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Lena Waithe on Casting Big Sean for BET Series ‘Twenties’: ‘He’s Phenomenal, So Natural’

Lena Waithe will helm a new television series called “Twenties,” set to premiere in 2020 on BET Networks. The actress, screenwriter, and producer is executive producer on the half-hour comedy, which depicts a group of friends in their twenties trying to navigate careers, love and relationships, and life in general. Loosely based on Waithe’s own experiences in Los Angeles, the eight-episode series stars “JoJo” T. Gibbs, Christina Elmore, Gabrielle Graham, Sophina Brown and Big Sean.

“It really is a figment of my imagination,” Waithe tells Variety of the storyline. “But I’m pulling little things about my drive, my hunger, and the frustrations that come with the business [that can be relatable to anyone].”

In terms of the cast, Waithe discovered Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs, who plays Hattie, because she was actually interested in funding her web series titled “No More Comics In LA.” As Gibbs recounts: “We were doing a crowdfunding campaign for my web series. We hit up Lena, she donated to the campaign and asked, ‘What are you trying to do? Are you trying to act? Are you trying to write? Are you trying to do comedy?’ I’m like, ‘I’m tryna do all of that! It was just divine timing!” Gibbs describes the show as “very funny and very relatable.”

“Twenties” also sees Big Sean making his acting debut as Tristan. It was after Waithe heard the Detroit rapper shout out her name during a concert that she reached out via social media. Eventually, the two met up and it was a wrap from there. Says Sean: “I love Lena because of her spirit and determination to win. She has an unstoppable hunger and in this industry, that’s what you need. It’s one of the qualities I see in myself. … She’s amazing for giving me my first chance to act and not playing myself, but actually playing a character. It’s something I take seriously.”

Waithe has achieved much in Hollywood, playing Denise on Netflix’s “Master of None,” for which she won an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series, and creating her own autobiographical series on Showtime titled “The Chi,” based on her experiences growing up in the South Side of Chicago.

Variety caught up with Waithe to discuss the genesis of “Twenties,” stanning for Big Sean and the pros and cons of technology.

You say you dreamed about this comedy series. How has the experience of filming been?
For us internally, we’re all very happy with what we’re getting. We have amazing directors, a fresh face cast, a wonderful team of writers. We have a phenomenal queer woman [as] our DP, who’s shooting all of it. BET has been really supportive with whatever we want to do creatively. No one’s given us any notes or putting us through a filter, it’s pure, real down-to-earth character stuff. Comedy, conflict, all the things you want to see in a TV show. It’s been a very wonderful experience.

Tell us about enlisting Big Sean for the cast. What’s he like as an actor?
Big Sean is a star. I was really flattered, he mentioned me [at one of his concerts]. I don’t think he knew this, but I’ve been a fan of his for a really long time. Always loved his music, always loved his craft. I messaged him and he was, like, “Yo, we should link up at some point.” He’s from Detroit, I’m from Chicago — we’re not Hollywood.

We ended up linking up in real life. I kicked it at his crib, we talked [and] got real with each other. He let me listen to music from his new album, which is amazing. I shared with him some of my experiences in the business. We really connected. There was a character, Tristan, we had written that made me think of him. I didn’t even make him read for it, I knew he’d be right. He’s in about three episodes and he’s phenomenal. He’s so natural. He’s so good. He’s easy on the eyes, as we all know. The ladies are going to get a kick out of watching him on screen.

And Jojo?
I was, like, “Yo, what are you trying to do?” She said, “I’m just trying to act.” I’m, like, “You can come audition for my show” — just for shits and giggles. She came, she read. I wasn’t there for her audition but the casting director called me immediately to [tell me] this girl is special. She killed it. She’s got a very unique vibe.” … TBS was a little on the fence about it so I had to fight for her to get in the pilot. The thing I said to get them to agree was, she’s basically me walking in to audition for “Master of None.” Is she green? Yes. Has she done this before? No. But look at me now. Sure enough, they saw the pilot and said, “She’s amazing. She’s brilliant.”

How about the rest of the cast? 
Christina Elmore, who plays Marie, the best friend, she’s a person who’s trained, who’s been in the business. She’s a pro on set, but doesn’t have a big head about it. Always very kind, sweet, gives advice. The other amazing actress Gabriel who plays Mia is amazing. She has such a unique cadence and interesting swag. The three of them together really make for a beautiful trio, and all came together very organically.

So much of “Twenties” is about technology, what are the pros and cons of being so connected these days?
The pros: it’s the only way I can keep up with people. I don’t go out as much because I’m so tired at the end of a long day. I’m always working or traveling. For me, I like social media because I can connect with people. I can talk to people, have real conversations. The cons are everybody has something to say, even if they don’t know anything about what they’re saying. That can be frustrating. I used to watch my favorite celebrities on TV be so pressured with the press. “This is not true!” Now, I’m in that space. I’m very blessed there’s not too many misconceptions about me out there, but there’s still narratives people don’t know the whole story about, or they’ll assume something about me that’s not true. That can be a con. Other than that, I think of it as a great thing. I love it. The people who follow me, whether it be on Twitter, Instagram or even Facebook, I’m always present. I like people’s comments. I respond to people. I retweet people. I hit people back in the DM. I really like to hear and talk to folks. As long as people are respectful, it’s all good.

Why set the show in L.A.?
Shit, this is where I moved to after I left Chicago. “The Chi” and “Twenties” are pretty much me. “The Chi” birthed me, but L.A. really helped make me into the artist that I am — the woman I am. It’s where I started writing good scripts; where I met my tribe; where I got my first TV gig; where I really learned how to be an adult. When you’re in your 20s, you’re still learning how to be an adult. It was a really critical time in my life, so I wouldn’t shoot it anywhere else.

What playlists are you listening to?
I’m listening to the Queen & Slim playlist right now which is available on Spotify — which is a little bit of trivia in that we created a playlist for a character. It’s quite dope and always makes me think of the movie. (“Queen & Slim” will be out November of this year.)

Who are the artists you’re into?
I love Big Sean — not just saying that; I love Miguel; Frank Ocean. Everybody knows I love Whitney Houston. I really love this new artist named Eryn Allen Kane. She’s a phenomenal singer who’s been blessed by Quincy Jones. Another singer I love is a queer black woman named Tiffany Gouche. She has a really dope album called “Pillow Talk” that’s one of my favorites. Then there’s Durand Bernarr, an amazing singer who kills it all the time; Andy Allo; Gavin Turek; Chika. It’s so crowded right now, but there’s singers out there really going in. Also they’re queer and brown. We should be listening to people who love like us and live like us.

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