Lena Waithe didn’t exactly plan to become a comedy star on Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None. She’d been primarily a writer, who’d put in some years writing for Bones and is currently working on a drama pilot for Showtime. But thankfully, she ended up being cast as the (formerly white and straight) Denise, main character Dev’s deadpan best friend, and the role was then rewritten as a black lesbian. Waithe is rolling with the changes, however, and talked to The Hollywood Reporter all about playing a character rarely seen on TV before.
Had acting always been something you wanted to do or was it just this surprising thing that came up?
It was not in my plan of things. I tend to write things down that I want to do. Like, I want to get this accomplished, I want to have dinner with Oprah, I want to have coffee with Sarah Jessica Parker, I want to have my own show, I want to do these things — that wasn’t on the list, but it was a wonderful surprise. An opportunity presented itself. I was such a fan of Aziz. I watched Parks and Rec like every other self-respecting hipster and loved his character so much and just thought he was so interesting. The other thing I like about Aziz, because I follow his standup, is that he is this Indian kid who’s from the South who really knows black culture. Like, he knows it, he appreciates it, he respects it. And that was always so interesting to me, because I was like, how can he do a whole bit about R. Kelly, like about songs on the B-side that people really don’t know. I always kind of loved that about him. He has very interesting cultural references.
Did you act as a fashion consultant at all for Denise?
Some of my clothes actually made it into the show. Aziz really liked my clothes and he liked the way I dressed. We have an awesome costume designer, Dana [Covarrubias], who told me to do a Pinterest of clothes and things I liked and designers, so I did that, and she and I became best buddies. She really had a lot of fun with the character because I don’t know if we’ve seen a sly, harem pants-wearing, cool Topshop sweatshirt-wearing, snapback hat-rocking lesbian on TV.
We’re seeing more and more gay people on TV, but not really anyone like Denise. Is that something that you felt self-conscious about at all, that you felt like you were representing a group that hadn’t been represented before, or were you just like, I’m just so excited that this is happening?
I think it was a combination of all three. I’ve never been a person that has had fear of, like, “Oh, I don’t want to be the poster child for all black lesbian women.” I don’t know. I want to be someone in the public eye that they can be proud of. I don’t feel like, “Oh her character can’t do anything bad.” I just wanted her to feel like a real human being. And that’s what Aziz and Alan and [executive producer] Michael [Schur] wanted. They wanted all the characters to feel that way. So I always felt protected in that way. For me, it’s always about being authentic. Authentic to myself, and really creating this character and making sure we were authentic to her as well. I just really want be proud of the work I’m doing, whether it’s something I’ve written, produced or am starring in. I just want to be proud of it. She could have been quirky, she could have been a nerd, she could have been any of these things. But to me, as long as she was a three-dimensional character, I didn’t mind.
When they decided the character was going to be gay, I was really hyped. One, because that makes my life a little bit easier because I’m like, that’s not a stretch. But two, because I know how many women I see out in the world that are very much like myself. We exist. To me, the visibility of it was what was going to be so important and so exciting.
There’s a scene where Denise and Dev are at this party where she wants to hook up with a straight woman, and you have this very quick, funny discussion of the woman’s skin tone that is not a conversation that we see on TV too often. Was that improvised? Is that a conversation you’ve had with non-black friends before where you explained the terminology?
That actually came out of a real conversation I had with Aziz. I think we were just hanging out on set between takes and I just said it casually: “So-and-so’s a redbones,” and Aziz hadn’t heard that. He was like, “What? What is that? Is that a black thing?” Like, what the heck? We started polling the crew, like, “Do you know what a redbones is, or have you heard of redbones?” There was a black guy on the crew, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ve heard of that before. It means light-skinned or fair-skinned.” Aziz was like, “Oh, so it’s like a black thing.” The writers quickly found that it’s a thing we say in the black community. The Halle Berry thing came up too because I think Aziz asked, “Is Halle Berry a redbones? I was like, “No, no, I don’t consider her a redbones.” We were having a very serious conversation about it, because Aziz and I have those random silly conversations, but I loved that after, he was like, “We have to find a way to put this in the show.”
Did that actress find it funny that that conversation happens right before she’s introduced onscreen?
She did. But she knew what the term was, too! So she was like, “Yeah, I’m redbones, totally. I get it.”
Have you actually seen Failure to Launch?
Yes, I have! I own that. You know what? Because Sarah Jessica Parker is bae. I love Sarah Jessica Parker. What’s not to like? That’s the reason Denise has seen that movie. I thought that was hilarious. I saw that in the script and I’m a lover of Sarah Jessica Parker, I think she’s awesome. I think I probably told Aziz I own that movie. You can’t say anything to him because it’ll work its way into the script. But I own it, I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a lover of rom-coms. That’s one that may not have won any awards, but Sarah Jessica Parker looks great in it. She’s lovely in it. The third act gets a little weird, but it’s not a horrible rom-com. It’s not awful. I’m defending Failure to Launch right now.
Master of None‘s entire first season is streaming now on Netflix.