When I was a kid, I wanted to be Whitney Houston when I grew up. For sure. If not Whitney, definitely Whitney’s backup singer. That was it. I’d be her backup singer. If not a backup singer, a cardiologist. Yes. I could fix children’s hearts. If not a cardiologist, maybe a senator. I could see myself in Congress. If not that, my fallback would be a pastor. Why not?
I was all over the place. While I came out of college with a bit more clarity (Whitney was in her drugs phase by then, so that helped rule out that option…), it still took me years to figure out exactly who and what I wanted to be in the world. But Lena Waithe knew from the moment she watched television that she wanted to write for television. That was her childhood dream. Now she’s living it to the fullest.
Lena is a writer, producer and actor whose original, hour-long drama, The Chi, is being executive produced by Common and was just greenlit by Showtime. You may have already seen her as the breakout star on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, where she played Dev’s cool best friend, Denise. She was also a producer on the award-winning film Dear White People.
Needless to say, Lena is on a roll. She does it all for one reason: to tell stories that can touch and inspire little black girls who grew up where she grew up. To her, “There is nothing else. Writing and telling stories. It’s the reason why I was put on this planet.”
In our conversation, she gives so much advice about the industry, but also about methodically climbing a ladder and achieving your goals, one by one. How great would it be if we could all pursue our dreams — ahem, whenever we clarify them — with the same single-minded passion and commitment? I’m pretty sure we’d all be breaking barriers and knocking down doors just like Lena.
Listen to the podcast above, and head below for an excerpt from our conversation.
Erica: Tell me a lesson that one of your mentors has taught or shown you. Not about the business side, but about Lena. About who Lena needs to be to pursue her calling.
Lena: This is super-simple advice, but, “Be great.” Always be great. It’s vague, [but] I’ve never forgotten it. Greatness can’t be denied, it just can’t…If you are always striving for greatness — whether it be your love life, personal life or your professional life — that is going to keep you above the fray. It’s hard to separate; my professional life is such a huge part of who I am. So being great at that makes me a better person in my life. I want to be the best version that I can be of myself, to be a great producer, to be a really great writer. It’s like the gym for athletes.
Erica: What gets dropped most often, though? Because we’re all juggling…
Lena: You know, I’m not great about calling my friends just to say “hey.” My girlfriend, though, that’s always top priority…Friends have to understand that you have to make sacrifices. Hopefully, if you have a really good village, they get it. And when you do spend the time, it’s quality.
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.