Tristen J. Winger was working at a department store in his early 20s when he made a vow. He told his friends that he’d be acting on TV by the time he turned 30.
Ever since then, the 35-year-old Los Angeles native has been putting in work. In 2012, he made his acting debut on his longtime friend Issa Rae’s YouTube series, “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.” His role as Darius, the baby-voiced co-worker who always spoke in a whisper even at his DJ gigs, was a fan favorite. That role and a commercial were the only acting gigs he’d gotten before “Insecure.”
In 2015, Winger auditioned for a role in the HBO show’s pilot. He didn’t get the part. But Rae told him that if something else came up, she’d have him top of mind. That something else happened to be Thug Yoda, Issa’s gang-brazy neighbor who’s in the Bloods and raising his daughter to change her C’s to B’s. He auditioned for the role and booked it with no agent or representation.
“I remember when I first did my scene,” Winger said during a phone interview. “First couple takes, Issa approached me, she’s like, ‘Hey, you look a little stiff, just relax into him.’ What actually happened was when she said that I was being stiff, I was just thinking about how we came from YouTube and now we have this whole HBO production in the middle of Inglewood and this is unreal. That was just me being like ‘wow’ and taking it in.”
That was on May 11, 2016, the day he shot Episodes 2 and 3, where we first meet Thug Yoda. The following day, Winger turned 30. He accomplished what he said he would. He said it was “life changing.”
“I remember I had my best friends over my house and I had an episode cued up on TV,” he said. “I’m sitting there with tears in my eyes, watching myself on an HBO show. As soon as that scene was over with Thug Yoda and Lawrence, they came around me and they just hugged me tight. Because they just knew how hard I worked for this. This show means the world to me.”
Winger remembers being 6 years old and seeing himself in Steve Urkel, a character Jaleel White made so iconic that people often forget the show is called “Family Matters” and not “Urkel.” Winger said the nerdy, suspender-wearing, love-drunk-for-the-girl-next-door character was the first time he saw himself on TV. His mom even entered him in a competition to audition for “Family Matters” for a chance to appear in a scene.
The rules were to re-create a scene from the show. Winger and his mom took it to the next level and threw in a rendition of “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.” Needless to say, he never appeared on the show.
“It made no sense,” Winger admitted with a laugh. “It was a good time anyway. I just always performed whether it was in a play in school or a tap dance recital. I always loved acting. I would imitate my uncle’s voices. I would imitate my teacher’s voices. Get in trouble for doing that. Get on my report card, that little comment section where it says ‘talk too much.’ That was on every single report card, every single class.”
Now Winger gets paid to use his voice.
His distinct character work in his performances stems directly from tapping into the personas of real-life people in his neighborhood. Those include the late Nipsey Hussle, Ray J and the dude who always speaks to him while walking his dog, Winger explained while going in and out of different impersonations.
Winger said “Insecure” “springboarded” him into the career he has today. After the show’s premiere, Winger ended up getting representation through co-star Jay Ellis’ management. Since then, he’s gone on to perform in various projects, including “50 Central” and a lead role in “Bigger,” in which he plays a DJ.
“I don’t think I would be here if it weren’t for this role and if it weren’t for Issa,” he said.
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“Insecure” is currently airing its fifth and final season; Winger said seeing the show that served as both a milestone and stepping stone for him is a “bittersweet” end.
“I feel grateful to be part of this journey,” Winger said. “Also it’s just how beautiful that my introduction to the entertainment world professionally gets to be on an HBO show about my neighborhood. Whenever we saw South LA [on television] before, it was always like, ‘Oh, don’t go south of the 10, it’s a gang-infested neighborhood.'”
“We’ve never seen South LA represented in a way where it’s like, ‘No, this is a beautiful place with lots of character and lots of characters, including people like Thug Yoda who, yes, has gang affiliations, but he’s just a dad,'” Winger continued. “He’s really just a dad doing his best, living his life. I feel like Thug is one of those people who’s kind of a reflection of the neighborhood. I’m grateful to have played this part.”
More acting and animation voiceovers are in Winger’s forthcoming plans. He said he’s inspired to tell more of his and his family’s stories in the future, on both the acting and writing side. He said ultimately, Rae and “Insecure” showed him a blueprint of how expansive his approach to his dreams can be.
“We longer have to play by the rules that have been set before us, because truly rules are made to be broken,” he said. “We can’t just take something that works for someone and apply that to our own lives. It’s not going to work that way. Everybody is different, we’re all individuals. This blueprint has taught me that I can do whatever I want, as long as I’m focused and I’m consistent, because that’s what it takes. Focus and consistency.”
“Insecure” airs on HBO on Sundays at 10 p.m.