'Insecure' Breakout Natasha Rothwell: "Having a Voice During These Scary Political Times Is a Radical Idea"

Natasha Rothwell - 2017 Planned Parenthood Advocacy Project - Getty - H 2018
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Rothwell, who plays drama teacher Ms. Albright in 'Love, Simon,' talks with THR about pay equality, the transition from scripted to improv and her in-development HBO show.

Natasha Rothwell is ready for her moment.

Less than three years ago, she landed a career-igniting writing job at Saturday Night Live, which in quick succession has earned her a part in a Netflix stand-up series (The Characters), a job both writing for and co-starring (as Kelli) in Issa Rae's HBO series Insecure, and a forthcoming HBO project she is developing. 

In gay teen romance feature Love, Simon — opening wide Friday — Rothwell plays Ms. Albright, a drama teacher who once had a small role in The Lion King and who is thoroughly unimpressed with the rendition of Cabaret that Simon (Nick Robinson), a theater kid, and his friends are putting on at Creekwood High School.

While Rothwell's screen time doesn't clock in at much, she makes the most of what she has with a scene-stealing performance. Here, she talks with THR about why she signed on to the Greg Berlanti-directed movie, her transition from improv to scripted comedy and how she has advocated for herself in Hollywood. 

At Insecure you started out as a writer. Did you come into the show expecting or hoping to act in it?

I just wanted to come and be the best writer I can be for the show. I, of course, had dreams of doing both on the show, but in no way did that feel within reach. It was fun to think about but never something that I was trying to make happen because I felt really committed to coming on the show and trying to bring my perspective as a writer, and try to really prove myself in the writers room. That was my main focus. It really caught me off guard when Issa called me into her office with [Insecure showrunner] Prentice [Penny] to talk about Kelli and offer me the role. I was blown away because it was one of those things where you have dreams of something being a reality and there are certain dreams that are worth pursuing and other dreams that are just fun to think about. That had always lived in the latter area.

Rumor is you improvised a few of your lines in Love, Simon. Is that true? 

Yes! Greg Berlanti is incredible for a myriad of reasons, but one of the things I appreciate as a performer is being given a license to play. We would do a take with the lines as written, and then he just gave me the opportunity to play. As a writer, I use improv to write. Exploring characters and stories through improv and sitting at the computer and thinking about what this character would say or do helps me creatively. I used it as a tool in discovering character, and Issa and Prentice let me improvise as Kelli on set, and once Greg realized that I love to do it and it helps for character development and it was just fun, he really just let me have a good time. I'm grateful for him and the few lines that made it into the movie.

Is that mix of scripted and improv something you're hoping to continue in other projects, like the HBO project you're working on? 

Yes. Being respectful to the words that are written and the story that's been crafted is important. But once I have the script down and really understand the character and the motivation, it's fun and freeing to see what happens. You never know what you're going to say next, or what the other actor reacts to. I think for my show for HBO, it's very crafted and written. We'll have a script, but I will definitely use improv on set and with the other actors on the show to help develop the characters and make those scenes really organic and authentic. I think improv helps with that. It works together really well, scripted and improv

Both Love, Simon and Insecure center on characters who belong to underrepresented identities. When you agree to roles, are you prioritizing TV shows and movies that feature black women or queer people or any intersection thereof? 

I'm drawn to subversive material and material that speaks to communities and people who tend to be marginalized, and telling those stories in ways that subvert expectations. That's always been fun for me to play and always been fun for me to write. But it's not a coincidence that those are a lot of the stories being made right now. In the past, I had to be a bit more intentional about seeking out things that spoke to me and to those specific identities that aren't being represented. There's a lot more of that material being created now, which is a direct reaction to our government. It's an opportunity for marginalized communities and people to double down on telling [those] stories. Having a voice during these scary political times is a radical idea. To be, like, "I'm going to tell the story of a black girl from Inglewood who's just regular." And elevate that. And make that ordinary, extraordinary. Or, "I'm going to tell the story of a LGBTQIA teen who's not apologizing for who he is." 

Is the enthusiasm for those projects something you worry will die down after the end of the current administration?

I don't know if there is an expiration date on diversity. I hope that the diversity that we're seeing in so much television right now is more indicative of a systemic change in how we're seeing people and representing people, as opposed to fad. If I had to have a silver lining of this administration, it would be that the communities of people that are being the most affected by [President Trump's] policies are reacting with art and responding by creating and committing to visibility. That is incredibly dope, and it excites me creatively and politically. The overlap between entertainment and activism is becoming more and more these days, which I'm not mad at. 

Hollywood seems to be evolving from a “there can only be one” approach, where if some outlets already have one show featuring a black lead, they feel they don't need another. Have you experienced any of that tokenism in your career?  

If I operated under the guise of scarcity — that there's only room for one — I would have stopped a long time ago. Being a woman, and being a woman of color, there are expectations about who I'm supposed to be and the kind of work that I need to create and the availability of what's out there, and what I'm allowed to do. And one of the things that I have tried really hard to do in my career is to question all of that, to demand that there not be this idea of scarcity but of abundance. There can be multiple shows on TV that have women of color running them, starring in them, directing them. There can be two Wonder Womans. There can be two Black Panthers. There doesn't have to be, "We've ticked off diversity, and now we can't do it anymore, or we shouldn't do it anymore." What that does is it wants the minorities who are vying for that small, available part to fight each other, and that's not the truth of the camaraderie that I've felt. It's Issa seeing me as a writer and putting me on as an actor. It's HBO taking Issa's show and then also giving me a show. I think that is not talked about enough, that there is a sisterhood and camaraderie among these marginalized groups, to celebrate each other and lift each other up. It's not a competition for one spot. The more we're given the opportunity to showcase our work and our talent, you'll see that they're different. It speaks to a one-note representation that what's out there is it. What Issa's show, Atlanta and other shows have shown about the black community is that there are different versions of us. That's true for all communities. Love, Simon is incredibly dope, but that's one specific experience, and I would love to see more versions of that story being told or other stories that we haven't even seen yet from the LGBTQIA community. 

You've talked about having to remain proactive, as a black woman in Hollywood, about ensuring you are fairly paid. How have you managed to do that so far?

What has helped as I book more things and I'm venturing out into unfamiliar territory is to be open about what it is I need as far as information and comparisons to make sure I'm being treated equitably. It's sad, but it's the reality. I do feel like I have to be particularly woke in that area, but I feel really fortunate that in conversation with my representation and when deals are being made, I'm just vocal about wanting them to not just get the best deal for a person of color but to get the best deal. I've gone so far as to reach out to friends who are also in the industry who also may have had a similar deal and say, "Hey, what were you paid for that?" and getting that information. I know that there was a spreadsheet that made the news not too long about salary and people were just on Twitter passing it around. And I think things like that are just helpful, because I think money can be taboo regardless of what industry you're in, and I think talking about it can be weird and feel uncomfortable. Transparency is a way to combat the feeling that the studios have the upper hand and can do what they want and not be held accountable. 

Have you developed other specific strategies for navigating pay?

It's just having an open and honest conversation with my representation about that. I make it clear to all of my representation that I want to be included on all offers, because I know sometimes there are offers that are had and then rejected, and they don't bring the talent in until it's the final offer that they can either thumbs up or thumbs down. But I want to be a part of the whole question, and it's been met with a great deal of enthusiasm across the board from my representation.

Love, Simon opens wide Friday. Watch the trailer below.