Lena Waithe Wrote Her Most Personal Story for Master of None

“Thanksgiving,” the eighth episode of Master of None’s second season, is the most personal thing Lena Waithe has ever written. She and Aziz Ansari wrote the episode together in a hotel room in London, filtering her own coming-out experience through Denise, her character on the show. The episode is quietly epic, in large part due to the direction by Melina Matsoukas, who paid attention to the details from the cross on the wall to the plastic covers of the couch. “Thanksgiving” is a paean to the beauty of annual rituals and how we think about real and imagined families.

In person, Waithe is effusive, warm, and engaging. We covered a range of topics, the way you do when you connect with someone immediately. Unlike the more laconic Denise with whom she’s become associated, Waithe speaks quickly and volubly: There’s a lot to say, and she’s going to say it. We met at the bar of Maialino, where the Master of None cast and crew, who were staying at the Gramercy Hotel right next door, sauntered by to give her hugs and kisses. (Aziz says hi.) She was dressed comfortably in a light-gray sweatshirt that said “Buy Art Not Drugs,” made by the Chicago-based artist Hebru Brantley, and black drop-crotch pants.

The “Thanksgiving” episode is just the beginning for Waithe, who is the creator behind the upcoming Showtime series The Chi about five black men in the Southside of Chicago, and she’s currently shopping around another — a lighter, half-hour series based on her 20s in Los Angeles, called Twenties. We talked about writing the episode with Ansari, how she geeked out with Angela Bassett on set, and why it’s important for her to be visible as an out-and-proud black lesbian.

“Thanksgiving” was my favorite episode this season. How was writing that with Aziz?
It happened really organically. I didn’t set out to do that this season; I don’t think Aziz did either. I just came to New York to visit the writers’ room and talk about my life and what was going on so they could pull from it what they wanted, and [co-creator] Alan [Yang] asked me, “Hey, how did you come out?” We had this long conversation about it, and how religion didn’t play a huge role in my family, and I grew up in a house of women. I didn’t even make it back to my hotel when Aziz called and said, “We have to tell that story, and I need you to write it.” I’m like, “I already have a full plate, I trust you guys,” and they’re like, “No, you have to write it.”

I was in London filming something, [Aziz] came, and we were in his hotel room and we just banged it out. There were scenes he’d put in the computer, and other things where we’d go back and forth to find the funniest thing. It was the best experience collaborating with someone, because Aziz and I were so comfortable with each other at that point that I felt comfortable putting very autobiographical, vulnerable things into it. In my other stuff, I had no desire to tell that story, so I was like, “Why not tell it in this way, with this character who people seem to really connect with and love?” It’s also great to give Dev and Denise an origin story. It was so organic and came together so well.

So how autobiographical was the story?
We took some creative license and combined my stuff and some things with Denise, but everything from the house, the way the room looked, they pulled. I gave the production designers pictures of my room as a teenager, pictures of my grandma’s house, of my mom and what she wore. They were like, “Okay, this is what we’re going to use.” They saw some old pictures of me growing up, too, so it became more and more autobiographical as we got deeper into the episode, which I really welcomed. I think there’s definitely a difference between myself and Denise, and I try to separate her because we’re so intertwined, but because that story is so specific to my experience, we leaned into it. We don’t claim for it to be everyone’s story, but I think we really wanted to be vulnerable, which Aziz does all the time. So it gives us the freedom to go, “This was my experience.” We know he’s so naked and pulls from his own pain, so we pull from ours as well. And then we try to find the humor and the fun in these interesting stories from our lives. This is probably the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written, but the cool thing is I got to play with it and lighten it up, because at the time it was heavy and scary and crazy. But it is about a ten-year difference from when I came out to making this episode, so I have a lot of space and distance from it, which I think is the best way to tell the story. It’s like, “Okay, in hindsight this happened,” and to see the progression I thought was really important.

I loved the passage of time.
Yeah, the Thanksgiving thing was all their idea. They were like, “Why don’t we make it every year?” I thought that was really cool and I wrote into that. The whole story about me seeing an Indian family and thinking they were black was real. The O.J. talk at the dinner table, that was my grandmother — God rest her soul — she was obsessed with it. That’s what I did as a kid: I used to ear-hustle all the time! My mom, my aunt, my grandmother, my older sister, the neighbor who’s also a black woman — it was literally just black women talking all the time and I was a student. I was like, “Okay, that’s how I gossip, that’s how I cook, that’s how I do this.” It’s really a lesson in how to be a black woman in that house I lived in. In this episode, the kids are really watching and listening and paying attention to everything these adults are doing.

Lena Waithe in the “Thanksgiving” episode. Photo: Netflix

And you got Angela Bassett to play your mom! How did you get her?
Honestly, Aziz and Melina [Matsoukas] suggested it and I was like, “She’s gonna pass, that’s not going to happen. Let me know when she passes because I got Sheryl Lee Ralph on speed dial.” And so they’re like, “Okay, let’s see.” And Aziz went and did whatever he did and then we got a text from him saying, “Things are looking good,” and then literally the day after that he’s like, “She says she’s doing it.” I was like, “Oh man!” So then my nerves got turned up, but the closer I got to it, the more excited I was to dive in and play with her. She was so phenomenal, and her work in the episode is just amazing. We connected immediately. She came on set and was like, “Hello, daughter.” And I was like, “Hello, mother.” It’s like, come on! Are you kidding me? I mean, I was raised in a house with black women! I know every role, every little tiny thing she’s ever done. I remember she had a small part on The Cosby Show — every black person has walked through that show — but she did one episode.

What was it like working with her?
Angela Bassett came in and raised the bar for all of us. We were all obsessed with her because Aziz, myself, and Aniz, Aziz’s younger brother, are all obsessed with The Jackson 5: An American Dream. Angela has had a long career and done a lot of things but we’re like, “Uh, no, you’re Michael Jackson’s mom.” We will literally quote that movie to each other all the time. That was another bonding thing, because Aziz and Aniz have very specific pop-culture references that often tend to be very black. We’ll do an episode where he’ll go, “Oh yeah, that was my shit, too. I was really into that as well.” So we really bonded even more doing this episode, and Angela was someone who we were like, “Okay, now we gotta step it up. We can’t fuck around.” And she was so chill, too.

How was the Thanksgiving food?
Phenomenal! I wish I could remember what place we got it from. We were eating it — the mac ‘n’ cheese, the freaking dressing, it was good. Angela and Kym [Whitley] were like, They’re pros! We’re not going to fake-eat! Me and Aziz were eating too much. We had to slow down.

Who was your first celebrity crush?
The first one was actually Jasmine Guy as Whitley Gilbert on A Different World. Whitley Gilbert, man! She’s still such a great chick. I’ve never met her, but I’m sure it’ll happen at some point. And all these people were so kind, because in the episode we actually zoom in on these pictures, and they had to allow us the rights to use their image, so we were really grateful. Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks on Fresh Prince, is apparently a fan of the show so she was like, “Yeah, you can use my picture.” The big one was Jennifer Aniston, when I was 16.

So you like them high femme?
Yeah! My girlfriend says I’m the first woman she’s ever dated. But that wasn’t intentional. I think that’s so “Denise,” like, “Oh, did you turn her?” and I’m like, “No, I swear I didn’t.” She came for me! I had no idea! I was confused, like, “Am I catching vibes? Am I tripping?” Yeah, but no, there’s a certain look. We all have our stuff!

What was it like coming out to your family for you?
It was a lot like that. I have a sister in real life, although the character doesn’t. I also have a really small family, so I came out to my sister first. And then it was just my mom. She really, genuinely, didn’t want me to tell my grandmother, so I didn’t. I was not close to my father growing up and he passed away when I was 14. So I never really came out to anyone other than my sister and my mom. But it was really just that one person for me, and we were in a diner — all that stuff is real — and it was post college. It’s scary; it’s nerve-racking. You have to prepare yourself for the worst. I knew I wasn’t going to be disowned, but the dynamic of your relationships change a little bit.

The part when she says, “I just don’t want life to be hard for you” really hit me. My mom said that to me.
Wow. That’s a real thing. I really was happy that I got to write that, because those are words that were said, and I think it’s a really human moment for the mom, to not villainize the parents. That’s another thing about hindsight: hearing it then but understanding it now, and what that really means. That’s the connective tissue I have with my mom. I’m happy I got to tell that story, because I think that’s the root of most parents. They may be buried or shrouded in other things, but when you strip everything away, that’s what it is: They want their children to lead a happy, “normal” life. And I also think there’s a dream they have to bury of what they thought their children’s lives would look like, and that’s a mourning process gay children have to allow space for. I was a little rebellious about it, but looking back, I can see that I had to give that same amount of space and understanding that I’m asking for as well. It’s growing. It’s a journey for both sides.

It’s funny because Angela Bassett’s character said a lot of things my mom said to me, like when she explains what a minority is. I grew up hearing that I had to work twice as hard to get half as much, which I know is something black parents tell their kids. And maybe because it was a collaboration between you and Aziz, but it feels like there’s this organic solidarity that emerged, in this case, between black and Indian-American people.
Yes, and it was born out of the natural love and chemistry Aziz and I have. It’s so interesting because people always say, “Oh, you have this rainbow cast,” like we did this whole thing on purpose, but I don’t think he set out to have a black lesbian girl and another Indian girl on the show. It genuinely was organic. When we met at his house for the first time there was just a natural clicking and a vibe, and to play that up on the show shows that it’s a bit of a “We are the World” thing, but it’s also true. Even offscreen, we have a natural kinship. It’s so interesting because when you see a child who’s “other,” even though I didn’t understand the specifics of race yet, I knew that there was a commonality. They’re not “black,” or that person’s “Asian,” but I know we ain’t white! We ain’t like everybody else! And even as a kid, I knew we had something in common. The truth is, we all have a lot of things in common, but that thing is really special to me. Even Aziz is like, “When have we seen an Indian man and all these black women in one scene?” That kind of thing doesn’t happen, but I love that in the world of Netflix and this New York Aziz has created, you can have that. That’s what sets us apart.

How do you feel about becoming known as an out celebrity?
People don’t see people that look like me and the kind of lesbian I am. I’m not super femme, I’m not a stud, I’m in the middle. And I think there’s a lot of us in the middle who are just who we are. It’s just me expressing my masculinity with a hint of femininity. Wearing one hoop earring and playing with the androgyny — that’s who I am. That’s what I like to do. And I feel the world should see that. I’m not going to put a shield up or be more feminine to make people feel comfortable. If I make people feel uncomfortable, it’s like, okay, squirm in your seat a little bit and then get the fuck over it. There’s a lot of Denises out there — a lot of little black girls and boys, and Indian, Latino, Asian. If you think you aren’t valid for whatever reason, let my existence and the way the world embraces my existence tell you that you are valid. You deserve to look, live, and walk through the world however you see fit. That’s why I find it extremely important to be so out, so black, and so myself. I know for a fact I’ll hit somebody in a little podunk town and they’ll go, “I see myself, and she’s a representation of the fact that I can be my complete self, whatever that is.” I hope I set a trend with other black or brown folks in this business to stop trying to be something that you think society wants you to be, because you hurt someone who’s going to come after you who goes, “Oh, well she wasn’t really out in public, so maybe I shouldn’t be as out as I want to be.” It’s a huge, huge problem that we’re still working through, and I’m happy to be a Jackie Robinson.

Was the Becky line Kym says a Lemonade reference?
Yeah! It was definitely fresh on our minds at the time so we were like, “Why not?” We threw out some white-girl names and I think that was one she threw out, but she was like, “I’m gonna keep going.” We were just having so much fun, collaborating and playing and goofing around and then finding the best thing in the edit. But we let Kym rip and were like, “Oh, we’ll let that stay.”

My friends used to tease me about liking Jennifer Aniston and I was like, “Jennifer is still kickin’, okay? She was hot then, still looking good now!” I met her at the Critics Choice Awards, she’s chilling! She’s out here! She won!

Was Angela saying she didn’t want you to date a white girl something your mom discussed with you in real life?
Look, I don’t think she would be ecstatic if I was dating … right now I’m dating a black woman who is very black, natural hair, from Chicago, phenomenal, my equal. Amazing.

I feel like it’s important to see.
Yeah! And mind you, you don’t have any control over who you fall in love with, so I will say, I’m very relieved that I fell in love with this black woman. It’s a little old-school, but I think it’s kind of beautiful that I’m in love with a black woman. It’s great. I’m very proud of it. And also, there are cultural things that we understand. We have very similar upbringings — both from Chicago, born the same month, same year. So we’re growing together. For both of us it’s our first long-term relationship, the first time we’ve ever lived with someone. And the natural hair is a nice foundation, is what I’ll say. It is what it is.

What was it like working with Melina Matsoukas? That final panning shot she did was beautiful.
That was all her. She asked for a crane, and it’s phenomenal. That’s the kind of thing she does. We were in a tiny space, and she made it feel grand and personal. The production designer did a great job, but she wanted to go in and get all those knickknacks. I felt honored to work with her and she and I became very close, as you tend to be when you make something like this. I think this is some of her finest work.

There were all these times when Aziz would go to edit, or Alan had to go on location, and they’d leave us on set and it would be me, Angela, the kids, Melina. Aniz is always on set, making sure everything is copacetic, but it was a phenomenal experience. When there’s a black person or brown person, there’s almost always a white guy on set making sure everything is still, you know. With this, there was none of that. It was just really wonderful and a beautiful experience.

Can you tell me about your upcoming show for Showtime?
Yeah, it’s called The Chi. Common is an EP, and he always keeps it honest. We don’t have an air date yet. We got Rick Famuyiwa, who is phenomenal. He’s been my champion, he’s always been protecting my voice and making sure it feels authentic to what my original vision was. It’s pretty much an all-black writers’ room, and I’m obsessed with them. Every one of the writers are phenomenal. They care so much and they want to get it right. It’s the first season, so we hope it’s good. You strive for greatness, you don’t always get perfection, and you hope that you’ll be patient with us and let us try to find it. We’re so excited to tell these human stories in Chicago.

I also have this half-hour pilot I wrote called Twenties, which is my Master of None about life in my 20s, set in L.A.

Can you tell me about that?
I’m in the process of trying to get it going, so stay tuned. Hopefully this episode will help this network be like, “Okay, let’s give this girl a show.” I don’t know if I necessarily want to be in it, but I wrote these, and people all over town were reading both scripts together and were like, “Who is this unicorn?” She wrote this half-hour, light but very emotional thing about these three black girls in L.A. in their 20s, and this hour-long drama about five black men on the Southside of Chicago? My goal is to get both on the air. We got one down, so I’m trying to get the other one going.

I want to make the most of this opportunity I have to shed light on what it means to be gay, black, and female in 2017, and I want to help usher in new voices. That’s to me the most exciting thing, the fact that I now have some leverage in this industry. I’m like, “Great, now meet this writer who has a unique voice and I think should have a TV show,” or, “Read this feature, now let’s try to get this movie made.” That’s my mission. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but for me it’s about pushing to the point where I can be Mark Walhberg, Ryan Murphy, or Shonda Rhimes. I want to be at that table in terms of bringing new voices in. There’s a lot of Donald Glovers, Jordan Peeles, Justin Simiens. And there’s a lot of me’s, too. I just want to go find them and help open the door so they can walk in.

Lena Waithe Wrote Her Most Personal Story for Master of None