Lena Waithe on How to Take the Pressure Off Your Auditions

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Just because Lena Waithe considers herself first and foremost a writer-producer doesn’t mean she has no advice for actors—on the contrary, her experience on both sides of the audition room table gives her invaluable insights. The “Master of None” Emmy winner has auditioned for Steven Spielberg (successfully) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (unsuccessfully), and had a hand in casting her projects “Queen & Slim,” “Boomerang,” “Twenties,” and more. Read on for Waithe’s thoughts on the audition process, how Hollywood has changed for Black artists in the last decade, and her gold-standard onscreen performance. 

What’s one performance you think every actor should see, and why?
I’m definitely gonna pick an Angela Bassett performance, because I think she’s still very underrated…. I would say “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Just because it’s such a harrowing performance [as Tina Turner], and she’s so transformative. You feel everything. You’re just with her the whole time. And it just knocks you out every time you watch it because she doesn’t leave anything on the floor; she just lays it all out. It’s a beautiful way of honoring someone else’s life, too. She’s so amazing. And I would say that even if she didn’t play my mom [on “Master of None”]. You know, I had that connection to her before that. I think that’s why we had such a unique chemistry because it’s as if we’d known each other. That’s what I told her: “I feel like I know you.”

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I think I got that from “Master of None.” Because I don’t think I earned it with “The Comeback.” Yeah, “Master of None,” for sure. And it was Allison Jones who cast me in [both shows]!

Let’s talk audition prep. Have you gone through that process often, or are you mostly on the other side of the audition room table?
I’ve definitely auditioned! It was funny, because someone was teasing me and saying, “Oh, you don’t really audition.” I auditioned for “Ready Player One”; it was those amazing casting directors who had obviously worked with Spielberg before. I love casting directors. I definitely respect them and what they do. It was super scary. But he wasn’t in the room, by the way. And then I had a callback and they really helped me. They were like, “OK, it’s big. It’s over the top, do this.” 

But I could tell that I had hooked the part before I even opened my mouth. Because of the way I walked in the room and how the energy shifted, I could feel it. Maybe because I’d been on the other side of auditions before, by that point…. You can just feel it, you can feel it! They were almost looking at me like, “Where have you been? What is this? What’s going on?” Without them saying anything, there was just an immediate connection. I was like, this is a cool energy. 

Do you have an audition horror story you could share with us
I auditioned for Allison [Jones]—actually with Julia Louis-Dreyfus—for a role on “Veep.” And I definitely didn’t get it because I jacked up that audition! I didn’t know Julia was gonna be reading with me. And I remember being so frustrated with Allison. I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me that she was gonna be in the room?” But I think Allison’s probably like, “What? Yeah, of course she’s gonna be in there.” But it was so many people, I just completely botched that.... I’m not, like, classically trained, as they would say. And I just was really nervous and freaked out.

Have you ever done anything crazy to book a role?
I’ve never been in that position. No, I haven’t done anything crazy.

Is that partly because working on a bunch of other projects makes auditioning easier? So you don’t feel pressure auditioning for Spielberg, for example? 
I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel a major pressure for Spielberg. I thought it was a fun thing to do. Like, yeah, of course, I’ll go audition for this thing. The thing is, I’m a fan of this stuff. I’m a fan of movies, I’m a fan of television. So for me, it’s exciting. 

I’m coming as a writer first; I have that element as well. And also, I’d auditioned people. I’d worked on “Dear White People” as a producer before all these things, and Justin [Simien] let me sit in on the audition process. So I know what it’s like. That’s what’s been helpful for me, to be able to see things from many different perspectives and to have empathy for everyone’s job and what they do and what they bring to it. And I have a ton more empathy for actors now, having done this season of “Master of None,” even though I had it before. Because I know how vulnerable a position they have to put themselves in every time they walk onto set.

But, yeah, I think because I do a bunch of other stuff—it’s true, [acting is] not my bread and butter. It’s something that if I get to go do it, I do try to really show up. Even on “Westworld,” I wanted to make sure I wasn’t half-stepping; I’m in scenes with Aaron [Paul] and Evan [Rachel Wood], and my guy Marshawn [Lynch]. And so we gotta make sure that it’s just right. I look at it as like a piece of art that I want to make sure I’m doing my part in. 

This question is interesting, given that Hattie in “Twenties” is a character inspired by your own story of breaking into Hollywood: What is the advice you would give your younger self?
Well, Hattie is not me because she’s coming into the business at a time that I would never have understood. By the way, before, we were gonna do it where you went back to 2008 when I came out [to Hollywood], to show that difference. Because I kept telling people, “This will be the least autobiographical thing I’ll ever do, because she’s walking into a business that I didn’t walk into.”

For Black creatives, walking into the business post-“Get Out,” post-“Dear White People,” post-“Moonlight” winning the Oscar, it’s a very different industry. Sometimes it takes a couple movies. “Moonlight” did the thing that “Do the Right Thing” and “Boyz n the Hood” couldn’t do before it. It really permeated through and got that win. “Get Out” got an Oscar win and also did a huge box office and became really seeped into the culture and the zeitgeist. That’s when the industry started to go, “Wait a minute, there’s something to these Black stories here!” [Laughs] Because what happened was, you couldn’t mimic it. You couldn’t duplicate Jordan Peele, you couldn’t duplicate Barry Jenkins, you couldn’t duplicate Justin Simien, you couldn’t duplicate Issa Rae. So the industry realized, “Oh, we got to go talk to these cats. We got to go hear from them.”

So that’s the world that Hattie’s walking into. She has that classic line, “I’m Black and I’m gay, Hollywood should be knocking down my door.” And there’s a level of the new generation that feels that way, you know? They’re like, I got a story to tell! Versus me [in 2008] being like, “Hey, can I tell y’all a story?” There’s a difference.... But what I always say is, craft is first. Craft, craft, craft. That, you can never get away from.

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