Lena Waithe on Her Surreal, History-Making Emmys Night With Aziz, Reese, Nicole, Riz, and Donald

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Did you cry during Lena Waithe’s heartfelt Emmys speech, as she thanked her girlfriend and her LGBTQIA family, while standing beside Aziz Ansari, who’d pushed her to co-write that great Master of None “Thanksgiving” episode about growing up black and queer? If not, are you human?

The Emmys were a momentous (if sometimes too Hollywood-back-patty) night for people of color: Waithe’s standing ovation as she became the first African-American woman to win for writing in a comedy series; Riz Ahmed, first man of Asian descent to win for lead actor in a drama; Donald Glover, first black man to win for directing a comedy; Sterling K. Brown, first black man to win lead actor in a drama since 1998. What did it feel like to be a part of that? And what happened at the after-parties? Vulture called up Waithe, still feeling her shine from the big win, to talk about her experience on Sunday night, where she’s putting her Emmy, and what it’s like to have Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman congratulate you.

What was going through your head? Did you think you had a chance?
Here’s the funny thing about the Emmys buildup to the actual night: As you get closer to it, there’s so many parties and lunches. Everybody that I ran into, that I’d meet, that I’d shake hands with, was like, “Bitch, you gonna win. You winning, you winning.” Even Donald, who’s a friend of mine, we connected at the WME party that Friday of Emmys weekend, and he was like, “Look, you’re gonna win. It’s fine. I don’t have any problem with it. It’s totally cool.” And everyone doing that actually made me more nervous! Because I was like, “What if there’s an upset? What if I don’t win? I’m gonna be embarrassed.” So I didn’t walk in there like, “Oh, I got this. Let’s go.” You don’t know if your name is going to be called or not. Also, there’s such phenomenal nominees in that category, including Donald and the people from Veep and Silicon Valley. It’s crazy! I was very flattered everybody thought I had a good shot, but I was not thinking I was a shoo-in.

What was Aziz’s attitude about the whole thing?
It’s funny, I teased him because I was like, “Man, this is old hat for you!” Because he won last year for the same category. But, you know, he’s still excited. His whole thing was, because the [Television] Academy reached out to us — they said, “Because there’s two of you, you have to decide which one of you is going to speak,” and Aziz was like, “Lena should talk.” He called me that morning as well and was like, “Don’t forget to thank Netflix.”

Then we were sitting next to each other before our category and he was like, “Well, now I’m nervous. Now I’m nervous.” And I said, “I hope I can save time for you to speak.” And he was like, “Don’t worry about me.” He said, “Take the moment, take it in when we get up there.” I was like, “Okay!”

And they couldn’t even get out his full name. I heard our boy say, “Aziz,” and then the crowd just erupted. It was nuts! It was nuts in there. If it seemed loud in your living room, I couldn’t hear a thing. It all went quiet and I was just like, “Oh, I gotta walk up these steps, I’ve gotta say something.” So it was a phenomenal rush, the whole thing.

Did you dress knowing that it could be what you wore to one of the biggest moments of your life? Because that was a great outfit.
Thank you! For me, I like clothes in general, but there was even pressure there! Everybody was like, “Oh, you’re such a swaggy dresser. What are you gonna wear?” I knew I wanted to wear a tux, and I knew I wanted some flare to it. That’s all I told my amazing stylist, Tiffany Hasbourne. And the designer is ALBA Legacy, an Asian designer named Jhoanna. I said, “I want to do a tux. I don’t want to do a traditional tux. I want to do something that’s a little fly, a little swaggy, because that’s my personality.” When they showed it to me, I loved it and they tailored it perfectly to my body. I felt like the queen of the night in that thing.

What was going through your head as they announced your category?
Man, my heart was beating through my chest, but I was also trying to remember, like, “Breathe through this.” And you don’t know until they open the envelope. But like I said, they didn’t even give him a chance to finish Aziz’s name. But also, in that room, that’s the Academy. They voted, so I think a lot of them were kind of like, “We know what’s about to happen here, and we’re about to enjoy this moment.”

How much did you practice your speech beforehand?
Not very much. [Laughs.] Aziz was like, “You should write something down.” I don’t believe in that. I know that’s a little scary. I just like to speak from the heart and to go from the dome. I would never pull out a piece of paper. I mean, I knew who I had to thank. I knew my main people like Aziz, Alan [Yang], Netflix, my lady, cast and crew. But I knew I had to speak from the heart. I knew I wanted to share that moment with the queer community, with women of color, women writers, anyone who’d ever been othered. I knew I wanted to say something from my heart and my soul and my gut.

The thing about the little Indian boy from South Carolina and the queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago, that came to me when I was up there, but it was genuine. I wanted also to really thank the audience, the fans, and everybody who ever tweeted about the episode, wrote about it, talked about it. It would not be what it is were it not for them. So I really wanted to thank them for embracing us. Because exactly what I said, it means the world to us that they gave this little episode of television a lot of light and a lot of love. It wasn’t written down and it wasn’t rehearsed, but I hope they could really tell I was speaking from the heart — that’s why I said, “God bless y’all.” That was the realest thing I ever said, because I really felt that way.

People were really moved by your speech. Did you know famous people were tearing up in the audience when you started talking about the LGBTQIA community?
No! You’re looking out into a sea of people, so I couldn’t see anybody up close. But I heard. When I went backstage immediately, people were crying. They were out there getting choked up! I was like, “What?” and then after the fact I saw footage of it. I couldn’t see that at all. But I was so moved and humbled when I heard that. I was trying not to cry! I was just as emotional.

Did any heroes of yours tell you they cried?
Yeah, Laverne Cox came up to me and was so sweet and so kind. She was just like, “I was in tears. I was a wreck.” I was like, “Oh my gosh!” Tituss [Burgess], I didn’t get a chance to see him after, but I saw him before. He came up to me in tears at an NBC party and was like, “That episode meant so much to me.” But afterwards, a couple of the big moments were, like, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman legit came up to me and were like, “Oh my God, we love you, we loved the episode, we loved your speech.” Which, of course, I’ve gotta stand there acting like they ain’t Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman talking to me. I was just like, “Well, I love you! I love y’all! Big Little Lies is my shit!” And as I was walking to the Governors Ball, Elisabeth Moss grabbed me and she was like, “Yeah, that was my favorite episode, you were great, congratulations!” And I’m like, “Bitch! You Elisabeth Moss!” It was, like, crazy! These are phenomenal people who I look up to, who I’m a fan of. So it was phenomenal. Just phenomenal.

Did you clink your Emmys together? Every person you mentioned had an Emmy.
Exactly! It was crazy! To be standing there with Reese and Nicole, holding our Emmys? Reese said something really great — she said, “This is a great night for women.” And I said, “I agree.” It was a great night for women. It was a great night for people of color. It was a great night for new, young exciting voices in the industry that have often been marginalized and often been pushed to the side or ignored. There’s a lovely picture that I’m sure you’ve seen that Riz Ahmed posted of Riz, myself, Donald, and Donald’s also very talented brother Stephen Glover as we’re getting our Emmys engraved. [Editor’s note: Stephen was nominated for comedy writing, and in this case holding one of Donald’s two Emmys.] To me, it represents a new world order and I could not be more excited about the future.

Especially to see your buddy Donald, who said you’d win. He got two!
I knew he was gonna take something home! That’s why I think he was like, “Lena, you can have the writing joint. It’s cool.” First of all, I could not be prouder of him. I always tell him this when I see him. I say, “I know we’re, like, the same age and you’re my peer,” but he’s my hero. I look up to him. I strive to be as prolific as he is, and just so good! He’s just so freakin’ good and so talented.

We shared a moment as we were waiting to get our Emmys engraved. You know, to be two history makers is something that I don’t think is lost on either one of us. I think he’s aware that we’re vessels for this moment. But can’t nobody tell me that Debbie Allen didn’t deserve an Emmy [for directing A Different World]. Can’t nobody tell me that Susan Fales-Hill [showrunner for A Different World] and Yvette Lee Bowser [creator of Living Single and writer on A Different World] shouldn’t have gotten an Emmy for their phenomenal writing for television. We know that we came up during a time when the industry and the world was a little more ready to embrace our voices, and we share these awards with them. This is bigger than us. This time, stars aligned and there has to always be a first, but it’s a responsibility that we take very seriously.

You are the first African-American woman to win that writing Emmy. Are you saying it hit you, but not as much as one might expect?
I’m definitely very aware of it. The big thing for me is to not rest on it, to not think, “Oh, I did something that only I could do.” No! There’s so many other talented women of color who write funny things every day, and I want them to be recognized, I want them to have a seat at the table because we’re out here. I think Riz’s caption to that picture was perfect: “We here.” We’re here, we’ve been here, we will continue to be here. It’s my ambition to make sure people know that there’s so many more people coming up behind myself, coming up behind Donald, coming up behind people like Sterling and Issa and all these amazing artists. We’re always gonna be here and they better scoot over and make room because we’re here to stay.

How did your family react since the episode was basically about your life?
Oh, they were elated. My mom is extremely proud. My sister is blown away, but they’ve been supportive my whole journey, so I think it was an out-of-body experience for them as well, just as much as it was for me.

What’s next?
What’s next is a show I’m very excited about that I created called The Chi. It’ll be on Showtime early next year and it’s an hourlong drama about what it means to be young and black and human on the South Side of Chicago. I’m excited for people to see it. Also, Ready Player One is coming out in March — a little movie from an up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg. So yeah, I’m excited for what’s to come. I’ve always got ideas and things up my sleeve, so hopefully we can get those cracking. All the writers for The Chi, they’re all phenomenal, so I’m just working on projects with them. They have great scripts. I’m basically taking on an executive producer–type role with a lot of those guys to help them get their shows on the air. Also, just working with some new young writers — one is a series, one is a feature. I’m excited. I’m queen of mentorship. I want to turn mentorship into a business and say, “Okay, I mentored you, now let’s get those contracts going, let’s go out there and pitch and get those shows on the air.”

Where’s your Emmy?
Right now it’s in my office, which is a little daunting. I can’t write in there anymore because the Emmy is staring at me like, “Is this Emmy worthy? Is this really great? You could do better.” So I need to get it out of there so I can go in there and be normal and write scripts that are just okay.

Maybe put it in your bathroom? I’ve heard a lot of people do that, because if you put it where you shit, it becomes less intimidating.
That’s a good idea! Because that way, I go in there every morning and can just be like, “Okay, I’ve done that,” put on my imaginary cape, and go out and conquer the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Lena Waithe on Her Emmys Night With Aziz, Reese, and Nicole