Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell on Finding Her Path to Hollywood

The actress talks about first jobs, switching schools, and finally telling her parents about her dream of acting

Anne Marie Fox / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Natasha Rothwell was born in Wichita, Kansas, but doesn’t remember much about it. Her father was in the Air Force, so she grew up moving around—to New Mexico, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and even Turkey. “I definitely have wanderlust because of how I grew up,” she says. As an adult, she moved to Tokyo, where she performed at the Tokyo Comedy Store and taught English. She’s had a variety of jobs, including working at McDonald’s, where, on her father’s advice and to her manager’s surprise, she gave two weeks’ notice when she decided to leave.

Rothwell is a producer of HBO’s Insecure, in which she also stars as Kelli. In addition, she’s developing a new show for HBO for which she will be an executive producer and a writer; she’ll also star in that. Before all this, she wrote for Saturday Night Live and performed improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade.

I recently spoke with Rothwell about changing one’s mind about career paths, transferring between colleges, and her career mantras. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lola Fadulu: I saw in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that you considered journalism for a little bit, but then ultimately changed your mind. Why did you change your mind?

Natasha Rothwell: It was just misguided. I always loved to write, and I still do as a part of my job. Creative writing was where my passion lay. I thought that because my parents had pretty by-the-book jobs, I should have one too.

I concocted this whole after-school special in my head where I thought my parents would be really upset if I told them I wanted to major in theater, so I thought the next best thing would be to go to school for journalism. My initial school that I went to was Ithaca College, which has an outstanding theater.

I thought proximity to what I wanted to do would be good enough. I remember seeing a production of The House of Blue Leaves. The program had the poem by Langston Hughes that starts, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I remember just crying reading that poem because I was like, Oh, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m sitting in the audience, and I’m looking at my friends onstage, and I want to be onstage, so I have to change that perspective by literally finding a way to get to the stage.

I had this big coming-out moment with my parents where I was like, “I want to be an actor.” They were so nonplussed. They were like, “Yeah, we know. We were really confused. We thought that that’s what you wanted to do, so we were surprised by the journalism thing, but we wanted to be supportive.”

I ended up transferring to the University of Maryland, where I got a full scholarship for acting. That’s where I completed that program.

Fadulu: Why did you decide to transfer to UMD? Could you have changed your major at Ithaca, or were you locked into journalism there?

Rothwell: No. I could’ve changed my major. I auditioned for the B.F.A. program and got rejected. I was offered a place in the B.A. program. At the time, I thought that the only way to make it to Broadway—because at the time that was my understanding of what I wanted to do—I had to be a B.F.A.

My goal was to transfer to the University of Maryland and take my core credits. At the time, my dad was stationed at the Pentagon and my mom was working at a hospital near there. I was like, I’ll stay at home, and I’ll go get my core credits first semester and spend the spring auditioning for all of these fancy B.F.A. schools.

While I was at the University of Maryland, one of the advisers there said, “Well, we have a full scholarship. You have to audition for it. It’s called a creative-and-performing-arts scholarship.” I decided to do that just in case, as a backup, and I got it. I didn’t expect to get it.

To me, at the time it just made the most frugal sense in the world to go there, even if it was a B.A. program. At that point, I had been there a semester. I’d connected with the professors and felt like I could get what I needed from the program. I didn’t intend to stay, but I’m so glad that I did.

Fadulu: Would you say that you developed an interest in acting and writing at the same time, or did one come before the other?

Rothwell: They happened sort of at the same time, and then performing is what I decided to nurture the most. I have two sisters and a brother, and being in the Air Force, when you move to a new place, your siblings are your first friends. We would often entertain each other. I loved doing that. I loved making them laugh and playing around. We put on talent shows.

I definitely sensed my love of performing and making people laugh through that, but I also remember writing a poem about Martin Luther King and reading it at Thanksgiving. I was maybe 10. It’s so sweet now, but very mortifying to think that I stopped Thanksgiving and was like, “Guys, dear older black people who lived through segregation, let me tell you about this guy, Martin Luther King. It’s going to blow your mind.”

As I got older, when there were opportunities in school for plays and performances, I definitely gravitated toward them, but I would say it wasn’t until high school and college that I started writing one-act plays or monologues.

Fadulu: What was your first-ever job?

Rothwell: Babysitting. I definitely remember reading the Baby-Sitters Club books and thinking, I’ll start a business babysitting some of the neighborhood kids. When I was younger, at the church that we attended, they had the infants’ and toddlers’ room where they needed teenagers to come in and watch kids, so I definitely worked in there.

Fadulu: You liked kids?

Rothwell: Well, it wasn’t necessarily an affinity for kids in that I wanted to be around them, but I think that when you’re young and you’re trying to figure out how to supplement your allowance it’s like, What can I do if I want two candies at the store, and I can only afford one? What are some things that I can do to make money? It was definitely more an economic decision than a passion decision.

Fadulu: Were you considering other ways to make money besides babysitting?

Rothwell: I remember having a Kool-Aid stand. You have to sit in the sun and try to get people to buy warm Kool-Aid. That was probably the only other way I thought of to make money. I think I have a vague memory of bringing candy canes to middle school and selling them around the holidays, but I had to be sneaky because it was candy. Nothing that was a legitimate business.

Fadulu: What was your first job when you were of legal age?

Rothwell: I worked at Blockbuster Video. Rest in peace, except the one that's left. I worked at McDonald's. During the summers, I worked multiple jobs. I worked at Target.

My first [real] job was at a bookstore. It was not Borders. What was the one before Borders? There was a bookstore that was pre-Borders. I remember spending maybe three hours curling my hair for this interview. It was so important to me. I was 15.

I was a photographer at JCPenney. Essentially you sat people down, you pushed a series of buttons, and then you were a professional photographer. I bounced between that department and the men’s department. I helped a lot of older men who didn’t understand how colors worked, if something matched. It’s like, “Excuse me, Miss. Do these go together?” I’m like, “No, sir.” I was so unfashionable. I had no business telling anyone what to wear, but that’s what I did.

Fadulu: Do any other memories pop up from working at Blockbuster or McDonald’s?

Rothwell: I remember quitting McDonald’s with a written two-week notice.

Fadulu: Oh, wow. That’s very nice of you.

Rothwell: I’m sort of a nerd and a goody-goody to a fault. I just remember asking my dad, “If I no longer want to be employed by an establishment, how might one leave an establishment?” He’s like, “Well, typically you write. You put in your two weeks’ notice.” So I typed it up. I remember giving it to my manager at McDonald’s. He said, “You could leave today.” I was like, “No. I want to put in my two weeks.” I worked there for two weeks. I think every day I showed up in that two weeks he was surprised. He was like, “Oh, you’re still here. I thought you quit.”

Fadulu: Were you still curling your hair for McDonald’s?

Rothwell: No. I got to wear a visor at McDonald’s. It was a rock-and-roll McDonald’s. I don’t even know if it’s still there. It had a jukebox, and it had black-and-white tile.

Fadulu: Can you talk a little bit about how UMD and UCB prepared you for starting off as a writer for Insecure?

Rothwell: At the University of Maryland, I was very heavily involved in the improv group.

I found my way to New York and started performing at UCB. Because of that, I was seen by SNL and was able to write on SNL. Writing for Saturday Night Live opened a lot of doors for me. I took meetings with Amy Gravitt [the executive vice president of programming] over at HBO. We really connected in our meeting. She served in the Navy, and I’m an Air Force brat. At the end of our meeting she’s like, “Well, we have this show in development I think you’d be really good for. Do you know Awkward Black Girl?” I said, “Oh, yes. Of course I know that show.” She’s just like, “Yeah, it’s going to be a show from the same writer, Issa Rae.” Three months, later I interviewed for the writer’s room via FaceTime with Issa and Prentice, our show runner, and got the job. Basically, that’s how the University of Maryland led me to Insecure.

Fadulu: Do you have a piece of advice you’ve received that has really helped you in your career?

Rothwell: I have a quote framed on my bedroom wall. It says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” It’s a Steve Martin quote. Being a person of color at any job always means you’re going to work twice as hard for half as much.

When I read that quote, I remember thinking, Oh, it’s not just about working twice as hard for half as much—it’s about being excellent about what you’re doing, so that way people will pay attention and you’ll stand out. I always strove to just be the best.