Lena Waithe on Creating ‘The Chi’ & Working on ‘Ready Player One’
Writer/Producer Lena Waithe is having a moment, but it’s a moment that she’d like to turn into a series of moments that stretches over the length of a career, and she’s definitely amassing a compelling body of work with its own clear but evolving voice that will continue to lead her down that path. After the highly praised “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None, for which she was the first black woman to win the Emmy for writing in a comedy series, she defied expectation and went on to bring us the drama series The Chi, currently airing on Showtime, which is set in the South Side of Chicago and centers on a group of residents who become linked by circumstance, but bond over the need for connection and redemption. And in between making that show, which she created, and writing various other scripts for TV and film, she flew to London and shot a role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
While at the TCA Press Tour presentation for Showtime, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Lena Waithe to chat 1-on-1 about why she feels her moment is only just beginning, that she never could have imagined acting in a Steven Spielberg movie, finding her voice as a storyteller, how The Chi has evolved, the challenge of finding directors that share and understand her voice, what she’d like people to know about Chicago, how far ahead she’s thought about where she’d like to take the series, and that being yourself is truly a revolutionary act.
Collider: Everybody says that you’re having your moment. Do you feel like you’re having your moment, or do you feel like your moment is only just beginning?
LENA WAITHE: I feel like it’s just beginning. I feel like I wanna have a series of moments. It’s scary when they say you’re having a moment because moments are momentary. I get it, though. It’s a culmination of things that have come together. I think it’s just because I had a year where I was working on a lot of different things. I was working toward getting The Chi picked up, I was in London filming Ready Player One, and then Aziz [Ansari] came to London so I could co-write my episode of [Master of None], which ultimately became “Thanksgiving.” I did that all in one year. And then, the following year, these things started coming out into the world, and I’m excited for Ready Player One to come out, at the end of March. We’re all looking at the fruits of my labor, and it blossomed, all at the same time. It’s so interesting because I appreciate the moment. I really do. At the end of the day, it’s about building off of that moment and maybe slowing down, here and there, but always having cool things that I’m a part of, so that they come out sporadically and the moment keeps going. I also like to spread the love and shed the light on other creators and writers. I feel like the moment should be for all of us. Everybody deserves a moment.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d be acting in a movie directed by Steven Spielberg?
WAITHE: No! It’s really crazy! Oprah might have been quoting somebody else, but she said, “God can always dream a bigger dream than you can dream for yourself.” I think that’s one of those God dreams. I didn’t even have the chutzpah to dream that up. Also, the acting thing came organically. Allison Jones mentioned me to Aziz. Ellen Lewis, who cast Ready Player One, found me and said, “Come in and read for this thing.” And Steven saw the tape and said, “Yeah, this girl should be in the movie.” It’s just a matter of being blessed and having these opportunities, and me just being myself. I’m very grateful that I’m the kind of actor where I’m not some character actor. I can’t disappear into a world. Who knows? I may end up doing that. But I think people really like the sauce that I bring to things, my cadence, and my sensibility. To be yourself is truly a revolutionary act, and I think more and more people should try it because it’s gotten me a pretty cool life.
Did you have a moment on that set where you freaked out about being directed by Steven Spielberg?
WAITHE: You do, the first day. The first day, you’re like, “This is crazy!” But honestly, he’s so great about that. He understands that when he walks into a room, the energy shifts, so he’s really good about keeping everybody taking deep breaths and remaining grounded. You’re so busy playing and having fun. That movie really lends itself to that. You’re just so busy going, “So, I’m gonna jump over this thing, land here, and then point the fake gun there? Okay, great!” There are so many elements at work, and a lot of it was motion capture, so we were always paying attention to our movements and what we were doing. And then, when we were doing the live-action part of it, it was shot on 35mm film, so you could mess up, but you didn’t want to because it wasn’t just going again because they’d have to reload. You really just wanted to be your best self, every day on set. You didn’t have time to think about, “What’s Steven gonna think?!” You were just like, “I wanna hit my mark, I wanna get my line, I wanna make sure I step into my light, so that way, I don’t mess up this take.” But, he’s like family. I love him. Every time I see him, I tell him I loved him and that I missed him. I can’t wait to work with him again. He’s phenomenal. He’s everything you would dream he is. He’s great.
How long did it take you to find your voice, as a storyteller, and to be confident in that voice?
WAITHE: I’m still trying to find it. It may be hard to believe that because I’m putting things out into the world, people really liked “Thanksgiving,” and we’ve gotten such great positive feedback on The Chi. But every time I sit down to write something, I’m trying to find it. I’m trying to find the voice I need for that particular story. I’m the voice of all the characters. I have to step into every character’s shoes. For me, it’s always about understanding my characters very well, understanding the story I’m trying to tell, and making sure I get the fuck out of the way, honestly. My opinion and what I think doesn’t matter. It’s about, what is the truth? If I do have an opinion, I’m gonna give that opinion to this character because I believe that character would have that opinion, but another character wouldn’t believe what I believe. For this feature I’m writing right now, I didn’t want the female character to believe in God. That’s important for her. I do. Lena does, but I’ve gotta remember that when I’m writing her. She’s very pragmatic. For her, things are by accident and not destined, but the person she’s talking to believes everything is destined, so how does that affect when they communicate with each other. It’s all about who’s story I’m telling, in that moment, how the conversation is looking, and how honest I can make it. The thing for me is to always tell the truth. Not to preach, but to tell the truth.
You wrote The Chi on spec in 2015, and since then, you’ve re-shot the pilot and recast some of the actors. How did that decision come about?
WAITHE: Funny enough, the script didn’t change, but the director and the cast did. It wasn’t that the director or cast was bad. They were all great. But we needed a director that was more in tune with my voice, which is very young and very specific. I don’t think there’s a show on TV like The Chi, which is great. That’s the kind of stuff I want to make. I want to do things where people say, “Oh, I haven’t seen that before.” Showtime really understand that and were like, “We’ve gotta get her somebody that does things off the beaten path,” which is Rick Famuyiwa, with him doing Dope, The Wood and Brown Sugar. He really was the perfect person to come in and breathe a little bit more color and life into it. And then, we got a new casting director with Carmen Cuba, who’s a bit more unorthodox, and we really got a unique and dynamic cast. For example, with Ronnie, we cast a little bit older. The lines don’t change, but making the character older makes the character that much more sympathetic. Jason [Mitchell] is a little bit more of an everyman. He doesn’t have movie star looks, which makes the character a little bit more relatable. The Guild will tell you, the script literally did not change. We kept the credits as is, but we changed the director and the cast, which was a real testament to the pilot that Showtime bought and agreed to shoot. They wanted my voice, but they wanted to elevate the cast and the director, which I was cool with. I was really happy with the outcome.
When it is so much your voice, is it challenging to find directors to hand your scripts over to, who share that voice?
WAITHE: It is, actually. And Rick is somebody that I really bonded with. He’s not just the director of my pilot. He’s my friend. He’s someone I love. I call him my black Superman. He really did swoop in and say, “Okay, I get what you’re doing. Let me go do my thing.” Justin Simien is someone I would literally hand a script to and walk the fuck away because I trust him that much. And Melina Matsoukas is somebody I would give a script to and say, “Do your thing. I trust you.” Those are my people. I have no desire to direct. I really don’t. I want to trust directors to do their thing and elevate my material. It’s a gene I was born without. I’ve directed three short films, and I did not enjoy the process of directing. I enjoyed writing those short films. I enjoy writing or producing or acting, and I like doing them separately. That’s why it was weird for me to do “Thanksgiving.” It’s strange for me to write lines that I was gonna go say. It was so meta because it was me and my story. Aziz loves that shit. For me, I’m like, “Do I have to star in this episode?!” The kid versions of me is what made it digestible. Those are the things that I enjoy doing.
What would you like people to know about Chicago, and more specifically, the Chicago that you know?
WAITHE: That it’s more of a community that people would expect. It’s not a fuckin’ jungle. Every black boy was not born with a gun in his right hand and a pile of drugs in his life. It’s really a community. People say hello to each other and talk to each other. It’s a hard-working city, it’s a strong city, it’s a resilient city, and it’s a beautiful city. It’s full of culture, music, art, love and passion. I wouldn’t be sittin’ here, if I weren’t from Chicago. It’s a big part of who I am and I owe the city a huge debt, and I’m always gonna be trying to pay it forward.
How far ahead have you thought about the story you want to tell with The Chi?
WAITHE: I have some big ideas, but I try to not be the Svengali of it all. The writers’ room may change. One of the actors may want to go off and do something else. You don’t know. You have to leave a little space for God to come in. I’ll hold onto my ideas for some things that I like and I wanna do, and I’ll pitch them when the time is right, but I really wanna leave room and space. Whenever I meet young writers and they’re like, “I’ve got this pilot and I’ve got the first 10 seasons mapped out,” I always go, “Good luck to you with that.” You’ve gotta leave some space for your writers’ room. Some exec will say, “Where do you see it going by Season 3?” And I go, “I’m not [Aaron] Sorkin. I’m not Matthew Weiner. My brain doesn’t work that way.” We’ll see where the world is. We’ll see where the actors are. We’ll see what that writers’ room looks like. You could have a whole new writers’ room for Season 3, and they may have ideas that you never could have imagined, and they may be great and you may go, “That’s a cool way of doing it. That’s interesting.” Sometimes actors go, “You know what? I’m done. I’m good.” I would hope that myself, Showtime and the studio could come together and figure out a way for someone to exit the show that makes sense, that’s interesting, that’s entertaining and that’s beautiful, and gives them room to go do what they wanna go do in their career. That’s what people don’t think about. When Season 2 or 3 rolls around, everything could be different. Even with Master of None, there’s no way that Aziz could have imagined that I’d get cast in a Spielberg and that my show would get picked up. He’s super happy for me, but it meant that, in Season 2, he would only have me for a month. If Season 2 was gonna be all about Denise, he woulda been fucked. You have to leave space for people to have lives and to have some spontaneity.
Do you think people are surprised that this show is set from the point of view of five male characters?
WAITHE: There’s a reason why I like multi-protagonist stories, particularly when the characters are people of color, because it shows that not all people are a monolith. These characters are all black and they’re all male, but they’re all so different and they see the world through very different eyes, even though that’s a thing that people probably won’t pick up on right away. They’re all from the same city, they’re all male, they’re all black, and they all have completely different ways of looking at the world. Isn’t that a novel idea? I think that will go a long way.
Did it surprise you that the first show you got out there happened to be a drama?
WAITHE: It was surprising to me, but I was very flattered that people reacted to it the way they did. I was like, “All right, I’m gonna roll with it.” This story is from my belly and from my gut, which is as valid as any comedy I’ve ever written. I like that people know me as a comedic person, and then they see this drama and it gives them a sense of, “Oh, she can do anything.”
The Chi airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.