Ready Player One's Lena Waithe on retro culture and playing a digital giant who is 'Mr. T meets Rambo'
Lena Waithe is the secret weapon of Ready Player One. Or was.
For a while, her involvement as Aech — the cheerful male behemoth who inhabits the virtual reality world of Steven Spielberg’s new sci-fi adventure — was going to be kept totally under wraps, but her performance was too cool not to tease.
You cannot contain Aech. Aech is too big to hide.
In reality, the actress-writer-producer (known for Master of None and The Chi) is average height, nowhere near as physically imposing as the digital cyborg she describes as: “Mr. T meets Michael Clarke Duncan meets Ice Cube meets Rambo.” But later in the movie, we see her as her physical self — Helen, which is where the “Aech” comes from.
Aech is part of a group of pop-culture fanatics called the High Five, who are racing to solve a series of puzzles that will grant them ownership of this online escape world, keeping it out of the hands of the restrictive IOI tech corporation and its chief officer Nolan Sorrento (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn).
To Waithe, there’s something meaningful about her character, beyond the movie’s thrills and effects. To the 33-year-old trailblazing LGBTQ artist (who in September made history as the first African-American woman to win the Emmy for comedy writing), Aech is a positive symbol of everyone who wishes to live an identity that’s different than the one they’re born into.
“She’s pretending to be something she isn’t, but in that sense it’s still really her personality,” Waithe tells EW. “She had to have that swagger, that confidence. That’s a privilege that maybe she doesn’t have in the real world.”
When Entertainment Weekly visited the set outside London last year, we hung out in Waithe’s trailer while she waited for one of her big scenes: a car chase through the dystopia of 2045 — with Mendelsohn and his crew trying to end the heroes in real life before they can win the prize that he would prefer to keep for himself.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: They’re out there setting up a big crash stunt. So what are your responsibilities today when that goes down?
LENA WAITHE: Today? I’m going to get behind the wheel of a truck and I’m not going to drive it at all. It’s going to appear as if I did. [Laughs]
They’re going to ram the trucks together…
Exactly. I’m not going to be in any danger whatsoever, but my stunt double, my stunt doubles, will handle that part. Then of course, they’re going to walk me down when all that car stuff is done.
Without spoiling too much, what happens after the crash?
I’m going to be reacting to Ben Mendelsohn who’s going to be trying to kill us. There’s going to be a part of me trying to unhook my seatbelt to get out and run away. It’s going to be a big epic shot, which is why I think it’s taking a beat for Steven and crew to get everything together and get it just right.
You’re already in costume, right? So tell me about what Aech wears in real life.
Yeah man, this is the T-shirt, which Ernie [Cline], who’s the writer of the book, saw me in it yesterday, and was very excited.
He couldn’t believe that they found this T-shirt. Everybody wants to be so loyal to the book. We want to make sure we’re getting it right,
Is this jean jacket on the chair yours or Aech’s?
This jacket is a part of it. Only I’m not wearing it now because it’s warm. [Laughs] It’s an amazing outfit. These are my kicks, some Adidas situations. This is actually something I would wear. Legit.
Are you a Rush fan too?
Well, look, I wasn’t before but now I’m very aware. I can’t walk anywhere in this, I get, like, cool points, with people. Like Ben Mendelsohn, who is a huge Rush fan.
[Looking at the jacket] I’m trying to test myself, here, with all these patches of hers. So obviously, we have Wonder Woman, Harry Potter…
Yeah. There’s some Thundercats.
A little bit of Rocky Horror Picture Show. What are the roses?
I think the roses are sort of a nice girly touch to it. Adds a femininity. But yeah, I remember [costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone] literally building this jacket. There were a ton of patches and she had to scale it back.
Did the costume tell you anything about who Aech is?
The whole character was really there on the page. Once, me as a person, sort of came into it, it was about making sure it felt comfortable and I could bring some of my swag to it.
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So this is you as you look in the real world of 2045, but you also put on motion capture gear to play Aech as we see him in the OASIS, right?
Correct. Left to my imagination, Aech is sort of like, Mr. T meets Michael Clarke Duncan meets like Ice Cube meets Rambo, as well. There’s like so many machismo characters that you got to meld it down and create it into one character that’s also part machine. There’s a little Terminator in there. Part machine, part human.
That’s a crazy thing.
When I’m in motion cap, my voice is different, I’m obviously a guy, I’m super tall, and it’s like a whole different persona. She’s pretending to be something she isn’t but in that sense it’s still really her personality. When her and Wade [played by Tye Sheridan] meet in the real world, he’s definitely shocked, but he also gets a sense that, “You’re still my best friend. The person inside is still you, even if you don’t physically look that way.”
He recognizes her, no matter what.
I think it’s a really interesting message, so layered. We’re all playing double duty in a way, because everyone’s a different person in the OASIS.
Tye said that Steven told him that you should think of these as two different characters.
Absolutely. For me, it’s one of the most drastic differences, because I’m a different sex in the OASIS. But, they really are. When I was in motion cap, she sort of walked like a guy, she had to have that swagger, that machismo, that confidence. That’s a privilege that maybe she doesn’t have in the real world. So there were a lot of things that I was really fascinated by.
What did you discover about Aech while playing this part?
I remember asking Steven those questions. I was like, “Why does she choose to be a guy in the OASIS?” Obviously, that could have been a question for Ernie as well, but specifically as we were dealing with the film, I just asked Steven his opinion. He said, “Look, a bigger part of this is Aech doesn’t want to be judged to in any way. She doesn’t want to question why she’s such a great mechanic and why she’s so good at the games. And why she knows everything so well.” So, I really dug that, I really kind of kept that while we were doing all the motion capture stuff.
Which alter-ego do you like better, playing Aech or Helen?
It is fun now to be in the real world, and look like myself, and not have dots on my face. But it was really a lot of fun, and really a lot of freedom in the motion capture part of it, which, was new to all of us. None of us had done it before and you try to watch the videos, and you try to imagine what it’s going to be like, but you don’t know until you’re in the suit. You literally in a white box and you’re covered in dots, and there’s a lot happening. A helmet with cameras, and Steven’s giving you direction to do all these crazy things.
Liberating? Or does it put more pressure on you?
The cool thing was, there are no limits in the motion capture world. You could do anything. There was so much freedom, really. I think that’s kind of how it is in the OASIS. There’s no rules, no barriers.
Now we’re in the real world. Now we shoot on film, and it’s a whole different thing. When you’re in that imaginary world, you can do anything. But when you’re in the real world, you kind of have to go by real world rules.
What’s it been like getting steeped in all this retro pop culture and nostalgia?
Oh my God, it’s amazing for me. I was born in the ’80s so, technically, I didn’t grow up in it.
Because you were too young.
To appreciate it, yeah. Yeah, but the cool thing is that I really grew up in the ’90s, that stuff was still lingering, and still there. So, I got a chance to experience it and watch it. And also, I think it was really fun, loud, crazy, interesting time.
There’s still a fascination with it.
The ‘80s really were, talk about no rules. People just did whatever they wanted, they could look however they wanted. There was just a lot of bigness and brightness. I always think of it as a bright, loud, sort of fun time, for the [entertainment] of that era. I think that’s what this film really feels like, too. It’s an homage to that time.
What are your favorites?
Now that stuff is still coming back! It’s still lingering. I’m a big sneaker head. The fact that a lot of these Jordans are coming back now. And I’m a big TV person, you know watching A Different World. I was watching A Different World reruns last night from the first season, which was just ’85-’86, and all that kind of stuff.
Just for fun? Or because it’s a part of Ready Player One research?
[Laughs] No, just for fun. For kicks. I’m so obsessed with that TV show, but, I just feel like there are certain things that you sort of want to go back to. I’m a big Whitney Houston fan, so it’s like her early stuff that came out in the ‘80s. It gives me such a warm, gooey, feeling inside.
Why does that time resonate even for people who were born after, or long after, like the characters in this movie?
For people that did grow up with it, they go, “Oh, yeah this is dope.” But for kids who weren’t there during that time, we can still look at it, and appreciate it, and go, “That was kind of awesome. I want to learn that. I want to figure it out.” Also, when I was a kid, I had Nintendo, I had Sega, I had all that kind of stuff. I can relate to that, that old school.
As a writer too, what are your thoughts on the whole nostalgia phenomena? What makes a large number of people yearn to go back, rather than asking for something new? I think we get that a lot in our culture now.
Totally. I am always searching for something different or something fresh, something hasn’t been done. But the truth is, at the end of the day, we’re all sort of retelling something. We’re doing a version of something that’s already been done.
Yes, so many things are remakes, or reboots, though.
There’s nothing new anymore, really. It’s just a different version of it. But, I do think the reason why some of these older things being brought back is because people love familiarity. They love what they know. And also the things that represent our childhood, or that we say when we were younger, there’s just a part of it that you love so much and makes you so happy.
So you’re okay with it all?
For me, it’s kind of two fold. On one hand, I’m a purist, I love this and they’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re remaking this. ‘ I’m like, ‘Why are they doing that? Leave it alone, it’s amazing as is.! I love watching the original, whatever, like The Goonies, or whatever it may be. Then there’s some people that want to see what that new version of that old thing that they loved so much would look like in 2016 or 2017. So I think ultimately there’s this thing that you feel, it’s almost like when you smell like a Christmas tree…
[Laughs] That’s a great comparison.
Or smell, like, macaroni and cheese, and it makes you think of a simpler, happier time. So, I think, that’s what these remakes do for people. Whether it be Transformers or something. It makes you feel like a kid again.
Then there are the things that just live forever, but shouldn’t be remade.
There’s something interesting: Purple Rain. It was this amazing moment in time, that you can’t remake that. You can’t. People can pick it apart. It’s flawed. It doesn’t work, this and that… It’s like, it doesn’t matter!
Your experience is what matters.
Yeah. It’s like The Goonies. Is it a perfect film? I don’t know. But, there’s something you feel inside when you’re watching it. Top Gun, and all these kind of things. Ferris Bueller. There’s just certain things about it, you just go, man. The Breakfast Club was one of my favorites.
Is it a natural creative inhale and exhale? We’re looking back and we’re looking forward and then we’re looking back again?
I think so. I think there’s always room for both. I think about television now, and there’s such a specific new wave, that I’m honored to be part of this group where Donald Glover, Issa Rae, Justin Simien. Literally, you can watch it in front of your eyes, this new era being ushered in.
This is what kids 30 years from now will worship.
Where you had The Cosby Show, A Different World, Martin Lawrence and Living Single. And now, it’s been a while. There’s was Fresh Prince and all that stuff. For a while there wasn’t anything, and now there’s these kids that watched those shows, now have their own experiences, and talking about what it means to be young, black and cool in the world.
So the future is in safe hands.
There’s always going to be young people that are going to challenge the way we view cinema or we view TV because you just sort of have to have somebody breaking things up. There’s always going to be people that long for what was already there and I think [Ready Player One] is a perfect example of that because it’s both.