Lena Waithe on “Master of None” and putting queer women of color on television

Lena Waithe‘s phone has been buzzing non-stop. The writer-turned-actor (and self-admitting social media addict, “much to [her] girlfriend’s chagrin,”) is receiving all kinds of praise for her role in Netflix’s new series Master of None. The half-hour comedy series co-created by and starring Aziz Ansari has only been available for a week but it’s garnered close to perfect reviews from the media and fans alike. As Denise, an out black lesbian theater critic who is friends with Aziz’s character, Dev, Lena is charming, funny and unapologetic about her thoughts on being a woman, dating other women and how they are treated by the world at large. 

“There’s been a lot of people reaching out saying they love Denise, they love Lena,” Lena said. “I’m seeing Instagram handles being changed—Lil Funyuns and Princess Love and everybody wants a Ratch hat, so it’s really heartwarming, honestly, to see people get so excited.”

ratch-hatvia Netflix

Lil Funyons and Princess Love are just one tiny part of one episode, but Lena’s deadpan yet charismatic delivery on the obsessive woman using these nicknames in countless voicemail’s left on Denise’s phone is one reason queer women cannot get enough of her and the woman behind the role.

“The character wasn’t too far from myself, a woman of color who is obviously a lesbian woman,” Lena said, something she’s happy is a “non-issue” on the show. 

But there are some differences, of course. Like in real life, Lena is much more talkative (“super, super animated” she will tell you) and instead of being a single woman on the town, she’s been with partner Alana Mayo, a Hollywood production executive, for 18 months.

“The thing is what we really to do was make it look like we were not acting,” Lena said. “We really wanted people to feel like they were a fly in the wall in a sort of early 30-something conversation and usually those conversations are pretty random and silly and kind of chill, so I kind of had to bring it down a little bit, because my normal is a big, big, big personality. And I think Aziz kind of played it a little bit straighter, too, like we really  just wanted to let the lines speak and let the writing take centerstage.”

Lena and Alana495722290photos via Getty

Master of None is Lena’s first gig as a regular on a series. She’s been behind the camera for several years, writing and directing a pilot called Twenties (“a thinly-veiled version of my life and my experience in my 20s and dating straight women”), producing the beloved Sundance indie Dear White People and currently in post-production on a pilot she wrote that was picked up by Showtime. Lena said a casting agent, Allison Jones, saw her doing an interview about Twenties and called her in for a meeting.

“She was the one who asked me if I had any interest in acting, and I honestly told her I didn’t,” Lena said. “She was like, ‘OK, I get that, but let me call you in for stuff if something makes sense.'”

Lena agreed, and she was called in for a few different parts including a Judd Apatow film and a spot on Veep.

“I actually auditioned with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which was amazing,” Lena said.

She landed a small role on an episode of The Comeback, a show she says she’s “obsessed with.” (“I did a whole scene with Lisa Kudrow and was directed by Michael Patrick King. It was ridiculous.”)

When Aziz and co-creator Alan Yang were looking for “interesting people” to put in their new Netflix series, Allison submitted Lena’s name.

“So I went in to Aziz’s house and met him and Alan and we just talked; we chatted. And because we’re writers, we had that natural kinship and I was talking about my life and how I met my girlfriend and they were really fascinated because I’m the only woman she’s ever been with,” Lena said. She filled them in on the rest: “They were like, ‘Was she closeted? Was she, like, harboring secret feelings for women?’ I was like, ‘No, absolutely not. She asked me out on a date’ and they were like, ‘Wait—what!? She asked you on a date?'” And a resemblance of that same story is now in an episode of Master of None, when Denise says she’s getting vibes from her straight boss.

“I was like, ‘Yeah. I didn’t even know I was being asked on a date because I knew her prior to this as as straight woman. I thought we were just going to grab drinks.’ So I’m on a date I don’t even know I’m on and I’m thinking, ‘Am I getting vibes from this girl? Like what’ going on?'” Lena said. “Of course, later on I figured out she was trying to come home with me and I didn’t know that, and so of course as soon as I found out, I turned up the volume and turned on the charm and then of course, here we are, living happily ever after.”