Yvonne Orji On How ‘Insecure’ Cements The Power Of Black Friendships
In recent years, there has been a surge in television shows that speak to the various black experiences in America. Kenya Barris’ Black-ish portrays an affluent, black family living and working in a suburban California area, while Donald Glover’s Atlanta follows a group of young black adults trying to get that work by any means necessary.
Insecure, which was created, written by and stars writer/producer/director Issa Rae, follows Issa Dee, a nearly 30-something who is lucky in love and has a career she’s thriving in. However, she constantly wonders if her relationship and job are actually all that. Throughout the show, Issa’s “what-if” thoughts are challenged through action, which yield results that speak to the black female experience in one way or another.
During the show’s first season, viewers were introduced to Issa’s best friend Molly Carter, portrayed by actress and comedienne, Yvonne Orji. A textbook boss b*tch with a stupendous job as a lawyer, a killer apartment and enviable fashion sense, it looks as though Molly has it all figured out.
However, throughout Season One, we discover that she has more than her fair share of issues, especially when it comes to men. She wants a man who can measure up to her professionally, even if their spirits don’t seem to really align. Early on, her consistent conflicts on the romantic front lead her to believe she’s not okay down there (fans of the show know the exact reference), instead of realizing that her expectations have caused her to become her own biggest problem.
What drew the Nigerian-born Orji to the character of Molly, which she says took five auditions to officially nab the role of, was her multi-dimensionalism and her willingness to reach her goals by any means necessary, which she relates to personally.
“Being able to cope and see the person that you are in your environment, whether it’s corporate or with your homies, it’s totally different,” she says over-the-phone. “But at the same time, even in careers, she’s always about being the boss. She’s like, ‘How do I be the best that I can be? No one can discount how hard I work because I know how much I put in.’” Like her character, Orji is a self-proclaimed “hopeful romantic,” who feels like love is too important to miss out on. “I feel like there’s love out there to be had, to be gotten,” she says. “I want in on it.”
What draws people to the show, in Orji’s opinion, is that it’s relatable to the human experience. She says the writers have done a wonderful job at making sure the characters had depth, were “well-rounded,” and weren’t “one-note.” Through this, audiences get a chance to see glimpses of themselves as they watch the series.
“Every human, we have aspects of us that are amazing and that we want everyone to see,” she explains. “Then, there’s aspects of us that sometimes, we’re in denial about, and then those aspects that you’re like, ‘I hope nobody sees this side of me. Only my best friends can see this side of me.’”
For the show’s second season, Orji says that viewers will be given an inside look into how Issa and Lawrence are coping with the decisions that led to their relationship’s demise. “What happens when you find out your girl cheats on you? We’re gonna follow Lawrence throughout his process. And Issa, what happens when you make this mistake?” she says. “Season Two explores different worlds, because they’re all in different worlds now.”
In the last episode of Season One, we find Issa down on her luck, and Molly is there to be her shoulder to cry on, despite going through a tumultuous situation of their own. “I think [Issa and Molly] work harder in Season Two to be completely honest with each other,” she explains. “They learn their lesson. They’re growing. I think their friendship is getting deeper, and they’re gonna work harder to be completely 100 with one another.”
Molly may also start to make changes within herself, as she takes the necessary steps to address her own personal issues.
We have to stick together. A lot of the time, we flock to people who are very similar to us. We need those friends that we can really be our total self with. —Yvonne Orji
“In the car in episode eight, [Molly]’s like ‘I know I got issues! But I don’t know how to not be this person,’ and that’s her journey. She’s gonna try and figure that out,” Orji says. “There’s a lot of branching out and going deeper with the characters individually, but then also, the crux of the show is friendship and relationships, and they bring it back to that. You’ll definitely be seeing a lot of these characters exploring their own worlds, then coming back to the fold.”
Insecure’s relatability factor also comes into play through the importance of female friendships. Viewing how Issa and Molly interact with each other and with their friends Tiffany and Kelli (Amanda Seales and Natasha Rothwell, respectively) is one of the defining characteristics of the show. Issa and Molly’s relationship is put through numerous trials and tribulations throughout Season One. They both use a “straight, no chaser, lime or salt” approach in addressing each other’s problems, but when the twosome needs each other most, they can always rely on one another to be there.
“Sometimes, our best friends, who know us so well, are able to cut so deep,” says Orji on the no-nonsense way Issa and Molly tackle their issues. “‘I’m not filtering this like everyone else, because you gotta get this. I wouldn’t be your friend if I didn’t let you get this.’ I think that’s the bond they have.”
Orji also believes that the show demonstrates the importance of standing in solidarity with other women.
“We have to stick together,” she says. “A lot of the time, we flock to people who are very similar to us…we need those friends that we can really be our total self with. When you get to episode seven [of Season One], Issa and Molly have been kind of skating around real issues. They’re not ‘surface friends’ at all, but they also want to give each other space. Like, okay girl, you do you, I’mma be here to pick up the pieces like I always am. When you want the truth, you know where I am. I’mma read you, but know I love you in my reading of you.”
In real life, Orji says that she sees herself as someone who is “in service” to Issa Rae in “every way, shape and form.” “[I’m] not just her ride-or-die, in the passenger seat and we rollin,’” she giggles. “I’m on set and asking her, ‘Are you okay? I could only imagine how much is on your mind and on your plate.’ This season is very different than it was last season. Last season was our first, and we tried to make it good, so there was that pressure. Then this season, they believed in us so much that they changed our schedule up.”
“While that is a blessing and that’s obviously going to bring more eyes to the show, it’s also nerve-wracking,” she continues. “[Issa]’s writing as she’s filming, then when she’s not filming, she’s editing. As she’s editing, she’s promoting.”
Being the showrunner’s cheerleader doesn’t have any limits. For Orji and Rae, it’s a friendship that spreads further than the show’s set.
“When we leave, it’s not like, ‘all right, I’ll see you tomorrow!’ As I’m driving off, I’m like ‘Girl, today was crazy, but you did that!’ or ‘You looked so beautiful on the carpet!’ We’re actual friends,” she says. “We don’t have to go over each other’s house every day, or have dinner every week, but it’s like ‘yo, I love you, I want to protect you, and I want to see you win.’ No love lost! We celebrate victories together.”
Orji also said that she received a text from Rae right before our call, in which she checked up on her to see if she was getting her rest after a busy week of 5 a.m. episode shoots and red carpet appearances. “I’m checking in with her constantly because it doesn’t stop, but that’s what makes Issa so dope, and then the process so dope.”
Rae has also been helpful and supportive towards Orji when it comes to her own creative endeavors. Yvonne has been in the midst of creating a concept for a television show of her own, loosely based on her experiences navigating through life as an immigrant in America.
“When you come to another country, really, you’re sacrificing yourself for your kids. Then your kids throw you a loop, and you’re like ‘wait what happened?’” she says of her show, which she affectionately calls her ‘baby.’ “I want to really show [the experience] not from the child point-of-view, but also the parent’s point-of-view, because there’s a disconnect.” Orji is also hoping her show provides a glimpse into the life of Africans as they really are, and not how the media portrays them.
“A lot of times, you see Africa as either genocide or we’re a caricature,” she explains. “If you’re in America, you either know what Nigeria is, you’ve been friends with a Nigerian, a Nigerian goes to school with your kids, you have a Nigerian doctor. You’ve interacted with us someplace. There are maybe things you can’t ask your friends in other countries. ‘I wonder if that’s why so-and-so’s mom does that, okay, cool, now I have a base to engage in conversation with.’ That’s what I want: dialogue. I want people to have real authentic conversations, and sometimes you don’t know where to start. Hopefully this show can be your launching pad.”
She also hopes that her show opens people’s minds to the black experience in America, which she acknowledges is not “one size fits all.”
“There are so many different types of black people that exist, and if you just look at someone and go, ‘that person’s brown, I know them.’ Like, no, you can’t say that. You have no idea what’s on the other side of their ‘brown.’”
What Yvonne Orji is mainly hoping to accomplish, however, is to connect people through her interests. She has her master’s degree in Public Health from George Washington University, and she still has an interest in helping others.
“I was working in Liberia doing public health, I was very happy. I enjoyed my time, I was working with teenagers post-conflict,” she says. “My goal before entertainment was to be a Goodwill Ambassador. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, but I wanted to travel the world promoting healthy behavior, or just giving hope to kids who have gone through dire situations.”
With her platform as an entertainer today, Orji believes her visibility can also aid in her dreams of helping others. Like her character on Insecure, she’s doing what she can to be the boss of her own life, in order to be truly fulfilled.
“It’s funny that now I have to travel, and I’m recognizable to a certain degree that maybe people will listen to me more than before,” she continues. “Is my career in entertainment going to be a 40-year career? By the grace of God, maybe. Or is it going to be a 10-year career, and I get asked to do other things? I don’t know. There’s a way to impact people through your art and through your medium, and then there’s another way. I’m all about using whatever ways that it’s possible for me to meet and reach people in different ways. I’m down for it.”