In Conversation with Lena Waithe
Emmy Award-winning writer, actor, director, and producer Lena Waithe is a Hollywood powerhouse who expertly taps into emerging cultural sensibilities with a sharp wit and unique perspective, challenging audiences to think outside conventional norms. Lena engages audiences in a memorable conversation, sharing about her creative process, taste-making produceorial eye, and the importance of using your gifts to create opportunities for others.
Lena Waithe is an incredible storyteller and a Hollywood tastemaker
When LENA WAITHE stopped by the Harry Walker Agency recently for a virtual visit, our office was enthralled by the depth of her artistry and her commitment to amplifying the voices of others. Lena is no stranger to the red carpet, where she has dazzled in statement-making couture, or the awards podium – she is the first Black woman to win an Emmy Outstanding Writing for a comedy for Master of None, and has been lauded as an actor, writer, director, and producer – so the opportunity to hear Lena speak about what inspires her and fuels her passion in a more intimate conversation was exceptional. Lena is a consummate artist, immersing herself in her current projects, of which there are many: her ground-breaking production company Hillman Grad Productions, its Rising Voices Initiative, a $1.35M investment in BIPOC filmmakers and record label with Def Jam, an upcoming book imprint with Zando, and numerous films and television series. This prolific slate of projects speaks to Lena’s impeccable taste as a producer and enormous capacity to fall in love with a story, and she shared insights about her life and work that invited our audience to engage with our own capacity for inspiration and connection.
Beyond working as a creative at the top of her game, Lena is a masterful strategist. Relying on her definitive instincts, she views every project through the lens of possibility, asking what new voices she can help break into the industry and offer a platform to elevate their work. Trusting her instincts has made Lena a tastemaker, and she welcomed our questions about how she developed the courage to resist commercial pressures, learned to listen for the stories we haven’t heard yet, and came to rely on her superpowers – the things that make her different – to make work that is singular and celebrated. Remarkably, Lena doesn’t view herself as a force, but rather as a bridge; connecting artists to their big break is all part of her mission to center under-represented communities in the media. Lena imparts the process and values of creating a mission-driven foundation for your work, and wisdom about connecting to our own creative instincts, in conversations tailor-made for any audience.
Lena Waithe, Hollywood powerhouse: awards and projects keep coming
Groundbreaking Emmy Award-Winning writer, creator, producer, actor, and CEO LENA WAITHE is an industry game-changer leading a cultural revolution. She skyrocketed to celebrity with her work on Master of None, becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a comedy. In 2021, Lena was honored by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation with a Gracie Award for The Chi. A sought-after cultural commentator and innovator, Lena’s creative ventures are prolific and always center under-represented communities in media. She launched a new record label with Def Jam called Hillman Grad Records, penned a multi-project deal with Audible and sits on their advisory board, and formed a book imprint with Zando focusing on emerging voices. Lena’s production company Hillman Grad Productions has partnered with Indeed to launch Rising Voices, a $1M investment in BIPOC filmmakers. Lena and Hillman Grad Records produced Radha Blank’s film The Forty-Year-Old Version, which premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance 2020 Film Festival and won “Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic,” among numerous other accolades.
Lena expertly taps into emerging cultural sensibilities with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective and challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms. Her passion for supporting underrepresented creatives drives her work as a writer, producer, and inspires her fashion from her ode to sneaker culture in GQ to iconic appearances on the red carpet. An in-demand voice, Lena exudes effortless charm while refocusing every endeavor on values-driven, intentional choices in collaboration. When asked “what’s next?” Lena replies, “everything.”
Lena Waithe on being a game-changer
Groundbreaking Emmy Award-Winning writer, producer and actor LENA WAITHE is an industry game-changer who first made headlines in front of the camera as Denise, friend to Dev (Aziz Ansari) in the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Master of None. In a role that was originally intended for a straight, Caucasian female, Waithe made Denise’s experience as a queer black woman uniquely her own. She went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy for her writing for the show, becoming the first black woman to do so. In 2021, she won a Gracie Award from the Women in Media Foundation for Writer-Scripted Drama. She launched a new record label with Def Jam, called Hillman Grad Records, with the intention of developing new artists from underrepresented communities.
Waithe expertly taps into emerging cultural sensibilities with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective and challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms. An in-demand voice, she's been engaging in dynamic virtual conversations on Instagram Live, gave an ode to sneaker culture in GQ, was in a virtual conversation with Reese Witherspoon, participated in Graduating Together, the livestreamed graduation program headlined by Barack and Michelle Obama, and recently joined a diverse advisory board at Audible to help discover new talent.
Emmy®-winning writer, producer, actor, and founder Lena Waithe continues to lead the cultural revolution in Hollywood with creativity, diversity, and charisma. Waithe expertly taps into emerging societal trends with a sharp wit, speaking to myriad experiences from her unique perspective, while challenging audiences to think outside of conventional norms.
With her impressive eye for discovering and spotlighting underrepresented voices, Waithe navigates the intersection of business and entertainment in conjunction with her own media empire, Hillman Grad. The company aims to empower underrepresented artists and amplify the stories of diverse, historically marginalized communities across all industries by giving these storytellers the platform and opportunity to access the industry, while allowing them to tell their stories. The comprehensive slate includes projects at Warner Bros, Netflix, BET, Disney, Amazon, Universal, Focus, HBO, HBO Max and Showtime.
Recently, Hillman Grad signed an exclusive overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. Through their partnership, Waithe and Hillman Grad Chief Executive Officer, Rishi Rajani, will produce new television programming for all platforms, including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, external streaming services, cable and the five broadcast networks.
Waithe and Hillman Grad are currently working on producing a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic. Hillman Grad also teamed up with Focus Features, Sight Unseen, and Makeready on the feature directorial debut of A.V. Rockwell’s A THOUSAND AND ONE which is set to release on March 31, 2023. Additionally, Hillman Grad Productions upcoming projects include the Disney Studios high school basketball movie CHANG CAN DUNK for Disney+; and BEING MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE DOCUMENTARY, directed by James Adolphus and set to premiere in 2023.
Waithe’s previous first-look deal was with Showtime to produce projects such as the critically acclaimed series THE CHI, which Waithe executive produces. The Showtime drama series is a relevant, timely, and distinctive coming-of-age story that follows six interrelated characters in Chicago’s South Side. The show has received a Peabody Award nomination, and Waithe received two NAACP Image Award nominations.
Waithe also wrote and executive produced her semi-autobiographical series, TWENTIES, for BET. The show has been praised for being the first primetime series starring a masculine presenting Queer woman of color in a lead role. Because of this, TWENTIES was selected as a finalist for MIPCOM’s Diversity TV Excellence Awards in the category of “Excellence Award for Representation of Race and Ethnicity – Scripted” and nominated for a 2021 GLAAD Media Award in the category of “Outstanding Comedy Series.” The nomination was BET’s first GLAAD nomination in the television space, further cementing its impact on the industry as an example of overdue intersectionality between BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community. For the second season, both Waithe and Rajani executive produced TWENTIES THE AFTER SHOW, a half-hour show that explored key themes in each week’s episode of TWENTIES and highlighted an esteemed roster of Black LGBTQ+ voices, giving them the platform to share their personal experiences with the world.
Most recently, Hillman Grad produced the film BEAUTY for Netflix, directed by Andrew Dosunmu and written by Waithe, which premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Waithe’s Hillman Grad also produced Radha Blank’s groundbreaking film, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION, which blends real life and fiction to follow its protagonist, a down-on-her-luck New York playwright, who decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice by becoming a rapper at age 40. The film premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance 2020 Film Festival, winning the festival's “Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic,” and was quickly purchased by Netflix for distribution. The film was certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% rating.
Hillman Grad goes above and beyond to provide a platform and fellowship for diverse voices on the rise through the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab, which is currently in its second year of programming. The lab offers opportunities for marginalized storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their careers in television and film through personalized instruction from industry professionals in the fields of television writing, screen acting, and executive development. While Hillman Grad has already mentored roughly 600 actors, 120 writers/directors, and 30 producers, the 2021 Class was the first group to go through the official Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab. Hillman Grad also has an ongoing partnership with Indeed and 271 Films for the Rising Voices program, which is entering its third year. The initiative aims to discover, invest in, and share stories created by BIPOC filmmakers & storytellers by awarding 10 creatives up to $100K to make a short film that will premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival in New York.
In 2021, Hillman Grad partnered with Def Jam Recordings to announce the creation of Hillman Grad Records, a label that's committed to identifying and developing underrepresented artists and priming them for long-term success in the music industry. Def Jam Interim CEO Jeff Harleston and former Colombia Records and Soundcloud executives Tebs Maqubela and Albert Cooke join Waithe and Hillman Grad in discovering new voices and amplify their storytelling abilities across music, TV, and film.
In another effort to amplify underrepresented voices, Waithe and Hillman Grad have partnered with independent book publishing company Zando. As one of Zando’s first founding publishing partners, Hillman Grad will acquire and publish four to six books over a three-year period, including memoirs, young adult titles and literary fiction. Hillman Grad has also partnered with Indeed to create the Rising Voices program, which is now entering its second season. The initiative aims to discover, invest in, and share stories created by BIPOC filmmakers & storytellers around the power and meaning of work. The 2021 program awarded a $100K production budget for 10 short films which premiered at The Tribeca Festival in New York and created over 600 jobs. Waithe serves as one of the executive producers for the short films to ensure all have extensive mentorship from working creatives, such as award-winning director Melina Matsoukas and music video directors, Paul Hunter and Calmatic, as well as have line production crews for their projects.
On the acting front, Waithe can be currently seen in the critically acclaimed third season of MASTER OF NONE: MOMENTS IN LOVE, which Waithe co-wrote, executive produced and stars in, on Netflix. The Guardian and The Independent praised the season with five stars and Kevin EG Perry deemed it, “the most raw, honest and utterly compelling portrait of a relationship that’s likely to be produced this year.” Inkoo Kang of The Hollywood Reporter also praised, “[the show] truly dazzles, pushing MASTER OF NONE out of its comfort zone of lovelorn pining into emotional and ethical complexities that never lose their sense of headlong romance.” The role was originally intended for a straight, Caucasian female, yet Waithe has made Denise’s experience as a queer Black woman uniquely her own. In the second season, Waithe co-wrote the “Thanksgiving” episode, for which she received an Emmy Award in the category of “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series,” making her the first Black woman to ever do so, and a NAACP Image Award nomination. She also appeared in the third season of HBO’s WESTWORLD and in Justin Simien’s horror satire BAD HAIR which premiered to rave reviews at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was quickly purchased by Hulu for distribution. Previous acting credits include Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE, Disney’s ONWARD, Showtime’s THE CHI, Netflix’s #BLACKAF and their animated series BIG MOUTH, Quibi’s YOU AIN’T GOT THESE, NBC’s THIS IS US, and many more.
Waithe made her feature film screenwriting debut with Universal’s QUEEN & SLIM, directed by Melina Matsoukas and starring Academy Award® nominee Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner. The film opened to incredible box office success and received rave reviews for its “thought-provoking, profound and deeply affecting” storytelling, as mentioned by The Wrap’s Todd Gilchrist. The film received numerous accolades including two AAFCA awards, seven NAACP Image Awards nominations, one award at the annual National Board of Review Gala and “Best Picture” at the BET AWARDS.
For her numerous television successes, Waithe was named The Hollywood Reporter’s 2020 “TV Producer of the Year,” making her the youngest to receive the massive honor. In 2019, she was honored with the “Creative Impact in Producing Award” at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Waithe was also selected by the American Black Film Festival Honors to receive the “Industry Renaissance Award,” which recognizes content creators whose exemplary work in film and television contributes to changing perceptions of people of color in the entertainment industry.
Waithe is an advocate for queer representation throughout the industry and has been honored with several accolades such as The New York City LGBT Community Center’s “Trailblazer Award,” a GLAAD “Media Award,” the MTV Awards “Trailblazer Award,” named OUT Magazine’s “Artist of the Year” and featured on the cover of the OUT 100 annual issue, and featured in numerous LGBTQ impact lists and Pride issues across publications such as The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Variety, and more.
Waithe grew up in Chicago and currently resides in Los Angeles.