Yvonne Orji isn’t slowing down after ‘Insecure’
The comedian and actress is following up her role on the iconic series with new specials and platforming other African talent.
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On Sunday, March 2, 2014, Yvonne Orji’s mother, Celine, phoned with some shocking news. “Your friend has won an Oscar.”
“And I'm like, ‘Who?’” Orji reenacts their call, zigzagging between her mother’s lilting, resonant Nigerian accent, and her own American inflection, which a trained ear might trace back to northern Maryland.
“Lupita. Lupita has won the Oscar.”
Celine was referring to Lupita Nyong’o, arguably the most famous Black African actress in Hollywood at that time, who had just won the Academy Award for Best Actress that very night. Back then, Orji was a seasoned stand-up comedian with a tight ten and some TV experience under her belt, but she still had yet to nab the role that would make her a star, Molly Carter on HBO’s Insecure. And she definitely didn’t know Lupita.
Today Orji, now a 38-year-old multi-hyphenate star, unfurls into laughter at the memory. She was quick to clarify to her mother that just because she and Nyong’o were both African actresses trying to cut a path in the entertainment industry, they were not quite running in the same circles. “I was like, ‘If you think this is how this works, you are sadly mistaken.’”
This was nearly eight years ago, when Celine was still making sense of her daughter’s dream to act and tell jokes for a living. Orji was born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria in 1983 and raised in Laurel, Maryland by industrious Igbo parents who came to the US to secure a better future for their family. The plan was for Orji to become a doctor or lawyer, something sensible. But according to Orji, God had other plans: for her to be a comedian.
Orji’s parents were wary of this career change, but ultimately supportive. Recognizing Nyong’o’s Oscar win was Celine’s way of encouraging her daughter, if a bit misguided. “Just the fact that this Kenyan girl had reached such an amazing feat so early in her career, it gave my mom an idea of what it is that her daughter was trying to do,” Orji explains. “A lot of African parents do that. It's just like, unless they see somebody else winning in it, then they don't know if it's possible for their kid.”
Now, with an HBO comedy special, a New York Times bestselling memoir, five seasons as a lead actress on a smash HBO comedy, and a Best Supporting Actress Emmy nomination all under her belt, Orji has become the shining example she always needed: a Nigerian-American woman who centers her experience in her storytelling. Recently, she met with a hot, young Nigerian comedian about a possible collaboration, only to find out that the up-and-comer had touted Orji as a possibility model in conversations with her own parents. For Orji, it was A Moment. “Whether I know of it or not,” Orji laughs, “I’m the case study for Nigerian parents.”
Though audiences may know her best as Molly, Orji has also laid groundwork to make sure they also recognize her as Yvonne, the powerhouse writer, comedian, producer, and proud, first generation Nigerian-American woman. In May 2021, Orji released her first book, a faith-focused memoir, the bestselling Bamboozled By Jesus. She co-starred opposite her longtime pal, comedian Lil’ Rel Howery, in the 2021 comedy Vacation Friends. She’s opened for stand-up behemoths like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle at venues like Madison Square Garden. And in 2020, Orji released a stand-up performance special of her own on HBO, Yvonne Orji: Momma I Made It!
The hour-long film could have centered solely on Orji’s dead-on imitations of various characters from her life — her meddling parents, an oblivious uncle, a savant-like Taboo opponent — which highlight her dexterity with the “dual lens” through which she sees the world as a third culture American woman. But the special, helmed by veteran director Chris Robinson, spends nearly as much time in Lagos, among Orji’s family, merchants at a local market, and perhaps most notably, other Nigerian creatives like DJ Obi and comedian Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah. This choice expands the world of the film beyond Orji’s slice of life, highlighting Nigerian talent while placing Orji within a coterie of homegrown creatives.
Orji’s constellation of African peers and inspirations extends stateside as well. In our conversation she name-checks LA-based, Nigerian-British writer-producer Gina Yashere (Bob Hearts Abishola), Ghanaian-American actor and playwright Jocelyn Bioh (Nollywood Dreams), and Nigerian-American novelist Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood and Bone). Their success is notable in a media landscape that tends to focus primarily on Black American narratives, if Black folks are included at all. In Orji’s view, opportunities for African storytellers in American media and entertainment are only beginning to bloom. “I think the world is recognizing that there's so many different types of Black stories to tell.”
As a writer and producer, Orji’s got some stories of her own to add to the mix. Chief among them is First Gen, an original comedy currently in development with Disney+ which focuses on a Nigerian-American family of immigrant parents and their first generation adult children. One of Orji’s big sticking points with First Gen is how proud and comfortable the kids are with their Nigerian heritage. Orji grew up visiting family in Nigeria every year, and though she’s fluent in and appreciative of American culture, Orji never recognized herself in immigrant narratives that deal mostly in a desire to become more American, a popular Hollywood convention.
Though First Gen is now in development, Orji actually secured her partnership with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo back in 2015, a year before she would audition for Insecure. This was a triumph for Orji, not only because it predated Insecure, but also because, though it wasn’t long ago, pitching African stories in Hollywood was even more challenging than it is now. Orji mentions CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola, which premiered in 2019, and the 2018 film Black Panther — a superhero film set in the fictional nation of Wakanda, which featured quite a few African stars — and how their success has pushed the needle. Still, just a few years back, the landscape for African storytellers in the west was markedly different when she was originally pitching First Gen.
Orji had also received pushback at that time on the uniqueness of her voice of stand-up. “I don't curse in my comedy. A lot of my material is from this dual lens [as both a Nigerian and an American]. I remember [other] comics being like, ‘It is just such a niche crowd,’” she recalls.
But Orji could only write what she knew. And in the end, it paid off — and not only with Winfrey and Oyelowo. Back in 2008, Orji posted a video on YouTube about a fictitious African character trying to claim Barack Obama as her relative . The video caught the attention of another YouTuber named Issa Rae. “Unbeknownst to me, Issa is half Senegalese. And she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is hysterical 'cause this reminds me of, like, aunts from back home!’ So the thing that other people said would probably be, ‘too niche, too specific, too uncool’ is actually the thing that attracted me to the woman who would turn out to change my life.”
Though Orji is a star in her own right, it was her turn as headstrong, loyal attorney Molly on Rae’s Insecure that shot Orji to her current status as America’s best friend. Molly is someone many of us have either known, or been before, a flawed, but lovable person whose fear of intimacy threatens to hinder her growth. Molly is depicted with sensitivity by Orji, who was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a comedy series in 2020 for her performance.
Though her journey with Molly ends with the series finale of Insecure on December 26, Molly will no doubt live on in Orji’s heart for some time. “I’m gonna miss everything about her,” says Orji. “She’s such a delicious character.” Over the years Orji has learned a lot from her on-screen alter ego, namely, the importance of slowing down. “[Molly]'s trying to keep it all together. She's trying to be a boss at work. She's trying to be a boss for family and stuff,” Orji says. “But it's just like, ‘Nah, girl, you gotta show up for you. You can't– like, you shouldn't even have to have that much weight on you.’"
While slowing down may be on Orji’s mind, it doesn’t appear to be on her agenda. On top of all her other projects, like hosting 2021’s edition of the Prime Video comedy special, Yearly Departed, Orji is working on a variety show special for HBO. The special will platform African comedians Orji loves, like Chinedu Unaka and Beverly Adaeze. Orji’s thrilled to give other comics a chance to shine, and sees it as a way of paying forward the opportunities her comedy heroes and peers have given her. “When you look at my legacy, if it just means that a lot of people were able to get their breaks and also prosper in their own right, from something that I did or gave them the opportunity to do, I can die a happy woman.”
As our conversation winds down, talk drifts to the scale of Orji’s aspirations for herself and her African peers in Hollywood. I jokingly suggest she’s staging a takeover. Orji’s nimble stand-up muscles activate as she lays out a master plan for revolutionizing the entertainment industry, putting on creators from every country in Africa. Still, as committed as Orji is to the bit, she can’t forget her national pride. “Of course I'm gonna start with Nigeria first, baby.”