A month ago, Yvonne Orji was a relative unknown, though she’d made waves in the L.A. comedy community as a stand-up comic and begun work on a television series about the trials and tribulations of being a first generation Nigerian-American. But with the arrival of Issa Rae’s HBO show, Insecure, the 32-year-old actress has achieved no small amount of fame for her portrayal of Molly, the overachieving, luckless-in-love best friend to the TV version of Rae. “Issa and I had really good chemistry,” says Orji of the five-week audition process to clinch the role. “It was mine to lose.” Here, the comedian-turned-actress and eventual showrunner talks about her breakout role, the evolution of black characters on television, and her own ambitions as a creator.
Fast Company: I’ve really enjoyed the show so far, especially Molly. I really relate to her.
Yvonne Orji: Thank you! Molly is any woman who’s made any kind of mistake in dating and that’s most of us.
FC: I’d love to know how you got involved in the show. Did you have to go through an audition process, and, if so, what was that like?
YO: Well, in January 2015, I was preparing to shoot a trailer for a pilot that I was writing called First Gen and then Issa sent me an email, saying, “Hey, HBO is moving forward with my pilot. I think you’d be great to play the part of Molly. Let me know if that’s something that you’re interested in. I mean, obviously you have to audition, but I just wanted to plant that bug in your ear.” And I thought it would [take place] like, tomorrow. [But] the next I heard about Insecure was July, seven months later. I was like, “Is this the thing that she was talking about?” And then I went in for an audition and it took five auditions before I actually booked Molly. It was like a month-and-a-half long process.
FC: When you were meeting with casting, what were they looking for in the character of Molly?
YO: It’s funny because I had the opportunity of meeting with Issa at a game night with her friends. She was hosting a game night and I just heard the way that they communicated with one another and it was very much like the way that Issa and Molly communicate with one another on the show. So, when I went in and read the script, I was just like, I don’t feel like it’s harsh or negative. I feel like this is just how they communicate. It’s funny because in the first audition, we were outside the room so we could hear people performing the scene in the car where Molly’s yelling at Issa for the “Broken P*ssy” rap. I remember hearing these girls yell. I was like, “Y’all know that y’all make up at the end of the episode, right? I don’t think that’s the tone.” So, off of that one encounter with Issa and her friends, I knew that these girls are real playful. Yes, they love hard, but they fight hard.
FC: Did you stay in touch with Issa throughout the audition process?
YO: With each audition, I would text Issa and I would be like, “Girl, I’m just really happy and grateful for the opportunity. Like, I get it if it’s not me, it’s cool.” Because I didn’t want her to feel any pressure if at some point they were like, it’s not her. And each time, Issa would be like, “Girl, what are you talking about? Just keep doing what you’re doing. They love you.” I’m like, “Do they really?!” By the fourth audition, I was like, if I don’t get this role, then I don’t know what they’re looking for. Because Issa and I had really good chemistry. It was mine to lose. It was a humbling experience to say the least.
FC: Since taking on the role of Molly, have you added any aspects of your own personality to the character?
YO: I have to give credit to the writers, to Issa’s vision, to [showrunner] Prentice [Penny’s] leadership and also his direction because I think as an actor you bring a bit of yourself to any role, right? You transform into the character, you bring who you are. Sometimes, I’d do some improv and they’d be like, no. The words are enough. And the words really are enough because the show is funny. And because of my comedy background, I would want to do a lot of expressions and they had to remind me, you gotta a lot of eyes and you’ve got a lot of lips. The little that you do is more than enough. So, I think it was really a balance between the direction of Issa and Prentice and finding what works. And Molly, even though she’s funny, she’s not necessarily comedic relief. She’ll give you a look and that’s funny. And so I think it was really just me trusting the words, me trusting them, and then me trusting my instrument. Obviously, I got to play with it and add some Yvonne-isms, but I have a friend who watched the show and she was like, “When you laugh, that’s your laugh!” I was like, yeah. How else am I supposed to laugh? That’s all I know how to do. So, I saw myself bringing a little bit of me into it, but also learning more.
FC: One of things that I find so powerful about the show is that there aren’t a lot of depictions of friendships between black women on television right now. At least not since the days of A Different World and Living Single. How do you feel about Insecure‘s day-to-day portrayal of that relationship?
YO: So, I went to a live reading for Black List. If you’re a filmmaker, you can put your script on the site and executives read it and there have been a lot of great films that have come out of the Black List. So, they do this reading series and the last one they did was the Amos ‘n’ Andy story, it’s called Holy Mackerel. And I don’t know if you know Amos ‘n’ Andy, but when it was on the radio, it was white people voicing black characters. And when Amos ‘n’ Andy came to TV, they had to get black actors. [Though it had stereotypes], a lot of black people loved it because it was a way for them to just laugh at their lives. There was a line in Holy Mackerel where I think the Amos characters says, “You know, you’re only ever truly free when you’re able to be all of who you are in your darkest light and your best light.” Nobody looks at Honey Boo Boo and is like, “Oh my God, all white people are this.” No, they just go, “There’s Honey Boo Boo.” They’re not like we need to take this show off the air or people watching will think white people are like this.
FC: How does that privilege of portraying real black lives play out on Insecure?
YO: So, I think that that kind of sentiment of we can just be regular is kind of the prequel to black girl magic. [Insecure] is black girl pixie dust, the formula before you can create the magic. And this is us trying to get that formula right. And I think that’s equally necessary because while it’s very aspirational to see [Scandal‘s] Olivia Pope or Being Mary Jane [starring Gabrielle Union], it’s like, what were they like in college? What were they like before they had the president on speed dial? And I think it’s equally as important to see us winning as it is to see the process of that winning. There are so many shows that exist with majority audiences, where it’s like, why can’t just be regular? This is a show where we’re “regular black.” We’re interesting in all facets, and I think that’s what this show depicts.
FC: That actually brings me to this week’s episode, where a new black associate, Rasheeda, comes to work at Molly’s law firm. She’s got a lot of black energy and attitude and Molly encourages her to tamp it down. The associate balks at the suggestion and ultimately gets reprimanded for her behavior by the white higher-ups. What are your thoughts about people of color, and especially black people, changing their personality to fit into different (sometimes majority white) environments?
YO: That episode is very interesting because it’s so multilayered. On the surface, you can read it as, oh, this black girl doesn’t know how to act. When Molly tries to talk to Rasheeda on her own, she’s like, “Hey, sista to sista, they’re not going to tell you this, so I want to give you the lay of the land because I want you to succeed.” And when Rasheeda doesn’t receive it, that’s one thing, but it’s another thing when her white boss is like, “[Molly], can you talk to the other black person?” And she’s like, “I’m not that person.” A lot of things in African-American culture today can be linked directly back to slavery. That was the overseer, like get these other slaves in check. We’re going to highlight you as this slave and give you that position so that you can get all the bad slaves in order. Molly thinks, “I’m not the Uncle Tom here.” And if you don’t know the history, you may not pick up on that. It has roots that are deeply ingrained in American society. And, while the show’s not trying to give that deep of a message, you have to understand why Molly was really hurt or really conflicted about doing this thing. And so, I think, as black people we have this double consciousness. We have to play this role where we assimilate. It’s just like this is a corporate environment and this is what is expected. “We know you’re black, but don’t be so black here.” And you see that with Molly and Issa’s relationship as well, in that Molly is corporate when she’s at work and then when she’s with Issa, she’s allowed to be all of her black self, and use every facet of her blackness.
FC: Have you seen that kind of discrimination in your professional career?
YO: It’s only in acting where I’ve heard in auditions, “Can you black it up a little bit? Can you make her a little bit more urban?” And it’s just like, “What?” I don’t even know the word for that. “We just want to see your range.” And then you’re like, “Oh, I know what this is.” Everywhere else it’s like, can you not be so black?
FC: That just reminds me of the episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, where casting directors want him to speak with an Indian accent even though he’s American.
YO: Exactly. It’s what’s expected.
FC: I’d also like to talk about your own projects. This isn’t your first foray into acting or comedy. What’s your own background and how did you break into entertainment?
YO: I was born in Nigeria. I came here in ’89, when I was six-years-old. And from the time I was born, it was like, you’re going to be a doctor. And I was like, “I think so. That’d be dope.” And then college happens and you take organic chemistry and you’re like, “Naw, me and blood don’t get along.” I hate blood. So I started doing comedy in 2006. I got my master’s in public health and worked in Nigeria, came back in 2009. It was the recession, and that’s when I was really like, I’m 25 years old. If I’m going to be a doctor, it’s going to take me eight years of school and residency. So, let me give myself eight years to make this thing happen. And I did it in seven! Ha ha! Thank you, Jesus.
FC: And how has your comedy career grown over the last seven years?
YO: At some point, I thought writing was really the way to get a ticket because, like you said, I was in comedy, but I really wanted to act. Comedy, for me, was my gateway drug to acting. But I didn’t have an agent and while I felt like I could do it–I took some acting classes–no one would give me an opportunity. They were like, “Well, we haven’t seen you in anything, so we’re not going to give you this role. And we’re not going to give you this role because we haven’t seen you in anything.” I’m like, ‘Well, how am I ever going to get into anything?!’ And so, I got an internship in a writers’ room in L.A. in 2012, decided to move, and then I [showed them my show, First Gen] and they were like, “That’s funny! We’ve never seen Africans on TV.” So, I started writing First Gen and, for me, the same way we were talking about black people not being portrayed as regular people, I’ve never seen Africans who weren’t like fleeing genocide or the Coming to America caricature. Everyone has met or seen or interacted with a Nigerian in America because we leave Nigeria for here. We’re your doctors, we’re your lawyers, we’re your child’s best friend. All of the above. And so, I was like, there’s not a show that shows us being the neighbor next door. And for me, that’s what I really want to depict. I want to be that person that puts this story out there.
FC: So, how far along is the First Gen project?
YO: Obviously, I had to put a pin in it to be Molly, but we’re still kind of in the developing stages. It doesn’t come quick. Because even when Issa had her team, from the time HBO gave her the green light to the time of the first audition, that was a whole seven months. And before then, it took three years in development. So, it’s still my baby and we’re still developing it to the point where we can get it to be an actual thing. Everybody is still on board. Some things take a slow cooker. This is our crock pot phase.
FC: It must be helpful to be so close to Issa’s process. By joining Insecure, what lessons have you taken from her journey?
YO: We’ve literally had these talks. We’ll be in hair and makeup and Issa is reading lines, but then answering emails about something going on in production and then having to leave set to go to postproduction. And then at the same time she has Issa Rae productions. I’m like, how are you not on Eight Hour Energy right now? What’s your secret? It’s her telling me it takes a good team and how you trust your team. I’m like, this is your baby and this is something that you’ve been incubating for forever. And then she told me, “You know, through online you’re able to just click a button and be like, nope, I want it out tomorrow. And we’re done. Now, I’m in a more collaborative process and everyone has a stake and everyone has their opinion and while that can seem frustrating at times and you’re like, I just want to make this decision and I just want to write,” she told me. “I appreciate the passion that they bring because even though we may knock heads and we may not agree, the fact that they’re that passionate about this thing that is my baby shows me they’re taking ownership of it, too. And I’m excited that they have that passion because that makes it better.”
YO: But it’s really allowing yourself to be more vulnerable. You have to believe that everybody has your best interest at heart for this project. And then just being able to find the right balance so that you don’t go crazy. Because there is a lot thrown at you. She’s in the driver’s seat for so much and still manages to be present on set and so funny. Our set was so much fun to work on. We had a really good time. And that comes from the top down. Issa created an environment where there was no beef, there was no pressure. We’re in this together. And I love it because I was like, it’s my first time and she was like, “This is my first time, too, to a certain extent.” It was so many people’s first. It was Prentice’s first time as a showrunner and [Beyoncé collaborator] Melina [Matsoukas’s] first time directing TV. And so, even though we’ve all been working in different arenas for so long, it just felt so good that we got to experience this moment together as our first time. That was beautiful.
FC: What impact do you want Insecure to have culturally and what do you hope it will do for your personal journey as you work toward your own projects?
YO: I hope it’s already inspired the next generation of creators. You can get started on the web and it doesn’t cost anything, but heart and time. And she had a camera and she had some down friends. And sometimes that’s all it takes. Heart and follow-through. If it’s good enough content, it will find an audience. It will find its footing and hopefully that inspires other people who have a voice and a story that is unique. I hope what doesn’t happen is people see Insecure and think, oh, let me make a show like that. No, that story’s already being told. What’s so different about your life? Bring that. We need to see more of that. So, I hope that it inspires more creativity and more individuality and more authenticity because we need all those stories. I think Hollywood is surprisingly rediscovering black people even though we never left. We’ve been on TV before. All of the ’90s we made TV really cool. And then that went away. But I really do hope that it inspires and it empowers creatives of all colors, of all races. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anybody in the industry. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anybody or if you don’t know where to start. Just start.
YO: And then for me, I’m already feeling the love that people feel for Molly and, by default, me. [laughs] My sincere hope is that it allows me to have a big platform to do all the things that I want to do, to tell the stories that I want to tell, to make the impact that I want to have. I don’t shy away. I did not choose the industry, the industry chose me because I was really happy in a third-world country promoting HIV protection. I was happy, but there was this thing that was calling me and I was like, “What is this thing?” And I just know if it wasn’t for God and hope and the Holy Spirit just holding me down through the whole process, I would be on a one-way ticket back home. And being able to write and have an audience that says what else do you have? I’ve got something else! It’s just being able to have the opportunities now to do what Issa did, to be able to remember this person I saw in this thing once and bring her in even though she doesn’t have the credits that Hollywood think she should have in order to be on a premium cable channel. I want to be able to pay it forward in that regard.