YVONNE ORJI IN LOS ANGELES, SEPTEMBER 2016. PHOTOS: DANI BRUBAKER. STYLING: TURNER/THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: NIKKI PROVIDENCE/FORWARD ARTISTS USING FREE YOUR MANE AND HEAT FREE HAIR. MAKEUP: NATASHA SEVERINO/FORWARD ARTISTS USING NARS.
Ostensibly, Insecure, HBO’s newest series helmed by comedians Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, is Rae’s show: it was born from her semi-autobiographical web series, Awkward Black Girl, which explored the personal and professional travails of a 20-something black woman. Premiering this Sunday night, Insecure takes that show’s gimlet-eyed approach to race and romance and gives it a bigger world to play in. Rae plays a woman also named Issa, who navigates a less-than-ideal job and frustrating boyfriend in present-day Los Angeles.
But as these things often go, Issa’s best friend, Molly, played by Yvonne Orji, becomes an invaluable part of the narrative. Molly is a whip smart corporate attorney, who, for all her professional success, is unlucky in love. Her and Issa’s friendship—and their combined charisma—form the bedrock of the show.
Orji is a relative newcomer. She emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. when she was six years old. After studying to become an OBGYN, and receiving a Masters in Public Health, she turned to standup comedy. Rae discovered her from YouTube clip, and the two developed a mutual admiration. Molly is her first major role, although she’s also written and produced a pilot of her own about the first-generation immigrant experience, First Gen, which she hopes to sell to a major network.
Interview recently reached Orji by phone to discuss Insecure and her newfound success.
MATT MULLEN: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I should preface this by saying I’ve only gotten to see four episodes of the show.
YVONNE ORJI: Ooh, what did you think?
MULLEN: I cannot remember the last show that I’ve consistently laughed out loud through. Plus it only gets better. I’m so excited to keep watching, and also to see where this show goes. I think it’s going to be really huge.
ORJI: Oh, that’s great. I’ll tell Issa. “Issa, they love you!” [laughs]
MULLEN: I think it’s really both of you, and your chemistry. Has it felt similarly exciting for you? Has there been a big build up?
ORJI: It’s just hitting me. You shoot it and you feel like it’s special when you’re doing it. And of course we had a really good cast, and we all were friends, so it felt like you were working with your best friends every day. We were just playing and hoping that what we felt about the show, everybody else would feel about it. But I think now that it’s so close to the premiere, and some of the reviews are coming out, it’s like, “They get it, they like it!” It’s becoming more and more real. Before it was like you’re planning a surprise party, and no one else knows about it but you. But now people are finding out about it. And it’s like “Surprise—it’s good, yay!”
MULLEN: On screen, you and Issa seem like you’ve been best friends your whole life. Where did the chemistry come from? Do you hang out off set?
ORJI: I posted a YouTube clip in 2008 when President Obama was about to be inaugurated, and I’m Nigerian, so the clip was about how if he wins, all the Africans will come out trying to claim him. Unbeknownst to me, Issa is half-Senegalese, so I guess she saw it, and at that point she was like, “Oh, I think this girl’s funny.” That’s when she found out about me. I found out about her when I moved to L.A. in 2012 and I was like, what’s the deal with Awkward Black Girl? I just engulfed it. We officially met in 2012 and hung out one time at a game night. It was that mutual respect of black girls in L.A. trying to work and create their own material. Over the years, it wasn’t like we went out for sushi every week, but it was like, “Hey, I recognize your talent. I recognize what you’re trying to do from afar.” When she actually called me and told me that HBO was going forward with a pilot, and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in auditioning for the role of Molly, I was so surprised that she remembered me. She had done so much with her web series—and I hadn’t been a part of any of that—so it was like, “Wow, the fact that you remembered me and thought of me was huge, and I’m so grateful for that.” That chemistry is natural just because it feels like we’ve known each other for a long time, even if we haven’t been in the same spaces all those times. When we got on set it was like we picked up where we left off.
MULLEN: I can clearly see why she thought of you and remembered you for the role. You’re such a good fit. Is there a lot of improv involved?
ORJI: Somebody asked me that yesterday, [but] the writing was so spot-on that I didn’t even have to. There were times that I wanted to add stuff, and they were like, “Nah, you got it.” As a comic you want to use everything; you want to use your face, your hands. And they’re like, “You’re enough. The little you do, that’s perfect for what the scene calls for.” Sometimes they would allow me to play; they’d say, “Let’s get what’s on the paper down,” and then we could play. But for the most part, from what I’ve seen, it was literally what’s on the page. The writer’s room was amazing. If you think me and Issa are close, looking at their Instagrams, I was getting jealous: “Wait, you guys are having too much fun.” They would have nerf wars. They’d go out to lunch together off set. They really bonded so much, so I feel like some of the chemistry you see from Issa and Molly is from the writer’s room.
MULLEN: Did you interact with the writers at all, or were they sort of in a different universe?
ORJI: Before we started shooting they invited the cast to come in to the writer’s room, just so we could get a feel for our arc, and the characters. And it was great to meet them. As we were talking they would ask me to tell some of my own stories, and I was like, “Is this going to be in the script?” And they were like, “Maybe, just keep talking.” [laughs] Then they were also on set—all the writers got a cameo on the show. They intricately put them in difference scenes throughout the season, which was fun…
MULLEN: I feel like Molly is in some ways a role model: she has this high-powered job, she’s a good friend to Issa, she’s really sex positive. Do you see Molly as a role model? Who were your models growing up?
ORJI: I think all the characters on the show will resonate with a lot of people, because we all have a little bit of these characteristics in us. We all have a little bit of Issa’s awkwardness. And then we have a little of Molly, because I feel like she’s compartmentalized. She’s winning at work and in life, but she’s failing miserably at love. I call it “Molly moments,” like, “He said hello to me—he must love me.” Absolutely not. That’s not how this works. [laughs] So I think a lot of people will identify with her as a character and hopefully as a role model, because she is a lawyer who wants to get ahead and do right. And she worked hard. Molly was raised pretty much in the hood, and made it out and went to college, and now is a lawyer. So in that regard she absolutely is a woman who rises above the stereotype, whatever that may be. As for my role models … you know, I’m an immigrant, so we didn’t grow up with too much TV. My parents were like, “You must read your books.” But I loved the Huxtables. Claire was definitely one of those women who knew how to handle everything. It’s like, is she superwoman? Because I get it. And she didn’t even have to do much. When she scolded the kids it was with a look and you knew not to even play with her. I also grew up with TGIF, Step by Step, Family Matters. It was fun just to see different types of families on TV.
MULLEN: What’s the story with the show you’re developing, First Gen?
ORJI: It’s the story of my life. I came to America when I was six. In true African form, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, or lawyer, or engineer. And I was the good Nigerian girl; I was doing all those things. I was salutatorian of my class; I got into George Washington University early acceptance. Then I took organic chemistry and I was like, “Oh, no. That’s not going to work.” But the idea of being a doctor sounded good—even though my last name is Orji, so Dr. Orji might have been a little bit of a problem. [laughs] I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I prayed, and all I heard back was: “Do comedy.” It was something I had never done before, but I gave in, tried comedy, and the rest is history. That was 10 years ago. So in First Gen, I have this character Joanna, who has this late coming of age—it all happens when she’s about 25. I’m living this juxtaposition of having the American Dream attainable to you, but also having the first gen lens of what’s expected of you as a child of immigrants. I wanted to explore that dichotomy. After the pilot came out I got messages from people, like, “I’m a dentist, but I want to be a fashion designer.” My hope for the show is that it highlights the struggle of honoring your parents, and paying them back for the sacrifices they made, but also stepping out and living your own truth. I hope, I dream, I pray, I wish to be able to get the First Gen story out. I think it’s necessary. Like Insecure, it’s so good for people to see themselves represented.
MULLEN: What does the future look like for you?
ORJI: Standup—I call it my gateway drug. I’m still performing. I’m currently writing a feature. Before Insecure I was a wedding emcee—a host for weddings. That’s a world that a lot of people are not familiar with. So I’m writing something in that vein. Also when you’re the single one at the wedding, but you make everyone else’s day amazing. That’s all keeping me busy. I think Insecure has been a great entryway into the industry. I just want to keep that going.
INSECURE PREMIERES THIS SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, ON HBO.