Lena Waithe has been living a whirlwind in the past six months, going from a relatively unknown supporting actor on Netflix’s Master of None to Emmy winner to Vanity Fair's latest cover star. Now, she's making her big-screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the movie adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel about a raggedy group of young people saving the world (both real and virtual) from corporate takeover. "How crazy is that?" Waithe asked MTV News at a recent press day for the movie.
As it turns out, it’s not crazy. Far from an overnight success, Waithe has been working toward this moment almost her entire life.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the writer, producer, and actress decided at just 7 years old that she wanted to be a television writer. Soaking in as much knowledge as she could, she held onto that dream until 2006, when she moved to Los Angeles. Over the next decade, she assisted a pre-Selma Ava DuVernay and worked her way into the writers room for Fox crime drama Bones.
In 2015, the world was formally introduced to Waithe when she appeared as Denise in Master of None, a role that was completely changed from an eventual love interest for lead Dev (Aziz Ansari) to a lesbian confidante who mimics Waithe's real-life being as a queer, black woman. Finally, earlier this year, Waithe saw her first 'created by' credit with the premiere of Showtime’s The Chi, a show about her oft-misunderstood hometown that she actually penned four years ago.
"I think patience is extremely important, especially for anybody who wants to be in this business. Sometimes people, you know, write a script and go, 'Where’s my million bucks?' The truth is, this is a lot of time and energy you gotta put into it," Waithe said. "You gotta fall down a few times before you learn to walk, and then you start to run."
Even though Waithe has found her stride — so much so that she's actively seeking young talent to lift up and mentor — she knows that her work isn't done yet. "I continue to be a student. I learn from people every day," she said, citing everyone from her assistant to Spielberg as her day-to-day teachers. "There's places of inspiration everywhere, and so my thing is to always be authentic and be myself and put in the work."
Her desire to learn was the real reason that scoring a role in Ready Player One was such a treat. “I got to kind of watch Steven at work, and he really is a master,” she marveled. “He’s really just fun to watch because he also just has a wonderful time directing and doing what he does.”
It also didn’t hurt that her character, Aech — a "masculine-presenting" lesbian in the real world (“not unlike” herself, she said) with a male avatar in the virtual Oasis — has a particular relevance to our current culture, honing in on the idea that "when women want to be treated equally, be a man."
Still, whatever your gender, the real key, said Waithe, is confidence in yourself. "The thing about some men is that they're raised just to have confidence and to not second-guess themselves, and so I was raised to have confidence and not second-guess myself, so if that's acting like a man, then so be it, but in essence, I'm acting like myself," she said. "And I think that more little girls should be taught to have the confidence that most guys have and the world will be a much better place."
For more of Waithe's wisdom, watch her interview above. Ready Player One hits theaters Thursday, March 29.