On Insecure, Natasha Rothwell wears numerous professional hats. When she isn’t in the writers’ room, the busy multi-hyphenate could be behind the camera, reviewing a scene as the supervising producer. Of course, there’s also the major possibility that Rothwell is living her best life in front of the camera as Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly’s (Yvonne Orji) outlandish buddy Kelli, where the classically trained actress flexes her comedic muscles with a character that is so unlike herself.
“To a lot of people’s disappointment, I’m not Kelli in real life,” Rothwell recently told The A.V. Club. “But I have Kellies in my life and I think that’s why I love playing her, because she’s so unlike me.” Though Kelli gets limited screentime in comparison to the series’ leads, Rothwell makes the absolute most of the time that she has, leaving enough of an impression to make her an undisputed fan favorite over the past four seasons. In an all-encompassing chat, the writer-slash-actress talked about Kelli’s impact, the many ways COVID-19 has impacted the creative process, and what to expect from her role in Wonder Woman 1984.
The A.V. Club: How has pitching TV and cinema shifted, mid-quarantine?
Natasha Rothwell: It’s a new world—it’s just a very tech-involved process because you’re putting up slides and you’re trying to talk over them and play music at the same time. It’s been a learning process, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn because it’s going to be the way forward, at least for a little bit.
AVC: During this time, the Insecure writers room, like the rest of the world, has resorted to virtual writing sessions. Has the lockdown impacted your personal creative process in any ways that you found surprising?
NR:I find myself struggling to delineate work time from my personal time. And I think it’s just the byproduct of loving what I do. Working from home, the proximity to the work and where I decompress are directly adjacent , whereas when going to the writer’s room, I can love being in that space, but there’s a separation of church and state where you feel like the work day is actually done.
I think everyone’s relationship to what quarantine has done to them emotionally, physically, and mentally has sort of evolved the longer we’re in it. At first, we were trying to adjust to this new normal and grieve the life that we had. Now, a routine has sort of set in for me. Now it’s like, “What can I do to impose structure on my day?” That way, I feel like I’m doing the best job that I can on the work that I have while also taking care of myself.
AVC: This season of Insecure has focused on a tough falling out between Molly and Issa—a realistic portrayal of a friend break-up. We actually haven’t seen too many rifts that were this intense and enduring. What was that conversation like in the writers’ room when you all were deciding to move in this direction?
NR: There was a collective understanding, empathy, and connection that we had to this story. It resonated with us as far as how we’ve processed our friendships and growing apart versus growing together—especially Black women. The way we fight and argue, the cuts are deep. It’s one of the things that we as a writers’ room always ask ourselves: What are the stories that we get to tell that no one else gets to tell? Like you said, we haven’t seen this kind of sort of relationship dynamic explored between two Black women of their age group on TV before. We’ve never tried to force the drama onto the show; we let the show dictate where it feels most organic. As this conflict presented itself, it really resonated with everyone around the table and it felt very worth exploring.
AVC: My favorite thing about your professional credits is Insecure: Due North, which is listed separately, almost as its own show. These fictional in-show shows are such a treat for fans. Is the creation process for them as intense as the show itself?
NR: I had my hands in the second show-within-a-show a great deal. In subsequent seasons, other amazing writers have sort of taken the lead on those. Our first one was Conjugal Visits, which was a reality show about exactly that. [Laughs.] When we broke the story for Due North, I think getting to write about this painful, horrific time in our history through the lens of comedy and understanding the humanity of those moments—where they’re having these petty disputes and arguments under these most insane circumstances—really excited me. As for the process for the writers that tackle the show-in-the-show, we take as much care as we do with the main storyline and a lot of the heavy lifting is done by a smaller group of people. So it’s actually a lot more difficult to craft because the whole writers’ room is sustaining Issa and Molly’s world and then on top of that, we’re tasked with understanding what this mini show is.
AVC: Were there any particular storylines that you found especially difficult to tackle?
NR: As a writer, I’m tasked with bringing my life experience, as applicable. In a season dealing so closely with friendships—how they break and mend, guilt, fault—all of those scenes are equal parts cathartic and painful. It’s cathartic, because you’re sort of able to rewrite history and say what you wish you could have said, but at the same time, it’s painful because you’re rehashing those moments where you have regret and dealing with those very interpersonal issues through these characters. It’s that blessing and curse, emotionally taxing, but also satisfying to see the result and how it resonates with so many people. The juice is worth the squeeze.
AVC: Your character, Kelli, provides just the right comedic levity at just the right time. She’s always involved in these uniquely odd situations, and yet she’s easily the most stable friend of the group. Do you have any guiding philosophies when it comes to developing her?
NR: Absolutely. I have experience playing all sorts of characters and also have the unfortunate experience of being typecast and sort of pigeonholed in the idea of what a Black plus-size woman is supposed to be. So when I get to become [Kelli], it’s important for me to ground her. For me, it’s a character study, and a character is different than a caricature. I think that is the main philosophy that I’ve brought to her, is really trying to ground her with certain choices. The thing that I love about comedy is, what makes it funny is that she believes deeply that what she’s saying is the truth. She believes in herself, and there’s no jokiness in the sense that you don’t trust and believe what she claims she’s done. It’s that commitment to comedy and that kind of character that I love to play. The difference between character and caricature is that you need to be able to believe that that person really said and believes that thing.
What I love about her is that she’s unapologetic and 100% in love with who she is and the decisions she’s made. She’s one of few characters on the show that doesn’t have any problems and I think that is why. She’s just a truth bomb and we all recognize those people in our lives. So when I’m putting her on, I try to make sure the character work is there. And I really tried to allow myself to be as free as she is when I play her.
AVC: While she can have some eyebrow-raising moments, Kelli’s never the joke. She has these side adventures, these desires, and these men that come and go, and it’s never framed as if she doesn’t deserve the life that she has, which is such a key distinction. There are times when you see a plus-size woman on screen and she may be desirable and sexually free, but it tends to come with an underlying belief that she shouldn’t get to be this way. That’s never the case with Kelli.
NR: And you also see the dynamic where the person who likes this woman is somehow crazy, as if they’re jumping on that grenade and sacrificing themselves to be with this plus-size woman. It’s so important to me that Kelli be celebrated for not falling into those tropes and really representing a self-possessed, self-loving, sexual, beautiful woman who is not going to allow herself to be put in that position. Full transparency: In my real life—as I’m sure is also the case with other plus-size women—I have not always been that fortunate to have never put myself in those positions. It’s only as we get older that we realize that we’re allowed to be beautiful and sexy. We’re allowed to be the object of desire and it’s not a joke. So I think that’s one of the biggest joys of my life, playing Kelli and being that for people who don’t have that representation.
AVC: I loved Kelli’s totally on-point B.A.P.S Halloween costume in “ Lowkey Distant.”
NR: Yes! Shiona Turini, our costume designer, is next level.
AVC: It was spot-on, and a great cultural nod. How did that come about?
NR: We knew it was the Halloween episode where we would start them off in costume. Everyone was pitching ideas and we all came to the conclusion that whatever the costume was, it had to be instantly recognizable because we never want the audience to spend precious time trying to guess the costume and not pay attention to the story. So I was just like, “Well, Kelli could be B.A.P.S”. Everyone was just like, “YES.” And then it slowly dawned on me that I had to do that. I started backpedaling immediately. I was just like, “Oh, what about Tootie from The Facts Of Life? That’s instantly recognizable. And then [showrunner Prentice Penny] was just like, “Nope, you’re B.A.P.S. That’s it.” So I unfortunately sealed my own fate on that.
AVC: Does having to switch those writer and actor hats so often ever pose a challenge for you?
NR: It’s not a problem because when I’m in the room, I just wear the writer’s hat. I don’t necessarily go in with an agenda because it’s not Kelli’s show and I’m there to execute a very specific mission. I have to be very deliberate and recognize those moments when I have to downshift and trade off.
AVC: Is there’s something that you haven’t written yet that you would like to one day pursue, Insecure-related or otherwise?
NR: I think I have a book in me. I don’t know when or where that will express itself, whether it’ll be fiction or nonfiction, but I think that I have a story inside of me that belongs in that specific medium. I’m working constantly, developing TV shows and working on film scripts and constantly trying to create for myself and for other people. I feel really lucky that I’m in this really sweet pocket of my career where I’m able to sit down and not execute someone else’s dream, but really sort of put on paper what it is that I want to create and actually have people who want to hear what that might be and maybe even make it someday. I want to do it all.
AVC: We noticed that your credit for Wonder Woman 1984 simply says “Actress.” Is there anything you can tell us about your involvement ?
NR: I feel like people want me to be wearing a superhero outfit, but this is not that. I feel like I need to set expectations. So while I can’t tell you what I’m going to be doing, I can definitely tell you that it is very regular. [Laughs] I have aspirations of being in a superhero movie. I think there needs to be a thick queen out there killing the bad guys for sport. But this is not that.