Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, “Master of None” began as a comedy about the personal trials, career tribulations and dining habits of Ansari’s Dev Shah, a 30-something actor in New York.
Back then, Dev sought wisdom from a group of misfit friends that included the flamboyantly quirky Arnold (Eric Wareheim), the charming and laid-back Brian (Kelvin Yu) and the levelheaded and dapper Denise (Lena Waithe).
As the show evolved, Denise became more integral, most notably in the Season 2 episode “Thanksgiving.” Inspired by Waithe’s life, it explores Denise’s background and Dev’s support of her when she acknowledges her attraction to girls and ultimately comes out to her mother (Angela Bassett). Ansari and Waithe won writing Emmys for the episode, making Waithe the first African American woman to win an award in that category.
Now Denise is front and center. The show’s third season, which debuted on Netflix last month and is subtitled “Moments in Love,” revolves around Denise, now a successful writer, and her marriage to an aspiring interior designer named Alicia, played by the British actor Naomi Ackie. While Ansari directed every episode and wrote the season with Waithe, he appears only briefly onscreen.
As the series shifted its point-of-view, it also took a deep dive into issues like miscarriages and infertility, which Black women disproportionately experience. According to a study published in Lancet in April, miscarriage rates are 43 percent higher for Black women than for white women. An earlier study at the University of Michigan revealed that Black women are almost twice as likely to experience infertility than white women, and half as likely to receive medical help for it.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a complex love story like this between two Black women for an extended period of time,” Waithe said. “I have heard from so many Black artists that they just want to see Black people who just exist. And the cool thing is that you get to see Black people that happen to be queer — and it can be messy and complicated.”
But while Denise serves as the entry point for the story, it is Ackie who does most of the dramatic heavy lifting. As she negotiates romantic and fertility challenges, Alicia, as a Black queer woman, must also face an intersection of oppressions including homophobia, racism and sexism. (At one point, her doctor tells her there is not an insurance code to cover a woman who is “gay and desires pregnancy.”)
The season’s most introspective and powerful chapter is a mostly stand-alone story, like “Thanksgiving,” in which Alicia, after experiencing a devastating miscarriage with Denise, decides to undergo in vitro fertilization treatments on her own. While Ackie acknowledged that making this episode, in particular, was physically and emotionally taxing, the effort was worth it because “I’ve never really seen two Black queer women or I.V.F. at the center of the story,” she said.
“I was like, wait, there’s a gap here where a story should belong, and if we have the power to tell that story with quality and with care, then let’s do it,” she said.
Ackie, who has appeared in the British dark comedy “The End of the ____ing World,”“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” is still relatively unknown in the United States. But with her breakout performance in “Master of None” and a starring role in the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” that seems likely to change.
Ackie, who is also an executive producer this season, spoke with me by video from her home in London about how she approached such an emotionally open character, how she perceives the show’s focus on Black women and why Denise and Alicia’s love story should be seen as a work in progress. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How familiar were you with “Master of None” before this season?
I watched the first and second season and was really quite taken with the tone of it. I love how funny it is, while it doesn’t feel like it’s just trying to push comedy. It also felt raw, and I’d never seen an Asian man as a romantic lead and it was just refreshing. So yeah, when I got asked to audition I was like, but those guys are funny. I’m not a comedy actor. I’m known for my crying face. But when I found out the different direction they were taking this time, I was like, oh my gosh. This is right up my alley.
This entire season felt inspired by the breakout episode, “Thanksgiving.” Is this how Lena and Aziz presented the story line and the character Alicia to you?
I knew that the story was going to center around Denise and her wife, and that was what attracted me. But I didn’t realize initially that it was a real study of a marriage, which is something I’ve never done before. Up until this point, I’ve played quite strong characters, like a serial killer in “The End of the ____ing World” and Jannah in “Star Wars,” that have a decisive thing about them. So this was the first time that I felt quite stripped back, in terms of my performance.
The relationship between Denise and Alicia is so complicated — there’s their marriage, the dissolution of it and then their reconnection.
It felt relatable to me and those experiences that I’ve had in my life when some exes don’t stay exes. Just because you can’t be with someone doesn’t mean you don’t want to be with them. Love is complicated and messy. My mum always used to say, “You can either break down or break through.” So for Alicia, there’s this sense of: “I can’t stop. I have to keep trying for the thing that I want even if I have to let go of some of the luggage on the way.” And then for Denise, it’s a totally different story.
Again, such a mimic of life, isn’t it? You bump into someone; you have this amazing connection. You try and build a life, and then you realize that you’re in two different places and you have to negotiate that. Each chapter really feels like a little vignette and look into their lives. What Aziz, Lena, Alan and I discussed was that this isn’t the end for these characters. This is a part of their story; we’re just not seeing what happens next.
You just mentioned your own mother. Alicia’s desire to have a child is such a big part of her conflict with Denise as well as a critical part of her own journey to self-acceptance. Why do think motherhood was so important to her?
I think Alicia wanted to settle in. She’s orchestrated this beautiful home, and now she’s like, “What else can I create and what else can I love that can make us a stronger unit?” Or, “There is a distance between me and my partner — let’s fill it with a baby.” The real conflict for Alicia is the negotiation of Denise’s priorities, which at that point are very much about her and her career and what she wants. How long do you wait to do something you really want? How long do you compromise for someone else? That’s all going on in their marriage, and then they separate after Alicia’s miscarriage.
The episode that focuses on Alicia and her fertility treatments was so heartbreaking and vulnerable. How did you prepare for such a demanding performance?
We actually shot that episode in a really short amount of time — I think it was two and a half weeks. I didn’t feel like I needed to prepare a lot because Alicia didn’t know going into it how it would be. What was great is that Aziz brought in I.V.F. professionals on our shooting days, so it kind of happened naturally. And having filmed that in quite an intense [and short amount of] time was quite taxing, energetically speaking. You’re just trudging through, and that really mimicked Alicia’s journey. So there weren’t any memories that I had to bring up. Empathy for people that had gone through that was enough, and the physical tiredness I was feeling at that point was enough to help me deliver those lines.
Despite the discrimination that Alicia will face as a queer Black woman, she still decides to go through this very expensive treatment of I.V.F. on her own. Why was that story important to you all?
I walk through the world as a Black woman, and intersections mean something, let alone if you are a Black queer woman. If I wanted people to take away anything from this, it’s that those intersections matter. The way Aziz and Lena had discussed it with me was like, “This story has never been told before.” I think it’s really cool that you’ve just got two Black women from two different parts of the world coming together with a lot of the similarities, but obviously with slightly different histories.
Even though she is by herself in New York, Alicia has these two beautiful relationships: with her mother in London and with the nurse at the fertility clinic. What did you hope the audience would take away from these interactions and representations?
One of my favorite other scenes is the call with Alicia’s mum when she’s putting in the injection because it reminds me of what I would do with my mum or my dad. Cordelia is the name of the nurse, but that’s also her real name. She’s not an actress. When those I.V.F. scenes were happening, Cordelia [Blair] came in as [an extra]. There was one of the scenes in which she’s just comforting Alicia, and she had such gorgeous energy. Aziz was watching and was just like: “This woman is so calming. She’s amazing!” — she has a background in medical care. So he ended up writing new scenes for Cordelia, and she absolutely killed it.
The presence of Black women in this show feels especially nice and familiar, from Alicia’s mother to Cordelia to Denise. It feels like home to me when I watch it. And it’s so lovely to see Black women representing these different archetypes: a wife, a mother, a career woman. I’m glad that we could bring that to life.