On Insecure, Issa Rae’s HBO comedy about black life and dating in Los Angeles, Yvonne Orji plays Molly, an ambitious, single lawyer with a hole in her heart like everyone else. The first season saw Molly warily dipping into the dating pool with little success and surviving a fractured friendship, while Season 2 finds her reluctantly exploring the benefits of therapy and seeking professional ascension as her best friend deals with her own post-breakup delusions. Yes, Lawrence is still hot, real love remains elusive for Issa and Molly, and everyone is as emotionally screwed up as ever. Here’s a lightly edited conversation I had with Orji in mid-June about Insecure’s resonance, Molly’s growth, being a committed virgin and all the hot sex on the show.
JEZEBEL: Insecure sparks so many great discussions and social media fights in black circles, like when Molly doesn’t date Jared because of his one gay experience, the whole Team Lawrence debate. What do you attribute that emotional investment to?
YVONNE ORJI: I think people are into it because it’s real. Because they recognize themselves or someone they know within these characters. They’ve been in some of these scenarios or are challenged to think of how they would react in some of these scenarios. Anything that registers with people makes them want to have a conversation about it, makes them have a real physical reaction to it, because it’s a familiar place.
Do you ever worry about anything being too offensive?
For the pilot, there was a minor thing where I was like, this might be sensitive, and it didn’t even make it into the pilot so it was like, okay great. That was the only thing that made me raise my eyebrow. For the most part, the writers know. I don’t think anyone’s goal is to be offensive at any point, but it is to have real conversations. As black people, we say things in our circles. Like, how Issa talks to Molly is not how she would talk at [Issa’s job] We Got Y’all, or how Molly would talk at the law firm. For the most part, it’s a comedy. A lot of what we’re trying to do is have fun and not offend, just be truthful and honest.
Do you want to say what that offensive thing was?
Nah. The writers do an amazing job of being equal parts funny as all-get-out and equal parts real and honest. I think this season you’re gonna see the real dramedy of this whole thing. The show has a phenomenal balance of really pulling from both worlds and having those moments of dark despair, having a comedy relief moment that’s authentic and not like, hey guys we need a joke in here, bada bing bang. I think of Episode 7 [in Season 1] when Molly’s driving Issa home from Malibu. Issa’s like, “I don’t even know what I’m gonna say [to Lawrence]” and Molly’s like, “Well practice on me.” They’re still fighting, they haven’t talked for a whole episode, and Issa starts going and Molly immediately goes “F you!” That was a choice I made. I have three older brothers and in my mind I’m thinking, how would a dude say this? I’m supposed to pretend like I’m Lawrence, so if my girl is trying to low-key apologize and we haven’t gotten anything out, I’m not here for this. So, “F you!” It took Issa by surprise. We did it two or three takes with her busting out laughing.
I feel like maybe you improvise the most because you’ve done stand-up? Or do you stick to what’s on the page?
No, let me tell you, I probably improvise the least. Natasha [Rothwell], who’s also a writer on the show and plays Kelly—half the stuff that makes it in is her. That episode where she goes, “So, straight, straight, straight, Lee Daniels,” that was her. That’s just her brilliance. She’s a genius. I won’t spoil it for you, but in the first episode of Season 2, there’s a hysterical line that she made up on the fly and it’s foolish. For me, it’s kind of like designated improv, whereas Natasha’s off the cuff. I like to get permission. She’s in the writers’ room and they have such good banter between them that she probably has more liberty to take. But also, I’m telling you, the words on the page, as is, are just so funny that really, you just have to deliver them and you have magic.
When you were reading the script in the beginning, what were some of the themes that really got you interested?
I just thought it was fun. Like, the fact that Issa’s rapping about a broken body part [see: “Broken Pussy”]. That in and of itself, I was like, what show is this? Who’s gonna allow this? And whoever’s gonna allow this, I want to be part of this. Also, if this is what your mind is thinking in the pilot, what is the rest of the show gonna be like? I liked the honest portrayal of both of their work lives. I loved the honest portrayal of Issa in this environment where she’s the only black person but they’re helping underserved communities which are mostly made up of brown people and having to navigate that space. I know that space. And then having Molly, who is the only black face in a majority white, corporate institution and having to navigate: okay, when I’m in the garage with the security people I can be my black self from Inglewood but when I’m up on the 14th floor I have to be like “Hey guys!” and put on the happy face.
Right, the dynamic of black people in white workspaces is still new to see on TV.
Molly has some deep-rooted things that she needs to get over. But it’s like, dang you think you’re winning but you not. And how do you circumvent that? That was something beautiful to want to explore. Because so many women in their 20s and 30s are doing this right now. This is like a right now show. In 2017, speak to any group of women, black or white or any other race and they’re experiencing something very similar. I get white girls, Asian girls, who come up to me and say how much they love the show and identify with it and it speaks to them. The thing about it is it speaks to everybody in a different way. You get what you get from it because of where you are and the conversations you’re having.
It shows how much black stories are universal, though sometimes Hollywood can make it seem so niche. People have pointed out the similarities between Insecure and Girlfriends. What do you think is different about Issa and Molly’s dynamic in comparison to other black friendships you’ve seen on TV?
I mean, I think this show builds on those depictions that we’ve seen. Part of Issa’s reasoning for wanting to create a show like that is because she grew up seeing the kids from Hillman College in A Different World. Freddie and Cam and Whitley–they’re all different. You knew what you were gonna get from Kim and you were hoping that Kim and Ron finally got together. Same thing with Khadijah and all those girls [on Living Single]. Obviously, being on a premium cable network, you get to explore different dynamics and you get to speak in a certain way.
You get to call each other the N word.
Yeah, you get to speak in a way that’s authentic to the community that you are in and, again, it’s not for everyone. ’Cause there are people who still have issues with the fact that these two educated black girls curse so much on cable network.
I love it.
But then some people are just like, that’s how me and my girlfriends talk. Issa was very smart in saying this is not a show for every black person. Just because you’re black does not mean Insecure is gonna be your favorite show. A lot of times, advertising and corporate marketing will want to be like, this is the catchall and this is the show for every black girl. And it’s like, nah, Sway, this is not the show for every young black girl because there are people who don’t identify with what Issa or Molly go through. There are people who don’t identify with a man like Lawrence for whatever reason. A lot of times, we feel pressured to like something because it’s black or to support something because it’s black. Because if we don’t do it, then we’re never gonna get another show. That’s just so much pressure as opposed to “maybe let me check it out.”
People had an issue with the fact that it was called Insecure. Like, “Wow, really HBO, you finally give a black girl a TV show and then you make it Insecure? Why can’t it be called Powerful.” Well, she’s an awkward black girl. Every human, I don’t care who you are—Beyoncé has insecurities. Oprah has woken up and felt insecure in her life. I think for so long black women and black men, black people, have not had the ability to be portrayed as just okay to be themselves [on TV], flaws and all. Because they feel if anybody gets an inside peek to our flaws they’ll use it against us and try to keep us down. We can be all those things.
And that comes with quantity. It helps that there are more shows with black female leads. Like, I’m a huge fan of Chewing Gum. There’s Being Mary Jane, and Jessica Williams has a movie coming out on Netflix. We’re seeing a variety of images as far as black women dating on TV. We did not have that a few years ago. So I wanted to ask you about the importance of how Molly’s character contributes to this image of black people trying to find love.
The dating experience is my world. I’m a hopeful romantic. Even though I’m single, I really liken my career trajectory to what my love life trajectory could be like. While you’re in the Sunken Place, it feels like this is the pits. But then when you come out of it on the other side and you’re like, look at Jesus. I literally went from just grinding and doing stand-up to being on HBO, second lead on the show. It goes from zero to a hundred real quick. I think about that when it comes to dating. Like, I can go from being single to engaged in six months, who knows. I don’t know! But if it’s right, it’s right. I’m very hopeful. So when I play Molly, I know that she’s in a despair situation, but I play her with a tinge of maybe this could work.
Before you were on the show, what did you feel like needed to be explored more as far the reality of dating? Where were you like, “I don’t see this”?
What I think is interesting is having a show that depicts a strong black woman who has a lot of things going for her but also has some flaws when it comes to dating. Yes, there are some dudes that need to get it together, but, at the same time, just because you have one aspect working for you doesn’t mean that you don’t make mistakes. The fact that we don’t see the mistakes we make or the hand we play in our relationships either working or not working—and it’s not to play the victim but it’s just to be like, hey give it some thought. Are you the Molly chick that goes a dude smiles at me I think he loves me? If so, that may be your issue. Check that, because the narrative that you tell is: He smiled at me and I thought we were gonna have a good time and so I invited him to move in and he just, like, ghosted me. Oh, that’s because you moved probably way too fast. I think that ability, because the show is written by a black woman, to be able to check other black woman and be like, “Hey if this is something you do...” [is important]. As opposed to it being somebody else from another race telling us what to do and how to diminish ourselves.
The absence of the black female voice has been the problem on TV, to where there haven’t been as many black women allowed to write the shows. As far as Molly’s shortcomings, if you had in front of a therapist, what would you say would make her happy? What’s her issue and what does she need?
You know what, I say all the time, I think Molly would make an amazing girlfriend and an amazing wife. It’s just the step in between. It’s like, I probably would’ve been a great doctor if only for the MCAT. I just didn’t want to take the MCAT! I didn’t like studying for that long and then I might not get it right the first time. I don’t wanna be a doctor that bad. And maybe the whole blood situation, but I’m sure I could’ve found a specialty that didn’t require surgery.
I think Molly, it’s the dating regime that prevents her from finding the best kind of love for her. She’s a lawyer. She’s the kinda chick where things make sense to her or they don’t. This is the case. This is a fact. This is truth. This is not truth. And then, case dismissed. She sees black and white. So for her, it’s like, I see a dude, I like him, he seems me, he likes me, let’s cut out all the foolishness. I think once Molly gets to the “we in this together and we’re building” phase, oh my god, she’s gon’ be amazing. This interim phase, she can’t crack the code. And she doesn’t know how to play the game and she doesn’t want to play games. I get it. If she was in front of a therapist, I think it would really be having to have her mind disconnect from lawyer mode. I think she brings lawyer mode into dating mode and matters of the heart aren’t so black and white.
By the end of Season 1, Molly is on this professional dating app and dating Jidenna [laughs]. Do you have personal experience with dating apps?
I was on Coffee Meets Bagel for like five seconds. I’m not the best with dating apps. I was bullied and so I feel like being judged by my picture, something stupid I say in a profile... I’m good. I’d be like, How dare you not double tap me?! You don’t even know the essence of me. You ever try defending yourself to somebody who doesn’t even exist in your reality? I was like, let me get off this app before I become enraged for no reason. I’m the kind of person that when you meet me my essence comes out in real life. I’m not a 2D person. I’m more like a virtual reality, put the goggles on.
So if there was a virtual reality dating app, that would be ideal.
[Laughs] Right? And I also just knew that I’m not the person for a lot of people, no surprise. Like, in my real life, I’m not having sex until I’m married. So that’s a thing that I know eliminates a lot of people from my potential dating pool. And it’s not a thing where some dude says, “Oh she’s just saying that ’cause she hasn’t met me yet.” No sir. Thank you for playing but nah. I just don’t want to waste your time or my time. This is non-negotiable so either you with it or you’re not. And I’m not in the business of trying to convince you to be with it. All the dating apps, they’re face apps. Beyond the pretty face, y’all, this is the real and it’s cool if you can’t get with it, I get it.
Well, is it easier to explain to guys now that it’s out there, the virginity thing, or is it still a point you have to make?
It was never a point of contention. I have shirts that say “Keeping It Locked Till I get That Rock” and I’ve had those shirts since 2008 before I was even up for any kind of roles. Being a virgin was not anything I hid. It was like, y’all this is me, the same way I’m like I’m a comedian or I’m African. It’s, B-T-dubs, it’s not going down but thank you. It was never a thing that I felt hindered me. It was a thing I know made me different and made the margin slimmer in terms of who I dated or even who I let myself be open with. It’s never a thing that I thought would keep me away from a potential mate. For the dudes it did trip out, it’s like that’s cool, you just not him or you’re not ready to be him and that’s okay.
With Issa and Molly, Insecure is helping revolutionize black sex on TV. I’m hoping we’ll see more of it in Season 2.
I feel like we’ve seen black sex portrayed on other shows, especially on premium cable and in film. What we portray is young, black people engaging in sexual activities across the board and also discuss our characters living with the decisions that their actions have led to. Molly is very vocal and blunt when it comes to sexual situations. It’s different because on shows like Sex and the City, Samantha’s character is a liberated white woman who enjoys sex but if she were black, she may be slut-shamed. I think our show does a great job of keeping a good balance of the exchanges. And yes, there is a lot of sex in Season 2, even more so than Season 1.
Do you think about where your humor comes from?
I’m very observational whether it’s my dating life, being an immigrant, my parents. They don’t necessarily think they’re funny, but I do think there are things they present that can be hilarious.
A lot of your comedy material is based on the double consciousness of being Nigerian American, a first-generation immigrant. I’m also an immigrant, from an immigrant family. How did your assimilation into America compare to your Hollywood assimilation?
When I got to America, I had an accent so I was definitely picked on and was trying to find friends and I always felt being Nigerian made me special in some way. But I didn’t understand why the African Americans here didn’t want to be my friends and what made me so different, because coming from Nigeria everybody looks like you and everybody’s black like you, so it’s like, this shouldn’t be an issue. But then, my parents were like: We didn’t bring you here to make friends. We brought you here to make good grades so go ahead and get these As and don’t worry bout being popular. There was a bit of me that was like, that sucks that I can’t do both, but you right though, let me get these As. You can’t be dumb and not pretty. You can hopefully be both, but don’t not be popular and not smart. So I chose to be smart because that’s something I could control. I can’t control if you find me pretty. I can’t control if you think I’m worthy to be your friend, but what I can control is if I study and if I work hard and that’s the thing that I used as my ticket to wherever I wanted to be.
So then transitioning to entertainment, my transition came through faith really. I just believed God and he told me to do something that was so anti anything my immigrant parents knew of, anti anything that I thought I would do. My Nigerian-ness is what makes me succeed. The same level of you gotta do this and you gotta be the best is what I brought to entertainment. The expectation to succeed at the highest level was still there, you’re just applying it to something different. I call Luvvie one of my good friends and Cynthia Erivo—all of these amazing women of African descent that I’m able to text and be like, yo, what’s popping or why is this happening, and they give me advice or they bring me along for the ride or uplift me in the journey.
Season 2 of Insecure premieres this Sunday July 23 at 10:30 ET on HBO.