Natasha Rothwell’s Growth on ‘Insecure’ (and in Hollywood)

Natasha Rothwell, aka Kelli on HBO's 'Insecure', talks her growth from an 'SNL' writer to being recognized on the streets for her portrayal of one of the few characters who actually has their sh*t together.

Natasha Rothwell as Kelli in 'Insecure'

Image via HBO/Merie W. Wallace

Natasha Rothwell as Kelli in 'Insecure'

If you aren’t watching HBO’s excellent Insecure, heading into its third season this Sunday, who even are you at this point? The Issa Rae-created comedy about best friends Issa and Molly has addressed the milestones of life in your late twenties. From breakups and open relationships to job woes and financial difficulties, the two women and their group of friends have been through it. 

Season 3 starts at a new beginning for everyone: Issa’s finally broken things off officially with longtime boyfriend Lawrence, and Molly is starting a new job at an all-black law firm, which she’s very excited about. And as Insecure continues to come into its own, it is able to explore some of our favorite side characters in greater depth, and there’s none that stand out quite like Natasha Rothwell’s Kelli. Over the past seasons, Kelli has been both a constant source of comedy (remember her getting hers at the diner?) and a source of wisdom (“growth”). In Season 3, we’ll get to see even more facets of Kelli, who, in large part because of Rothwell’s performance, has become one of the unsung heroes of the show.

Rothwell isn’t just killing it as Kelli; the former Saturday Night Live writer is working on her own show, writing a romcom, and was just cast in Wonder Woman 1984, NBD. Complex jumped on the phone with Rothwell to talk comedy, Kelli, politics and telling stories about black women. 

How did you get started with comedy and getting into writing? 
Comedy started when I was very young. I was very precocious and I loved to make my brothers and my sisters laugh, and that turned into finding the theater department in high school and then going to college for theater and then finding my voice through improv. 

When you were growing up, were there certain comedians you watched and saw who were inspirational to you? 
Nell Carter. I love Gimme a Break!. I thought she was a comedic powerhouse. I was obsessed with Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin; I watched Mama’s Family religiously. I loved women who weren’t afraid to get ugly in their comedy. I loved character chameleons, so I was drawn to that brand of comedy.

Talk about Saturday Night Live. You wrote on SNL for a bit, and so many people see that as such a comedy high point. What was that experience like? 
It was wild. I felt like I learned a ton and I got to work alongside some of the most brilliant comics that are out there right now. It was just a really cool time to be around SNL. I wrote Season 40 and that was the 40th anniversary, so every episode and every week there would be crazy amazing people who would just stop by out of paying their respects for having been a part of the show. 

Was there anything during your time there that you worked on and wrote that you're particularly proud of? 
The biggest jewel in my crown during my time there was, I wrote Taraji P. Henson’s monologue. It was at the height of Empire and she was slated to host, and everyone was like, “What do we want to pitch them?” I really wanted her to do a gospel number about the fact that she's made it and she could've just been a hip-hop video hoe, but she made it! When I pitched it to her, she loved it, and we do a table read during the middle of the week, and so she performed it and it killed. I was so excited about being able to write for a host of color because there aren't many, so that was a real highlight for me. 

That's so awesome. Did writing on SNL help get you into the writers’ room and onto Insecure? 
I interviewed for Insecure with Issa and [showrunner] Prentice Penny via Skype. At the time, I was still living in Brooklyn; I was in my studio apartment and I made one corner look really dope. I put my computer over there and I dressed professionally from the waist up, and I was like, “I am gonna sell myself to these people.” At some point, I needed to go grab a piece of paper, and she saw my pajama pants and I was like, “Look, I'm very awkward,” and she was like, “Then you’re perfect.” She saw me at my most awkward and we fell in friendship love.

Did you initially realize you were gonna end up with a role on the show as well?
Oh, no, not at all. I was hired just to write and was so excited to be doing just that. I was honing a skill that was new for me and I felt like I was really cutting my teeth. A part of our writers’ room process is to read the scripts internally just to hear it out loud and to give notes, and I was always reading Kelli. One day Issa called me into her office with Prentice and I was nervous because we were in the middle of a Nerf war; I was fully convinced that I was gonna get taken hostage with a Nerf gun. I go in and I'm looking sideways; she’s like, “No, this has nothing to do with the Nerf war.” She just asked, “Would you like to play Kelli?” I cried. I was like, “Are you serious?” She was like, “Yeah, we can’t think of anyone else we would want to play the part.” So that’s how that came about. 

Have you been surprised by just how much people are drawn to Kelli and have fallen so in love with her? 
I knew that in playing her, I wanted to make her a grounded character, and not just this silly caricature, and after the first scene, when we taped it, before it even aired, I was like, “Oh, I’m proud of this character I’ve created.” I feel like she’s a fully formed human being who just wants to have fun and is a great comedic relief to her friend. It was a really cool experience to grow with the audience and discover the character more and more each season. It’s been a real highlight of my career to be playing her. 

She’s also the only one who seems to have any financial sense of the group of people, so...
[laughs] Yes! She’s actually problem-free! 

She really, really is. Of everyone. 
Of everyone! She doesn't need a man. She’s got money, she’s got a job, she’s good! 

Has the role expanded from what you guys expected from Season 1 into 2 and 3?
I think, [in] Season 1, we were introducing our entire audience to every single character on the show. We were getting to know Issa, Molly, and Lawrence and their journeys, and Kelli and Tiffany and her friend circle. After Season 1, we got to open up the world a little bit more with Season 2. We’ll continue to do that with Season 3, which I’m really excited about. 

Natasha Rothwell (l) and Amanda Seales (r) as Kelli and Tiffany in 'Insecure'

Do people recognize you now?
[laughs] They do, which is very funny. I’m the biggest nerd. I’m very awkward, and just... Kelli is a real acting choice. I have to act to behave in that way. But people will see me in airports and be like, “KEELLLIIII! What’s up?!” And I’ll be terrified because I don’t know how to act in front of anyone. My friends think it’s hilarious because I start sweating and stuttering. 

You’re also a meme with the “growth” line. Have you seen that all over the internet as well? 
It’s been nuts. People send it to me, and they’ll send me screenshots of celebrities using it on Twitter, and I'm like, this is crazy. Apparently, everyone’s experiencing growth! I love it! 

How was it going into Season 3 and putting together the map for where you wanted to get the characters to go this season? 
It was hard. At this point, the writers have so much invested in the stories that we’re telling. We really wanted to do right by our characters, and so in the writers’ room we really put our blood, sweat, and tears into this season. We really understand what a privilege it is to be telling these stories with these women because there aren’t shows that look like ours, so we can tell stories that other shows can’t. It’s been a real privilege to have Prentice Penny as our showrunner because he fiercely protects our writers’ domain and he doesn’t allow us to feel like we have to write to Twitter. 

Did you happen to see that Lawrence-hive thing going around online? All of the Lawrence bros are mad that he might not be in Season 3 at all or that much?
Well, what I find so funny, I feel like, true to life, after a breakup that has closure, which is what Issa and Lawrence experienced, sometimes you just don’t see the dude. I think that that’s what’s so cool about this season because we explore what happens when you have that void to fill, when you have this huge presence in your life, and someone who was so formative in your 20s, who’s no longer there. What happens in the wake of a breakup? I know that there are petitions, Lawrence hive is mad, but I will tell them, please watch. 

I luckily got the chance to see the first four episodes, which are excellent, and I can't wait to already watch them again. I wanted to know: What can we expect for Kelli this season? 
I think that it's cool to see that she is just a well-respected, very successful accountant—but by day, and by night she turns up! She’s the epitome of balance. She’s so fun to play and we’re gonna see, I think, more of the different sides of Kelli this season, and I'm excited to bring that to the audience. 

How are you feeling about getting cast in Wonder Woman 1984
I can’t speak about that, but I will say that I’m so excited for all of the projects that are going on. I feel really fortunate to be able to be doing the work that I want to be doing and working with people that I want to be working with. I hope that I continue to do that, that I’m carving out a career for myself where I get to work with really cool people and I get to tell stories about communities that are marginalized. I think that’s one of the things that I was most passionate about Love, Simon was: This is a story that we don’t get to share, and it’s indicative of the work that I do on Insecure, and I feel the same about Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins. I would be freaking out. 
You can’t freak out, because then I’ll freak out, and we'll both be freaking out! 

One thing I also really appreciate is how you use the platform you have on Twitter; you're super politically active. How are you dealing with not feeling burned out with this endless news cycle? 
The news is relentless. It’s horrible all the time, and we think it can’t get worse and it does. For me, it’s balance. It’s important for me to have self-care and to make sure that I take a break from the onslaught of horrible news, but I can’t be me or be myself fully if I’m not politically active. Some people have asked, you’re getting a little bit more visibility, are you gonna change your tone? And I’m like, "no, fuck Trump today and forever." I feel like our country is under attack. Democracy is under attack. I feel like marginalized groups are being targeted, and I feel like our vote is our power, so if I can get the 18-to-25-year-old demographic that did not want to vote last year to vote because they follow me, I’m gonna talk about it. 

Insecure is obviously, as you previously said, great about telling stories about a group of young black women whose stories we don’t necessarily normally get to see on television. What other kinds of stories about black women do you want to work on and see told out there as hopefully we continue to get more and more diverse stories on television and film?
I think there’s so many. The critique I’ve gotten about the show has been in the vein of, “I love this black story, but it’s not my black story.” My answer to that is always, well, then, tell your black story. I think that there are platforms abounding right now that are looking for diverse content. I want to be a part of that wave of young people that are creating that content and encouraging others to create it. I’m excited to do it myself with the show that I’m doing with HBO, and I feel like it’s something that I haven't seen before. It's not Insecure Part 2—it's a very different show. I think it’s about time that we have as many diverse voices on-screen as we do the very whitewashed, homogenous voices that we’ve been watching for decades. I’m ready for a new wave of new faces telling new and different stories. 

I know you can't talk about Wonder Woman, but can we expect more of your writing out there? I remember seeing something that you were writing a romcom.
I am writing a romcom. I’m excited. Romcoms are... talk about what I do for self-care! I’m [watching a] romcom [with] a glass of rosé and I am restored, so I’m so excited to get into the genre. I’ve never written a movie before. It’s so exciting, and I feel super supported by the folks over at Paramount. Hopefully that will see the light of day! 

We need more romcoms, especially right now as self-care. So, final question: Of you could describe this season of Insecure in one word, what would it be? 
Adulting. Is that a word? I think... grown shit. It’s two words, but it’s just like, they’re growing up and they’re trying to learn from their mistakes, and, inevitably, when you do that, know what? Growth. Put the GIF on there. Growth. That's what this season's about. Growth. When asked, Natasha Rothwell said the next season of Insecure is about… and then, growth.

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