In Issa Rae’s hit HBO comedy, "Insecure," two thirty-something black women navigate a Los Angeles world of tactless co-workers, online dating and plain awkwardness.
And with every episode, the show just keeps getting better. Even former President Obama is a fan.
Yvonne Orji plays Molly Carter, the best friend of Issa’s character (also named Issa) and a top-notch lawyer, who finds herself embroiled in a complicated relationship at the end of Season 2. We caught up with Orji before the last two episodes air to get her take on what’s happening in her life, on-screen and off-screen.
Here’s the conversation, edited for clarity.
Carol Shih: How did you and Issa become friends? I heard it happened over Twitter.
Yvonne Orji: In 2008, right before I traveled to Liberia to work there for six months, and right before President Obama [was elected], I was thinking, at the time, that if he becomes the president, Africans from all over the continent are going to try to claim him. So I did this video of this fictitious African woman going up to the White House trying to claim Obama as her relative. Then I got on the plane and forgot about it.
When I moved to LA for a writing internship in 2011, that was when “Awkward Black Girl” was all the rage. Issa was hot and poppin’ at the time, and I had this idea where I was like, she’s African, she’s cool, and she’s a content creator. She’ll love me, and I’ll love her. I hit her up on Twitter, and I started as if we had been old buddies. “Hey, girl, how you doin’? I’m in LA, let’s have lunch.” She DMs me and invites me to a house party she’s having. It was a wine down, a game night. I was thinking this Twitter thing really works. Of course her friends are asking, “How do you guys know each other?” And I said, “Twitter!” And she was like, “What are you talking about? We didn’t meet on Twitter. I saw your video a long time ago and when you hit me up, I wanted to meet you.”
It’s crazy how it happened, but that’s how it happened.
CS: This show accurately portrays how microaggressions play out in the workplace. Do you relate to the situations Issa and Molly face?
YO: I’ve had a background in corporate America before going into entertainment. I got this world. I’ve been in this world. I worked in public health, I sat at the desk, I did the overtime. When there was a promotion, I stayed up late and made a presentation. I’ve been the only black girl in a sea of white faces. I just completely know how to tackle this character.
CS: In Season 2, Molly finds out that her male co-worker gets paid more, and she attempts to close the pay gap in her own way. Do you think she handled it the best way?
YO: I think Molly’s still handling it. That story line isn’t over. She’s still trying to be a lawyer in this situation and think analytically. She’s still trying to figure out how to present her case because that’s what she does. It’s almost kind of weird for her because she’s like, “Do I really need to present my case? I’m a lawyer, I stay late. Everyone knows I do a good job. This shouldn’t even have to be an issue.” So part of her brain has to get past that, and her other brain has to chalk it up to the fact that this happens to women of color.
CS: Speaking of color, I know you’re working on your own show, “FirstGen.” Can you say more about it? How’s it going?
YO: We are chugging along. I am super hopeful for it. We’re looking to attach somebody to the project to take the show to the level we want it to.
It’s called "FirstGen" because I honestly feel if you’re a child of immigrants from any country, you’re going to get the show. As a child of Nigerian immigrants, it’s important for me to portray that in a very truthful way. We’re trying to find somebody who gets that voice and understands my vision and will make it their own. That’s not an easy thing to find, so we want to get it right.
CS: Do you know Yaa Gyasi?
YO: I love Yaa Gyasi! She wrote “Homegoing.”
CS: I remember her saying that when she immigrated to Alabama from Ghana, she had to learn how to navigate that space between being black and African.
YO: I really wanted to do “FirstGen” because people just see a show like “Black-ish” and they’re like, “Hey, good. We’ve got the black experience covered, right? Good.” And it’s like, “No, we’ve got the Caribbean experience, the African experience.” I learned things about African Americans by watching “Black-ish” because that’s not how I grew up. It’s still a lesson in blackness because I’m a Nigerian American and I grew up with specific things that are tied to my culture. That’s why for “FirstGen,” I want to get it out because it’s important for people to see that all black people aren’t monotonic. There isn’t just one specific black story.
CS: I noticed when I Google your name, many articles about your virginity pop up. Is that annoying, or do you like having that conversation? How does it make you feel?
YO: The fact that it’s been causing a lot of chatter is evident that there’s not been a lot of understanding, listening and mutual ground on the topic. That’s why it’s become a point of conversation. I’m 33. Obviously, I’ve lived with this decision [to wait for marriage] for a long time, and it’s not new to me. What I’m doing comes down to a choice. There’s power in choices.
CS: People are probably shocked by the contrast, because your character, Molly, is pretty sexually liberal.
YO: I guess I should take it as a compliment that I’m really convincing in this role that people can’t separate the two. I feel like that should be the glaring headline: “Do you guys know we’re not actually having sex?”
It takes many, many, many steps to make what you guys see as believable. That’s what allows me to be able to play this character: knowing that I’m protected and knowing that the writers understand my stance.
CS: How are your parents handling the show? Do you watch it with them?
YO: I knew some racy stuff was going to happen, and my parents are conservative. So I called [during Season 1] and said, “Guys, it might be a good idea to just not watch Episodes 5, 6 or 8.” Just letting them know, btdubs, drop out of this one. But they’re super excited and happy and proud.
The first season was featured in The Washington Post, and my family lives in Maryland. To have my family and aunts and uncle call my parents and say, “We got The Washington Post on Sunday! We saw a big feature spot!” — that was really heartwarming. It felt like all those years — the accumulation of it — came to fruition in a really dope way for them.
CS: If you were Molly’s friend, what would you say to her, now that we’re nearing the end of Season 2?
YO: I would say, “Molly, love, it’s time to go back to therapy because it’s clear that everything was not finished when you left.” And I would just tell her to guard her heart. I think Issa’s trying to tell her that … and she knows Molly. Molly is not built for an open relationship. Someone’s going to get hurt at some point. I mean, what does the end game look like?