Nigerian-American actress Yvonne Orji, whose forte is comedy, is now living the Hollywood life.
To the uninitiated, Nigerian-American actress Yvonne Orji plays Molly in Insecure, a popular HBO comedy series offering a fresh take on the lives of black women as they navigate joy, pain, insecurities, successes and failures.
The role calls for a melange of emotions and she fits the bill.
When we speak to Orji, the outspoken and witty 33-year-old who’s also a stand-up comedian routinely switches accents, both Nigerian and American.
Her sense of humor is unmistakable. Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as the youngest of four siblings and the only girl, when she was six, her family moved to Maryland, United States.
She was bullied in school until her eighth grade, for her thick Nigerian accent and her lips. But she was an A-grade student.
Her parents wanted her to do medicine, but that was not her interest. After completing a master’s degree in public health, this George Washington University alumnus embarked on a journey to work in post-conflict Liberia, to educate teenagers on HIV prevention.
From Monrovia to the movies, today, Orji’s diary is packed. The day we speak is the last day of shooting the second season of Insecure in Los Angeles. Before the shoot, she needs to squeeze in a dress-fitting session. The day is long, very long.
“Right after we shoot, I have to go to the Essence film festival in New Orleans, where we will premiere the first episode of the second season,” says Orji.
Always on the move, it’s the Hollywood life.
“If you see my house right now, it’s a mess, and I have not packed yet.”
It’s an opportune time to ask her about the three things she can’t do without when traveling.
“I always go for the aisle seat for the leg room; secondly, I need my headphones because I’ve got to have music, and thirdly, I need socks on the plane because I like to take off my shoes and I hate getting cold.”
Orji’s Molly in Insecure is a lawyer who has everything going for her but is not lucky in love. Prior to this role of a lifetime, Orji was a struggling stand-up comedian in New York.
“My interest in acting wasn’t until I started comedy,” she says.
“As an African kid, you’re not made to believe the arts are realistic,” says Orji in her Nigerian accent. “This is just a hobby.”
After returning from Liberia, she gave comedy a shot. A choice that wasn’t popular with her parents.
In 2011, she bagged an internship opportunity to work in the writers’ room for a show called Love That Girl! produced by Martin Lawrence, the well-known Hollywood actor and comedian. There, she was exposed to a different creative space and soaked up as much knowledge as she could. She continued working as a writer.
In 2014, when her writing and comedy plans were not coming together the way she had envisaged, her faith kept her going and she decided to give it one more try before leaving the US.
Inspired by her own life, with advice from her mentors, she wrote and created a web series called FirstGen. The show looks at the life of a first generation African family navigating life in the US, offering a different narrative of African immigrants as opposed to fleeing genocide.
“If no one is giving you an opportunity, you have to create your own,” she says.
David Oyelowo, the British Nigerian actor known for playing Martin Luther King in the America biographical film Selma, is the executive producer of the show. With her acting career taking off, Orji put the show on hold but promises to resume production as soon as it’s possible.
Orji is strong in her faith, puts God first and always goes for what she feels is authentic; that’s what has led to her triumph through hard times. She also believes in doing things from a place of servitude.
“When you meet a need, that’s when people are more able to look at you and figure out how they can meet a need of yours.
“A lot of times I did stuff for free. When I did the writers’ internship, I was an unpaid intern. And I was like I will come in and I will be excellent. That’s a form of networking because that’s an opportunity that you can really squander if not careful. Wherever you go, you want to go in and present your best self.”
She had met Issa Rae, the creator, writer and co-star of Insecure, a couple of times at events before the show was given the green light by HBO, and Rae remembered her.
But Orji had to earn her role. She auditioned for Molly five times before what was to become the biggest break in her acting career.
She is convinced Insecure boasts some of the best talent in Hollywood, from the creator to the director.
“Honestly, I think I have been spoilt; I don’t know how I will be able to go to a show that doesn’t have the same caliber of excellence, fun and personalities. I hope to God this is a trend I continue to find in Hollywood, because I’ve heard some horror stories and I’m just so grateful I’m not living in one of those.”
She goes on to talk about how much the team genuinely like each other and miss each other when not filming.
“When you are working with people for 14-hour days, you want it to be a good family,” says Orji.
A go-getter, in many ways, Orji shares many similarities with her character Molly but the one thing they don’t have in common is Orji’s stance on virginity – she even did a TED Talk on it.
“I’m very open about it, not that it’s the only great thing about me. I don’t put extra sauce on it, the same way I’m Nigerian, the same way I’m a Christian, I’m a virgin,” she says.
Orji has just secured another acting stint – her debut feature film, Night School, with actor Kevin Hart. Needless to say, the third season of Insecure has been approved, and has fans all over the world waiting in anticipation. All this has Orji counting her blessings.
“I’m living out of suitcases, but it’s good, this is the life I prayed for.” Amen to that. – Written by Zikhona Masala