Insecure’s Yvonne Orji’s Got Good Advice for Non-Hollywooders, Too

Estimated reading time ~ 5 min

Yvonne Orji (Molly on HBO's Insecure) alongside co-star Issa Rae.

There’s a lot to love about Insecure, the hilarious, sometimes painfully real new-ish show from writer/actress/producer Issa Rae.

Chief among the list? Yvonne Orji, the 33 year-old Nigerian actress who plays Molly, Rae’s BFF and a bosslady lawyer who is killing it in every area of her life, save for when it comes to men.

In real life, Orji is equally ambitious. She earned a master’s degree in public health and spent a couple years working overseas before giving it all up to pursue a career in comedy. In fact, it was her stand-up — used in lieu of a traditional audition tape — that eventually caught the attention of Rae and landed Orji her breakthrough role on one of the most refreshingly authentic and relatable shows on premium cable. She’s also currently working on her own sitcom, FirstGen, based on her experiences as an immigrant pursuing a career in stand-up. Here, Orji talks career 180s, the problem with Black “catchall” characters, and why she really, really hates the word “no.”

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We’ve been talking a lot about stereotypes in film and television. We love that Molly, even though she’s the best friend, hasn’t been relegated to the typical sidekick role. Tell us about what it’s been like to play a “supporting” character who’s as nuanced as Molly seems.

I’ve always seen the role as being in service to Issa — Insecure is her vision, voice, and story. I’m just in the passenger seat helping her navigate. Molly’s multidimensionality is a testament to the writers, who did an amazing job of creating fully fleshed out characters. Molly has her own set of flaws and insecurities; she’s also lovable, likeable and a good best friend. My job is to humanize her by piecing together all the characteristics already set up for her and then just fill her in with her attitude.

It also helps that the show’s writers are people of all colors with very diverse experiences. Having that hodgepodge of real people helps create characters who feel real — like they’re your best friend or sister — and don’t fall into tropes. A lot of times when a character feels flat, it’s because the people who wrote that character don’t understand the voice. It also doesn’t hurt that Molly is based on one of Issa’s real-life best friends, so she, you know, exists in real life.

Are strangers now coming up to you on the street asking to be your best friend?

People will come up to me and say, “I used to be a Molly. Girl, get your life together.” Or “I still am a Molly. Help!” She feels real and relatable, so it’s been fun to watch people see themselves in her. I once had a gay White guy come up to me and say, “You know what? I’m Molly.” I thought, I’m not even mad at it. Go be Molly! But also get help, because Molly needs help. I call her a beautiful mess. She ends the first season on this note of "I need to get my life together, but I don’t know how." I’ve had a number of people tell me that they have girlfriends like Molly and have watched the show together as a way to stage an intervention.

I was going to ask about that. Do you and Issa ever talk about the impact the show is having or the kinds of conversations it’s sparking?

One thing I appreciate about Issa is that she says this isn’t every Black woman’s story; a lot of Black women can relate, but it’s not a catchall. That’s a problem in Hollywood. People think Black characters are a catchall, and catchalls appeal to no one. There’s no one-size-fits-all Black experience. I love that not all of our viewers are people of color. It’s Issa’s specificity that makes this show universal in that way. When you’re specific, characters feel more authentic. And that captures the attention of people who think, 'I’m not familiar with this world, but I want to be in it! We’re all different, but a lot of the things we want are the same: Equality, love, economic equality.' It’s how you process those things that makes you unique.

During season one, we live-tweeted the show each week, so we were always very aware of what people were getting from the storylines. What happens if a straight Black man has a homosexual experience? What do you do at work if another Black girl isn’t as polished as you? How do you approach mental health? We left a lot of things open-ended. Part of life is being faced with these questions, and we grow and evolve based on how we answer them.

You have a master’s degree in public health. How did you go from that to Hollywood?

I started doing comedy after entering the Miss Nigeria In America Pageant in 2006. I realized I didn't have a talent and that was essential to participating, so I did the only logical thing I knew to do: Pray, and all I heard back was "do comedy." Suddenly, I discovered this gift of humor — it was buried deep down in me. After I graduated in 2008, I worked overseas in Liberia doing HIV and teen pregnancy prevention and setting up a mentorship program. I came back to the U.S in 2009, deep in the middle of the recession. and saw all these people doing career switcharoos because they had lost their jobs. It inspired me to take a leap of faith and start doing comedy and acting full time. I like to say that comedy was my gateway drug. While acting was my first love, I didn't have a lot of experience or reps to submit me for roles, so I just stuck to working the comedy muscle and that at least guaranteed me an audience and real-time practice. I even started my own Open-Mic called Momma, I Made It! and got to meet a lot of up-and-coming comics that way. Eventually I teamed up with a group of actors in NYC and created a theater piece entitled the First Generation Nigerian-American Project. After three years of living in NYC, I relocated to L.A., where, through someone I cold-messaged on Facebook, landed an unpaid internship in a writer’s room. Before that, I didn’t even know what a writer’s room was. But once I was there, I realized that it’s where a lot of the power in Hollywood lies: to be able to create your own content. While in LA, I was still performing and putting out videos on YouTube and Issa ended up seeing some of my stuff. So when HBO started casting for Insecure, she reached out and said, “You remind me of the friend this character is based on. You should audition.” I did, and the rest is history.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give the newly graduated version of yourself?

"No's" are not always definite. The thing that has helped me most is not accepting the first “no” as a final answer. I always think, 'Is this a "no" because you can't do it, don't want to do it, it hasn't been done before, or it certainly can't be done?' So my advice would be to keep at it, even in the face of "no's." From the time I started doing comedy to booking Insecure was 10 years. You never know when your "big" break is going to happen, so treat everything as "big," because at the end of the day, it's all important. Everything you do adds up to making that moment the best possible version of itself. So, I'd tell newly graduated me to "pace yourself, keep the faith, hold on to hope, and keep going even when you want to give up."

Image courtesy of Jan-Willem Dikkers via Yvonne Orji

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