Here’s an excerpt of my interview with “Insecure” star, Yvonne Orji during a photo shoot for Creators Of Color.
Being able to be vulnerable and comfortable not only on camera but on stage as a comedian requires a lot of confidence. Have you always been in a space of self-love and assuredness?
Yvonne Orji: I’m African and no one can break you down worse than another African. So by the time you reach a certain age, you have a lot of self esteem. After you’ve been called, ‘a foolish goat’ by an uncle, what can a Hollywood executive tell me that the villagers haven’t? So growing up, it’s not that I wasn’t confident, but I was bullied because I had an accent. [In response] my mom said, ‘We did not bring you to this country to make friends, go read a book!’ So I grew up believing if nothing else, I was going to be the boss of the people who were bullying me. Which is exactly what I said to them in 8th grade, ‘One day, you’re going to work for me!’ and they were like ‘What? Who says that?’ then I got bullied even more. So I appreciate my parents for instilling within me such high self confidence.
Everyone who was really popular was focus on being beautiful while I decided to focus on being smart with the hopes that it would work out for me in the long run. I remember when I was trying to win friends, I didn’t know how to use makeup so I would put baby powder on my face and I would go to school looking ashy. (Laughs) I learned the hard way that baby powder is not MAC, so don’t try that at home kids!
As far as confidence, just own the skin you’re in. As creatives, we’re at a point now where there’s no discounting us. Lupita Nyong’o went hard at a magazine that tried to edit out her hair. She said, ‘Nope! You put my fuzzies back in!’ The same thing with Solange, she said, ‘My braids? Yep, that’s going on your cover too.’ I think we’re at a point now where we’re not accepting being told ‘no’ that our beauty isn’t validated and our skin isn’t exalted. Cut all that out! We’re here to stay and that’s not going away. This confidence hasn’t always been there but we’re in a space where light skin men can be in just like dark skin men can be in, at the same time! (Laughs!) We don’t have to segregate our flyness any more. We can have Idris and Michael Ealy as one..nation under God…(Laughs)
How has being a person of color positively impacted your career?
YO: Seeing the casting breakdown for the role of Molly on “Insecure” saying, “dark skin brown girl”, I was like, what is this? I think I’m halfway there! Now I just need to audition five times but just having that specified on a casting breakdown was something I had never seen before and I’m so glad that it did because I’m here and I get to play this amazing role.
“…We’re not accepting being told ‘no’ that our beauty isn’t validated and our skin isn’t exalted…”
In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about giving God an ultimatum regarding what you were supposed to do next in your career when you were near your breaking point. What’s the first step in getting out of depression when you don’t know what’s ahead?
YO: In 2014 when depression was knocking on my door, trying to open the window and get in, it was very difficult because at that point I felt like God had sold me on the dream now I couldn’t shake it. I was like, ‘dang, I didn’t even ask for this life, I have two degrees and a family that loves me, I don’t have to be this poor!’(laughs) I could of had a house or maybe even been married at that point but I was in too deep and I actually wanted to be in entertainment. It sucked I had already invested so much and there was no turning back so I had to do like Abraham and hope against all hope.
There were friends who loved me and wouldn’t let me just stay home. They would say, ‘Come out to dinner with us’ and I would say I didn’t have any money and they would pay for me. I had a roommate who would say, ‘It’s 2pm, why is it so dark? Open these windows.’ And sometimes light and dark can’t be in the same place. So when you’re reminded that it’s daytime and sunny in LA, it makes you want to try and find some good in this day. But there were still a lot of baby steps. Like, ‘Ok Yvonne: You’re going to shower today, you’re going to brush your teeth and you’re going to put on makeup’ even when I didn’t have anywhere to go. Then the next day, the plan was to shower, brush my teeth, put on makeup, walk outside and expect opportunities to find me. It was doing the things that took me outside of my funk; it was taking those baby steps every day even when I didn’t feel like it.
Oftentimes I would say, ‘Okay God, if I could just get to church I’ll volunteer in the nursery but I need gas money.’ Then I would get to church and it’s something about a baby’s laughter and being six months old without a care in the world, that’s what help bring me out of my funk. I would suggest finding things that nourish and fill your soul and it might surprise you what that is. When you volunteer and give back to other people, it will take you out of your bad mood.
“…If you have peers that you can lean on and build an empire with…then you get to be the person that curated this great thing that other people want to emulate…”
What do you feel needs to be done in Hollywood to continue to push the resurgence of shows and films led by black actors forward?
YO: The stories that you’re passionate about are the stories that you go after. Oftentimes in Hollywood when workplace comedies are poppin, someone else will say, ‘lets do a workplace comedy’ and you could do that, but is that really the story you want to tell? For me as a single black woman in LA who loves love and believes in it, when I’m at home on a friday night and i can’t find an updated romcom that includes brown faces…my mind is like, ‘Hold on: Don’t we fall in love? Don’t we get married? Isn’t this a thing that other people want to see?’ Every meeting that I take, I say I want to create a romcom, I want to write it because this is not a dying art; people still need to see it and see that their love is celebrated. I don’t have all of the answers but I have an idea to pitch and I can suggest writers and directors. I guess that’s the reason that you may even aspire to be in a position like me so you can use your platform to shed light on what’s missing and leverage whatever status you’re on now to get that done.
I’m an immigrant so immigrant stories are very important to me. I’m creating a show called “First Gen” about a Nigerian American family because when you think of Africa you think of two spectrums, “Coming To America” or “Last King Of Scotland”. We’re not all warlords nor are we all caricatures. Those are great movies but there’s a normalcy to the African experience that should be explored as well and that’s important to me. These are the types of stories I champion every chance I get. The more brown voices that are allowed to enter into a creative space, the more those stories can be told.
“Insecure” is not every black person’s story so we need another black person’s coming of age story. While a lot of people may like [“Insecure”] and identify with it, there may be something about it that’s like, ‘oh, wait, me and my friends do this other thing that I’m not seeing on television.’ Please go write that, please go pitch that [because] that’s still important and that needs to be portrayed.
“…If you build it they will come..it’s so important to continue to Promote your art, talents and gifts because you have no idea who is going to watch it…”
Many people come to Hollywood in their early twenties believing that they’re going to get discovered and get their “big break”. While social media makes it seem as if people are successful overnight, for many, outward success is a culmination of years of work. What advice would you share with someone who’s looking to move to LA to chase their dreams?
YO: Don’t let age discourage you. I got into entertainment very late; I was 25 when I made the decision to go to New York and try this thing out. I had already gotten my Master’s degree and I had worked overseas so it was a fresh start. With so many people losing their jobs to the recession, that was my exit strategy. Since no one else had a job, me being a struggling artist was okay because half of America was also out of work. It was an interesting time where people thought that their job security was set and they found out that it wasn’t so it was a resurgence of people being entrepreneurs. The [recession] was a blessing in disguise for me. But my parents questioned my decision. They said, ‘You’re 25-years-old, this thing you want to do, people who wanted to do it, started early, who’s going to hire you?’ I didn’t know but I knew that there were still stories to be told for people 25 and up. So it’s never too late.
But if you’re going to come to LA, don’t get distracted. This place is filled with sunny days, beautiful people and a lot of folks not really putting in work. Keep meeting people that can help you but at a certain point you have to give them something to help you with. Oftentimes people just want to be put on but do something that gets you noticed so that people want to put you on. And that starts with navigating your peer spaces. If I’m a writer and a friend of mine is an actress and we have another friend that’s an aspiring director, then let’s create something. If you’re only waiting for the executive at the top to greenlight you, then you might be waiting for a long time. But if you have peers that you can communicate with, lean on and build an empire together–I feel like that’s a better way to go. Then you get to be the person that curated this great thing that other people want to emulate.
How important is it to create content even when no one is watching?
YO: If you build it they will come. I think it is so important to continue to promote your art, talents, and gifts because you have no idea who is going to watch it. We are in such a digital age right now that something you put out just for fun or just for your friends can land in the desk/email/DM (direct messages) of someone who can do something with it. Someone can become a new fan and help your voice be heard in a way you never expected. That is what happened with me in 2008.
I put out a really silly sketch right before I went to Liberia to work in Public Health and that was the thing Issa saw back in 2008. She said, ‘Oh, this girl is really funny.’ Cut to 2015, she lets me know HBO picked up her show and she thought it would be a good idea for me to audition. That seed was sown back in 2008, when nobody was checking for me. You have to keep working and keep putting it out there. It makes you better. I put out stuff that I don’t know if anyone is going to watch but it’s helping me become a better editor. Whenever I create something I can say, ‘Nope I want that shot…nope I need it to cut off right there…’ because I’m practicing getting everything tight and practice makes perfect.
What was your experience like working with Kevin Hart & Tiffany Haddish on set of the film, “Night School”?
YO: “Night School” is my first feature film with Will Packer, James Lopez, Malcolm D. Lee and Kevin Hart–that was quite an experience. Kevin and Tiffany should not be in a room together like ever, because comedy ensues. Then we had Ben Schwartz and Al Madrigal, it was just an amazing cast. Kevin is perpetually on. He wakes up funny, he goes to sleep funny, he’s 14 hours in being funny. There’s long days on set and it’s just so refreshing for the morale and the mood to be boosted and lifted when it’s easy for everyone to be tired; it was so great to watch Kevin work because he’s such a consummate professional. He was shooting [“Night School”], starting his comedy tour as well as training for a marathon and I said, ‘you know what? I thought I was African, but Kevin is super African, you got Kenyan in your blood Kevin?’ Because he was just working like a Hebrew slave and it made me want to do better. So it was really great to watch his professionalism.
(Photo by: Elton Anderson | Behind The Scenes Videographer/Editor: Zon D’Amour)