From filmmaker Steven Spielberg and adapted from the book by Ernest Cline, the sci-fi action adventure epic Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 and follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), as he escapes real life inside of the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days, living as any avatar they so choose and with only your own imagination as a limitation. When the OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), he embedded a three-part contest into it to find a worthy heir for his immense fortune and total control of this virtual world, and as Wade and his friends, called the High Five, take on the challenge, they put themselves directly into the path of danger.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with writer/producer/actor Lena Waithe (who plays High Five member Aech, aka Helen) to chat 1-on-1 about finding herself with an unexpected acting career and how that’s influenced her when she’s wearing her other hats, the incredible experience she had on Ready Player One, what she’d would want her own avatar to be, what it was like to work and collaborate with Steven Spielberg, and the most fun sequence she got to do in the film. She also talked about what she’s most proud of with Season 1 of her Showtime series The Chi and what she’s most looking forward to with Season 2, her TBS pilot Twenties, and why she’s put out the word that she’ll read scripts from The Black List (that have an evaluation of 8 or above).
LENA WAITHE: Oh, my God, it was phenomenal! It was amazing!
You’ve been turning in some really great acting performances.
WAITHE: Oh, thank you!
Could you ever have imagined that, while you were trying establish a writing career, that you would find yourself here, with an acting career?
WAITHE: No, no, not at all. I think that’s what’s so cool about it. It was not a part of my master plan, at all. I wish it had been. I wish I could say that I had this great idea like, “Yeah, I’ll do the acting thing, which will then help the writing thing.” It just happened, around the same time. With The Chi, Showtime said, “Hey, we want to make this pilot.” And then, like a month later, I got cast in Master of None and had to call them and say, “Hey, do you mind if I go to New York for a couple of months?” They were really great and gracious and said, “Sure, we’ll put the brakes on it. Call us when you’re back.” Then, when I got this opportunity, The Chi hadn’t been picked up yet, but I was writing and doing rewrites on things. I got cast in this and David Nevins, who’s the CEO of Showtime, was really cool and said, “Okay, go away and do that, but can you write remotely?,” and I was like, “Sure.” So, it all happened while I was still getting the writing stuff done. Ultimately, I had to write the “Thanksgiving” episode while I was filming Ready Player One. And Aziz [Ansari] came to London and had three days off, so we spent those three days writing the script. So, it all happened simultaneously, and then things just came out, as they did.
For me, it’s been a wonderful journey to just stand at different places on set, as an actor and understanding that role. I feel like I’m the least stressed, when I’m acting on a set, because I just gotta hit my mark and have fun with the lines, listen to the director, and go home. When I’m a writer on set, I’m not stressed, but my brain doesn’t shut off because I’m like, “I could improve that line” or “I could punch that joke up more” or “This scene isn’t working the way I had intended it.” My brain is just constantly going, and I actually have fun doing that because I’m a writer first. When I’m a producer, that’s when I’m the most stressed on set because I’m thinking about everyone. I’m like, “Does the A.D. have what they need? Are these actors happy with their trailers? Is the catering up to par? Is the writer unhappy? Is the director making their day?” I just love being able to shape-shift and do all of those things. I think it makes me a pretty well-rounded performer. I think it makes me a sympathetic actor. If the crew is running late, or I’m coming behind, or the script supervisor isn’t there, I’m a little bit more sensitive to that versus someone who has only been an actor. I think there’s an element where they tend to maybe have an attitude about this or that thing. No shade to my actor friends, but I think because they haven’t done the job of a producer, or they haven’t written a script, they don’t always understand what goes on with that.
As an actor, my goal is to be the least worrisome. They have a lot of things going on, so when their stuff is starting, I’m like, “I’m good. I don’t need anything. Let me know when you’re ready for me.” I think there’ an element of that that directors, producers and people really appreciate because they’re just not used to it. And as a writer, it gives me a real sense of how I want to do things and what kind of producer I want to be. It’s great. I think everybody should do everybody’s job, for at least a day. Then, you’ll go, “Ah, okay! Got it!” Everybody thinks they’re the most important person on the set, to be honest. The truth is that everyone is equally important. I know that’s a Pollyanna way of looking at it, but having done multiple jobs on the set, it’s true. It really is.