Netflix’s Master of None proved itself to be a critics darling in its first two seasons for its observational comedic tone, following the show’s lead character Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) missteps as a struggling artist in New York. Back in 2017, Ansari’s comedic stylings felt like a new twist on the coming-of-age story, built on familiar ethos.
However, it’s been years since we’ve seen what Dev and his friends were up to, and in between those intervening years, a shift in the stories viewers are after. For season three to work, Master of None’s voice had to feel fresh, and so co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang decided to focus away from Dev and center it on Dev’s writer friend Denise. For those who haven’t watched spoilers are ahead.
Unlike season 2’s sprawling backdrop of Italy, season 3 is a bare bones approach showcasing an intimate character study, with the story settling on Denise’s relationship with her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). The new season plays with the narrative structure and the format, introducing an hour episode into the lives of Denise and Alicia and their life together in a remote cottage. The story picks up steam when Alicia brings up her desire to have a child. The couple embarks on that journey before the story takes another marked shift when the two decide to go their separate ways after suffering a miscarriage.
There’s an interesting, bite-sized episode on the dissolution of the marriage and how the couple’s individual experience with grief spins them in opposite directions. The bravest step Master of None takes is in chapter 3, which solely focuses on Alicia’s journey into motherhood via IVF.
Actress Naomi Ackie sat down with AwardsWatch to discuss making her debut in season 3 of Master of None, which is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Niki Cruz: I have to say I was surprised that we got another season of Master of None, but was so thrilled with such an intimate portrait on this new relationship as well as Alicia’s own journey.
Naomi Ackie: I know. I think it’s very interesting as well because it’s been such a shift to what Master of None is known for. Because I’ve been with it for so long, I’m surprised when people say [that] but yeah it’s really so different. I think it’s such a beautiful angle to look at the characters we’ve known so well through this lens.
NC: Like you said, this season felt completely different from the first two seasons, did it make coming into the show that much more exciting?
NA: Yeah. I was less anxious. I didn’t know myself to be vey funny. I feel like people who say they’re funny aren’t funny [Laughs] But I’ve never thought of myself as that kind of actress so when I found out it was a more stripped bare character study and a relationship study, I thought it was something that was a little bit more in my wheelhouse. Coming in with something that was really radical, I was really bouncing off of the energy that Aziz and Alan had for what the show was going to be. They were so excited that they were shifting the angle and doing something really new that I couldn’t help but to feel excited about it, too,
NC: There’s such a strong agency about Alicia’s arc. As Alicia says, she’s a bad bitch. When it came to building that character of Alicia, did Lena [Waithe] or Aziz give you a background? Were they collaborative in that process?
NA: Obviously, the script had been there and Aziz had been working on it for two years but when it came to Alicia’s agency that was something that was written in. Aziz had been talking to one of his friends and I had knew a few people who had done it themselves — women who had decided, I don’t want to wait for a man [to have a baby], or a partner, I just want to have a child, so there’s so much evidence in everyone’s life of women who had been brave enough to do this, so it was quite easy for me to base it off of women I’ve known and women that Aziz has known. It takes a lot of guts to make a decision like that because for so long we’ve been told you have to have a partner, traditionally it was a man, so to move away from that heterosexual normalcy of that process of what it is to live a life is very brave regardless if you’re a single woman, [and] especially if you’re a queer woman.
NC: I’ve never seen a show go through a whole IVF process before. How was that?
NA: I really haven’t seen a show tackle this and Aziz kept on saying, “This has NEVER been done before!” The process itself is long and hard and sometimes monotonous and to kind of capture it and try to make it still entertaining was something we all had in our minds. How DO we make it entertaining? How do we make this an active story still? Because the process of injecting yourself over and over again could be boring but I guess the subtext and the emotional rollercoaster that Alicia goes through and many women go through is enough to get people on her side and want her to succeed.
NC: I felt like I was on a whole ride with the two characters throughout the arc of deciding to conceive a child and then having a miscarriage, and ultimately your character continuing on with that process. The show does such a good job of showing how differently people react to grief. I think that will really resonate with viewers.
NA: Big time. I think miscarriage is something I’ve seen in the last few years being openly discussed by women. I’ve never been through it myself but it affects the decisions you make and the relationships that grow from that or break down because of that, it’s really vast. I think you’re right — the whole arc of Alicia wanting to have a child really starts from episode one so by episode 5 when you see that she’s gotten it, but the relationship between her and Denise is very different from where it started — it feels grounded. Sometimes the story that we watch that tie things up in a very neat bow don’t necessarily reflect how life really is. I think encapsulating all of those things in one relationship is real life.
NC: Viewers are very much dropped into the world of this marriage. Did you have a lot of time to build that rich relationship? The chemistry between you and Lena is off the charts.
NA: Thanks! So me and Lena had been corresponding when I got the part. A lot of the time we got to know each other was the two weeks prep before we started shooting. We were working on the script together or doing our bits here and there and running around the set trying to figure everything out. I guess the chemistry is the thing that you cant put your finger on and that just exists. I think there was something about me and Lena having a similar energy but just the right mont of opposite that we were able to bounce off of each other in a fun way, which made the argument scenes for me really fun to do. Some of it was partially improvised, some of it was scripted — we were changing stuff on the day depending on how we wanted to shoot it. There was a real respect between me, Lena, and Aziz, we were really batting around these ideas each day and that’s how we naturally bonded. It becomes a shorthand.
NC: So Lena was generous then with the workshopping process.
NA: Yeah, totally! I auditioned with two accents, one in English and one in American and because they wanted authenticity we went with British. So going back into the script it was me changing and tweaking certain things here and there so it sounded like Alicia was from London. We were just negotiating stuff, lines that felt right, little playful things, like the armpit conversation. The armpit conversation I originally had with Aziz. He asked me, “What conversations do you have with people who you’re really comfortable with?” And I said, I do a lot of “would you rather?” Anyone who knows me knows I get a lot of joy out of “would you rather.” That’s ALL me [Laughs]
NC: Like you said, there is that authenticity that exists. Even down to the set design everything is so precise and you really get the sense that these are two worlds coming together. What was it like shooting in that cottage?
NA: We shot in East London in a convention center that was shut down because of COVID. Outside of the built set it was cold London. Then when you went into the set it was nice and comfortable and so stylish. I would just hang out there because it made me feel like I wasn’t in the middle of a pandemic in cold dreary London. The production designer Amy Williams was incredible. She got myself and Lena to have an input — especially Lena who’s really into art. They were corresponding on the kind of Black artists they wanted to bring in. The picture of Goldie Williams “bad bitch” picture, is a picture I’ve had for two years now. I’ve always been obsessed with the picture so I explained it to Aziz and he said, “Let’s put it in!” There’s little parts of us in there so it made it feel like a home and there was an ownership over it.
NC: Aside from the Goldie Williams picture, if you could take any piece of art off of that set to keep, what would it be?
NA: Oh gosh, there was this gorgeous giant picture of a Black women with an angular afro. It’s a large painting. In the show when they separate it’s moved from the house to the apartment — I would’ve taken that for sure. I loved that painting but my flat isn’t big enough. [Laughs]
NC: Will you take this collaborative experience on to the next project?
NA: Yeah, for sure. The big thing for me is realizing I don’t have to do too much. Sometimes I watch myself and say, “Oh gosh, you are acting. You are ACT-ING.” But with this I didn’t see the mechanics — it felt super honest and it’s now for me to figure out how to incorporate that into the next job.
NC: Speaking of which, you’re playing Whitney Houston in a biopic! She’s one of the most intimidating figures to play. Can you tell us anything about it?
NA: [Laughs] Yes, it’s intimidating! It’s mad! And I think that’s the thing that I’m learning, like control? There is NO control. I’m just trying to practice at the moment and letting it be and try not to push anything, which is an exercise for me because the way I’ve worked previously and have been trained is to “make acting decisions!” But now I’m like, maybe I can play with this and try something different. There are no rules to biopics so I’m getting a chance to play with it. I don’t think I can say anything about the project except SHE’S going to be singing because I don’t sound like Whitney Houston, let’s leave it at way! [Laughs]
Season three of Master of None, dubbed “Moments in Love,” where Naomi Ackie is being submitted in Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Photo courtesy of Netflix