Yvonne Orji Talks 'Insecure' "Bombshell," Advice From Chris Rock and Her 'First Gen' Series

The stand-up comedian also discusses how she convinced David Oyelowo to sign on to her sitcom as an exec producer.
Courtesy of Justina Mintz/HBO

It's been a good summer for Insecure star Yvonne Orji.

The HBO comedy on which she stars as Issa Rae's TV BFF Molly is in the middle of an acclaimed second season run that has also nearly doubled in viewership thanks to its new primetime slot, airing after Game of Thrones and Ballers. 

Not only that, but the actress and stand-up comedian also spent the first part of the summer opening for Chris Rock on the Atlanta dates of his Total Blackout stand-up tour  his first in nine years. 

"That was one of those surreal moments that happens that you can't even dream of," Orji tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

Her simultaneous rise as an actress and as a comedian is even more surprising given her unusual road to Hollywood. Her Nigerian parents wanted her to become a doctor, and she enrolled at George Washington University to get her master's in public health. However, fate had other ideas. "Organic chemistry let me know that that was not going to happen, as did my fear of blood," she says with a laugh.

It was that sense of humor that soon came in handy. Orji began pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress by becoming a stand-up comedian. "What comes first: The chicken or the egg? You can't say you're an actor if you've never acted and you can't act if no one gives you an opportunity but they won't give you an opportunity because you've never acted. You're like, 'What in the world? Someone give me a chance!'" she recalls. "So for me, stand-up was the one thing I could control."

It was through her stand-up sets at spots like The Laugh Factory that Orji then met Insecure co-creator and star Rae. "We just had a mutual affinity for one another and then I created the trailer for the pilot that I'm pitching called First Gen and I showed it to Issa and that kind of became my audition tape if you will or my pre-audition tape.

"It took five auditions before I actually landed the role of Molly but it was just everything else that I was doing on stage, every time going out and making sure I'm putting my best foot forward because you never know who's watching you."

These days, there are a lot more eyes on Orji. In addition to her breakout role on the series and her stand-up career, Orji continues to develop the semi-autobiographical series First Gen, on which David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey are attached as exec producers.

Onscreen, things have been a lot rougher for her Insecure alter-ego. In addition to her professional woes this season  specifically discovering that she is making less than one of her white male colleagues at her law firm  Molly discovered in Sunday's episode that her father had cheated on her mother way back when. The bombshell led to her hooking up with her childhood friend Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson), despite her previous hesitation about his open marriage.

In light of Sunday's surprising turn of events, THR jumped on the phone with Orji to discuss Molly's "bombshell of disappointment," the best advice she received from Rock and how she convinced Oyelowo to come onboard her sitcom.

This last Sunday was a big episode for Molly. Why do you think that revelation about her dad hits her so hard?

I think Molly was holding onto this image of what love is and that image is born from her father. Women have a lot of daddy issues and every girl secretly wants to date their father or a father figure and it's the bombshell of disappointment of like, 'How could my dad do this? Every other dude out here can be a scumbag or could just be not loyal but not my dad.' Because he is the crème de la crème of what a good man is supposed to be. That disappointment is what ultimately drove her into the arms of Dro because Dro, I thought, was a good dude but then he dropped the bomb that he's in an open relationship and I'm like, 'What's that about? But you know what? Clearly marriage was not what I thought it.'

Considering he's technically married, what does their relationship look like going forward? How will she navigate that in future episodes?

Some people ask if Molly is built for an open relationship and I personally don't know if she is, only because it takes a certain level of maturity. Molly is looking for feelings, she's looking to be involved in somebody who sees her and puts her first and I don't know if Dro can do that because he has Candice. In another interview, I said maybe they can make it work if it's like two people who are also in relationships that are open with each other because you have someone to go back to. Dro has Candice and she has Dro. So it'd be interesting to see how that unfolds.

Well she has someone in her life that seems willing to put her first but she ditches him at the vow renewal to go with Dro… (Laughs)

Yeah, poor Lionel aka Sterling K. Brown. (Laughs.)

I was going to ask what it was like having Sterling as a love interest on the show? He's one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood right now.

Oh my goodness, Sterling is everything you think he is and then some. He's such a professional but also like super fun and funny and gracious with his time. He gave so much to not just the character but just his presence being on set. It was a lesson of many sorts. I tweeted to all the fans, I was like, "Are you guys happy? He's back!," and they were like, "No, we're not happy because you left him at the party!" I was like, 'Oh my God, there's no winning." (Laughs.)

Well, I was a little surprised to even see him pop up this time after Molly turned down his dinner invitation. What are the chances we'll see him a third time this season?

We didn’t kill anybody, so anybody can come back at any moment. The beauty of TV is [it can happen] when it makes sense to have people come back.

Molly's brother said in that scene, "Why are you with this guy that you're clearly not interested in?" And I think we kind of built to that when Molly didn’t even remember what he did for a living. It was clear that Molly was doing the, "I'm going home, all my aunts and uncles are going to be there, I don't want anyone asking me about why I'm still single so let me just bring this very safe date to this family affair, whether or not I'm interested." Her brother is like, "Listen, this is not you. You don't have to settle." And that strikes a chord with Molly because that's kind of what she already knew and he reinforced that.

Not just in terms of Dro, but how do you think this revelation about her dad impacts her larger outlook on love and relationships going forward?

I think you'll see her throw a little more caution to the wind. Again, it was such a letdown and such a disappointment. This is probably why she needed to stay in therapy a little bit more. I'm sure she'll find herself back in it. (Laughs.) But for her, it's the shock of like somebody not living up to your expectations.  That’s the problem with expectations. You put somebody on such a high pedestal and everyone's just trying to get that high again, and it's just like... we're human and it doesn’t always work out.

I think that’s what her therapist was trying to get her to see: 'If your shoulds don't work out the way you think it should, are you going to be happy?' I think the writers are presenting her with that question over and over. 'You think relationships should look like this and now you found that it doesn't. Now what, Molly? You think you should get this at work and it doesn’t happen that way. Now what, Molly?' She is really grasping at straws a little bit trying to figure it out.

You touched on Molly's issues at work and particularly her learning that she's not making as much money as her white male colleague. We haven't seen her take specific action about that yet so will she before the end of the season? Will there be some kind of resolution?

Lil Rel Howery's character tells her, "Hey, you have other options. This is not the only firm, and you're a good lawyer so don’t feel like you have to be stuck." That really puts a seed in her like, "OK, I have options. What do I do?" Molly's strategic; Molly's a lawyer so she's going to think like a lawyer in this case because it is a case. I think we’re going to see her try to strategize the best way. Because she can't be the angry black girl about it because nobody's going to listen to her; like, "I demand…" and it's like no, no, that hasn’t worked for anybody. But she can't be passive about it either because that also doesn't work. So we're going to see her try and be as smart as possible to see what comes from the situation. We're not done with that storyline, definitely.

This is something that has become a larger discussion across the country and particularly in Hollywood so what reaction have you gotten from viewers about that storyline?

It was so interesting that it fell right around the time that Black Women's Equal Pay Day came about [on July 31st]. We didn’t look at our schedule like, "OK, this is going to be a very special episode of Insecure, and it's going to fall on this day." But how apropos it was. And one person tweeted me, Issa and [showrunner] Prentice [Penny] and said, "I just found out that I'm getting paid less and thanks to the show I'm gonna go and ask for a raise. I'll keep you updated." And then she tweeted again and said, "So I asked for a raise. I didn’t get as much as I wanted but I did get more which is a start." I was just like, "Wonderful! Way to go and stick up for yourself!" The fact that something that we're discussing is directly impacting our viewers' lives, you can't plan for that, you can't even write for that. It's phenomenal.

Earlier this summer, you got to open for Chris Rock on his standup tour in Atlanta. Was that another case of being at the right place at the right time? How did that come together?

His lady, Megalyn [Echikunwoke], who is a Nigerian-American actress, came to see me perform at the Laugh Factory. That night, she went on Instagram, tagged me and Chris saying, "Chris Rock, Yvonne Orji needs to be on the Total Blackout tour." I was like, "Wait, what did you just do? This is amazing, God bless you. I'm elated to be on the same tag as Chris Rock." As luck would have it, a couple of weeks went by and I was in Miami for a conference and Chris and Megalyn were stopping over in Miami for one of the legs of his tour. She saw on Instagram that I was there and she was like, "Hey, come have dinner with us." In my Uber ride there, I was like, "What do I say? How do I not come off as an uber fan because I don't want to come off as crazy." Just stay cool, play it cool and I really did. (Laughs.) We talked about relationships, we talked about stand-up, we talked about representation, literally the gamut. I was like, "Just to let you know, me and my friend, there's this one joke that we still love," and it was the one where he was like, "You gotta ask the right way and you can get your lady to do anything. You can't just be like, 'Hey, excuse me, I was wondering…' You can't be sheepish about it," and he laughed. And then we went our separate ways. There was no pitching. I'm just so glad that I got face time with Chris Rock and I got to see Megalyn. Two weeks went by and then I got an offer to open up for him and I was like, "Wait, what?!" (Laughs.) I know he watches the show but had he seen my comedy? Did he YouTube Me? Was it just off Megalyn's recommendation? I still don't know but I'm so grateful that he took a chance on me and saw something in me. That was one of those surreal moments that happens that you can't even dream of.

Was there any particularly helpful advice he gave you or anything you took away from being on tour with him?

Yeah, I was talking to him about leveraging stand-up to do acting and that's when I said, I always looked at stand-up as a gateway drug. He was like, "What are you talking about? Why would you stop doing stand-up or put it to the back burner?" He said the thing that you have that separates you from every other female actress is that you have comedic chops so don't neglect that because now you're an actor. I was like, "Well, because I saw you and Eddie [Murphy] parlay stand-up into acting and he's like, "Yeah, and I came back. I always come back. I was like, "Oh, OK, that makes sense." (Laughs.)

You mentioned this show, First Gen, that you're working on. Where did the idea for that come from?

Well I had my masters in public health and the goal was to be a doctor and organic chemistry let me know that that was not going to happen, as did my fear of blood. (Laughs.) But I got my masters because I didn’t want to tell my immigrant parents that, "Btdubs, the thing that you brought me to this country for I'm not gonna do anymore." So First Gen is kind of the ode to my parents and to really all immigrant children who come here with kind of a preemptive expectation placed on them and then they get there and they realize the American dream is bigger than, sometimes, what our parents dreamt. We can be entrepreneurs and we can get into the tech space and we can be website developers. So, the show is about a girl who, for lack of a better word, dismantles her parents dream. I think it speaks to a lot of people who are first generation which is why we call it First Gen. If you're first generation anything, you know the struggle of, 'How do I become the fully formed version of who I am but at the same time, adhere to the traditions and norms of the old country?' It's also being seen from the parents' perspective because a lot of times you see things that's just about the young child angst, and it's like, "My parents just don't understand," and it's like they're not here to understand. They sacrificed everything to get you here so calm down. You can really see from the parents' perspective like, "Oh, OK, this is why we did what we did." It's going to be a constant battle every week of what this mother wants versus what the daughter wants, and why they want the things that they want and at some point, we had to find some level ground.

Watch the trailer for First Gen here:

I read that David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey are attached as exec producers. How did they become attached?

We shot the trailer and the trailer went viral as much as it could and one day, I was just with my two producers and I was like, "Man it would be really cool if someone like David Oyelowo or one of these big-name actors or actresses could really get behind this project?" One of my producers was like, "Why can't we just call his manager?" This was like pre-Insecure. I was like, "Uhhh…, I don't know if that's how this works, I'm not well-versed in how Hollywood runs but I'm pretty sure you can't just call an Emmy-nominated actor and be like, 'Excuse me sir.'" My producer said the worst thing he can say is no, so she literally called and his manager was like, "He's overseas shooting but hold on, I'm pretty sure I can get him." We ended up talking to David while he was overseas filming and he had already seen the trailer and he was like, "Oh, I loved it and yes, how can I be involved?" I was like this is not happening. Is this real life? He was just so gracious and he's still very much a champion of the project.

Right now is such a ripe time for a show like this and I'm not just saying it because it's my show, but I think immigrants have gotten a bad rap given the current state of things. There's a richness story to our stories. We're as hardworking as the next person and we have a vibrant culture and that's the fabric and that's the makeup and that’s the fabric of the melting pot that is America.

What’s the latest with getting that on the air? Have you started pitching to networks or studios yet?

We're still developing it. We're just developing it so that when we go out to shop it, it will be the best version it can be. I'm ready for it to be out. I am ready for it to be told. Every time I do an interview, everyone's like, "Where is it?" I'm like, "Guys, guys, guys, I want it to come out just as much as you do, trust me."

Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.