Lena Waithe says she moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2006 knowing she wanted to conquer it. And with 22 projects in active development with some of the biggest names in the business—including Amazon, BET, Disney, HBO, Netflix, Showtime and Universal—as well as a star-making turn on the Netflix series Master of None, which earned her an Emmy, she’s arguably done just that.
Season 3 of The Chi, a drama Waithe created for Showtime about the South Side of Chicago, is now in production. She did a food tour of L.A. with David Chang for his new Netflix limited series Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, premiering Oct. 23 (the show also features Chrissy Teigen and Kate McKinnon). And next month, she’s bringing her talents to the big screen with the film Queen & Slim, for which she penned the screenplay (it’s based on a story she wrote with author James Frey). The movie, about what happens to a couple on a first date after they get pulled over by the police, stars Jodie Turner-Smith and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya in the title roles.
Adweek caught up with Waithe to talk about her career, her adopted hometown, why she thinks creators have to be marketers too and more. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Adweek: You once said, “I was born a television writer, I’ll die a television writer.” Why is TV writing so important to you?
Lena Waithe: I definitely said that a long time ago, and as I’ve grown and evolved as an artist, I realized that is a very singular way of looking at myself. I think for me, television writing is my first love. It’s the thing that got me into this business, and it’s the thing that I do, I think, you know, very well.
I’ve tried my hand at other things. I tried my hand at directing. I didn’t love it. People all the time ask, “When are you directing a movie?” And I’m like, “Never. I don’t want to direct.” So I’m just really trying to stay in the lane that I know how to drive in, and television writing is that.
With Queen & Slim, why I’m both excited and nervous, is that it’s the first feature I’ve written that really took people by surprise, and the industry really responded to it. And, you know, I really was writing it during the first season of The Chi, funny enough, because that was my first show and I didn’t … have a lot of agency to really get that involved in terms of writing because I had a showrunner that really wanted to take the reins and do the bulk of the writing. So I had some time on my hands. That’s the truth. I was able to write Queen & Slim as a way of sort of rebelling and as a way to be free again, you know? As a way to say, “No, I know how to write, and I’m going to prove that.” But, yes, I consider myself a television writer before all else. I’m a television writer, then I’m a producer and then I’m an actor, you know?
It’s only been two years since Master of None, and you already have so many projects in the works. Can you talk about how you keep that pace going and continue to breathe life into all of these characters?
I think the biggest thing for me is to continue to collaborate with people and to bring in new voices—because what’ll happen if you’re siloed [is that] you repeat [yourself]. And I even see that in my own work. I’m like, “Oh, my god … ” There’s this thing that I do with the word touché. Like I always love to have a character make a point and say, “Touché.” Or like [author and motivational speaker] DeVon Franklin’s philosophy about celibacy—that sometimes finds its way into people’s mouths because I’m fascinated by that.
So it is very important that I keep fresh voices, newer voices, younger voices, voices that come from a different place than I do—to keep them around and to keep inviting them to the table because I need those perspectives. If the only perspective I’m celebrating is my own, then my work is going to be very limited because, you know, my experiences are my experiences.
According to IMDb, you got your start in Hollywood on the show Girlfriends, which centered on the friendships and relationships of a group of African-American women, as an assistant to the executive producer. What was that like?
That experience was very valuable because it was my first job on a scripted television show, and it was a television show that I was a fan of that I watched and I was familiar with and I loved, so to be on that, to go from watching that show to being in the offices of the writers, it was nuts. It was nuts to me. It was like making it to the Emerald City.
Let’s talk about some specific projects—particularly your upcoming work for Amazon Studios: Is there a difference between what you do when you’re working on something for an Amazon or a Netflix versus what you’re doing for a Showtime or a BET?
The truth is, I want to create something great no matter where I am or what the platform is. But every platform is different. Like, Showtime has a different sensibility than Amazon; Amazon has a different sensibility than Netflix. And all of them have a very different sensibility than BET. You know, BET kind of lets me run free. They’re like, “Do whatever you want,” and I’m like, “Oh, thank you. I love you guys.” Because that’s the relationship I have with them … they’re like, “You’ve proven to us that you know what the fuck you’re doing.” But I also got to give Showtime credit. … They’ve always had my back and they’ve always supported me.
I now have an overall television [deal] with [Amazon] for two years, so we’re kind of married now. I think it’s like any marriage: You feel each other out, and you figure out what you need from each other. And so far it’s been pretty, pretty lovely.
Former Amazon Studios marketing head Mike Benson mentioned that in terms of marketing, there’s so much for consumers to watch on so many different platforms and so that’s why he does a lot of experiential stuff. I was curious if that’s something you think about as a creator, too.
I think any writer or creator that doesn’t think about the marketing side will fail. You have to. Because the truth is, and I know I’m not alone in this, there’s so many amazing movies or TV shows that are just phenomenal, and these places don’t know how to sell them. They don’t know how to present them. They don’t know how to market them to the audience. And I think a smart marketing campaign can make the difference between a success and a bomb.
I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been around people like [writer, producer and director] Ava DuVernay. I’ve been around people like Justin Simien. Justin Simien started out in publicity [at Paramount], and just learning from both of them about being creative, about being bold, about being—not just being in someone’s face. You know, it’s not just about a bunch of billboards, but about what kind of billboards are you presenting, what is the message, what are you saying to people about this movie, this TV show?
Since you’re working with Amazon, I wanted to ask: Are you a Prime member? And what is the one thing you order most frequently?
Oh, my god. We have been Amazon Prime members long before, like, it was even doing original programming. … Me and my lady [fiancée Alana Mayo, who heads production and development at Michael B. Jordan’s production company, Outlier Society] actually have a bit that we do because every day she’s like, “Did you see my Amazon box? Check the mail for my Amazon box.” She just orders stuff all the time. … I mostly use it for, like, house supplies, things like that.
I read that your upcoming BET comedy series Twenties is loosely based on your own experiences in your 20s in L.A. What was your first impression of L.A. when you arrived as a fresh-faced 20-something?
It was definitely a bit of a culture shock because I’d only known and lived in one city, which is Chicago. The other [connection] I have with a city is my father’s side is from Boston. Those two cities are just very kind of like gritty. The winters are not kind. So it was a big shift in terms of the weather, in terms of the size, in terms of the energy, the freeways. I was very overwhelmed and a little intimidated. But I also kind of came to this city knowing that I wanted to conquer it. That’s all I knew. I was like, I want to conquer this town. And I’m still in the process of doing that. Somebody could argue I have, but I don’t think so.
You’ve said L.A. really helped turn you into the artist that you are today. How so? And how does L.A. continue to inform your work now?
Oh, well, it definitely had a big impact on who I became as a writer. I went to Columbia College in Chicago, where I studied writing and the producing of television. There wasn’t that much production in Chicago as there is now. In L.A., I got a chance to literally work in the business and get to have mentors and bosses—like [writer, producer and director] Gina Prince-Bythewood, like [writer and producer] Mara Brock Akil, like Ava DuVernay—and be around them and learn from them.
And also there’s just something really important about building an artists’ community, which I didn’t really have in Chicago. What I found when I moved to L.A. was that my friends were doing the same thing I wanted to do. We were all chasing a similar dream. And that made it much easier when things got tough. I remember seeing Issa [Rae, creator and star of HBO’s Insecure] doing her thing, and meeting Donald Glover before Atlanta came out. Like, we were all in Los Angeles trying to find our way and also trying to find our voices. I think people sometimes don’t think of L.A. as like an artist community, but it really is.
You’ve done so much already—do you still have a dream project? Or does the bar keep moving?
I think the bar definitely keeps moving. I’m working on a couple of dream projects I can’t [talk about] yet. I hope they come out as great as I imagine.