Keeping it real
Out actress Lena Waithe on playing gay in the hit Netflix comedy Master Of None
Lena Waithe is a writer, producer and actor who set our hearts alight in the Netflix series Master Of None as Denise, the coolest lesbian on TV. We caught up with her to find out more about being a queer black woman in Hollywood.
DIVA: For those who haven’t seen the show, can you tell us a little bit about your character?
LENA WAITHE: My character Denise is a queer, lesbian, black woman who is very laid back, is very matter-of-fact and shoots from the hip. She doesn’t suffer fools and is a really cool character that I don’t think you’ve seen before. She has her own swag and her own sense of style, and I really dig the character for that reason.
Lesbian and bi viewers have taken Denise to their hearts, thanks to the depth to her character. I read that you wanted to have a discussion about the nuances of queer women’s identity in season two. Did that make it in?
There’s a specific episode that will focus on my character which I’m super excited about, that I co-wrote with [Master Of None creator] Aziz Ansari. I don’t know if I can say who’s directing it because it’s kind of a big deal. But I can reveal that Angela Bassett is gonna play my mom. So we’re all ecstatic about that. It’s about Denise’s journey figuring out how she wants to look and how she wants to dress and how she wants to present herself to world. Like you say, we haven’t really seen a character like Denise before. And in fact, we haven’t had our own show really since The L Word.
If you were going to write “The New L Word”, what would it be like?
I would want it to have a really unique look to it. I would want it to be moody but I would also want it to be light and airy because that’s the thing; it’s not all dark. There’s sort of this thing about when you’re an “other”, everything is so hard. And the truth is, I would want to infuse some joy into that because there is joy in knowing who you are, loving yourself, and owning that.
Do you feel like there is more of an opportunity now to tell stories about queer people of colour?
It feels like those of us who are “other” have been living in the shadows for such a long time and now we’re finally seeing ourselves. We live in a “monkey see, monkey do” kind of business. If there’s a zombie movie that does well, the next year you’re going to see 10 more zombie movies. Atlanta, Queen Sugar, Insecure, Dear White People; these are sophisticated black shows. That’s no shade to other black shows, but they have a level of sophistication that you don’t often see. Here’s the thing; other network execs go: “We want that. We want an Atlanta. We want our own Queen Sugar. We need an Insecure-type show. We want something like Dear White People.” So now other artists who want to tell unique, off-the-beaten-path-type stories are going to get those opportunities because shows like these are doing well. Whether it’s monkey see or not, TV has made huge progress on race and diversity more generally, but there’s still a long way to go and an Emmy nomination doesn’t mean all is won.
Let’s talk frankly: what is it like to be a queer woman of colour in Hollywood right now?
It’s not easy. It’s not. But I also have been extremely blessed. A lot of that is me putting in the work and making sure that I really honour and hone my craft. I work really, really hard. And I also try to be really, really good. There’s a difference between working hard, and working hard at being good. If you’re just working hard, you’ll get things done, but you won’t leave an impact. But if you work hard at being good, you’ll be a legend. You’ll never die. And also, most execs reading your work aren’t gonna look like you or understand your journey. So you have to be able to tell your story in such a compelling way that even though they don’t come from your hood, even though they’ve never been to the south side of Chicago, even though they’ve never been a queer black woman, they can relate to the universality of your story. That doesn’t mean you can’t be super specific. But there should also be a joke in there that everybody can laugh at.
The queer community has really taken Master Of None to its heart, thanks to your character. What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve had?
What touches my heart is when I get messages from young women of colour who say that seeing me gave them the courage to come out to their friends or their family. There’s this sort of misconception that it’s just a TV show or it’s just a movie. The real truth is, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for The Cosby Show or A Different World. Those images literally changed the way I saw myself. And they made me want to be a part of show business. I don’t come from a show business family at all; not in the least. But those shows made me want to jump into the television. Look, as black people, yes, we see ourselves on TV. But we want to see more nuanced, more specific, more intricate versions of ourself on TV. We’re not all drug dealers or singers or dancers or these loud neck rollin’, gun poppin’ type people. We’re flawed, we’re weird, we’re quirky, we’re sad, we’re strong, we’re imperfect. And I think that’s what we wanna see.
Master Of None is streaming now on Netflix.
This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of DIVA.
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