The 'Insecure' co-star on putting in the work and being excellent.
It’s a Saturday morning in New York City and I’m late to meet Yvonne Orji, the co-star with Issa Rae of Insecure on HBO. Reaching her is no easy matter. The UN General Assembly is on and the streets of Midtown are blocked by police. The whole city is a traffic mess. Even the hotel lobby is set up like an airport security checkpoint. Orji comes down to bring me up to her suite.
In the awkward silence of the elevator, we both recall that we spoke to each other once before—about a year ago. I was still a journalism student, writing for a blog on young Africans. We had talked about her work in comedy and her viral trailer, First Gen.
In the semi-autobiographical pilot, she sought to unpack the woes of being a daughter of Nigerian immigrants, who leaves the assumed lucrative career path of medicine to pursue comedy.
A Packed Debut
This time, Orji is fresh from debuting Rae’s half-hour comedy series at the Urbanworld Film Festival the night before. It’s a spin-off of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a wildly popular web series that put her on the map and—a confession—helped me come to terms with my awkward black girl self back in college.
“Yesterday was really fun,” Orji says with an enthusiastic glow in her eyes. “We had to move theaters. First we had a 100-seater, then a 200-seater, and then we moved to a 400-seater—that was still packed with people sitting on the side. So it's clear people want Insecure.”
Orji stars alongside Rae’s “Issa” character as her best-friend, "Molly"—two women who don’t live up to the ‘strong black woman’ trope. As they ride the struggle bus together, they navigate the intricate, complex and diverse black female experience. Molly, a corporate attorney who fronts like she has everything together professionally, struggles as she looks for external ways to fix her life.
“White people love Molly, black people love Molly” Orji says about her character. “She's lovable, but she's failing miserably at love, and can't seem to figure out that she might be the issue.”
Nobody is Amazing All the Time
For Orji, each insecurity in the characters of Insecure shows how we tend to compartmentalize them—we can be great in one aspect of our lives, yet things may not be so hot in other aspects.
“I think it's really important and interesting that we get to show the realism and duality of people's lives,” she adds. “We're not all amazing every single minute of every single hour.”
After watching the first episode, Rae, alongside her team of writers and cast members, were able to depict exactly what I believe they intended—to contribute to the discourse of TV and entertainment that black folk are not as utopian as assumed. We’re regular, we struggle, we just—be.
From left to right: Jay Ellis, Prentice Penny, Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, and Melina Matsoukas having a laught at HBO's 'Insecure' Block Party. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for HBO.
Blackness + Black Girl Magic Aren't a Monolith
Once the storefront of the Ethiopian restaurant flashed before my eyes as the spot Molly took Issa to celebrate her birthday, I grinned and chuckled on the inside. Because you can’t have sister-friend time without factoring in Ethiopian food. It’s essential.
“I think that when you give people the opportunity and the liberty to just be, you see the authenticity and the real of that specific people group,” Orji says. “Also, Insecure is not everybody's story. Every black person's story is not Insecure, which is fine, because hopefully this opens the door for you to tell your story of how you are just being.”
Even Orji had to hone in the notion of just being herself during taping. As a comedian, she’s accustomed to using all her elements—facial expressions, hands, volume and more—to be sure all of those in the room, including those sitting in the back, understand and connect with her delivery.
“What I've learned, just even about myself in the process of acting, is less is more,” she says. “They really just peeled me back and stripped me down, just, ‘Hey, you're enough—just that little bit is more than you know.’ That was an eye-opener. A lot of the time I don't think I'm doing anything. They'll be like, ‘No, we got the shot, trust me, we go the shot.’ And I had to trust them, you know, because they're looking at the frame, they're looking at the footage, and so they're telling me I got this.”
The Insecure cast and crew having fun at the photo booth with BJ the Chicago Kid at the HBO's 'Insecure' Block Party. Photo by Dorothy Hong/HBO.
“Be Excellently Broke.”
Touching on how things come full circle, a few months after Orji put her all into taping her First Gen trailer (don’t worry—she’s well aware that we’re still somewhat patiently waiting for the series to drop), she got the phone call from Rae, breaking the news that HBO bought her show and encouraging Orji to audition.
“All of these things happened at the moment where I felt like nothing was happening,” she notes. “To see it come full circle—literally, blood, sweat and tears to create this four minute trailer and then four or five months later, I book with an HBO show. What has this world coming to? It's really dope to be a part of the show, and what it means to so many different people.”
When asked what advice she would give those who see themselves in her, especially after filming Insecure, Orji puts emphasis on holding onto faith, putting in the work and just being a good human.
“Hold on to faith, but also do the work,” Orji says. “I think as a Nigerian, as Africans, we have a work ethic that's like none other. It's not just enough to be funny, to be able to write. It’s a must to do the work, write, then rewrite, then keep rewriting, and just keep getting better. Put out excellence—whatever that looks like. Excellence doesn't cost no money. Be excellent in whatever level you're at. If you're broke, be broke and excellent. Be excellently broke.”
The Come-Up Continues
Along with peeping Orji on your screens every Sunday night on HBO, you’ll continue to see her on the comedy circuit. She’ll also start the process of writing an original feature. She then plans on taking her time on the development of First Gen, so it’s just right.
“We released it last year, but these things take time. Insecure was in development for like three years,” she says. “I don't want to rush. If it takes five years for First Gen to come out and be great, well, it's going to take five years. If it takes two, then let's take two. Whatever it is, I want to take the time it needs for it to be great. So it's not dead—it's still my baby—and I definitely want that to be next on my plate.”