Produced By: Writer-Actress Lena Waithe Advises "Make Sure You Are Surrounded by Greatness"

Justin Simien Lena Waithe Produced By - AP - ONE TIME USE ONLY - H 2018
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

The Emmy winner was one of the new voices featured at the Producers Guild of America's annual conference.

If you’re looking to have your voice heard in Hollywood, find a group of peers to inspire you and with whom to collaborate — but not just any peers. “It’s about being smart and seeking out people that are really talented,” Lena Waithe, creator of The Chi and an Emmy winner for Netflix's Master of None, said. “If you’re around mediocre people, you’ll be mediocre. So you want to make sure you are surrounded by greatness.”

Waithe made the remarks Saturday at a Produced By panel focusing on new writers, directors and producers titled “Powerful Voices: Telling Stories That Rewrite the Rules.” Waithe was seated beside her friend Justin Simien, director of the film Dear White People and creator of the subsequent Netflix series. They explained they had actually met on the Paramount lot, where this weekend’s Produced By conference was taking place, six years ago. Simien was an assistant in the studio’s publicity department, while Waithe was a writer’s assistant on the series The Game, and they immediately became fast and supportive friends.

Another of the panelists, Nnamdi Asomugha, the former NFL player who found a second career as an actor and then a producer of such films as Crown Heights and Beasts of No Nation, joked that his first acting gig was on The Game, but neither Simien or Waithe called him. “I must have been mediocre,” he laughed.

Questioned by moderator Marcy Ross, president of Skydance Television, the panelists recounted their own paths to success, which involved finding their own unique voices.

Actor, writer and producer Dan Bucatinsky told how he became friends with actress Lisa Kudrow when his husband, Don Roos, directed her in the 1998 movie The Opposite of Sex, and against everyone’s advice, they decided to form a production company, Is or Isn’t Entertainment, which has lasted 16 years and produced such series as The Comeback.

Mel Eslyn, a native of Milwaukee, recounted how she simply showed up on film sets, offering to do whatever job was available. Eventually, she moved on to Seattle, bonding during the indie feature Your Sister’s Sister with Mark Duplass, who, after they worked together on 2014’s The One I Love, asked if she would serve as president of Duplass Brothers Productions.

All of the panelists spoke of the importance of offering original, authentic voices, even if one then risks becoming commodified in a Hollywood that is currently looking for diverse material to reach a wider audience.

Waithe, who once said she used to make people uncomfortable when she walked into a room, remarked that “it’s less about uncomfortability now and more about admiration. People who run the business tend to look the same, so when I walk into a room, there’s a level of intrigue, a desire to want to stare in a good way. The things that make me different are also a commodity. Being brown, being female, having a different point of view, that’s something that the industry can make money off of.” She added, “What I’m selling is my vulnerability, my truth, my brokenness. In a way, I’m using that to entertain the world.”

Simien, who described himself as a gay, black boy, Catholic, raised in Houston, admitted that at times, to survive, he had to learn to be what other people wanted, “but the stuff that makes you special are those things you’ve been hiding.”

Bucatinsky agreed, saying that early in his career he was a semi-closeted people-pleaser, “which did not serve me one bit. The minute I was able to be truthful to who I was and turn it into the work and bring it into the acting, you suddenly have something that no one else has. And the minute you do it, you have all the power for that brief second.”

Observed Simien, “You brand yourself as to what’s different about you” — but that can be a mixed blessing. “It’s so seductive to be a brand and to put out that image — 'Hey, this is what I am all about' — but you are not a brand, you’re a person, and people evolve, and you have to remember the difference.”

“I love the idea of being true to yourself,” said Asomugha, who recounted how as he was beginning to wrap up his football career and was contemplating producing in addition to the acting he’d already begun to do, one of his reps warned him that he couldn’t expect to do multiple things, he would have to choose one, an idea that Asomugha ultimately rejected.

Advised Waithe, “It’s our job to tell the market what it wants, not vice versa.”