It’s hard to believe that Natasha Rothwell ever considered a career path other than the multi-hyphenate position of actress-comedian-writer that she holds now.
Known now for her engaging role as the plus-sized, unabashed and sexually-liberated Kelli in the soon-to-return HBO series “Insecure,” as a terse teacher in the film “Love, Simon,” or as the homeless, panhandling bibliophile in Netflix’s “The Characters,” Rothwell says she once thought journalism would be her career path.
Fortunately for all “Insecure” fans, a brief stint at Ithaca College proved her wrong.
“I was pretty miserable,” Rothwell, 37, said. “I loved writing, [but] I wasn't a big fan of the rules of journalism. … I knew I always wanted to major in theater.”
After a few years at University of Maryland’s theater school, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer alumna said she found herself right where she belonged — making her mark as a comedian and writer in Hollywood, a champion of diversity in entertainment, and a fan-favorite on actress and showrunner Issa Rae’s series “Insecure.”
In addition to working on her own comedy series with HBO, Rothwell is slated to appear in the film “Wonder Woman 1984” alongside Gal Gadot next year and is writing her first feature film, a romantic comedy called “Bridal Recall.” And on Sunday night, she’ll return to the small screen with the majority black cast of “Insecure” for its third season.
The actress got her start in the writers’ room of “Insecure” (she co-wrote “Due North,” the comedy show-within-a-show which “Insecure” characters watch) and later landed the role of Kelli, who first appeared toward the end of Season 1. Now, Rothwell is a regular on the show.
“It’s so dope. I love it. It’s been really incredible,” she gushed, adding that the response to the titillating dramedy and her character has been overwhelming “in the best way.”
Insecure follows Issa (Issa Rae), a quirky twentysomething Californian with a penchant for rapping to herself in mirrors, as she navigates adulthood, complicated romantic relationships and friendships. That’s where Kelli comes in, blossoming in the second season with unforgettable candor. Fans have swooned over her unapologetic personality and full figure, sending many friendly messages Rothwell’s way.
But the actress admits she couldn’t be further from her character.
“People who meet me on the street are like ‘Wow, you’re nothing like her,’ and I think that’s one of the biggest compliments,” said Rothwell, who confessed that she sometimes falls into the trap of caring too much about what other people think or feel. Transforming into her crazy and wild character is a reminder of how to live, and that maybe a little Kelli lives in all of us, she said.
“I turn her volume all the way up and [show] what it means to live life without giving a [expletive],” said Rothwell. “She’s so complex. She has layers. If she didn't have layers, she would be a caricature, and I feel like, she’s smart. She has a solid friend group. She loves her job, and at the end of the day, [she teaches us] to not care about what other people think so much.”
Castmate Yvonne Orji, who plays Issa’s successful lawyer friend Molly, who experiences a turbulent dating life, called Rothwell a “national treasure” who elevates every scene she’s in.
“As her scene partner, you’re trying to keep a straight face and you don’t want to mess up, but she will say something off the wall and you hear the director yell ‘CUT’ because everyone laughs,” Orji wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “It’s like watching a genius at work — her mind is spinning and you know gold will result.”
Born in Wichita, Kansas, the self-proclaimed “voyeur” traveled the country as a military dependent with her parents and three siblings every three to four years, living in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico; Florida; Illinois; New Jersey; Turkey and Waldorf, Md. — an opportunity that allowed her to observe different cultures and communities, which later fueled her writing, she said.
Her roots in comedy, too, began with her family — playing games with her siblings where the challenge was to make one person laugh. She was good at it.
“That’s sort of when I realized the power of comedy and how much it felt good to sort of be the catalyst of someone's joy,” she said.
Following her year at Ithaca, Rothwell transferred to University of Maryland, College Park, where she received a full ride as a creative and performing arts scholar. There, she studied classical theater and modern interpretations of Shakespeare, and performed with the improv group Erasable Inc. to further flex her comedy muscles.
“It shaped my passion for theater and expressing my comedic voice,” said Rothwell of her time at College Park, but she admits she had moments where she wasn’t sure about comedy.
“I wanted to be taken seriously as an actress,” Rothwell said. She kept being cast in comedy roles, but her mentor and professor Mitchell Hébert told her to embrace it.
“He just basically gave the best advice at the time, which was to stop resisting what you’re naturally good at and use that to express yourself,” Rothwell said.
Hébert said he saw something early in Rothwell that stood out when she delivered a comedic performance as a father in a university production of “The Fantasticks.”
“I was just looking for the best actors. I was trying to find who would bring the most originality, insight, depth, warmth, humanity .. Natasha was just great,” he said with a laugh. “There was this trepidation about singing, but she killed it. She owned it. I remember watching it, and thinking ‘It should be done like this all the time.’”
Rothwell went on to pursue comedy “hard core,” honing her skills in Washington and New York, where she worked with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and later landed a job as a writer with “Saturday Night Live” — the most challenging position she’s had, and likely, will ever hold, she said, comparing it to a “pressure cooker.”
“You have to create so much in a short amount of time,” she said. “You have to tell your inner critic to shut up because you don’t got time for that. It’s sketch after sketch, so your inner critic is not as integral [in the] process.”
But the challenge freed her up to be a better writer, she said. “It taught me the principle: be prolific and not perfect.”
Since then, Rothwell has traded in New York City for West Hollywood, Calif., where she has worked on the Emmy-nominated “Insecure” — a notable opportunity to work in a writers’ room full of women of color and various sexual orientations.
“For us, it helps tell a multidimensional story,” said Rothwell.
As for season 3 of “Insecure,” Rothwell wouldn’t divulge much, but said characters will be revealed in new and interesting ways.
“Buckle up,” she said.
Residence: West Hollywood, Calif.
Birthplace: Wichita, Kan.
Education: Bachelor of arts in theatre at the University of Maryland, College Park, 2003
Career: Comedian, performer, writer and actress
Bragging rights: Joined The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York; writer for “Saturday Night Live” 2014-2015; featured in Netflix’s “The Characters” in 2016; acted as Ms. Albright in the film “Love, Simon” in 2018; writer and actress for Insecure 2016-present.
Personal: Rothwell loves romantic comedies and documentaries. “Rom-coms are my jam,” she said.
Up next: Rothwell is writing her first romantic comedy feature film; she’ll also write, produce, and star in her first solo HBO series.
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