“If someone was going to tell me I was going to be on a Netflix show or Spielberg movie, I would never have believed them” – Lena Waithe
Lena Waithe has had a very strange — but entirely welcome — career trajectory. Waithe always intended to be a writer, yet has appeared as an actress in Transparent, Master of None, and Ready Player One after establishing herself as a writer on shows like Bones. Now, Waithe has created a Showtime series, The Chi. While appearing on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Waithe spoke about how casting directors introduced her to acting and what she learned from the experience.
“If someone was going to tell me I was going to be on a Netflix show or Spielberg movie, I would never have believed them,” Waithe says.
So how did Waithe end up in front of the camera? She points at Master of None casting director Allison Jones for making it happen. She explains, “The thing with the casting situation with Master of None was unique because [creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari] said, ‘Just send us interesting people before we start reading folks.’ I’m just thankful that [Allison] thought of me as one of those interesting people and sent me to his house and my whole life changed.”
Waithe also gives credit to another casting director, two-time Emmy Award-winner Carmen Cuba, for her assistance with making The Chi so successful. Waithe says, “With Carmen, I always joke that she is sort of the co-writer of [The Chi] pilot because her choices for the casting really affected the way I adjusted the script. I think it’s good to have casting directors that don’t have a list: ‘Here’s my list for young, hot black girl. Here’s my list for older, debonair white guy.’… [T]hose casting directors that send you an overweight black dude for your romantic lead [are] awesome, because it’s like, ‘Oh, ha, that’s interesting, I didn’t think of it that way, but now I am and want to change everything about this script.’ A great casting director is making you want to do rewrites.'”
In fact, Waithe’s advice to actors going on an audition is to understand that what makes you unique might be the missing “it factor” that the casting directors and creators might not know that they’re missing. She reveals, “Bring whatever you have to the role, rather than trying to fit into whatever that role is because you are going to be like everybody else that come in for the role that day and you aren’t going to stand out. For Aziz and Alan, they were like, ‘We kind of like your take on what this is, because you obviously aren’t straight, you’re obviously not this straighted-laced girl, but there’s something interesting about the fact that you aren’t any of those things and we now want to change the character.'”