“Ease and flow.” This is the mantra that has guided the Nigerian American actress and comedian Yvonne Orji — who plays Molly Carter, a quick-witted, romantically challenged lawyer on the HBO series “Insecure” — through the dizzying past year. “I know what you can accomplish with hustle and grind,” says the 37-year-old, who earned two degrees (in liberal arts and public health) from George Washington University before setting her sights on Hollywood. “But I didn’t know what you can accomplish with ease and flow. It’s been a shock to my system.”
Speaking over the phone from her home in Los Angeles’s Beachwood Canyon, where she’s spent the morning immersed in prayer and deep stretching, she explains that her new mantra, which prioritizes calm and adaptability over unnecessary stress, was born out of a gathering of her friends at the start of 2021 at which they each shared their vision for the year ahead. As it turned out, it was just the shift in thinking she needed. During the first half of the year, as Los Angeles grappled with Covid-19 and lockdown measures, she not only began working on the fifth and final season of “Insecure” but also released the humorous self-help book “Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams.” While tackling these two career-defining projects, Orji discovered she had no choice but to carefully distinguish between things she could feasibly achieve and things she could not. Especially when, on account of pandemic safety protocols, the filming schedule for “Insecure” stretched from three to six months. “I think I would’ve killed myself trying to do everything,” she says. Instead, she adapted and even found creative ways to enjoy herself: In late May she rented a Bentley for a week and hand-delivered copies of her book to stores around Los Angeles (“I said, ‘Hey, let’s look back on this when it’s all done and really have some good memories.’”)
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Still, the last hurrah for the “Insecure” cast and production team, a notably diverse group of collaborators amid the prevailing whiteness of Hollywood, did feel slightly dampened. For the final season, the show relied heavily on separate filming units to tackle multiple story lines at once and Orji recalls unexpectedly bumping into other cast members in between scenes, having been unaware that they were also shooting that day. “They’d be like, ‘Well, yes, I’m here, but I’m kind of not here,’” she says. The method changed the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of the ensemble series — which has received 11 Emmy nominations to date — and Orji recalls thinking to herself, “This is not how I want us to go out!”
Self-reflection and spirituality color every aspect of Orji’s life. When asked how she manages the professional demands of Hollywood, she describes embarking on hourlong walks near her home and chatting with a higher power: “I’m like, ‘I’m really proud of who I’m becoming, whatchu think?’” This summer, she spoke with the model Hailey Bieber on her YouTube channel, which has over a million subscribers, about reconciling faith and the world of entertainment, two seemingly disparate spheres, with the pair covering on-screen nudity and sex. At one point, expressing frustration with the intense focus on the latter, for different reasons, in both realms, Orji confidently proclaims, “Being a virgin is not the best thing about me!”
She employs a similar brand of casual confessional within her stand-up comedy, unpacking with verve and wit the complexities of coming of age in the suburbs of Maryland and Pennsylvania as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants (her mother features in the joke she shares with T in the video above). It’s an approach that often calls to mind the work of Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah, who also extract material from their experiences at the center of cultural crossroads, but Orji’s poignant observations and sharp explorations of Black womanhood are entirely her own. “As a child of immigrants and as the only girl of four children, my voice was stifled growing up,” she tells me. Then she chuckles. “But it didn’t stop me from using it.” Last year, she achieved the comedian’s dream: an HBO stand-up special. Titled “Momma, I Made It!,” the show weaves together sections from an hourlong set Orji performed at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., with scenes from a pilgrimage she made in 2019 to Nigeria, where she visited her grandfather’s village, conducted on-the-street interviews with passers-by (had they heard of “Yvonne Orji the actress”? Cue blank stares) and perfected the art of market haggling. “That was my love letter to the immigrant struggle, the immigrant hustle, the immigrant sacrifice,” she says. “It was important to me because I knew it would be important to my parents.”
Orji’s original plan was to become a doctor. But she is quick to admit that her heart wasn’t fully in it. “I would have been a horrible doctor,” she says, all three syllables of “horrible” stretched out to their fullest comedic potential. Even the idea of surgery makes her queasy. “I was hopefully going to just talk to you and your pain would go away,” she says jokingly. In 2006, she found her true calling, though, while preparing for a Miss Nigeria beauty pageant and deciding to try stand-up for the talent section. “I started discovering my funny from that moment on,” she says. “I realized it wasn’t a fluke or a one-time thing. Then I was like, ‘How do you make a life out of this?’”
She spent the following years performing wherever she could: fashion shows, wedding receptions, baby showers. In 2009, she moved to New York to pursue comedy in earnest, working a temp job during the day and doing stand-up at night. Then, six years later, she was cast in “Insecure” with, as she has described in past interviews, “no agent, no manager and no experience.” She nevertheless secured an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series this year.
Soon, our conversation turns to the changing landscape of Hollywood, where directors — including Michaela Coel, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and, of course, Issa Rae, one of the creators of “Insecure” — seem to be spearheading a renaissance of sorts for Black creatives. Orji is hopeful but careful with her words. “We’re getting what we probably always should’ve been getting,” she says.
The fifth season of “Insecure” will premiere on Oct. 24, but Orji has already said farewell to the character who changed her life. She recalls filming the show’s final episode, which was written by Rae herself, and becoming emotional: “I looked at Issa and said, ‘You wrote the heck out of this episode.’ I knew it even as we were filming.” What’s next? For now, Orji is still trying to approach things with a sense of ease, and not putting pressure on herself to find “the next great role.” But about one thing she is certain: She wants to play a superhero one day. When asked if she would prefer to enter the noirish world of the D.C. films or the sprawling Marvel Universe, she almost answers but stops herself, letting a thick pause hang in the air. Then she says, only half-jokingly, “Whoever calls first and gives me the bigger bag.”