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“I just wanted it to be a regular story about black people”: Issa Rae on creating and starring in HBO’s Insecure

The creator of the fall’s sharpest new comedy tells us about making the show, being the only black woman in the room, and hiring Solange Knowles.

Issa Rae stars in Insecure, her new HBO comedy featuring bathroom raps and fantasy boyfriends
HBO

Sitting onstage for this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Insecure creator Issa Rae fielded the first of what would turn out to be many questions about what it’s like to create and star in a show as a black woman. She answered with a smile, but also a weary shrug.

“There’s just a notion that there’s a universal way to be black,” Rae said. “…I always find the humor in that, because you can't escape being black.”

Not even a minute later, she was answering a question about how “welcoming” HBO was of her predominantly black cast. She confirmed that the network was encouraging, but also made sure to push a point she’d return to throughout the panel.

“This isn't a show exclusively about, like, the struggle of being black,” Rae insisted. “It's just regular black people living life.”

This might sound obvious, but think about it: Though this fall TV season has seen the success of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the fact is that there just aren’t many shows that allow the everyday lives of black people take center stage without somehow incorporating trauma.

Rae’s Insecure — a sharp and very funny comedy about a fictionalized version of Rae trying to find herself — is a welcome exception to that rule.

Though diversity on TV has recently become a go-to flashpoint, Issa Rae’s been working for years to bring her own show about the ordinary lives of black people in South Los Angeles to television.

After the success of her 2011 web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Rae started developing an ABC show about dating, to be produced by TV titan Shonda Rhimes. When that project died on the vine, HBO quickly signed a deal with her and Larry Wilmore in 2013 to create a show.

Three years later, Insecure is finally premiering as one of the fall’s best new shows. Under the watch of Rae, Wilmore, showrunner Prentice Penny, and director Melina Matsoukas, Insecure is fully realized, confident, and ambitious.

The show imbues the stories of Issa (Rae playing a fictionalized version of herself) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) with sharp wit and observations about how black women are perceived and have to operate in spaces otherwise dominated by white people. It dives into Issa’s hesitations about her long-term relationship and job just as hard as it does Molly’s frustrating dating life, with Matsoukas’s shrewd eye keeping it all cohesive.

By the time I caught up with Rae, several hours after her TCA panel wrapped, she was exhausted, but eager to share Insecure’s origin story. Throughout our conversation, we touched upon everything from why she loves Larry David, to hiring Solange Knowles, to wanting to tell an everyday human story that just so happens to star black people — a rare thing that storytellers like Rae have been working for years to make happen.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Framke

It took some time for Insecure to get from development to HBO. What did you think was most important throughout that process to protect or preserve?

Issa Rae

The two most important things were that it was set in South Los Angeles, and that we highlighted Inglewood, Baldwin Hills, all these places where I grew up and knew.

Caroline Framke

And there are so many LA-based shows that don’t even touch those areas.

Issa Rae

If they go there, it’s like, [air quotes] “the hood.” It’s a whole big thing. But it’s like, come on. This is a community, too.

Caroline Framke

It’s always approached like they’re taking a field trip or something.

Issa Rae

I know! “Let’s brace ourselves to go south!”

The second [important thing about making Insecure] was just the core of it: Making sure that the title character was this flawed, regular, human black person. I didn’t want to have high stakes; I didn’t want it to be high concept. I just wanted it to be a regular story about black people.

Caroline Framke

I usually ask something like, “What other TV shows were you looking to while making this one?” but since you come from the web, Melina [Matsoukas] comes from music videos, and everyone’s coming from all different areas, it feels like there are influences coming from more places than just TV.

Issa Rae

I mean, a lot of my influences were [still] TV. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm, I love Larry David and how he’s just unapologetically himself. I’ve always loved Seinfeld, the UK version of The Office. All these things that are really slices of life, or highlighting basic human interactions. All that stuff is always funny to me.

And just in general, I love finite stories. I love serial stories that have an ending. I don’t like things that go on for too many seasons. I just like watching, and growing, and feeling like I’m a part of the lives of these characters. That was something that was important to me for [Insecure], too.

I watch a lot of dramatic shows, too. I actually watch more dramas than I do comedy. They’re such good character stories of people.

Caroline Framke

And dramas still have senses of humor, too.

Issa Rae

The great ones do. Like, Better Call Saul is a great drama with comedy, and even Breaking Bad. They still have elements of dark humor.

Issa Rae was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Insecure HBO

Caroline Framke

So what was the biggest difference for you between making a show for TV versus on the web?

Issa Rae

All the help. Money makes a huge difference obviously, but just getting capable people, too. Working with Melina. She has such a good eye, and she pays attention to everythinglike the pattern on the table that’s in the background that nobody sees, or handpicking extras to be in every scene. It all matters to this larger aesthetic, and I’m so impressed by that.

Like, I was shooting [the web series] in my dad’s office, and missed the fact that there was a gynecology sign in the background when I was trying to pass it off as an office. I didn’t have a set dresser; I didn’t have all those things. I just wanted to focus on telling the story. Someone so competent like Melina, and the crew … they’re all professionals. I learned so much from them.

And on the writing side, I have an incredible showrunner [Prentice Penny] who’s so great, and so careful to make sure that my vision is there. He’ll always ask me at the end of the day, “You good? Is this what it’s [supposed to be]?” He has no ego about anything, and it’s the nicest thing ever. His contributions really make everything better.

When I think I have an idea and am like, “This is about to be it, this is about to kill him,” he’ll either deconstruct it in a way that I’d never thought about before, or give a suggestion that makes it better. I haven’t really had that dynamic before.

Caroline Framke

Someone who really believes in what you’re doing, but then is —

Issa Rae

— able to elevate it.

Caroline Framke

Right. It’s an edit, but it’s to make you look better. That’s what makes a good boss and editor, I feel like. I hadn’t been heavily edited before Vox, and at first I was like, “Excuse me, this was perfect, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Issa Rae

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly! And then you come out of that better. It’s great to trust someone’s eye and opinion. That’s invaluable.

Caroline Framke

Maybe especially for a show that’s so close to you?

Issa Rae

“Close to you” is a good phrase for it. Sometimes you’re too inside it, and you can’t really see it. For [Prentice] to be in it, but be able to look at it objectively is so helpful.

He always has a great way of looking at things in general, but especially keeping an eye on our male characters. There are a lot of women in the writers’ room; we outnumber them about seven or eight to three. Sometimes a lot of us will write our ideal men, or we might lean on the side of writing men who are more one note, and [Prentice] is very good about being like, “Come on, I don’t know any guys like this.” Or, “No, he wouldn’t bring water to her bedside if he was upset with her.” Little things like that.

Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa say goodbye to their trusty couch.
HBO

Caroline Framke

I was actually just thinking about your character’s boyfriend [Lawrence, played by Jay Ellis]. Usually in a pilot when a couple’s in trouble, they break up. It would’ve been so easy to have the show be about Issa and Molly dating instead of keeping Issa and Lawrence together.

Issa Rae

It speaks to both those characters, but it’s also real. Sometimes you make these big proclamations, like, “I’m out of here. I am done.” And you really believe it at the time, but there are other factors, like other people’s feelings, or your history.

With the character of Lawrence, you see that he really is trying. He’s taking a similar journey to Issa, of getting his confidence back. That’s one of the storylines I really like on this show: this simultaneous journey they’re both taking on to be better.

Caroline Framke

One thing I was glad to see in multiple episodes was showing micro-aggressions as a sort of spectrum. There’s even a difference in how they’re portrayed in Issa’s workplace [an inner-city youth outreach program] versus Molly’s [a high-powered law firm]. How did you and the writers approach those stories?

Issa Rae

Just by having a lot of conversations, sharing personal stories. I’d say that every writer who contributed has a piece of themselves onscreen. We’d just go around telling stories about personal experiences of when we experienced a micro-aggression, or feeling like we were being discriminated against, or how we’d responded.

We all had stories like that. Because the writers’ room is so diverse, every person has experience being the only gay person in the room, or the only black person in the room. So we had plenty of material to work with. The white guy in our room, he’s our only minority.

Caroline Framke

“The white guy”!

Issa Rae

[Laughs] He’s very protective. Ben [Dougan] was late to work one day, and we had brought in a tech consultant who was a white guy. He came in, saw him, waited for the presentation to be over, and then asked us, “Are you trying to replace me? Are you trying to add another white guy to this room?!”

Caroline Framke

I really had to double-take there. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone be able to say that about that about a writers’ room, ever. I used to work in a writers’ room, and I was the only woman in there. It was really interesting, but you’re always making these calculations: “Should I speak up now? Is this one ‘worth it?’”

Issa Rae

I know. It’s such an infuriating feeling, but you become used to it. It’s sad that you become desensitized to it after a while. Like, “This is not okay, but this is the position that I’m in, and I have to make do.”

Caroline Framke

Right. It becomes about picking your battles. That’s why I’m really into the Molly and Rashida storyline on Insecure [in which Molly tries to tell a new and younger black associate to tone herself down in front of their white colleagues], and that it keeps coming back.

Issa Rae

I loved that. What sucks about being a person of color is that if you’re not the only representation, then when someone else comes in who happens to be your same race, or skin color, or ethnicity or whatever, one of you represents the other.

That sucks, feeling like that. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s like you either represent all, or you represent each other, so you want to make sure that other person is on your side. “Let’s not fuck it up for each other!” So that was Molly trying to do that, and it backfires in every single way.

Caroline Framke

So I was already interested in the music on Insecure, and then you happened to casually mention Solange [Knowles]. I think I actually dropped something in shock. How did that happen?

Issa Rae

It happened because Melina casually dropped it: “Oh, by the way, I was talking to Solange, and I think she’d be a really good music supervisor or consultant for this show.” And I was like, “Bitch, call her right now.”

Then we actually did an interview with her. We disrespected her and had her tell us why she should do it. But she’s so great and down to earth, and the fact that we’re on emails with her asking her for song suggestions for particular scenes blows my mind.

Caroline Framke

I feel like we should talk about Issa’s hype-up raps now.

Issa Rae

Yes! The raps!

Caroline Framke

I was wondering how Issa talking and rapping at herself in the mirror before going out into the world was going to become a consistent thing, but every episode found a different way to do it. When did the raps become a part of the show? Were they always something you wanted in Insecure?

Issa Rae

That’s something that carried over from Awkward Black Girl, because I always loved that as a device. Awkward Black Girl used both the raps and voiceover to express Jay’s inner thoughts, and I didn’t want to use voiceover for Insecure. It worked for the first episode, but we just got rid of it for the rest of the series.

So the rapping device is Issa’s singular way to express herself. Every time she’s in that bathroom, it’s her safe space. It’s how you know what she’s thinking. It’s her opportunity to practice life, to practice being a person.

It’s also just so ridiculous. You know, her rapping skills are kinda whack. But at the end of the day, that’s what makes her feel comfortable.

Caroline Framke

Yeah, because it’s completely unfiltered. And everyone talks to themselves in the mirror, right?

Issa Rae

The bathroom itself is the only time when usually your phone isn’t with you, or you’re naked. You’re just confronted with yourself. I think that says so much about facing your insecurities and your flaws, in a sense.

Caroline Framke

So okay: “Broken Pussy” [a rap Issa does in the pilot at an open mic]. How did this happen?

Issa Rae

“Broken Pussy” was a real conversation I had with my friend!

Caroline Framke

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that.

Issa Rae

My friend and I use Marge Simpson voices to talk as our vaginas. We were talking about whether or not you want to sleep with a guy, or whether or not you’re attracted to a guy very, very soon. And we always used to say that if a guy comes up and we like him, our vaginas are like, [Marge Simpson voice] “Mmmhmmmm!” Or if we don’t like him, they’re like, “Mmmm no.”

So we were actually having a conversation where she was like, “Why do guys always think I’m looking for this, or only see that,” and I told her that I thought her pussy was broken. I was telling Larry [Wilmore] this, and he was like, “That is going in the show, immediately.”

It ended up in the show, and actually became a theme. Who would’ve thought that this would be the theme of a season on our HBO show?!

Caroline Framke

It definitely got stuck in my head.

Issa Rae

Yes! Mission accomplished.

Insecure premieres October 9 on HBO at 10:30 pm. The first episode is currently available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

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