When Yvonne Orji’s agent sent her a role to audition for last year, it finally hit her: “I’m back in this world again,” Orji recalls. “I freaked out.”
For six years, Orji has starred in the groundbreaking show Insecure as Molly Carter, the type A best friend to Issa Dee (show creator Issa Rae). Insecure bloomed from the scrappy web series The MisAdventures of Awkward Black Girl to five seasons on HBO—and the impact along the way can’t be overstated.
From authentic representation that centered Black women to a major platform on HBO giving Black creators the resources and room to develop, Insecure, now in its final season, has meant just as much to audiences as it has to the actors, writers, and directors who made the show what it is. “For six years, I’ve had this security blanket of a dope show, phenomenal writers—I don’t even have to question what they’re bringing to me, because I know it’s going to be good. And even if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I know they’re going to challenge me,” Orji says. “It’s the unspoken trust that you have in the show.”
Hence Orji freaking out while on the phone with her costar Jay Ellis.
“He was like, ‘Yvonne, I’m trying to tell you, you’re chasing a high that you will never get. It’s so hard to have what we had. The camaraderie that we have, the chemistry that we have, the writing for nuanced Black characters and nobody being a token,'” Orji says. “I want to believe that there are now more Black creators and creatives in spaces of power to greenlight shows, to work behind the scenes and in front of the scenes to create the same environment. But I’m not going to front: What we had was very special.”
Orji charts her personal and professional growth after five seasons, the legacy she hopes Insecure will leave in TV history, and the impact that the show has (and will continue to have) for Black creators.
Insecure about Insecure
Prior to landing the role of Molly, Orji was pursuing a career in stand-up with no real acting credits to her name.
“My biggest challenge to overcome was that I was enough to take this on,” Orji says. “In the beginning, there was that moment of, ‘Oh my God, they’re about to fire me, because they’re going to realize I was only good at the audition.’ That was a little imposter syndrome kicking in.
“It’s like, you’ve been practicing and then they drafted you,” she continues. “Can you now rise to the occasion?”
Orji not only rose to the occasion but she also found herself in a role that showed her another side of what she’s able to do as a comedian. “As a stand-up, I am big onstage. I am bold. I’m basically like the Kelli character [played by Natasha Rothwell],” Orji says. “But tapping into the Molly character, I have to be more nuanced. I have to tell a joke with a single look or a head tilt or a quick sarcasm that’s muted or understated. And so for that, I’m grateful, because it’s easy to stick to the thing that you do so naturally, which [for me was] big, broad, bold comedy. But then to be challenged to get the same effect by being a little bit more nuanced, that’s the gift that Insecure has definitely given me.”
Orji not only had to navigate playing Molly a certain way, but also playing a character that became a lightning rod in the Insecure fandom primarily for dating choices that amounted to a track record of self-sabotage. That heat around Molly hit a fever pitch in season four, which focused on Molly and Issa’s friendship disintegrating nearly to the brink of no return.
With season five, Orji is hoping audiences will see Molly as less of a lightning rod and more of a mirror to the uglier sides of personal growth.
“It’s easy to misunderstand and it’s easy to judge. But I definitely want Molly’s legacy to be one where people can identify and see themselves in her and not be ashamed or afraid of it,” Orji says. “When you go to school, they teach you but they also give you tests to see if you’re understanding the material. So in Molly’s case life is her test. And sometimes she understood the assignment. And other times she had to repeat the class a couple of times.”
While the romantic storylines in Insecure certainly have their time and place, the primary relationship of the series has always been between Molly and Issa.
As Rothwell, a costar and writer on Insecure, told Fast Company last year:
“Female friendships are so nuanced, and the fights and the hurt can be so subtle. 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.”
It’s that genuine depiction of friendship in all its bruises and bliss that Orji hopes will be part of the show’s overall legacy.
“Selfishly, we hope that this show goes down in history like In Living Color, like Fresh Prince, like A Different World, like Girlfriends—all the classic shows we grew up with,” Orji says. “Hopefully, it is that friendship that’s pointed to in years to come like, ‘Yo that was a friendship that they had to grow into.’ And sometimes everything’s not so linear. Sometimes friendships can be fractured, but not broken. And if they’re fractured, it’s just like with a bone, you heal them, you bring them back, and they are stronger than ever.
“I don’t think necessarily Issa or the writers set out to be an iconic show,” Orji continues. “We just set out to tell real, true, authentic stories that stem from the real life of the writers and characters and people that we know. Anytime you stick close to the truth, it really rings true for a lot of people.”
The legacy of Insecure
Broader still, Orji also wants Insecure’s legacy to be a reminder for major platforms to give overlooked creators an opportunity in the way that HBO gave Prentice Penny and Melina Matsoukas an opportunity on Insecure as the showrunner and an executive producer-director, respectively.
“The fact that it would even be called a risk is laughable. Prentice has been a writer for decades and was just now given his shot to be a showrunner. It’s not a risk. He could do it, and he proved that he could do it,” Orji says. “It’s the same thing with Melina. I would imagine anybody who works with Rhianna or Beyoncé has to have a certain level of excellence, because these are people who demand it.
“I hope that that’s the legacy,” Orji continues. “I mean, we really have to credit Issa Rae. This was her baby. She was new in so many things and was like, let me bring on other people who are also new [or haven’t been given bigger opportunities]. I’m forever grateful for that.”
Looking forward, Orji is aiming to do the same as a producer working with more African-centered stories and creators.
“The same thing Issa did for Inglewood, let me do that for Nigeria, for West Africa,” says Orji, who is Nigerian. “What this opportunity has cemented in me, it’s always been a thing I’m passionate about, but now seeing how it was doable, I’m totally here for opening the door for the next wave of creatives from the diaspora.”