Lena Waithe is like your laid-back homie. That’s why portraying Aech in Ready Player One was the perfect role for her, with Aech being Parzival’s (Tye Sheridan) longtime best friend. As Waithe sat down in her bright yellow sweatshirt, jeans and patented shoe game, we got to chat about her own relationship with video games, what drew her to Aech as a character, portraying a black woman in a film like this and the significance of getting to directly chat about The Color Purple with Steven Spielberg himself.
Shadow & Act: So, Ready Player One was like actually being thrust inside of a video game. Were you a gamer growing up?
Lena Waithe: I remember my dad bringing home the original Nintendo to our house. My mom and dad were separated, so she wasn’t too happy when he brought that over on one of his weekends — because me and my sister were like “nothing else matters” and we didn’t want to do anything else. But, it was really about being a 90s kid — like, I graduated to Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat and then we (eventually) borrowed our friend’s Nintendo 64 because we ain’t have money like that!
S&A: Speaking of Mortal Kombat — since it’s a fighting game, what’s your favorite character?
LW: Oooh, which one did I like… I liked the samurai who would do this thing *gestures with hands to show a power move*. (Writers Note: We both had a brain fart at the time, but I think she was talking about Raiden!) There was one freaking summer I played that game so much until I actually won. I think I approach everything else that way, whether it be acting or writing, I always want to give 120%. Which can be good — but you can kind of lose sight of everything else.
S&A: So, I was actually very pleasantly surprised to see just how much you were in the film because I went into it blind — only seeing you appear briefly in the trailer. Your voice work portraying Aech is fantastic! Probably about a third of the way through film, I realized it was you because of the inflection of your voice.
LW: Yeah! That was a surprise. We worked a while to alter the voice so that people don’t know I’m a girl (Parzival initially assumes that the avatar he has befriended is a guy). I did a lot of ADR sessions where Steven would literally sit there and listen to many different versions of it and the amazing artists that worked on that were really amazing and fantastic. People were coming in — some may know and some may not — so we really wanted to make sure that Aech doesn’t sound so much like a girl. But, of course if you follow me, there’s some things about my voice that makes it hard to hide.
S&A: Yes! So what specifically drew you to the character of Aech?
LW: I think the fact that she’s a tomboy. I consider myself to be a soft stud/masculine-presenting, so I relate to the fact that she chose a guy to be her avatar and the fact that she’s one of the guys and wants to be considered as one of the guys. I related to that element about her, but also she’s just really cool and fun and is a problem solver. She has a couple of opportunities to save the day, which is really cool.
S&A: Yes! So, any filmmaker or film fan knows the significance of Steven Spielberg. How was it working with him?
LW: Yo, it was phenomenal! The audition process for me was pretty quick, I read (for the casting directors) and then came back and they told me “Steven saw your tape and he wants you to play Aech” and I was like “ohhhkay!” and I had to keep that until I went to London for four months. I think ultimately, I really met the man moreso than the filmmaker. Yes, you’re working with a phenomenal filmmaker who is a master at what he does, but he’s just a really great man, honestly. His wife was on set, his dad came to set, we met a few of his kids — he’s very much a family man. That’s who is first and you can’t help but feel that love he has for life, for his family. I always say he’s a giant that doesn’t make people feel small. He’s aware that when he walks into a room, the energy changes and he does his best to disarm people right away and that’s a skill (in and of itself].
S&A: That’s so dope! Can you also touch on how important it is to portray a black woman in a film like this?
LW: Phenomenal! There’s another black woman who plays one of the villain, but I’m completely aware that I’m part of the core main cast and that’s important. Ernie (Cline) wrote that into his book and Steven wanted to honor that. It’s not lost on me that little black girls will see this movie and hopefully be inspired by it and see themselves — little tomboy girls are going to see themselves and it’s important to have that representation. I’m just grateful that Ernie put it into the book, because if it wasn’t in the book, it may not have ended up in the movie.
S&A: Absolutely! Lastly, do you have any fun favorite behind-the-scenes moments you’d like to share with us?
LW: Oh man! There’s so many — me and Steven got to have a long conversation about The Color Purple, which is like every black woman’s dream to talk to him about The Color Purple. But, here’s the funny thing: of course, we all love it and we’ve seen it a bajillion times, but talking to him he said the movie was surrounded by a lot of controversy and people didn’t think he was the right person to tell that story and direct that film. It was so interesting the way he approached it with such joy, light, love and color. So, when you think about The Color Purple, you don’t think of it as this down and depressing movie — there are obviously some moments where it gets a little dark — but a lot of us have memories of joy and I think a lot of that is from Steven because he typically approaches thing in that way. I’m actually happy that he did, because yes, it’s a bit of a sad story, but it’s also a story of triumph with Celie very much being the hero. So, that was a cool thing that I actually got to have that conversation with him because I never thought of it from that perspective. One, I was too young when the movie came out, so I don’t remember all those things. But, yeah he said people weren’t happy about it and it was tough. And I’m like, “But, I know this movie to be so wonderful,” and he’s like, “Yeah, movies take on a different life after a while,” so that was a really amazing moment.
Ready Player One releases in theaters on March 29, 2018.
This interview has been edited and condensed.