In the past decade, Natasha Rothwell has gone from teacher to Saturday Night Live writer to Insecure star to, soon, movie star, with a part in the upcoming Wonka. Last year alone, she celebrated the final season of Insecure — saying good-bye to her fan-favorite character, Kelli — and expanded her fan base with a scene-stealing role on HBO’s runaway hit White Lotus. If that’s not “growth,” I don’t know what is.
Now, Rothwell faces a turning point in her career — one that includes big ambitions to write and star in her own romantic comedy. And she’s facing it from, where else, a film set. Specifically, the London set of Wonka, the origin story of the candy titan starring Timothée Chalamet — a production so secretive, Rothwell can’t say any more about her part besides, “It’s a role unlike any other I’ve done. I can’t wait for the world to see it.” Between takes, Rothwell emailed with the Cut about what’s coming next.
After college, you worked as a teacher and did theater on the side. What scared you most about pursuing acting full-time?
Paying my bills. It wasn’t fear that kept me from diving into acting full-time, but the realities of graduating college with a theater degree in the middle of a recession. I didn’t know how I would make ends meet.
Was there a time you feared you might have to give up on your Hollywood dreams?
To be honest, I never feared giving up. My dream of being a professional artist has always felt like a calling — I had no other choice but to answer it. The hard part was accepting it wasn’t going to be easy.
How did you push through?
Being a creator — acting, writing, directing — is the only thing that’s ever made sense to me as a person. When things were hard, and they were HARD, the work got me through. I would write and perform whenever and wherever I could. And because I never equated success with “fame,” I was already a success. That meant even when I was broke and hungry, I was happy. I think that fulfillment reminded me that the juice was worth the squeeze, and it kept me going.
Was there ever a time when someone made you feel like you shouldn’t be so ambitious?
When I was living in Washington, D.C., I remember telling someone I was moving to New York to pursue my dream. They responded sarcastically, “You and like a million others. Good luck.” I didn’t get upset or feel the urge to prove them wrong. I remember just feeling sorry for them because it was clear that they had a dream that they had been too scared to chase. In that moment, I knew regret like that wasn’t something I cared to experience.
You started on Insecure as a writer before Issa Rae offered you the role of Kelli. What went through your mind the moment you accepted?
Total and complete shock. Insecure was my first scripted TV writers’ room. I was totally focused on doing the job at hand — learning the ropes and proving myself — and so I made a point not to angle for roles or even suggest an interest. I had a job to do, and my blinders were on. So, when Issa and Insecure’s showrunner Prentice Penny called me into his office to offer me the part, I was SHOOK.
Insecure has had such a huge impact on pop culture — what kind of pressure does that put on you to make your upcoming projects just as successful?
I don’t necessarily feel pressure in the same way Prentice or Issa might because my work on the show was an effort to serve their vision. So what I feel is excitement more than anything else because the projects I have coming up now are my vision.
Your Insecure character Kelli launched one of the most popular GIFs on the internet. Has there been an instance in your life where you could have applied the “growth” meme to yourself?
I could use it all the time! I’m at the stage in life where I’ve become deeply curious about the world — who I am, why we are the way we are. You know, Brené Brown shit. I’ve learned a ton, so when I’m presented with opportunities to respond to things “the old way,” I’m able to use the new tools and strategies I’ve cultivated. And that’s, well … growth.
You’ve been a loud and proud advocate and fan of rom-coms. If you could live out a rom-com romance IRL, which one would you choose?
One hundred percent When Harry Met Sally. I actually want to do a word-for-word remake! The thing that is so special about that film is that it shows a love that is perfectly imperfect. It disabuses the viewer of the notion that love is some Disney-esque walk in the park. Instead, we get a love 12 years and three months in the making that’s fertilized with real shit: heartbreak, divorce, and figuring out our own mess.
It’s very exciting that you’re writing yourself as the lead of your rom-com. What made you take the leap to write yourself as the star?
The catalyst was the 2020 quarantine, actually. I was finally able to sit down and write an idea I’ve had in mind for years, but I just didn’t have the time or bandwidth to do it. I wanted to do a rom-com where “fat and Black” weren’t plot points, or problems to be solved, or issues to be explained away before the heroine is allowed to love and be loved. And I sure as hell didn’t want to do some prescriptive movie meant to be educational about body positivity and representation. I wanted to write and play a character who looked like me, whose humanity and worthiness is assumed before the title page. I think that’s what makes the film special and unique — and radical without trying.
Final question: You post your Wordle score on Twitter every day, and you’re pretty successful at it. What is your go-to guess word?
I don’t believe in using the same word twice!
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