Chicagoan Lena Waithe plays herself (sort of) in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series
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A lot is going on for South Side native Lena Waithe, as she co-stars in Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix comedy series “Master of None,” and oversees a drama pilot for Showtime — with fellow Chicagoan Common serving both as another executive producer and composer of the music for the proposed series.
The 31-year-old writer-producer and actress phoned earlier this week to chat about her fast-rising Hollywood career. Waithe’s highest profile film to date has been last year’s “Dear White People,” and she worked as a writer on such TV shows as “Bones” on Fox and “Hello Cupid” online.
For Waithe, the connection with Ansari, who gained fame as the self-absorbed Tom Haverford on the long-running “Parks and Recreation,” has “really been a dream come true.” The actress said that she’s happy the full first season of “Master of None” will be coming out Friday (with Netflix subscribers able to binge-watch all 10 episodes) because “people will get to see he’s a lot sweeter on this show, as opposed to what they’re used to seeing on ‘Parks and Rec.’ The funny thing is, I play Aziz’s character Dev’s best friend on the show — and that is not a hard thing to do.
“He is so well-mannered, both on the show and in real life. He’s kind of an old soul. He’s such a gentleman, always going around opening doors for women and being so polite. But it’s totally genuine and just who he is. Aziz has a very strict moral code. He is very much a gentleman, which is something that seems old hat these days, because so many people aren’t like that.”
While the show is very autobiographical for Ansari, who plays a indecisive New York actor, Waithe laughed heartily as she described how it came about for her to be part of the “Master of None” team.
“Originally, I think the character of Denise was supposed to be this white, straight girl, and here I am — an African-American lesbian woman. But Aziz and I clicked right away and developed this interesting bond. We had great chemistry right from the start. So he and [fellow executive producers] Alan Yang and Michael Schur decided to just make this character of Denise more like Lena!
“I feel like I was playing a heightened version of myself, which was sort of fun and cool.”
After spending her early years on Chicago’s South Side, “we moved up to Evanston, when it came time for me to go to junior high, because my mom wasn’t super-happy with the choice of schools in our area,” said Waithe. After graduating from Evanston Township High School, Waithe moved back into the city to attend Columbia College. “So I’m literally from all over the area,” she said. “I’m a true Chicago girl through and through.”
Besides “Master of None,” Waithe is also excited about her pilot, so far unnamed, that she hopes will eventually be turned into a full series on Showtime. The series would be a drama pilot “about Chicago and what’s happening in the city right now — unfortunately including all the gun violence that’s running rampant.”
She can’t believe her luck in signing on an Oscar-winning Chicago rapper. “Common brings such authenticity to the project, and he obviously really cared a lot about it. He was on the set almost every day and we got the chance to talk about so much — life, love, music, the city.”
This is a new experience for Waithe — “writing drama, that is. My background is mostly comedy, so this is great to be giving this opportunity.”
Before we hung up, Waithe wanted to mention another “lucky, lucky thing about this Chicago pilot. Clark Johnson directed it. He directed the pilots for ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Shield’ — that’s a pretty impressive resume! He embraced our city and shot it beautifully.”