Kym Whitley has one of those faces that feels like home. See her pop up in a TV show or movie, and you’re instantly reminded of the greatest hits from her career, which spans 25 years and counting thanks to “The Parkers,” “The Cleveland Show,” “Next Friday,” “Deliver Us From Eva,” the OWN docuseries “Raising Whitley,” and the many other titles worthy of the Kym Whitley canon.
Whitley landed one her finest roles on a breakout episode of “Master of None,” the Netflix comedy that released its remarkable second season last week. She and Angela Bassett play the aunt and mother, respectively, of Denise (Lena Waithe), a longtime friend who hosts Dev (Aziz Ansari) at her family’s annual Thanksgiving dinners. Across one half-hour, a series of holiday vignettes show Denise and Dev growing up. Starting in 1995 and working toward the present day, Denise expresses her sexuality in gradations as the years progress, until she finally comes out to her mother and brings women home to meet the family.
It’s a stirring episode, written by Ansari and Waithe, and based on Waithe’s own coming-out experience. Sweet and humorous and bursting with commentary about the country’s evolving racial and sexual politics, “Thanksgiving” marks one of the year’s most enriching small-screen sagas. It’s a wonder this is Whitley and Bassett’s first collaboration ― they make a sterling comedic pair.
HuffPost hopped on the phone with Whitley to discuss the two-week shoot, directed by Melina Matsoukas, who is best known for her Beyoncé and Rihanna music videos.
How did the role in “Master of None” come about?
What happened was I was very familiar with Aziz. I was familiar with his work, and I knew Lena. She called me and told me about the show. But I had not watched it, so I said, “Well, let me watch the first season.” I laughed and loved it. She called me up and she was like, “Kym, what do you think about being on the show and playing with Angela Bassett?” I said, “Wow. Angela and I are friends, but we’ve never worked together. That would be fantastic if my schedule allows it.” Once I found out it was a female director, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be exciting.” Melina is another fantastic female.
I would say it came to me like that. You get these opportunities. I remember doing “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I’ll be honest with you ― I didn’t know who Larry David was. It was the funniest thing because I feel like the less you know, the better, because you don’t go in with a preconceived notion. Had I really known who Larry David was, I do not think my performance would have been as good as it was. I would have been nervous.
Did you shoot each Thanksgiving vignette chronologically?
Yes, because if you notice when you watch it, the kitchen changed. The only thing that stayed the same ― because you know how we do ― was the dining room. Once we spend some good money on a dining room table and china cabinets, that’s it. The couch changed and the kitchen changed, and it was fascinating to watch the crew switch it around. Our hairstyles had to change, and the clothes — oh, I forgot the clothes; they were hideous!
The ones from the ‘90s?
Yes! It was crazy. So we shot in order from the earliest Thanksgiving to the latest.
How far back do you and Angela Bassett go?
Oh my gosh. I have know Angela through the industry. I started a comedy club in North Hollywood called the HaHa Cafe back in the day, and Angela came to that. I think I’d met her somewhere else. We’d talked and were friendly. I invited her to a comedy show and she came out. I had probably known her for about 15 years.
How did you iron out the episode’s comedic beats? The moment where you refill Angela’s wine glass and take a swig from the bottle is gold.
Well, first of all, let me say: Working with Angela Bassett, I was nervous. Even though we know each other, with her level of skill, I was like, “Oh my God, she’s going to run circles around me.” And then she said to me, “Oh, but Kym, you’re so funny, you’re going to run circles around me in the comic area.” So we laughed and I think that’s what made it good: We complemented each other. Where I might be struggling in one area, she’ll be strong in the other area.
We really came together and supported each other in this. And come to find out, Angela was very funny. I was like, “Oh, girl, you funny!” She enjoyed doing comedy because she’s always so heavy in drama. I would say we made a great team unexpectedly. I think the timing just came together, especially when we poured the drink. We were doing the scene where I automatically poured the wine in her drink — that was not rehearsed. I saw out of the corner of my eye that she held out the glass, and I hit it with that bottle of wine.
Had you been planning to drink directly from the bottle?
Not at the beginning. It all evolved! As in comedy, we always take it as far as we can until the director says, “All right, OK, that’s too far.” We had a great time in the improv, and of course, the director and Lena and Aziz were so open to comedy and what was good for the scene. Aziz would come in and say, “OK, try it again,” or Lena would say, “Oh, Kym, that was good, that was funny!” Or Lena and Aziz would run over to the corner and talk about it and throw us an extra line. I remember saying, “I need to throw in a line on Page 14 when Lena comes in and says something about her outfit and that she didn’t want to wear the dress.” I said, “As the auntie, I’m going to say, ‘Watch your tone.’” That wasn’t in the script, but I felt that was necessary because I’m the aunt who’s grown up with them.
How were the kids who played Denise and Dev in the first couple of Thanksgivings?
These kids were so fantastic. They were great actors. We had a little problem with the boy because he really did not like macaroni and cheese. It was so funny to me. It wasn’t funny to him, but he just didn’t like it in his mouth. He didn’t want it. But it was part of the scene because Aziz, as he was growing up, would always taste the macaroni and cheese. So the young actor had to take a bite of the macaroni and cheese, and he would [imitates vomiting sound].
What 8-year-old doesn’t like macaroni and cheese?
Everyone on the set said that! We were like, “Huh?”
The food throughout the episode looks delicious. Did you eat a lot of it?
We tried not to, but the food was delicious. It was very good. But it was long days, so what we did was we all picked our favorite. We would only eat what we liked to eat. And I always took my cues off of Angela, because she was all thin and fantastic and shapely. I was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t eat the whole bowl of mashed potatoes.” It was always fresh and it was catered.
The conversation about O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, and the idea of our culture dragging black icons, will resonate with a lot of people. And then seeing the family discussing Sandra Bland in a parallel way years later exemplifies how special a bottle episode like this can be. What did it mean to you to get to be a mouthpiece for the way people talk about these issues?
It really just reminded me of real life and how we grew up. With families, everything is so quick and fast. We don’t have the sit-down dinners like we used to when I grew up. I’ll tell you what it did for me: With my son, I said, “I need to make sure we sit down and have dinner because you talk about what is going on.” How am I going to know what’s going on in my son’s life if we don’t have these dinners every day and talk about what’s going on in the news, what happened in your day? That’s how I was raised. And what I love about it is that, especially in the African-American family, it went through exactly what happened. O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson were exactly what we were talking about. Today, we have dinner and we talk about Mo’Nique! It’s always what is closest to your community and what is happening right then and there.
I love the fact that these were huge stories that really dealt with African-Americans because that’s what we talk about around the table. These weren’t stories about the presidency. These were just stories that were huge and historic, and the show was able to pull from that. That also helped the storyline move forward in time.
Seeing the way this family acknowledges race as the years progress is powerful. It’s interesting that Angela’s character informs the children they’re minorities, which they may not have considered yet at that age.
I never had an Indian friend growing up. That was my favorite part, the moment where he said he was brown. As a little kid, to think he was black, I thought that was so interesting. I had an Asian friend, had white friends, but especially in Ohio, I didn’t have any Indian friends. So I thought that was really important to show America that you can have an Asian kid or a black kid be part of your family — whoever your neighbor is, they become part of your family; they come over, they eat. I just thought that was so huge. And then when Lena was coming out, it was so much to take in.
How the hell did you keep a straight face during the NiplesandToes23 scene?
Oh no, we laughed! Lena was always like, “Stop it!” Lena was at the table with us, but Aziz is so silly because he’s the straight face. That’s how that came in, even with me starting to yell at him, because that wasn’t in the script. Aziz is just ad-libbing, saying “nipples and toes,” and I was like, “OK, enough with it!” It became a thing. And him yelling at the grandma, we could not take it. Every time he yelled at her, I busted out laughing. I was like, “Melina, OK, OK! I’ll do it right this time!” But every time I lost it.
How long did it take you guys to get through that one meal?
Oh no, it took a minute, because even Aziz was laughing. He though it was silly, too. “Grandma!” And she was such a fantastic actress, Venida Evans — I did not know her, but what a fantastic talent.
It was such a treat to see you. You’re someone who has a warm screen energy, and people get excited when you pop up in something. You’re a modern TV icon.
I love you saying that. I’m going to send you a gift because what you said was a “modern icon.” Let me tell you why I love your choice of words. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I grew up with you, you’re such an icon.” And I look at the person like, “But you’re 50. You grew up with me and you grew up with my twin, [Jackée Harry].” But when you said a “modern icon,” I love that, because that makes it like you’re working but you’re still an icon. I appreciate that.
Before I let you go, I’ve always wanted to know more about Kanye’s HBO comedy pilot that wasn’t picked up. He played a version of himself, and I cannot imagine how that didn’t make it to the air.
Ah! That was just before its time. I don’t know why HBO did not pick it up, because we had the producers from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and the director, Larry Charles. Kanye was so kind, and it was so funny. We literally improvised everything. I got to spend a lot of time with his mother because I got to play his mom, and I really got to know her. I remember J.B. Smoove was in it. We really had something good there, and for whatever reason, the timing wasn’t right. But if it had come out maybe two years later, I think they would have green-lit it right there. It would have been historic.
What was the tone like?
Kanye was funny! He was really playing himself. I was playing his mother like, “Boy, get in this car!” You see how you’re with this rapper, and he’s all big — and he was huge at this time — but the truth is, you have his mother, you have this crazy business manager, and people get to take a peek on the inside.
Do you know the direction the show was going to take, story-wise?
He was playing Kanye West, so it was wherever his storylines went and what Kanye wanted to do, I think he just wanted to show the world what happens in an artist’s life: the good, the bad, the ugly, but also humorous. The fact that Kanye wanted to do comedy — that’s why every time I hear something about him, I’m always like, “He’s so misunderstood.” You have these people who are borderline geniuses. Just because he’s so talented, so smart, you think something’s wrong with him. There needs to be outlets for him to express himself, and when you lose your mother in the way that he did, there has to be hurt and anger behind that that maybe he did not work out, because he had a pretty young mom. I knew R. Kelly at the same time, before he lost his mom and then after he lost his mom — two different people. I have not seen Kanye since then, but every time I hear the crazy stories about him, I always say, “Everyone take a step back, take a breath. Until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, don’t judge.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.