‘The Chi’ Creator Lena Waithe: Inclusive Casting Changed My Writing and My Life — Toolkit Podcast

Waithe shares a funny story about testing for “Master of None” and her advice to actors auditioning when "the safe choices aren't happening anymore."
Lena Waithe
Lena Waithe
Jim Smeal/REX/Shutterstock

The Chi” creator Lena Waithe moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of writing for television. Never did Waithe — who recently played a major supporting role in “Ready Player One” and was first put on Hollywood’s radar with her role in “Master of None” — aspire to be a performer.

“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,” said Waithe when she was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. Waithe credits casting director Allison Jones for giving her the unexpected break, which she believes is a great example of why diversity hiring works. “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.”

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After winning an Emmy for penning the “Master of None” script in which her character, Denise, comes out to her family, industry doors started to open for Waithe’s considerable talent as writer with an Emmy-contending series on Showtime (“The Chi”) and a number of shows and movies far along in the development process. Yet the lessons she took from being on the other side of the casting process informed her collaboration with casting director Carmen Cuba (“The Florida Project”).

“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,” said Waithe. “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.”

For example, Cuba introducing Waithe to actor Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine made her see the Ronnie character as being older than she’d originally planned, while considering Jason Mitchell for Brandon – conceived as being reserved, tall and handsome, but became a more open, funny and light-hearted character – opened up new story possibilities. While Waithe acknowledges that there are always roles that require a trained actor to morph, her advice to actors going out for auditions is to be more themselves.

The Chi Jason Mitchell Season 1
Jason Mitchell in “The Chi”Parrish Lewis / Showtime

“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,” said Waithe. “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.'”

Not only does “The Chi” creator believe that this advice can open more doors to performers, but that trying to bend to a preconceived notion of a character is how stereotypes get ingrained and archetypes created. Waithe points to when she tested for NBC/Universal and Netflix for “Master of None” — creatives present a production studio and network two or three casting options to sign off on — as to how the industry is changing along these lines.

“So I go in for the test looking the way I do —I think I had on a Bulls t-shirt, jeans, whatever — and you have to wait with the person that you are testing with, which is also odd,” said Waithe. “The person I’m sitting with could not be more lily white, or more heterosexual, and she’s looking at me — because that’s the other thing too, the person you are testing is often a carbon copy of yourself because there’s a type — so she’s sitting next to me and I’m looking at her and this is my first test, I’d never really gone out for anything like this. This is probably her hundredth, and she’s like, ‘We go out for all the same stuff all the time.’ She made the joke, because I was like, ‘This is really weird.'”

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe, "Master of None"
Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe, “Master of None”Netflix

Waithe believes Ansari, Yang, and executive producer Michael Schur very intentionally broke the mold and strategically presented two very different options for Denise.

“I think what they were trying to say is you can try to be different and unique and off-the-beaten path, or we can go with what people expect us to go with – this cute white girl – and have her in the mix and the show will be fine, but we have an opportunity to do something really cool if we go with this route,” said Waithe. “I think what they did – and excuse the pun – it couldn’t be more black and white: Here’s what we’re trying to do and and here’s what we’ve always done, so the choice is yours. You want to do something fresh and cool and interesting, or do you want to do something that feels safe and commercial.

To Waithe, the fact that her version of Denise won out is no longer an aberration: “I think to me that is a great representation of what the industry has become. The safe choices aren’t happening anymore.”

While on the podcast, Waite also talked about how “The Chi” pilot director Rick Fukuyama unlocked her vision, plans for Season 2, and how not being the showrunner of the series she created opened so many other creative opportunities for her.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

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