'Insecure' Star Tristen J. Winger Talks 'Growing Up Black' in Los Angeles and Becoming Thug Yoda

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Image via VH1

If you’re anything like me, you can spend an absurd amount of time running back one-liners from a dope character on a series that may have nothing to do with the actual plot. That’s been my relationship with Tristen J. Winger, aka Thug Yoda from HBO’s Insecure (which is ending with its fifth and final season). The series, which beautifully highlights not just the city of Los Angeles, but Black Los Angeles specifically. It’s something that isn’t lost on Winger, who was born and currently lives in South Central Los Angeles: “The very first thing I saw that represented my neighborhood correctly and in a beautiful way was Insecure,” Winger told Complex. “It doesn’t just paint one version of South Central L.A.” Winger’s Thug Yoda can just be written off as the hilarious super Blood who lives near Issa, but honestly, he gets into some really deep thoughts, showcasing that there’s truly more to South Central than what you might see in the news.

Winger knows L.A., and is a perfect addition to the Los Angeles-focused fourth episode of VH1’s Growing Up Black, which just premiered on YouTube. From the Black experience in Los Angeles to the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism, voting, and more, this episode takes a hard and honest look at what it’s really like for Black people in Los Angeles. Winger speaks on not just what growing up Black in Los Angeles is like, but his relationship with Issa Rae, working on The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, and his goals for the future. Check out the full episode (and our conversation with Winger) below.

What comes to mind when you first hear the words “growing up Black in Los Angeles?”
The first thing that comes to mind is my life. This home that I’m in has been in my family since 1970? Yeah. They moved into this house in 1970, my mom and her family. First thing I think about is just my life and my family’s experience while growing up here in Los Angeles.

Talk about what you got to do in Growing Up Black Los Angeles.
We’re talking a lot about my experiences here. The Amazing Grace Conservatory, that’s where I got to see acting and performing arts professionals be professionals and learn from the best, like Wendy Raquel Robinson. She’s outstanding. She stay with a job. Outstanding dancers and singers. The late Tracy Coley. He was the co-founder with Wendy Raquel Robinson. We get in-depth. We’re going to break some myths and we’re going to get down to the real, what it was like growing up here.

Being an East Coast kid, what I’ve learned mostly about L.A. has come from movies, TV, and music. As an actor, one who’s on a show that features L.A. so prominently, has Hollywood done a good job in getting Black Los Angeles right?
Hollywood has gotten it right. The very first thing I saw that represented my neighborhood correctly and in a beautiful way was Insecure. And I’m biased because I’m on the show. I’m friends with Issa and I’m a fan of the show, but also it’s like, it doesn’t just paint one version of South Central L.A.

When I was younger, I used to be embarrassed to tell people I was from South Central. I remember I was skateboarding in Venice Beach and then somebody asked me, “Oh, where do you live? You live around here?” I was like, “No, I live in Los Angeles.” “Oh, what part?” Just be like, “Oh, you know where Crenshaw is? It’s by Crenshaw.” It’s like, “Oh, so it sounds like South Central.” I was like, “Yeah, South Central.” Then somebody else was like, “Nah, man, you need to be proud of where you come from. There’s no need to be embarrassed about it.”

I think I was embarrassed because of the way that we saw South Central L.A. portrayed in movies, where there was gang violence or in the news when they would talk bad about South Central L.A. and make it synonymous with South Central. It’s like, “Yes, there is some poverty. There are poor folks everywhere. It’s not exclusive to South Central.”

I got to talk to Kendrick Sampson about his experience in the protests last summer. With the history Black people in Los Angeles have had when it comes to police brutality, talk about the city’s response the murder of George Floyd and the protests that grew from it.
Unfortunately, it just kind of felt like it felt like more of the same. The difference now is that we have a different way to let our voices be heard and we have better ways to organize now. We have social media, we can connect instantly. We can say, “Let’s all meet up at this location at this time. Let’s say this. This is what we have to say at the end, we’re going to communicate this. This is the point of what we’re doing.” I love the organization that Ive been seeing. I love the voices that have been shared and the messages that have been communicated.

How do you feel about shows like Snowfall? Do you wrestle with that? Because, at times, it can paint that era in a darker light.
It does paint the area in a dark light, but I feel like it is set in truth because that is the history of this area. Snowfall, they shoot that literally two blocks over from my house. It’s shot right in the neighborhood. My uncles were affected by that time period as well. It’s very accurate.

I also like crime dramas, thrillers and crime thrillers, so Snowfall is one of my favorites. It’s Top 3. It’s up there, to me, with The Wire and Breaking Bad. It is that caliber of a television show for a drama. It’s shot beautifully and the stories are great, and the acting is great. Everything about that show is perfect. I couldn’t get anything more from that show, except to get more shows out of it. I love it. They’re doing it correctly.

Earlier you mentioned knowing Issa. I didn’t realize that you and her go back to ninth grade. She even tweeted about you stealing scenes in plays. What’s your relationship like with Issa?
I’ve known Issa since the ninth grade, we went to high school together. We were supposed to be doctors. It was a medical magnet high school in Watts. We’ve been friends since then. We had somewhat different paths. She went to Stanford and I went to a state school, but I can always reach out to Issa if I need advice, if I need help with anything. I remember I had an idea for a song placement for Insecure and she heard me out. She’s one of the most humble, gracious, and loving people that I know. I feel like I don’t want to be bothering her with little things that don’t matter, but she was like, “You’re not bothering me.” I’m like, “Yeah, right,” because she is busy as hell. She’s doing a million things, but our relationship, we have a solid relationship. That’s my homie.

How did you two link back up for The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl?
I saw on Facebook that [Issa] had just started her web series. I hit her up on Facebook. I was like, “Hey, yo, I want to get back into acting. Let me know if you need help with your web series. I’m down for whatever.” She said, “Yes, please,” [and] sent me the script for episode four of Awkward Black Girl. She said, “You’re reading the role [of] Darius.” I read it, I was like, “Oh, OK, cool, he’s got three lines. I guess that’s cool.” And then it said in action lines and narration that he was quiet-voiced and kind of to himself. And then of course Issa’s character had that line about, “Am I going to have to ask this baby-voice nigga to repeat himself?” So I just took that and I was like, “That’s funny. I’m just going to make him as like, you only hear consonants coming out of his mouth when he says stuff.” And it just took off from there.

Baby Voice Darius was supposed to be in one episode, just that one episode, but the response was so great to that character that she kept bringing Baby Voice Darius back. That’s something that she didn’t have to do, but she did it to help me and also to help the show and she just saw the bigger picture.

Was Thug Yoda on Insecure a similar situation?
So, when Insecure first happened, she sent an email to her friends, and she was like, “Hey, just letting you guys know what’s up. I have this HBO deal and I’m shooting a pilot for my show. It’s going to be called Insecure. Let me know if you want to read the pilot script and if you see anything that you think maybe you want to read for it, let me know. There aren’t that many roles because it’s the pilot, but I’ll see what I can do.” I hit her up, I read that pilot and it… The show is hilarious on its own when you watch it, but reading the script to the show is just another level because you’re reading all the action lines, all the things that aren’t said that are just communicated with facial expressions or actions that are happening in the scene. It’s just so damn funny on the page.

So I read to the part of Lawrence and I was like, “Lawrence. Oh, that’s her boyfriend. I bet he’s going to be in every episode.” And so I was like, “So, I like to read for Lawrence. Let me know if that’s something that we can do.” And she’s like, “Yeah. Cool. I’d love to have you read.” I read for Lawrence, did about three or four auditions. Eventually, that went to Jay Ellis. Perfect choice. Then she hit me and she was like, “Just know that if this show goes to series, if it gets picked up to go to series, I’m still looking out for you. You’re at the front of my mind.” I was like, “Again, so nice. Didn’t have to do that.”

January, 2016 comes up. She’s like, “Hey Tris, I think I have the perfect role for you on Insecure. I’m going to send you the scene tomorrow.” She sends me to scene the next day. I read the scene. It’s that first scene between Thug Yoda and Lawrence and I am rolling. It’s just so damn funny. I was like, “Yes, I’ll be your Thug Yoda.” She’s like, “You still have to audition, but I think this would be great for you.” I auditioned, and the rest is history. It just worked out perfectly.

The name Thug Yoda was already in the script?
It was Thug Yoda. Yep.

Is there somebody specifically that you channel when you’re becoming Thug Yoda?
Yeah. Both. So people that I know in life, it’s my neighbors, the guys who I’ve see every day walking my dog down the street. They just have very distinct voices. When you watch Snowfall and you hear the accent that Damson [Idris] puts on for his character. That’s specific to South Central L.A.

There are two celebrities that I channel. Besides my neighbor, it’s Ray J, who’s real funny. He just be saying stuff that’s just real like off the wall and stuff. I use Ray Jay for when Thug Yoda says some crazy stuff, but when Thug Yoda’s on some more spiritual, introspective stuff, it’s more like Nipsey Hustle a little bit, so things just a little bit more concise, everything that he says, you just believe it because he’s speaking with conviction, you know what I mean? Those two blended together, plus my neighbor, that’s Thug Yoda.

Are you freestyling at all as Thug Yoda? Is all of that on paper?
Once we get everything that’s on the page down, if there’s time, they let me just kind of go off. The “Bleenex and Blorox bleach,” that was improvised. I said a couple of different things that I wanted from Target, but bleenex and blorox bleach I thought it was very funny and so did they. And then in the last season where Thug Yoda shows up at the block party and she was like, “How’d you get in? Who do you know?” And I’m like, “Oh, I know these people. Beverly, Billy, Bonnie, Bobby, Barry, they brothers.” We did that maybe four different times and I say a bunch of different B names each time.

Tristen J. Winger
Image via Carlos Nuñez

What else have you been working on? You’re in Season 2 of Bigger now, you’re in Growing Up Black Los Angeles.
Writing. I am a firm believer in the fact that we all have a story to tell. I believe that being an actor, you’ve got your foot in the door now. People have their eyeballs on you, and now they’re more inclined to listen to your story. I’m going to start with my story, then the stories about my family and then reach out to help other people tell their stories as well and get their stories told, whether that’s in a short film or a music video or whatever medium it is, music. That’s what I’m working on.

We’ve seen a great example with Issa. She’s taken her platform from web series [to] TV show, record label, and beyond. We’ve seen that it can be done; now we have to do it for ourselves.

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