Natasha Rothwell is punching up

The writer, actor, director, and comedian wants to use comedy as a force for good.

Dewey Saunders
The Good Ones
ByLakin Starling

The Good Ones is a new series from Mic about celebrities who are living their values through their art. These are the actors, artists, musicians, and creatives who let the world know exactly who they are, and are paving the way for the next generation. Think you know a Good One? Get in touch at features@mic.com.

Natasha Rothwell has a dream project: a rom-com centered around a plus-sized Black woman that doesn’t reduce the character’s quest for romance to a haphazard pursuit of love. In her research, Natasha found that plus-sized women in these films often endure a transformation or life-changing event to be deemed lovable. “What happens if, on page one, we assume that a fat Black woman can just love and be looking for love? Not because she can't find it because she's Black, or she can’t find it because she’s thick. She’s just like everybody else,” Rothwell says during our call over Zoom. “It’s normalizing our experiences so we feel seen. I don’t have a moral of the story every day when I’m exploring my life.”

The possibility to reimagine stories like this excites her. Inside of Rothwell’s art as a comedian, actor, screenwriter, producer, and director, is her ability to extract the nuance in Black and marginalized characters. She wants to use humor as a tool to humanize and challenge exhausted Hollywood tropes.

Rothwell had been writing for Saturday Night Live for a year when she was tapped to both write and act on Insecure, as the hilarious, super self-assured, and relatable character Kelly— the big on-screen introduction that launched her busy career. Kelly is special on Insecure for many reasons, breaking the ice with her welcome chaos and rib-tickling one-liners while the rest of the characters take life a bit too seriously. “The show has a lot of grounded heaviness,” Rothwell says. “To be able to play a character that can bring in relief is a real responsibility that I don’t take lightly,”

This year, Rothwell starred in another hit HBO series, The White Lotus, as Belinda, an overworked spa manager who dreams of opening her own business but is run around by her needy, wealthy clients. Rothwell’s character depicts the real-life dilemma of Black women who don’t have the privilege of setting boundaries in a workplace, where they are often burnt out laboring for others — especially white people. For Rothwell, who wants to debunk the “Magical Negro” archetype, playing Belinda meant magnifying the real experience of not being able to walk away from an oppressive environment that pays the bills.

“There’s an interesting trap we find ourselves in where it’s like: How do I advocate for myself? How do I stand up for my needs and my wants, but at the same time understand the limitations of my circumstance?” Rothwell explains. “Belinda is in this place. To have her just say, ‘Well, I'm out’ and stand up and walk away is so simple, but so powerful.”

Rothwell doesn’t give in to the expectation for Black people to perpetuate excellence at all times. Before committing to a role or working on a script, she asks herself, What are versions of ourselves that we haven’t seen on TV? “Because to be flawed is to be human,” she tells me. For Rothwell, it feels more urgent and impactful to offer a portrayal that magnifies the non-spectacular, very real parts of who her characters are.

Belinda depicts the real-life dilemma of Black women who don’t have the privilege of setting boundaries in the workplace.

As a young girl, Rothwell remembers feeling extremely empathetic towards others. “It’s the only way I knew how to be. I was always in the kitchen,” she laughs about memories of snooping in on adult conversations. “My mom would tell me to ‘stay out of grown folks’ business!’’”

“I was always worried about what was going on. Do people have enough? Do they have what they need?” she says.

Rothwell discovered the medicinal magic of laughter in her childhood. Born in Wichita, Kansas into a funny military family, she would perform during long car rides or test jokes with her parents and siblings. It’s always been her goal to use her gift to make people feel good instead of getting laughs at the expense of others.

“Comedy should punch up and not punch down. It should speak truth to power and not marginalize. It can illuminate,” she says. “Oppressed people have used humor to heal forever. To think of using humor to hurt has never crossed my mind. To me, that's antithetical to what humor is,” she continues. That’s why in moments of tension, whether in the world or in scripts she’s writing. she asks herself, how can I use this to exercise our pain?

Before the SNL gig, Rothwell passed her amiable approach to comedy on to her students during her four-year stint as a high school drama teacher in the Bronx. Instead of giving into students’ inclination to be unkind in order to make a crowd laugh, she encouraged them to push themselves to explore within. “What's actually funny is vulnerability,” she would explain to her class. “Rather than call a person in the crowd ugly, you could go on stage and say, ‘You know what, I feel gross.’ Because that's the truth.”

Her commitment to understanding and improving the human experience, especially for people who exist at the intersection of various identities, extends to her work off-screen. As an advocate for women’s rights, the LGBTQIA+ community, and political literacy, Rothwell believes it’s crucial to use her quickly-growing platform for good, as she did during her appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers when she wore a shirt that read: “Pro-Black, Pro-Brown, Pro-Queer, Pro-Trans, Pro-Science, Pro-Choice, Pro-Hoe.”

“Comedy should punch up and not punch down. It should speak truth to power.”

As much as Rothwell thrives at bringing levity to spaces, she’s not afraid to delve into the less upbeat parts of the human experience. In her writing for Insecure, she shows how Nathan and Lawrence push through struggles specific to Black men in romantic relationships, addressing concepts like vulnerability and mental health. We see Molly navigate her childhood pain, and the difficulty of balancing work success and love with the expectation to have it all. In the fourth season of Insecure, which especially resonated with its audience, Rothwell and the other writers took a deep dive into relationships of all kinds, as the two main characters sound the strength and self-awareness to (temporarily) end a toxic friendship.

It’s taken an immense level of self-belief to push these stories to the forefront, especially in moments when Rothwell’s imposter syndrome shows up. But she doesn’t back down, because advocating for herself and her ideas ultimately make way for her to do the same for others. In addition to directing for the first time in the upcoming final season of Insecure, perhaps the biggest and most recent manifestation of Rothwell’s brilliance and fortitude is her newly launched company Big Hattie Productions, named after Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actor to win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind. This year, Rothwell also secured an overall deal with ABC along with the production house to create the fresh TV content she’s always dreamed of.

Telling stories of people like Issa, Molly, or Belinda, who push past barriers to thrive, is key for Rothwell, who is always thinking of ways to open the minds of her audience. “How can the characters be subversive? How can the characters portray people of marginalized voices, people from the LGBTQIA community, plus size bitches and big bitches,” she exclaims. “How do we show all of that in ways we have not seen?” In the spirit of the pioneering Black woman who the production company is named after, Rothwell is carving out space for more creatives of color. “My company's called Big Hattie for a reason,” she says. “Hattie McDaniel opened that door so I wouldn't have to reopen it.”