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‘Insecure’s’ Natasha Rothwell knows a thing or two about (teaching) drama

The writer and actress taps into her life for a new role in ‘Love, Simon’

You probably know Natasha Rothwell as Kelli, who, along with Amanda Seales, rounds out the foursome of female friends on Insecure anchored by Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji.

Kelli had that rather, err, explosive scene in season two. The one in the diner where she’s enjoying herself at the surreptitious hand of her male partner. Men experiencing pleasure in inappropriate places is a whole subgenre of comedy (See: Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher at the dinner table in Wedding Crashers for an especially memorable example.) But like with so many things, Insecure takes that trope and flips it. There was Kelli, drunk and eyes widening, as her friends looked on.

Did she just … ?

Or maybe you remember Rothwell because she’s been immortalized in GIF form for the way she delivered one word.

Rothwell, a former Saturday Night Live writer, is both a writer and series regular on Insecure. She’s also developing a show of her own for HBO. And on March 9, her new movie, Love, Simon, opens. The film, directed by CW rainmaker Greg Berlanti, is about a kid (Nick Robinson) who struggles with coming out, even though he’s surrounded by supportive family and friends. Instead, he seeks solace and community online, emailing pseudonymously back and forth with another kid at his school who’s also closeted.

All of this happens against the backdrop of regular senior-year angst. Rothwell is a natural scene-stealer as Ms. Albright, a perpetually unimpressed drama teacher trying to lead her students through a production of Cabaret. She does a lot of eye-rolling and huffing about the fact that her career never took off after she was an extra in The Lion King, which is why she’s a high school drama teacher.

There’s a bit of truth in all fiction, and Rothwell didn’t have to look particularly far to find inspiration for Ms. Albright.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Did you have any instructors like Ms. Albright?

I definitely was inspired by drama teachers in high school named Mr. Walsh and Ms. O’Neil, and both of them were very formative in helping me sort of understand theater. But I think my biggest inspiration is that I was a high school drama teacher in real life for four years in the Bronx. It was really sort of nuts how real life had prepared me for this a while ago. When I moved to New York, I really wanted to find my bread job as close to my passion as possible. There’s nobility in waiting tables. But I really wanted to find a job in the arts, and so I started teaching.

What did you take from that experience? High school life is so melodramatic anyway. I have to imagine the kids were a source of entertainment.

Oh, absolutely! I mean, there’s one student who wrote the monologue he was supposed to have memorized down his arm. So, it’s like the comedy of watching someone looking down at his arm and trying to get away with that kind of stuff. And then there’s a real sense of community. I feel like theater in high school seems to be sort of like the safe haven for the outsiders and people who don’t necessarily fit in. And it was a … come-as-you-are sort of class and it’s a come-as-you-are after-school activity.

I often worked with students who didn’t necessarily excel academically, but they thrived in the arts. And I think a lot of the sports teams felt the same way. They may not thrive in this area but were finding a home for their passion. And then that in turn motivated them academically because in order to participate in the theater program, they had to make the grades academically.

“I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness romcom starring me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it.”

You have quite a bit of experience in sketch and improv comedy. What is the most ridiculous ‘yes, and’ situation you’ve ever had to play off of?

It would probably be an improv situation where I was a part of [Upright Citizens Brigade]. We would do jams where you do a show with a bunch of people, and you invite members of the audience that didn’t necessarily come there to participate and do improv in front of an audience. And depending on the time of the jam, some of the audience members could be intoxicated, and so there definitely have been times where I found myself onstage trying to triage the scene with a drunk audience member. Or new people to comedy confuse funny for mean. And so, in those jam situations you get an audience member onstage and they want to be funny so badly that they end up saying something mean or hurtful to someone else. So you’re there to spin it in a positive way to save the scene.

The really awkward moments of just like, ‘I have to agree with this person onstage, but then I have to end it with something that will make the scene palatable.’ I definitely have been there.

Last year the Los Angeles Times published a spread about black women in comedy. There were all these talented actresses, some with years of experience, talking about limits and stereotypes with the roles they’re approached to play. As a writer, have you given thought to the role you want to play that no one else is going to write?

I do feel as a writer the sort of inspiration I get for things … is to fill that gap of “Oh, these are things that I want to do that I don’t get the opportunity to do.” Or scenes [where] people aren’t necessarily considering women of color, they won’t cast women of color in a specific story. I think about it often, but I don’t necessarily think of it in terms of “I want to be cast” or I don’t think about in terms of “Here’s a role that I wish someone would cast me in.” I just feel like to sit and have that wish is inactive. And what’s active is writing it.

I can sit at home and lament the fact that a really honest-to-goodness rom-com starring someone like me doesn’t exist. I could bemoan that and throw a penny in a well, or I can write it. And I can type that version of that story in a writers’ room, if I should be so lucky. Or if I am blessed to direct or cast and have those says as an executive producer, I’ll do those things, and for me that’s an active approach.

You know, we work twice as hard for half as much has been the hand we’ve been dealt. I want to get to work and I want to start creating those roles.

What can you tell me about your project with HBO?

HBO has been incredible and a huge champion of my work, my passions, and has been a great home for my talent, I feel. Developing my own series that I will be writing and starring in is just massive. It’s a comedy. It takes place in New York, and it’s going to be an opportunity to write myself into the role and situation that we haven’t seen yet. And, I am really, really excited because I think we are going to be doing something that I haven’t seen before and HBO hasn’t seen before. That’s about all I can get into it about it. But I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.