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How Natasha Rothwell Became A Standout Act

Culture

“I just didn’t know why I was resisting the thing that I was naturally good at and gave me the most joy”

In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

“Awkward recognize awkward” is how Natasha Rothwell got in bed with Issa Rae and her hit HBO show Insecure. It goes a bit deeper than that, but the actress tells us their connection was one of many factors (timing, skill, and experience are some others). But when we chat on the phone from opposite coasts, Rothwell is far from awkward. She’s jovial, articulate, and charming, much like her character Kelli.

Insecure isn’t Rothwell’s first big break. She worked as a writer on a little show called SNL and starred in Netflix’s original show The Characters. But, we think it’s safe to say, it’s one of the reason’s she’s slated to blow up in the coming months. She was upped as a regular on the show toward the end of the first season and she’s developing her own comedy for HBO, which she’ll write and star in.

Maybe a more fitting motto would be "talent recognize talent." We’ll let Rothwell tell you about it herself in the interview ahead. 

Is there a moment you knew you wanted to become an actress? 
I've always performed. From the time that I was little, I was pretty precocious and always gravitated toward performing arts. But I was scared at first, deciding to do it for a living. So, initially, I majored in journalism, and I was pretty miserable. My parents were kind of dumbfounded that I even decided to major in journalism because they knew I loved to write, but they were like, “There are too many rules for you!” 

So, my freshman year of college I saw a play. I was definitely one of those theater people that knew I desperately wanted to be on stage, so I just hung around a bunch. There was a performance of “House of Blue Leaves,” and in the program for the show—I'm in the audience by myself being real deep—there was a Langston Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred," and I just bawled. I read it before the curtain even went up. I was just having a moment in the audience where I was like, “I'm deferring a dream. I know what it is I want to do. I don't want to be in the audience. I want to be on stage. What am I doing?” And that was a really pivotal moment for me, and I remember having a sort of after-school special moment with my parents. I sat them down over winter break, and I was like, “I'm gonna major in theater!” And they're like, “Well, duh. What were you doing?” They were so supportive, and let me come to that conclusion on my own.

And is there a moment that you knew you wanted to focus on comedy?
I've always had a sense of humor. Jokes and a sense of humor are pretty much the core of my family—we're a very happy family—and making each other laugh was a big part of that. But I think after I'd majored in theater, I found a natural chemistry with comedic roles. I think to do comedy well, you have to really respect the gravity, you have to be really vulnerable and commit; there has to be a commitment when you do something full out. Like, you see Melissa McCarthy go balls to the wall, and it's like, “Oh, these people believe what they're doing.” So, I found myself drawn to those roles where it was just like, “Oh, it's requiring a lot of me to do this comedy in a real authentic way.” I mean, I resisted it. I graduated and wanted to do deep roles where I was like, “Oh, I want to play Medea in Medea.' Not Tyler Perry's Madea, you know what I mean? I was like, “I want to beat my chest and cry,” and I just didn't know why I was resisting the thing that I was naturally good at and gave me the most joy. 

How did you start working with Issa Rae on Insecure?
I've always been a fan of her work. I knew of Issa through Awkward Black Girl, her web series, before I knew her personally. I was so impressed by her putting a story online that was just similar to mine in that we're not glorifying a black woman as being something crazy, something that's this sexual object, we're not making her the “wise mama.” This is just an awkward girl who's trying to get through the day, and it really resonated with me. Shortly after I had finished working at SNL, and I was in the middle of my Netflix Characters special, my rep set up a meeting with Amy Gravitt, an exec over at HBO. After speaking with me and talking to me, she was like, “You know what? We have this show in development, we think you would be great for.” And it was the show. I met with Issa Rae and Prentice Penny, our showrunner, and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it was love at first sight where I was like, "Yes! She's better than I thought!" You know there's the phrase, "game recognize game?" I think, "awkward recognizes awkward." I think we clocked each other's awkward, and I'm so lucky that she took a risk on me and hired me for a show. 


You started writing for Insecure before you started acting on the show? 
Yeah! I was hired as a writer for the show. Prentice and Issa knew that I was sort of a writer-performer, and had clocked pretty early on an interest in having me on the show in some capacity.  I didn't know if they knew that that was sort of the dream. Although, just being on the show as a writer was a dream come true. Maybe two or three months into writing the show, Prentice called me into his office, and Issa was there, and I was just convinced that I had messed up. It felt like being called into the principal's office. And at the time we were working on the character [of Kelli] as writers and working on this character outside of myself, not even considering me for the part. But when he called me in the office, he was just like, “Would you like to play Kelli?” I screamed like a crazy person, and then tried not to cry on him, but cried on myself, and I was like, “Absolutely. I would love to play her.” And to his credit, and to Issa's credit, I am grateful that they were very focused on cultivating all of the staff's talents and abilities. They saw that I was a writer-performer, and have been supportive of that.

Is there one you prefer over the other? 
Honestly, I love both so much. I think I get so much out of both, and they're so complementary. I've always written, but, for me, the acting on stage was my access into the industry, and so that was my first foot forward. I think once I began to trust myself as a writer, I began to be seen as a writer. I don't know how I feel about other people needing to see me as a writer for me to be able to trust it, but that was a huge part of it, I think. Being asked to write for SNL, even prior to that I'd been writing and doing stuff at school. But that was a really big cosine of my ability, it really emboldened me to take risks. After that, I was able to write and star in my Characters special, and it really solidified me as a creative and a whole performer. So right now, it feels like my right arm and my left arm. If I'm not doing both, it feels kind of weird. 

You auditioned for SNL and didn't get hired as a cast member. Looking back, do you see that as a blessing in disguise?
Oh, absolutely. Having the opportunity to audition for the show came out of left field for me. Growing up, I had never seen someone that looks like me on the show so, for me, it was never a dream. Even just the process of being invited to Studio 8H to perform characters that I'd written on stage, to me, that was the victory. Sasheer [Zamata]'s a good friend of mine, and I couldn't have been more thrilled for her getting on the show because I really do believe that when one of us rises, people of color, we all rise. It was a real group celebration when that happened for her. I grieved when I didn't get it; I wouldn’t be very tuned in if I said, “Yeah, it was fine. It was whatever.” But the head writers reached out and they were just like, “You know, your piece is one of the best-written pieces we've seen. Would you write for the show?” To me, that was just mind-blowing, and such a huge, huge win for me personally, emotionally, and creatively. That they saw something in me on that stage that was worthy. It was a really cool experience overall to go through!

I noticed that you were at the Women's March in L.A., and you've been very vocal about everything that's been going on, in terms of politics, on social media. What was the experience at the Women's March like for you?
It was incredible. I moved out here from New York and I lived in D.C. for a super long time, so had I been back east, I would have definitely gone to D.C. But I was so grateful that so many people turned up in L.A. to speak out against what our president is doing and what he stands for. It was such a great community of people, of all walks of life, that were standing together for a cause, men, women, the LGBTQI community. I protested the night of the election, and there's a sense of public grieving when something like this happens—when you feel like your voice wasn't heard, when you feel that the person that's been elected to the highest office in the land doesn't represent who we are as a people—that when you come together and march, it’s medicinal. You feel like, "Okay here are like-minded people, I'm not alone, we have the strength to continue to fight and resist," and that is really important to me. And I also think the talk about the difference between feminism and the intersectionality of feminism is so important. For me, as a woman of color, I wanted to make sure that my voice was heard, to make sure that the feminism represented at this march was intersectional, and not, quote, unquote white feminism that seems to be getting a lot of pushback. That idea that you can be a feminist, but not support other's cultures, sexualities, it's an exclusive version of feminism that I feel was rejected by the marches, which I really liked.

What do you think is the role of comedy, or the arts in general, in politically tumultuous times like these?
I think it's important to make art for a myriad of reasons. The least of which is that I think laughter is medicinal, and I think there is an escapism aspect—an act of self-care. People reached out to me shortly after the election about how Insecure was helpful for them because they just saw themselves on TV. It was sort of very baseline, and it's not extraordinary, but, to me, that means a lot.

I think it's an opportunity to be vocal about where you stand and what you believe. I think it's so important for us to make art, and to be loud and to resist with our art. And, like I said, even if the baseline is just to make someone laugh, that is doing a good service.

Can you talk about the comedy project that you have in the works with HBO? 
There's not too much that I can say about it right now, but I can say that I'm really excited. I'm in the process right now of developing it. It's kind of a ridiculous opportunity; like when I sit back and think about it, I'm like, “I can't believe I tricked them into letting me have my own show.” (laughs). I'm so grateful for it, I think that, to HBO's credit, they've been real champions of me and my work, and I think in order to do what I do, I really have to be authentic as possible, and that's something they value here. I feel like my show will definitely allow that to show, so I'm excited about that. And it's a comedy, so that'll be fun too.

If there was one piece of advice that you would give a young black boy or girl living in America right now, what would it be?
I would say, you are beautiful, you matter, your life matters, you're valuable, and they are loved. There's a twitter hashtag that was circling, I think around the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings, of just young black children being happy.

Yeah, #CarefreeBlackKids, I think it was.
Yes! That's what I would say: be carefree right now. We're fighting a fight for you so that way, hopefully, you don't have to fight it. To me, that's the most important thing; I don't want the young black children to be robbed of that joy. I'm fighting and will continue to fight.