Issa Rae the actress gets caught off guard by Issa Rae the writer with ‘Insecure’

"Being in the writers room and coming up with the ideas, that’s honestly the most fun," says Issa Rae, creator, producer and star of HBO's "Insecure."
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

As co-creator, executive producer and star, Issa Rae is the face and the soul of HBO’s “Insecure.” She’s also the name. “It’s my only regret,” she says of calling her character Issa. “I didn’t think ‘Oh, this character’s really putting herself out there, and it’s also my name.’” With a Golden Globe nomination for lead actress in a comedy TV series, her name is out there even more.

In the delightful cringe-comedy, Rae’s Issa is a young black woman struggling to figure her life out, with her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) by her side and occasionally at her throat. She navigates casual racism and sexism at work — at the patronizing nonprofit “We Got Y’all” — and in the world, holding back her response until she can unleash uncensored raps into the bathroom mirror. “Insecure” shares some DNA with a previous project of Rae’s, acclaimed Web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” But she’s an awkward black woman now.

When discussing HBO’s new series “Insecure,” writer-producer-actress Issa Rae says allowing viewers to ”watch black people be regular, to live their lives ... is an exciting thing for me.”


Of all the jobs you have on the show, which is your favorite?

Writing, hands down. Being in the writers room and coming up with the ideas, that’s honestly the most fun. You’re just having conversations that you’d have with your friends, but making stories out of them, and that’s so rewarding.

And the toughest?

I would say acting. I’m lucky to have such a strong cast to help elevate me. I feel like I’m always on my toes there. The dramatic moments caught me more off guard; even though obviously I knew they were coming, I just didn’t mentally prepare. Like, “Oh, I have to execute this, and I have to make sure that I don’t sink my own show.”

Was there a particular scene that caught you off guard the most?

Episode 7 was the most anxiety-inducing episode because that’s my big fight scene, and Jay Ellis [who plays Issa’s boyfriend Lawrence] is really, really good. I was like, I can’t do it, I’m playing up against him, and he’s so wrought with emotion. Luckily his being so good helped me to get in that zone a lot more.


That fight was rough, but I was more much worried about Issa’s relationship with Molly after their big fight.

That’s something we remind ourselves to focus on. They are the core of the show. They are the heart of the show.

It’s a love story between them.


The characters deal with ignorant comments on a regular basis, but those moments are usually batted away, not landed on.

Yeah, it’s just how it is in real life, being a woman and hearing offhanded or misogynistic comments in passing. A lot of people don’t realize what they’re saying, or the impact isn’t necessarily felt in the moment. You might register it later, or you might feel it in the moment but not act on it, you vent to a friend or a loved one later. But that’s true to life, so we didn’t want to be making it this heavy-handed moment, “Let’s talk about the lesson.” Life goes on and it’s not necessarily a priority.

There are the occasional rap fantasy responses.


Yes, but they’re rarely acted on because in real life there’s other factors to consider: If I bring this up now, will I lose my job, will I then be the problem, will I be labeled the sensitive one? Will I look like I can’t take a joke? I need to pick my battles. In the grand scheme of things, the racism isn’t particularly overt or harmful, it’s more subtle, so it’s like, let this slide so that I can keep going about my day. It’s more of an inconvenience to speak up, and that in itself is such a problematic way to think. You’re basically curbing the right to stand up for yourself because you’re considering other factors that may make you look entirely too sensitive. But it’s your right to be able to speak up.

That plays into the “Insecure” title.


It’s a very vulnerable role.

It is. It’s pretty honest and raw and real. But I keep going back to just wanting to showcase the real aspects of someone’s life. I like to ask, would you be the hero in your own story if someone was watching your life play out on screen, or would they be like, “Ugh, what are you doing? What is wrong with you? Do something different!”? It’s so easy to watch someone else’s messy life play out and either relate or judge. But I seriously think no one is really the hero of their own stories. I think professionally, you have heroic elements. But there are so many ways that you treat people, or make your relationship decisions, or raise your kids, that wouldn’t necessarily be deemed heroic but are very much human, and those are the stories that we’re trying to tell on screen.

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