Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ayo Edebiri on conquering imposter syndrome to claim her spotlight in Big Mouth and Dickinson

Ayo Edebiri
Ayo Edebiri
Photo: Myles Loftin

Ayo Edebiri is having quite the moment right now with her recent debuts in not one, but two gut-busting comedies on two major streaming platforms. For Netflix’s envelope-obliterating adult animated series Big Mouth and Apple TV+’s anachronistic reimagining of Emily Dickinson’s youth in Dickinson, the Boston native gets to flex her writing and her acting chops, pulling double-duty as a series writer and a prominent supporting character in the latest seasons of both.

But calling Edebiri’s rise a “moment” implies that her time in the spotlight is fleeting when, in fact, she’s just getting started. In Dickinson, the young comedian plays Hattie, a sharp-witted maid who is a self-proclaimed freelancer with many talents (two of which include selling her own hair care products and clairvoyance) and an acute ability to steal whatever scene she occupies. Though Big Mouth fans won’t get to experience Edebiri’s skills as a scribe until season five, she’s already stepped into the drawn shoes of precocious Missy Foreman-Greenwald, a role previously held by Jenny Slate before her exit last June. But sliding into any established, beloved world isn’t all that simple, even without the added pressure of a fraught, industry-wide reckoning with systemic racism. Just before the holidays, Edebiri spoke with The A.V. Club about playing Hattie, the way Missy’s journey with race reminded her of her own, and how a Nancy Grace podcast showed her the ridiculousness of imposter syndrome.


The A.V. Club: I had to watch your episodes of Big Mouth a couple of times before realizing that you had stepped in to voice Missy; the way you managed to match Slate’s voice was impressive. You’ve mentioned workshopping that voice with the show’s creators a lot. Was there any back and forth over how you wanted Missy to sound, or were they pretty set on wanting her to maintain the voice that fans already knew?

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Ayo Edebiri: When I first got the email asking if I wanted to send in a tape, I remembered some of the best voiceover advice that I’d received from a casting person: It’s okay to send more than one take. It’s actually encouraged to send a bunch of different voices and try out a bunch of things because you never know what people are going to want. So I sent in a bunch of different tapes and when we started doing the callbacks, what was so refreshing and a little bit calming was the fact that it was such a collaborative process where it was like, “Okay, try something that feels a little bit closer to Jenny’s voice and maybe then try something that’s a little bit closer to your voice, something that is maybe combining these things.” There was sort of this sliding scale that we would go back and forth on. I think where it ended up is this cool place that has some of those vocal affectations that people might know from Missy, but there are hints of my speaking voice, which is cool. But it definitely involved a back and forth process. 

AVC: The news of your casting was exciting on its own, but this cool new job also happened to be taking place right at the crux of a major global conversation about systemic racism. Did that add any pressure or did it just make the victory sweeter?

AE: Oh, it 100% added a thousand more pounds of pressure and anxiety, as well as one hundred more pounds of just feeling like people’s eyes were going to be on me in a way that I was not really expecting. The imposter syndrome was going off the charts, and I was already so accustomed to sometimes questioning success. If you’re young, a woman, a person of color, marginalized in any regard, or if you’re a mix of all these things, you can sometimes be like, “What is happening to me and why?” And then all of a sudden when there are people just commenting on my Instagram, I’m like, “Why did you do this?” It’s a strange thing to get used to.

But all the writers, cast, and the crew of the show are so smart, empathetic, and supportive. Having people who I was in a writers’ room with and have been friends for years listen to the episodes and say, “I’m so happy for you. I heard this take. Good job!” was definitely very grounding and helpful during a very heated summer. I moved to L.A. the previous year and was trying to get involved in local politics, protesting with friends who are working with grassroots organizations, and trying to get involved with those, too. So it was a lot of heavy feelings mixed with this really big career joy. It was definitely a lot.

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AVC: Season four was a big turning point for Missy with her growing more in touch with her Black identity. Which is a pretty identifiable thing when you’re Black and reaching that age where you realize how much race really matters, despite a lifetime of people around you assuring you that it doesn’t. 

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AE: Yeah! I grew up in Boston, which I think very much prides itself on being a liberal city. I got to go to a lot of predominantly white institutions. There’s a lot of systems in place in Boston. There are public middle and high schools that you get into by taking tests, so I did that. I was on wait lists for different schools in different districts. I remember my mom would drive to this Boston public school building every day after school where I would do my homework while she basically tried to move me up on a wait list to get into a better public school. You get older and you look back at this and you’re like, “Oh wow. This is really heavy.” I think for a good part of my adolescence in middle school, I was caught between all these different worlds, trying to discover who I am and feeling like I am all of these different things. But in certain spaces, they’re contradictions or I’m not connected with a certain parts of my identity that I thought I was. Also, I was in middle school and I didn’t have the words to articulate this stuff.

I remember being in college and learning about critical race theory for the first time. It was like, “Oh, microaggression. That has happened to me.” But now I look around and all of a sudden kids who are still in high school are using this language. It feels like it’s the product of the time. Or maybe it’s a product of the internet, access… Maybe all of it. But it does feel like the kids now have more language to talk about identity. I was definitely the kid journaling and crying because I didn’t know how to articulate the way it felt to be called an “oreo” by my family and then being called “hood” by somebody I went to school with in the same day. I didn’t know how to process that. What does that mean?

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AVC: You’re pulling double duty as a writer and actress for two major comedies, Big Mouth and Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which are so tonally different. As a writer, are there certain sensibilities that you feel like you can safely take into both rooms, or do you feel like you have to compartmentalize certain instincts with each show?

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AE: Not really. I think you get hired to bring yourself, your sensibilities, and your sense of humor to the room. And then my job as a writer is to go, “Okay, I know who I am. What’s your vision and how can I bring that to your [show]?” That’s always been my favorite part of writing, that really cool collaborative process that you get to have by just being in a room with each other and making each other laugh. And I also think that feeling comes along with time because I’ve definitely been in positions where I’m so anxious. Even at the beginning when I first started with the Big Mouth group, I was terrified. I was like, “Why did they hire me? Will I be able to do this? Am I funny? Do I remember how a joke works? Maybe not today.” So I definitely think that feeling is confidence—now I’m nervous to say the word “confidence” [Laughs.]—and it grows with time and as you are in rooms with people who are affirming you and reminding you that they hired you for a reason.

That was 100% a moment that happened with Alena Smith, the showrunner of Dickinson. She was like, “I want you to play Hattie,” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure.” When she said, “Okay, then I’ll cast somebody else,” I was like, “NO NO NO, please, I’ll do it!” That reminder from your coworkers is always really helpful, just having them say, “You’re funny. You’ve got this. We’re all in this together.”

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AVC: It is so annoying how women have been made to feel as if we can’t just innately trust in our ability to do a job.

AE: Yeah! I was listening to a podcast about Nancy Grace, of all things, and the host was saying that it’s so interesting how as a woman, there’s this lessening of our success that we naturally do. Nancy Grace said something like, “I just got so lucky and it’s all because of Jesus.” You went to law school, Nancy Grace! You were a public defender until you were 37, Nancy Grace! I’ve been the same way. Sometimes I’m just like, “I don’t know, it’s all so crazy!” But you do know, you know exactly how. You worked hard, dummy.

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AVC: What do you enjoy most about playing Hattie?

AE: We just had a lot of fun writing her in the room. It was really fun then getting on set and knowing how she was supposed to sound, because I have been in the room for months. I knew where the lines were, so I also knew where I could have fun and was able to play around. Also, I had never worn a corset before, so that was fun and painful. I was definitely a little bit out of breath every day, but the waist was looking snatched. The organs were snatched, for sure.

AVC: You recently made a video for Netflix where you were asked to name your favorite person to work with. You said that your favorite was comedian Quinta Brunson because you are in the same group chat and that she’d likely have something to say if you hadn’t picked her. Who else in your group chat would you be excited to work with in the future and why?

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AE: Well, definitely Quinta. I think that she’s a genius and she’s been somebody who has always been funny to me. I just think if you were on the internet in the last few years, she’s just always been so magnetic and clearly talented. I’m excited for her to get even more vehicles where she’s just like, “Here’s my voice. Not only am I funny and gorgeous, I’m smart.” Another person would be [comedian/rapper] Zack Fox. I just think his brain is beautiful and crazy. I don’t know if there’s anything we would ever work on together, but the “Stick!” music video is truly one of my favorite things of 2o2o.

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