Making Manhattan: Talking Life, ‘Insecure’ & ’50 Central’ with Tristen J. Winger

Tristen J. Winger is building the foundation for success in Hollywood.

The season finale for season 2 of HBO’s hottest show Insecure aired last Sunday. If you have yet to catch up I won’t spoil anything for you, aside from making you aware that I am a card-carrying member of the #LawrenceHive. To fans, Insecure is more than a show, it’s a reflection.

Viewers identify and actively defend certain behaviors, personalities, and traits of the characters who visit their home each Sunday. Emotions often run high, and some find themselves split on decisions the characters make.

Photo Credit: Melvin Taylor II

In a cast of unique and sometimes brazy characters, Thug Yoda– also known as actor Tristen J. Winger— stands out. While he likely only says one or two lines a scene we’re captivated by how authentic and real his presence is. Yoda feels familiar. He routinely drops words of wisdom, sans the letter C (it’s brazy!), on Insecure’s main character Issa and encourages other parents to turn up, while simultaneously knocking down stereotypes of the average on-screen drug dealer.

In real-life, Winger has been building a foundation for a bright future in Hollywood by making himself memorable. Recently, I was able to catch up with him and discuss his upbringing in South LA, how he almost became a brain surgeon, meeting his idol Pharrell, and how 50 Cent‘s new show 50 Central, which premieres Sept. 27, is the new ‘In Living Color.’

Growing up in South LA:

I grew up in South LA and I still live in South LA. It’s not as bad as what they portray it to be, but there still is gang activity. y mom kept us in activities outside of the neighborhood,  we went to The Colburn School of Performing Arts, and the Amazing Grace Conservatory headed by Wendy Raquel Robinson. We went to the beach all the time and my mom would go jogging while  my brother and I would skate. I would skateboard and he would roller blade. So we would be outside the neighborhood doing stuff. It was great growing up there. It was a single parent home. She did a hell of a job if I do say so myself.

Do you think without that influence you would be where you are today?

“No, not at all. She always influenced us to do whatever it was we wanted to do. She was strict-ish, she didn’t tell us we couldn’t do anything but she would caution us. “Yes, you can go outside and ride your bikes, but don’t ride in the street though. Make sure you wear your helmet. You can play in the backyard, don’t get too dirty.” Stuff like that.

Did you ever have to watch the clothes you wore due to the gangs nearby?

It wasn’t a lot going on but it is Crip territory, by my house. Needless to say, I don’t have a lot of red clothing, but, I drive so I wear whatever the fuck I want. So I’m straight.

When did you make the conscious decision to pursue acting?

As long as I can remember, I was imitating my teachers, my uncles, anybody who had a funny voice, and I was getting in trouble for it. Every report card since I was in second grade…there’s always a comment that says talks too much. I would imitate my teacher or somebody in class but the first time I embraced it was in third grade. I had a teacher who is an actress and wrote a play for us called ‘The Rainbow Coat.’ I played the lead role in it and it was the Tailor, a seamstress who made different outfits and he made this rainbow coat. That was, now looking back on it, a message to promote unity and same sex relationships and embracing everybody. he had me in that role and that was amazing and it kept going from there. I would participate in talent shows at Challengers Boys and Girls Club. The kids talent show was booked up and my mom put me in the adults section, and I sang “Greatest Love of All” and won third place.

From there what was your thought process?

My mom would keep putting me in stuff. This sounds fun so let’s put you in that, this is cool so let’s do that. Whatever she could find she just keep us occupied. I don’t want to say busy because that makes it sound like something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So, she kept us occupied to keep us engaged, to help us broaden our worldview.

“I went to school with Issa Rae, we’ve known each other since 9th grade in 1999, so we were in that play together.”

Moving from the talent show. What was the transition into acting? You later went into improv at Upright Citizens Brigade, took classes at Leslie Kahn:

Photo Credit: IMDB Tristen J. Winger

So in high school 9th grade I knew I wanted to do extracurricular activities so I was doing my thing at Amazing Grace Conservatory on weekends and at Colburn a little bit because I was tap dancing and taking drumming lessons there but, don’t ask me to it today. I was also in the American Sign Language Club. Our drama teacher Mr. Freedman presented a play called  ‘On Strivers Row‘. Issa Rae was in the play with me, we’ve known each other since 9th grade. We auditioned for it,  we both got roles and from there that [friendship] continued.

I did most of my acting outside of school like with the Amazing Grace Conservatory and Colburn and she continued with doing the plays at her high school, King/Drew Magnet. I was going to be a doctor, specifically a brain surgeon.

A brain surgeon?

I thought that was the coolest shit. I get to open up people’s heads and do whatever it is that brain surgeons do. I don’t know what that is, because obviously I’m not a brain surgeon. I was in the magnet program in our high school so that meant we got to go over to the hospital.I got to shadow in the cast room so I was able to see how they made casts, took off and on casts and they would take me to see if someone had a broken leg or had pins in their leg and we had to help them out. I got to see a colonoscopy and the scope and that was..interesting to say the least. That all turned me off. Especially if I’m a brain surgeon, what if the surgery isn’t a success? I have really good beside manner and I’m very sensitive. So I don’t know if i can deliver that news with a straight face and not be affected by it.

What did you do from there?

So I decided I’m not going to do brain surgery, I’m not going to be a doctor but I’m going to do engineering. Specifically, I’ll be a mechanical engineer. So I went to Cal State Northridge for mechanical engineering. I went to the program for three and half years before I decided I do not want to do this. Yes I am good at this, but, I don’t want to do math everyday, all day. I was at this crossroads where I said I don’t want to do this but I need a degree and so I decided to do liberal studies just to get a degree. I didn’t like being in the classroom and also I graduated early so my mindset was a lot younger than everyone else. I’m 16 years old expected to make all these life choices like this is what I want to be, I’m going to take these classes…and it didn’t workout that way.

Any other memories from college that stuck out to you?

While I was in college I had some great experiences. I met a friend named David Beel who was a producer and he produced with Fruity Loops. He introduced me to Fruity Loops. It [started] because I love Pharrell, he’s a huge inspiration to me as far as music is concerned and so I started making beats. They were awful but I stuck with it and the beats kept getting better…I haven’t made a beat in like a year, but I still got it.

So at the age of 16-17 how did you break into All Def Digital, True Friendship and everything we see you in now?

Before that, Issa had a web series called The Fly Guys Present The F Word. It was hilarious! I hit her up and I said “hey Issa, I’m going to take my acting a bit more seriously, let me know if you need any help with your web series.” She hit me back almost immediately and was like yes! I’m doing Awkward Black Girl and we’re on episode three now but I want you on episode four for a character called Baby Voiced Darius.

“That was one of the best moments of life.”

I saw a YouTube video where you got the chance to meet Pharrell, how did that happen?

Pharrell produced season 2 of Awkward Black Girl on his iamOTHER YouTube channel and we were doing a photoshoot on Rodeo [drive]. Issa mentioned that she was going to meet up with Pharrell and a producer to do a promo for it and I asked Issa if I could come. She said yeah, she knew what it meant to me. Couple days later, we went to this loft in downtown LA…I remember sitting there and my armpits are sweating, I’m rubbing my hands on my pants trying to be cool and Issa told me look, “when Pharrell comes in here please don’t cry”. He came in there, he was smooth as shit! Came in with his boots that had the writing on it, chain shining…he was cool as shit, he came in and introduced himself like “hey I’m Pharrell, how’s it going?” and I said hey, what’s up man I’m Tristian. Nice to meet you. They shot, then he came out and said “yo, I didn’t realize you were that baby- voiced dude. He said “hey we should record a video.” That was one of the best moments of life.

What was it like working on Awkward Black Girl seeing Issa go from where she was then to today?

Experience of a lifetime. She decided that she wanted to create a show before someone else created the show that was in her head.

She was just tired of waiting for an opportunity so she just created one herself.

It just continued into what it is now which is incredible. Tracy Oliver was one of the writers all well and as we know she has gone on to write BarberShop 3, The Neighbors, Girls Trip, Survivor’s Remorse, like I’m so proud of the talent and what came out of Awkward Black Girl. It was an incubation for everything that we have today. When Issa was going through getting the pilot, she told us, if this does go, I’m going to look out for you guys.

If you look at every episode [of Insecure] there is a cameo from someone who was on Awkward Black Girl.

Before we let you go I would be kicking myself if I didn’t ask, what can you say about BET’s 50 Central?

50 Central is sketch comedy and the best comparison I can give it is [that] this is the modern day In Living Color…For me, growing up, it was In Living Color, Mad TV, and SNL…I’m so grateful for what has come out of In Living Color, look at all the talent that has come out of it! Everybody is on! There was so much talent that came from that and I feel like we’re getting that same opportunity with 50 Central. He picked the perfect cast.

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About Melvin Taylor II

Melvin Taylor II is a Chicago native who moved to New York City and is going after the dream. Currently he is both producing for Bold TV and hosts his radio show "The Alternative with Melvin Taylor" which can be found on WHCR 90.3 FM-NY (Tuesday 3a-6a est). You can also find him on stage at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) performing improv or writing for Respect Magazine. In the future, he hopes to host on a national platform while creating more opportunities for talented individuals who are looking to find their way.