If you watched HBO’s Insecure last night, there’s a good chance that scene-stealing Molly — the quick-talking, high-powered corporate attorney with an inner “hood rat” — just became a favorite character. For me, the breakthrough moment was Molly’s rapid-fire monologue admonishing Issa for being a bad friend. I was also pretty swayed by that hot-pink jumpsuit, if we’re being honest.
Before landing her role on Insecure, Nigerian American writer and actress Yvonne Orji led a totally different life: She earned a master’s in public health from George Washington University but then moved to New York in 2009 to pursue comedy. Her parents were not pleased. “I’m Nigerian. We do engineering. We do medicine,” she says. She landed a job in the writers’ room of Love That Girl!, then launched First Gen, a show about a Nigerian immigrant family whose daughter wants to go into show business, not medicine. (Sound familiar?) The show went viral and earned her an audition for Insecure.
Insecure has frequently been compared to Girls or Atlanta, but it is secretly the second coming of Sex and the City for these modern, blacker times — at least from Molly’s point of view. Orji’s Molly is particular about her men, sexually empowered, and just as disillusioned by Tinder and Cosmo as the rest of the world. But she still believes in love, and she navigates the same stuff we do — the corporate world, her own baggage, bad dates, ghosting, and dating politics (both racial and gender) — the way we wish we all could.
I caught up with Orji just after she’d returned from a celebratory trip to Costa Rica. We spoke about what it takes to play a character as different from yourself as you can get, why she’s not afraid to put her religion into her comedy, and what’s on her boyfriend requirement list.
How did you get into comedy?
I started doing comedy in 2006 when my brother asked me to enter this pageant as a favor to a friend. I wasn’t the kind of chick to do a pageant; I had three older brothers, so I was very much a tomboy. But I was like, “I guess I’m free on Saturday.” They came back and were like, “Great, but we need a talent from you.” I found myself praying, like, “God, I don’t have a talent. I just bought a dress. I thought this was supposed to be easy. Like, what? Help me.” And I heard the voice say, “Do comedy.” So I wrote a five-minute set about what was funny growing up Nigerian in America. People laughed, and before I knew it, I was getting offers to perform. I remember my first check: I think I got, like, $300 for a five-minute set, and I thought, “I’m not going to med school.” So then that’s what prompted the move to New York in 2009, and then I moved back to L.A. when I got an opportunity to be an intern in the writers’ room [for Love That Girl!].
What was that like?
We didn’t grow up on TV. Like, I’m very much a child of immigrants, and they were just very concerned with you getting straight A’s. So we were a big reading family, and a big homework family, but never a big TV family. I didn’t even know what a writers’ room was. So when I got this internship, I was like, “Oh, of course I’ll take it! Yeah.” But I learned this is where the power is — you can create the story. So the next season, I was promoted to writer, but I knew that there was a show I wanted to do. I would tell people: “Oh, my parents really wanted me to be a doctor. They’re Nigerian and they were kinda disappointed that I’m a comedian.” Everyone thought it was hysterical. They said, “You should actually write that because we’ve never seen a show about Africans just being regular people and a comedy.”
And that was the basis of the pilot and show you wrote and starred in, First Gen?
I didn’t think it would be. When you’re in something, it’s so normal to you. If I say, like, “I eat goat meat,” people are fascinated. Like, “Goat meat? What does that taste like?” To me, it tastes like goat because I’ve been eating it since I was 4. It’s amazing. But when I was telling [Love That Girl! co–executive producer] Stacey Morgan, who’s a mentor, she was like: “That’s fascinating. Everybody knows a Nigerian, but how come we’ve never seen a Nigerian on TV before?” I was like: You know what? You are right. Because we never really just seen the African neighbors next door. Ever. There totally should be a show about us. So we raised the money to shoot the show. We released it. It went viral. David Oyelowo came on board as our executive producer, which is all crazy. And then five months from the time we released it, I’m auditioning for Insecure. It’s just been like this whirlwind.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to be a comedian?
They weren’t thrilled I didn’t go to med school. And also with them, with culture, marriage is a big deal. So [it’s] not only like, “We want you to be a doctor. We also want you to be a doctor so that it can help you meet a man that is a doctor, or you have a profession that is something of note so that you can be a more glamorous wife for somebody.” Nobody wants to be like, “My daughter is a jester, she will make a wonderful wife.” This is also what they called me. They called me a jester, and I was like, “It’s called ‘comedian’ in America.” [Mimicking.] “Jester, you are a jester.” Now I’m 32 years old, unmarried, and they’re super happy that I’m not broke and starving in a basement apartment in New York anymore. But at the same time, it’s like, “Where are my grandchildren?” We fight one battle to live to fight another battle.
Well, now that you’re on an HBO show, they must be so proud. How did you land the role of Molly?
When I was doing First Gen, I told Issa [Rae] because Issa is half Senegalese — her father is from Senegal — so we’re both from West Africa. I sent her the trailer for First Gen, so then Issa sends me an email like, “Hey girl, HBO bought my show and I really think you’d be great to play the character of Molly.” So I auditioned — it was not an easy process. There were five auditions. After every one I would send Issa text messages like, “Hey girl. Listen, thank you so much for thinking about me. I get it if, like, you know, if it’s not me. It’s super cool if you go with someone else. Just like thank you for the opportunity.” And Issa is like, “What are you talking about?” And then, when I booked it, it was kind of this exclamation mark on this journey that just took so long.
What about Molly made you say, “This is someone I can play?”
It’s so funny. Once I read the script, I remember calling Issa and I said, “Issa, Molly is who I would have been if I didn’t get saved at 17.” So we shared a good laugh about that. But Molly is so funny and so free to just be everything. She’s free sexually, she’s free verbally. I connected to the fact that she’s single, obviously — I’m a single gal in L.A., so I know that story very well. It’s kind of like we walk this parallel. But it’s no secret that I’m a virgin and I’m waiting till I get married, where Molly is very free sexually and it’s just like, “Hm, this is going to be very interesting to tap into this part of her.” I don’t curse in my real life but, like, Molly curses every chance she gets. There are so many things about her that are very similar to me and there’s so many things about her that feel like, “I don’t believe in these things.” I really had to dig deep and find the funny and nuanced and really bring her to life. Because even though she may not be me in that regard, I have friends like her. And I’ve seen her and I could have been her. I’m living on the edge a little bit as Molly. It’s fun.
You’ve spoken a lot about god and prayer, especially on social media. Does your faith ever get in the way of your playing Molly?
I don’t have Jesus and Mary jokes. I’m really inclusive when I’m talking about my faith. People have given faith a bad rap, but for me, this is my comedy. I just talk about my experiences. Obviously, I don’t use profanity in my comedy, just because I don’t use it in my real life. I’m able to separate the fact that Molly is a character. In between takes, I wouldn’t curse. While I’m Molly, I would. But one day I think Issa was realizing that on set that I don’t curse and I was saying “fuddruckers,” and she was like, “What is this thing that you just sputtered out of your mouth?” And I was like, “fuddruckers?” And she was like, “Why are you saying that?” “Because I don’t curse,” and she was like, “You don’t — what?” And I was like: “Well, I don’t curse in real life so in between takes, I’m Yvonne. I know I have a brand. I’m very much family friendly. But while we’re shooting, I’m Molly.”
Has being Molly influenced your Yvonne life at all?
I was a huge tomboy. If you saw me in college, I wore sweatpants and hoodies. I was like, “I think I play basketball.” Now, flipping into Molly, I’m like, what are these gel nails I’m putting on? That’s so fancy. Or what are these — trinkets? Oh, these are rings. Are these Louboutin? I’m like, what are these shoes — Tom Ford? Yes, please. It’s so fun to slip into someone who is super fancy but yet also super ratchet. She’s delicious to play. It’s almost like all of the things I guess I didn’t get to do in college, I get to do through this character.
The show is called Insecure, so I’m guessing Issa’s character isn’t the only one battling insecurities. What is Molly wrestling with as a single woman in L.A.?
Molly wants what we all want, right? She wants to be loved. She wants to love and be loved. And in her mind, she has a perfect picture of what that looks like: It has to be this, it has to be that, it has to be this. She has her list, you know. We — every woman has a list. I don’t think lists are bad. I think lists help you navigate like through the riffraff, like if you’re like: “You know what? My list says he needs to have teeth. This man doesn’t have teeth, so I’m going to go ahead and say no, you’re not it.” That’s good. You gotta have a list, but it has to be realistic and realistic for you. I can’t have Obama on my list. He’s taken, so I gotta rework my list. I’m just joking.
What is on your list?
I have a list. I don’t think I’m going to divulge all that ’cause someone reading The Ringer might be like, “She’s talking about me. That’s how I is.”
I had to ask!
I see what you’re trying to do. I appreciate that, Allison. You’re trying to get me wifed, but everyone that reads The Ringer is going to be like, “OK, so Yvonne likes caramel apples, OK, and she wants a dude who also likes caramel apples. Well, you know what I got is some caramel apples for you, Yvonne.” I’m going to get whole gift packages of caramel apples. You’re not about to set me up!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.