Though Lena Waithe’s latest project “Twenties” — a comedy that follows the adventures of a young, black, queer woman and her two straight friends struggling to make it in Hollywood — is semi-autobiographical, the 35-year-old actor says that that due to strides made by the industry, the series no longer resembles her journey.
“It’s not that close to my life anymore,” Waithe told reporters at the BET series’ premiere at Paramount Studios on Monday night in Hollywood. “When I was in my 20s, it was a very different Hollywood than now. People really are into diverse stories a little bit more than when I was in my 20s, living out here.”
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One example, Waithe voices the first openly LGBTQ character in Disney-Pixar’s history in upcoming animated film “Onward.” And Waithe confirmed that the groundbreaking move was her idea.
“It was written as a straight [character],” Waithe recalled. “I said, “Can I say the word girlfriend, is that cool?”
Waithe, who said that until recently she was unaware that there hadn’t previously been an openly gay character in a Pixar movie, explained that she had suggested the idea during a recording session.
“I was just like, ‘It sounds weird,’” Waithe recalled. “I even have a gay voice, I think. Like, I don’t think I sound right saying “husband.” They were like, “Oh yeah, do that.” They were so cool and chill. And it ended up being something special. Obviously, people took it and ran with it.”
She continued, “It’s a quick scene but still a major moment. A leap forward.”
Waithe also noted that the prevalence of social media had opened up avenues that were unavailable when she first entered the industry.
“I think people are more accessible now,” she said. “Maybe I’m one of those people that I feel like “Hit me, DM me, message me and I’m going to try to hit you back.” You can now reach out to your favorite stars, and they may hit you back. I didn’t necessarily have that because it was still kind of new. I was using the internet for sure, but I think now it’s a little more accessible. Not that that makes it easier, but it definitely means like if you got something and you get it to right person, there is a chance that it can really take off.”
Waithe drew inspiration for the BET series from her own experiences, but she explained that lead character, Hattie (played by Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs) faced several unique challenges, including working for a particularly formidable boss, producer Ida B. (Sophina Brown).
“The people I worked for will be very boring on TV,” Waithe said with a laugh. “Ava [DuVernay], Gina [Prince-Bythewood], Mara [Brock-Akil] were so sweet and I’m still friends with them. I wouldn’t be friendly with them if there was bad blood. We kind of created a boss that had a little more conflict and was a little tougher than my bosses.”
Waithe initially launched “Twenties” as a YouTube pilot presentation in 2013 and the project bounced around several studios and streaming platforms before landing at BET. Despite it being a long road for the project, Waithe said, “I wouldn’t have changed anything about the journey. I’m really happy with how it all worked out.”
“What landed here at BET was exactly how it was supposed to happen,” she continued. “They really gave me a lot of freedom and a lot of creative control. I think the show is better for it. I think it’s supposed to be at a place like BET. It just makes sense and I think that makes it more revolutionary because it’s on a network like BET. To come to a network like this, seeing that kind of representation, I think it’s extremely important.”
BET Networks president Scott Mills told Variety that he believes “Twenties” — which also stars Christina Elmore and Gabrielle Graham — will be embraced by the BET audience.
“I think it’s beautiful that the character is a masculine-presenting lesbian,” Mills explained. “[Hattie is] beautiful and smart and funny and charming and I love that. That’s going to be groundbreaking because no one in the industry has had a lead like that in a series. In addition to that, it’s simply a beautiful, warm, sweet funny series. And so, I think everyone is going to be delighted at this special experience and I think people will go, ‘And I have seen a character that I haven’t seen previously.’