Natasha Rothwell is acting and writing the confidence she wants to have.
For the past four seasons of HBO’s Insecure, Rothwell has served as both writer and star in the role of Kelli, the sexually charged lovable loudmouth of the friend group. Kelli instantly became a fan favorite with scene-stealing lines and a boisterous bravado that Rothwell effortlessly channels in her performance but is still workshopping in real life.
“Kelli reminded me so much of the friends that I have in my life that give zero fucks about what people think. In my real life, I give so many fucks,” Rothwell says. “She’s been such a joy to get to know and develop over the years—to be able to step inside someone who never doubted loving herself or being worthy of love. So many women of color don’t have that privilege. Some of us have arrived at that point. I feel like I’m getting there.”
It’s easy to assume someone like Rothwell—who has writing credits for Insecure and Saturday Night Live and acting roles in blockbusters including Sonic the Hedgehog and the theoretically forthcoming Wonder Woman 1984—would have all the confidence she needs.
But it’s been a process.
Rothwell explains her methods of pushing past her obstacles, how she’s creating plus-size representation that’s a character and not a caricature, and how she’s using her seat at the table to make room for more marginalized groups.
Be prolific, not perfect
As an alumna of the sketch comedy and improv theater Upright Citizens Brigade, Rothwell had only to look to more established alumni including Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Aubrey Plaza, and Ben Schwartz to know where her talents could possibly take her.
The one place she couldn’t imagine, however, was Saturday Night Live.
“I was such a fan of the show, but I’d never seen anyone that looked like me on it,” Rothwell says. “And so it was never an ambition of mine to be on SNL because I didn’t think that it was for me.”
However, the opportunity to audition for SNL did come around. Although Rothwell didn’t make the cut as a cast member, she was offered a spot in the writers’ room for season 40.
“Not getting on the show but still having them recognize my writing ability was something that I didn’t even know I needed,” Rothwell says. “There are books written about how difficult it can be there. And that’s not untrue. But I do think iron sharpens iron.”
Rothwell’s most valuable takeaway from SNL: Be prolific, not perfect.
“When you’re writing so many sketches within a week, you don’t have time to sit down and judge yourself for every word on a page,” Rothwell says. “When you’re writing week after week after week, your writing gets better. Your bad gets good, your good gets best. It really taught me that I need to continually create in order to get better.”
On the other side of becoming more prolific is rejection—and a lot of it. But to Rothwell, the most important part of rejection is who is saying no: you or someone else?
“Allowing other people to tell me ‘no’ has been a real game changer for me,” she says. “I can be very self-critical. You stay in this neutral zone where you can’t do anything because you’re telling yourself ‘no.’ But I’ve gotten to the place where I’m going to let somebody else tell me ‘no.’ And when you hear that no, you can figure out how to turn it into yes.”
Writing “regular-ass women”
Working through those barriers has conditioned Rothwell for arguably her most important work to date, writing and starring in Insecure.
The show has become a touchstone in black culture, which is why its creators won a 2017 Peabody Award: “For creating a series that authentically captures the lives of everyday young, black people in modern society.”
But even more specifically, black women.
Rothwell joined Insecure as a writer in season one, and as they were thinking of how to expand the world of its protagonist Issa Dee (Issa Rae), former writer Ben Dougan tossed out an idea of adding someone like Kelli.
“Everyone has that friend that you love but are like, ‘Girl, what is your deal?'” Rothwell says.
When the writers would go over scripts internally, Rae would ask Rothwell to read Kelli, and she was eventually offered the part.
For all the comedic levity Kelli brings to nearly every scene, Rothwell was careful in not making her one-dimensional. One of Kelli’s more heartfelt moments came in season three when her pregnant best friend Tiffany (Amanda Seales) asked her mommy friends to throw her a baby shower instead of Kelli. The undercurrent of the episode had the very real feeling of how life events like having a baby can drive wedges between friends.
“Plus-size women don’t often get to play characters—we play caricatures. And it was really important to me to walk the line because some people still don’t feel that Kelli is grounded enough,” Rothwell says. “But my argument is that there are funny, sexual, plus-size women who can be grounded too. To me that was the challenge of playing Kelli, where she can give you a wisecrack in one moment but then look at her friend Tiffany and say, ‘I wanted to be there for you.'”
For Rothwell, it’s those scenes that have always been at the heart of Insecure. Despite all the salacious drama of boyfriends, exes, and flings, Insecure is really about the relationship among this group of friends, particularly between Issa and Molly (Yvonne Orji).
“And I love to write to it. Female friendships are so nuanced, and the fights and the hurt can be so subtle,” Rothwell says. “As a woman of color, to have these specific stories told in this way, it’s not something we’ve always gotten. It’s usually ‘black girl magic’ where we have to save the day. But just having a show about these regular-ass women who have our problems is such a treat.”
“Trump, you are trash”
Part of creating scenarios in that everyday environment is normalizing stigmas associated with marginalized communities.
“It can be as subtle as my character on Insecure saying, ‘If I wanted a baby, I would have kept it.’ It’s talking about abortion in a way where it’s not devastating or life ruining—it’s just a matter of fact,” Rothwell says. “That’s how I try to infuse activism into the work that I write and to push the agenda in a way where it’s like, how do we have LGBTQ representation in the show where it’s not a story point? It’s just we exist together as opposed to making it an after-school special.”
Rothwell’s work as an LGBTQ ally and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights routinely spills over into her online presence outside of the show. Since Trump was elected to office, Rothwell has made it pretty much a daily item on her to-do list to call him trash in some form or fashion on Twitter.
.@realDonaldTrump it goes without saying but I’m going to say it: you are fucking trash, dude.
— Natasha Rothwell (@natasharothwell) January 8, 2020
.@realDonaldTrump you are trash.
— Natasha Rothwell (@natasharothwell) March 24, 2020
.@realDonaldTrump you are irredeemable trash.
— Natasha Rothwell (@natasharothwell) April 16, 2020
“I want to use my platform to elevate and lift up voices who can be agents of change,” Rothwell says. “I’m hoping that people come to my feed who see that I call him trash every day also see the reminders about doing their census, are they registered to vote, have they changed their voter registration to mail-in ballot now in light of COVID-19? Using comedy as a conduit to have these conversations is where my head is at.”
As Rothwell has been finding her own voice, she’s wasted no time in elevating the voices of others. Insecure is both a cultural and personal milestone for Rothwell, but it’s just a start.
“I’m so proud and and feel so privileged to be in the rooms that I’m in. But for me, I’m looking back, like who else is coming through this door?” Rothwell says. “That’s my directive. I go into rooms to open the door behind me to make sure that it’s populated with people who look like me and who need to have their voices heard.”