomorrow. I may get an idea like, “Oh, I want to do this, I want to do this thing.” It’s, like, there’s so many things that I want to do.
For example, and hopefully no one takes this idea from me, but I want to do a biopic about Mary Tyler Moore. That is what I want to do. I don’t think people are expecting that from a black lesbian from the south side of Chicago. But, I read her autobiography more times than I can count. Because I was obsessed with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was, like, who is this woman? Who is this person that everybody is wanting to be, that everybody was so happy when she came onscreen? Who was this woman who went from being Dick Van Dyke’s wife [on The Dick Van Dyke Show] to the first woman to wear pants on primetime television? The first real single girl that wasn’t focused on finding a man on primetime TV. She was a feminist in every sense of the word, but she was also a functioning alcoholic. She was also extremely private. She had MTM [Enterprises]. MTM produced St. Elsewhere, Lou Grant and all these other amazing shows. I feel like, I want to tell her story. That is what I want to do, I’m only concerned with doing what I want to do. I don’t want to follow a certain path. I just want to just make dope shit.
A lot of fans of your work will probably like the idea of you doing a Mary Tyler Moore biopic.
I really want to do it. I don’t really know how to do it. I really want to do that and find a dope actress to come in and play her and figure it out. That’s the thing that’s on my radar that I want to figure out. But I’m still a queer black girl and want to tell a James Baldwin [story], too. But that’s who I am, that’s what kind of artist I am. And I think the reason that people sometimes tend to be so fascinated about me is they’re always surprised by the things that come out of my mouth. I’m going to keep surprising people.
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