With a hit HBO series, razor-sharp wit, and a solid plan to make Hollywood more inclusive, Insecures, Natasha Rothwell is damn near unstoppable.
Natasha Rothwell can infuse a single word with such intent and hilarity that it’s a wonder she bothers to speak in full sentences. There’s the GIF-worthy “Growth” from her character Kelli in Insecure. There’s her role as Ms. Albright in Love, Simon, directing her Cabaret-performing students to show more “anger” because they’re playing “Nazis.” And there’s Rothwell herself, summing up the mishap at the table next to ours: When a guy attempts to put the lid on his girlfriend’s to-go cup and instead spills its hot contents on her, she offers a simple but devastating “Chivalry.”
It’s miraculous she has any time to meet at all. With Insecure’s writing team on a break, she’s writing and developing the pilot for her own show and working on numerous projects under her recently signed HBO deal. She’s also writing Bridal Recall for Paramount Pictures, acting opposite Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne in Limited Partners, and joining the cast of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman sequel. But with her ever-growing Goldendoodle, (the fabulously named) Lloyd Dobler, in day care and an afternoon of business errands ahead, she ordered some tea, and we dug into everything from charades in Japan, to social anxiety at the Emmys, to changing the script—quite literally—when it comes to diverse, inclusive storytelling.
This seems like such an exciting time for you. How are you?
I feel good! It’s a day-to-day thing, trying to understand what it all means. I’m simultaneously present, grateful, excited, terrified, not wanting to disappoint, and checking my impostor syndrome. It’s overwhelming to get the thing you’ve always wanted. I’m very happy and cautiously optimistic.
That sounds pretty sane.
It took me a while to get to cautiously optimistic because there’s a lot of screaming into the dark void. I’m always surprised by people I meet who are casual about it. I still freak out when people recognize me.
What person recognizing you or telling you they loved your work has meant the most?
The one that comes to mind first is Yvette Nicole Brown. I ran into her, and she was like, “Girl, I love your work!” As a plus-size woman of color, when you see people who look like you on TV, they mean something extra special. She was just gushing, and I thanked her and said I had to walk away because I was going to cry and didn’t want to do that in front of her. I cried all the way to my car. Yvette’s been working for forever. She looks like me, she’s funny, and she’s succeeding in this world that’s predominantly white and male. It was wild.
And then I was at my very first Emmys party last year. I have social anxiety, it was wall-to-wall celebrities, and I was classic me: in the corner, scrolling on Instagram, liking dog pictures. Then someone grabs my hand and is like, “I love you so much,” and it’s John Legend! I’d never been lost for words like that before. I just kept repeating “EGOT! You have an EGOT!” I look at my publicist, and I’m like, “Jesus Christ Superstar thinks I’m awesome!”
Let’s not question John Legend’s judgment. Now, your dad was in the Air Force. Did you like moving around a lot?
I didn’t know any better, but I never resented that upbringing. I think it actually helped me as an adult, because I’m pretty adaptable. Each time I moved was an opportunity to reinvent myself and be like, “You know what? When I get there, call me Tasha.” I found theater and creative writing in high school. Both of those were places where I could create stability, because theater communities are very similar little ecosystems wherever you live. Those worlds allowed me to create versions of myself that made jarring new situations okay.
Which was your first love, acting or writing?
Acting, but I always wrote. When I was in college, I’d write monologues for me to perform because I could never find anything for a black person.
You studied drama. Do you think you’ll go back to it?
I deeply believe that what makes any comedic character funny is dramatic depth. You have to have that gravity to have the levity. I love playing characters that get to do both, and that’s the show I’ve written for myself. But I also went to school for drama, classically trained, and I love stories that don’t have the punch line, that allow you to collectively grieve and experience something. I’m drawn to all of it.
You did comedy in Japan! Do tell.
I’d graduated from the University of Maryland and was living in a studio apartment, working as an actor, trying to pay bills. I’d seen the movie Into the Wild, and I thought that if [Christopher McCandless] could drop everything and go into the wild, I could figure it out. So I bought a book called Vagabonding, and I thought, Let me see if I can teach theater anywhere. I started in the U.K. and was rejected all across the continent until Japan! That’s how I ended up in Tokyo for a year. I taught part-time and performed improv at the Tokyo Comedy Store. I was definitely running from my quarter-life crisis, but it exacerbated the issues in a deliciously beautiful way. Everything about myself was hyper-focused, especially my fears around being shy. I lost my cell phone in the middle of Shibuya and had to do charades at every store I’d visited to try to find it. It tested my ability to sink or swim. I was swimming by the end.
Kelli’s a swimmer too. Talk more about the success of Insecure.
I remember after the first season, thinking we were on to something. The heroine of our show is aggressively regular. She’s bad with money, bad with men, living paycheck to paycheck, not creatively fulfilled, and she’s got her best, best, best girlfriend. I think that’s why people love it; they can identify with this unpretentious character who’s vulnerable in ways that are hard for us in our own lives. And I think there’s a hunger for diverse storytelling. To see those stories presented unapologetically in the show through very different kinds of black women—some have money, some have families, some just like fucking—that means something. If every show on TV were written by and starring cis, straight, hetero men—and I feasted on those shows, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, I ate them up… But maybe it’s time to tell a different story.
Do people confuse your work as autobiographical?
All the time because people think I’m Kelli, but there’s not much overlap in our Venn diagram. There’s a confidence I get to put on with Kelli because she gives zero fucks. Doing things even though I’m afraid of them has truly been the thesis of my adult life, whereas she has never known that fear. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to playing her.
What does subversive mean for you?
I’m not terribly interested in trying to surprise people just for the sake of it. I’m interested in having an experience with an audience where they walk away excited that their preconceived notions about who I am or what this character was supposed to be were changed in an organic way. As a woman of color, I’ve surrendered to being less interested in convincing people what I’m not and more committed to living as authentically as possible. I want to do the same thing in my writing.
Are you seeing change in the industry following the #MeToo and #TimesUp conversations?
I was shooting a movie recently, and the guy who had to stick his hand up my shirt to put on the mic was like, “Do you want a woman present?” I said, “No, thank you,” but that was definitely a result of #MeToo. With regards to #TimesUp’s discussion around inclusion and diversity, I have every intention of making sure my rooms and directors are diverse for the shows I produce, and that I take every opportunity that I have to be an agent of change. It’s hard to create systemic change overnight, so it’s about what I can do as an individual: create more jobs for the LGBTQ community, people of color, and differently abled people, in front of and behind the cameras.
Anything you’re crazy obsessed with right now?
I have an unhealthy obsession with [Home and Gardens Television]. I love renovation shows so, so much. I’m like, Look at that door frame! Fixer Upper is the quintessential HGTV show. They have this compound in Waco that is essentially their home store. I was talking with some friends, and—totally joking—I was like, “What if we all went for my birthday?” They were like, “The last compound in Waco didn’t end well!” My other obsession is my dog, Lloyd Dobler. Here’s the thing: I wanted a dog, and I got a puppy. They are not the same. Make sure that gets in print: A puppy is not a dog. It was maybe the most harrowing seven months of my life, getting him potty-trained.