Lena Waithe on ‘Atlanta’s’ Emmys Snub, More ‘Master of None’ and the Moment She’ll ‘Never Forget’

Lena Waithe Power of Women
Joe Pugliese for Variety

Lena Waithe shot to fame with the groundbreaking “Thanksgiving” installment of “Master of None,” for which she won an Emmy Award for best writing for a comedy series.

That was just the beginning of what the multi-hyphenate — and Variety Power of Women honoree — wants to create. “I want to be bigger than one episode of television,” says Waithe. “I don’t think people have really gotten a sense of even what I have to offer yet.”

Indeed after a year that saw the launch of her Showtime drama “The Chi” alongside an acting role in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” her slate is now jam-packed with projects behind and in front of the camera: writing scripts for “Boomerang” for BET (which she’s producing with Halle Berry), casting the film “Queen and Slim,” which will be directed by Melina Matsoukas, prepping season two of “The Chi,” launching “Them,” a new horror anthology series which just got a two-season order from Amazon, and shooting the pilot for her long-gestating “Twenties” for TBS.  “TBS is aware if you don’t give me a series order, I’m just going to go out into the world and just show the pilot on my freaking iPad at this point,” she says.

She’s clearly not resting on her laurels. Here, she tells Variety what more we can expect from her, what she thought of this year’s Emmys, and the moment she’ll never forget.

What kind of stories do you want to put out into the world?

I want to tell really flawed stories about people that are trying to figure it out. Those people happen to be people of color sometimes. They sometimes can be queer. A lot of times they’re women. As an artist and as a writer, I think people can see this in my work, I’m working through my own stuff. … I don’t know any other way to work through things. And so I’m always working through my stuff through characters that I’ve created, whether it be Denise [on “Master of None”], the lead character, Hattie, on “Twenties” is obviously a version of myself. And with “Queen and Slim,” there’s so much of me in both of those characters, and that’s a heterosexual love story that I’m telling. Luckily I haven’t got any backlash, and who knows when the movie comes out, there may be somewhere the queer black community may say, “Why didn’t you make it a gay couple?”… I can tell that story just as well as I can tell a queer love story. I tell queer stories as well, but I also want to be able to tell heterosexual love stories because I know what they all are saying.

What did you think of this year’s Emmys? 

Here’s the truth: I think nominations are cool. Wins are cooler. I’m grateful for all the diverse nominees, but it doesn’t mean anything if you have us there to watch a bunch of people that we’ve seen run this town go up there and continue to win trophies. Now, that’s not to take away from the people that won Emmys. I wouldn’t want anyone to take away from my win. It’s all very subjective, but I do feel it was a reminder of who runs the town, who runs the business, and who is in charge.

Look, I don’t have anything against “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I wrote a little joke about it on my Instagram, but for it to win that many things, and for there to be so many diverse stories…This is my humble opinion. The second season of “Atlanta” was one of the most phenomenal seasons of television I’ve ever witnessed. That’s Lena Waithe’s opinion. Now, the Academy can do what it wants, but I think it can be a little disheartening when you see something so artful, and so brave, and so groundbreaking, and for it not be rewarded can be disappointing. That’s all I will say. I’ll leave it there.

How do you change the conversation? 

I think it’s just a reminder that we obviously have a lot more work to do, but I think to me, when it boils down to it, it’s not about that for a lot of people. As wonderful and amazing as it is, Donald didn’t write, and his team didn’t produce, such a phenomenal season of work to win Emmys. They produced it because it was in their spirit and they had to get it out, and because they knew that the culture needed that. Especially for me with “Thanksgiving,” that was a story that we decided to tell, and we thought it would be cool, and then it took on a life of its own. I always say, “I don’t have control over how people receive my art.” I have no control over that. I don’t concern myself with it.

The awards and all that kind of stuff is icing, but it’s not the goal. Whether the conversation changes or not, “Atlanta” has already affected us in so many ways. We still talk about it, we’re still haunted by it. And some little black kid in Detroit who watches it and sees themselves doesn’t care if it won an Emmy or not. They just know that there’s an artist out there that sees them, and understands them, and knows who they are. That is award enough because when we don’t see ourselves in a real way, we start to feel invisible. That’s the difference between just putting black people on TV, and putting us on TV in a way that is honest, and raw, and real.

How much pressure do you feel to keep delivering?

I always say when you put pressure on coal, you get a diamond. I’m never afraid of pressure. I thrive on it. I like it. To me, players play their best when the clock is winding down, and it’s about to be halftime because you want to get in as many points as you can before you break. If there’s a pressure on me, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to fight. I’m going to swing. I think we’re also used to that. With Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, Serena, Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry. We’ve always had the pressure to rise up and to be amazing, even in the midst of adversity. We don’t have a choice. We have to always be great, but that’s just what goes with the melanin that’s in our skin.

What I like to do or part of my brand, I want it to be kindness, I want it to be generosity, I want it to be noble, and I think everybody doesn’t have that. In this town, there’s this weird theory that oh you have to be this miserable, crazed, psychotic person to make something great. Now mind you we have some crazy people that make great s–t, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want that to be my legacy. I want people to say, she made good s–t and she was a good person while making it.

I think Donald’s in that space too. He’s like “I don’t give a shit, I’m just gonna do shit.” I’ve said this many times, we’re living in a Renaissance right now. I see it at a Janelle Monae concert or watching “Random Acts of Flyness,” or watching that new HBO comedy special with Drew Michael directed by Jerrod Carmichael. He is operating on a completely different playing field. It’s a stand-up comedy special with no audience. It’s phenomenal. It was a little uncomfortable … but without the laugh track, it’s like one long stream of consciousness.

You’ve also seized a few moments of your own, like the Met Gala.

Look, it could’ve went the other way. I’m really grateful to Carolina Herrera for going with me. They had shown me patterns of different shades of the same color on the cape—different shades of blue, different shades of red. And I said, “Can we try a rainbow?” It was a risk, we didn’t know how people would receive it but when I put it on, I was like, “Oh this feels right, this feels good, I don’t care what people say.”

When I got inside [after the red carpet], I looked at my phone, and I was like, “Oh we did it!” I was grateful but also I didn’t care what people thought. That’s the moment I wanted to have. I wanted to bring my community with me to that place, because I know what that invitation means, and I wanted us all to be there and we got to be, for a night. I’m grateful that people embraced it and it meant something to so many people. Because I’ll never forget it. Ever.

Lazy loaded image
Joe Pugliese for Variety

Are there other doors that you still want to open?

I think I want to just continue to challenge the status quo. I think I want to keep going to awards shows in f–king tuxedos and a short haircut, no makeup, and standing proud. I think also I want to challenge storytelling, I’m trying to do that a little bit with “Queen and Slim.” I want to tell stories that make you go “Have you seen that thing? Have you seen it? Let’s talk about it.” That’s what “Killing Eve” did for me, that’s what the second season of “Atlanta” does for me, “Handmaid’s Tale” does for me, that’s what “Forever” does. I like things that challenge the way my brain works. That’s what the Drew Michael thing did for me, ’cause I didn’t know what to expect, I knew it was gonna be different, but it challenged me. It revolutionized stand-up comedy, just by standing up and doing it with no audience.

Kanye’s last concert — where the stage is elevated, the audience is underneath the stage, so what he’s done, is he’s incorporated the audience into performance art because what you’re watching are these kids, literally looking up and worshiping him on the stage. Because when you stand back, they no longer are just the audience, but they are part of the performance, they are part of his narrative. He’s like, this worship mentality that we have is problematic, but I’m the one being worshiped. That to me is so interesting and unique and fresh, and I can stand back and look at that and go, OK, I see what he’s doing. His visual is this audience is a part of the experience, they don’t even realize it, or maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

Do you think we’ll see another season of “Master of None”?

I have no idea. I get this question a lot, people love that show. It touched a nerve with people and I think it was an honor to be a part of something like that. We had great success, for the first two seasons to win the Emmy for writing is phenomenal and not lost on us. It’s up to Alan and Aziz, that’s their show, that’s their baby, Alan has obviously gone off and done great things and wants to spread his wings. Aziz, I think he’s sort of grown so much this past year, and I know he’s been traveling, I think he’s started to do stand up again in New York. It’s funny because when we do speak, we don’t talk about “Master of None,” it never really comes up. But he definitely wants to work together again. I don’t know what that would be, and we talk loosely about it. But I would love at some point for us all to come back together. We might be like the diverse “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where five years from now, Aziz might say “Hey guys, let’s do something” and I can’t imagine any of us saying no. We would all come together, and I think it would be really special.

We are just coming up on the one year anniversary of the Time’s Up movement. How has this year felt for you? Did anything actually change?

It feels like the patriarchy is nervous, and that’s good. Because when someone is in power for too long, they become villains, and so I think we need some new bodies on the throne. It’s like “Game of Thrones.” But we’ve got to make sure that the new people who are stepping into these roles respect the throne. And don’t use it for their own financial gain, they don’t use it for their own ego stroking, but they decide to empower. This is not the Supreme Court. This is a business that is ever changing. The business has to change with the world. And the business should reflect the world in which we live. A bunch of white guys sitting in chairs of power for a long time did reflect the world in which we lived.