Yvonne Orji on 'Insecure' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Yvonne Orji plays the part of best friend Molly Carter on the HBO series Insecure, but Orji will soon headline her own stand-up special in June called, "Mama, I Made It." Orji talks to Sam about religion, getting her start in comedy at a Nigerian beauty pageant, growing up with strict immigrant parents and finding the humor in all of it.

Email the show at samsanders@npr.org.
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'Insecure' Star Yvonne Orji on Finding Comedy and God

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'Insecure' Star Yvonne Orji on Finding Comedy and God

'Insecure' Star Yvonne Orji on Finding Comedy and God

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

We've all found different ways to deal with this pandemic, different ways to practice self care in these unprecedented times. For some, it's been baking. For others, like me, it's been bingeing TV shows - so many TV shows. I think I'm almost out of TV shows. But for my guest today, it's been something else.

YVONNE ORJI: Oh, man - sitting in the tub for three hours this morning just...

SANDERS: Three hours (laughter).

ORJI: Oh, I take...

SANDERS: Yes.

ORJI: ...Long baths. Like, I take naps in the bath. I listen to a whole entire album. I write. Yeah, my fingers are just now coming back from being scaly.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: But no. If you think about it, it's like - because you have candles, and then, like, there's a window, but I like to keep it dark. And you can think. Like, you can just - I don't know. I think really well with water and, like, no one else around. So it helps me just, like, reset.

SANDERS: OK. Do you write jokes in the bathtub?

ORJI: Oh, I write jokes in the shower. Jokes definitely come to me in the shower 'cause I'm, like...

SANDERS: OK. Well, OK.

ORJI: ...Looking around.

SANDERS: Explain. OK, so it's...

ORJI: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Different vibes in the shower. OK.

ORJI: Yeah, there's a different vibe. Shower jokes are funny because you're just like, ha, and then - because you can act out. So, like, I'm in the shower, and I'm, like, moving around, whereas the tub is, like - I hear from God in the tub. I'm like, ooh.

SANDERS: Oh.

ORJI: That's a good one, Holy Spirit. Yes.

SANDERS: OK.

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and my guest today is actress, comedian and lover of baths Yvonne Orji. You probably know Yvonne as Molly, BFF to Issa Rae's character on the HBO show "Insecure." That show is in its fourth season, and it finds Molly and Issa's friendship pushed to a breaking point. Later on, we'll talk about a fight those characters had on the show and lessons that fight can teach us all about knowing how to maintain or when to end a relationship.

Yvonne also has a new stand-up special coming out in June. It's called "Mama, I Made It." In the special, she talks about her strict family and Nigerian American upbringing and a whole bunch of other stuff. We'll get into all of that and more in this interview, including what kind of stuff you hear from God in the tub. OK. Let's get into it. Get the water running, light those candles, find those essential oils, and enjoy my chat with the hilarious Yvonne Orji.

Watching you on "Insecure" the past few seasons, I would bet a lot of folks, given that role, would not maybe right off the bat see you as a comic, but you are.

ORJI: Well, the funny thing is I started in comedy. So I was a comedian before I was an actress, and, like, that's how Issa first met me - as a comedian.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ORJI: And so I think it's going to be funny to reintroduce people to who I have always been.

SANDERS: Yeah. Now, if I recall correctly from my reading up on you, you first did comedy as a talent during a pageant you were in.

ORJI: Yes, that is correct - the...

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

ORJI: ...2006 Miss Nigeria in America Pageant.

SANDERS: Oh...

ORJI: True story.

SANDERS: ...My God. I need you to tell this whole story play by play, detail by detail because I'm just like, this is gold. I mean, I can't even imagine someone getting their comedy debut at a Miss Nigeria pageant. I love it already. Tell us the whole story.

ORJI: (Laughter) Well, so I didn't clearly read the rules because I was in the middle of getting my master's, and I was just, you know, busy, tired. And two weeks before, they were like, hey; we got your application. We're very excited, but you didn't list your talent. And I was like, because I ain't got one. And I was just like, what are we - I was like, isn't a pageant just, like, come; do a walk; change outfits a couple of times and answer a question about how you would change the world if given...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: ...The opportunity? Like, I got this. Come on. Give me - ask my...

SANDERS: Bathing suit and world peace - that's it. Yeah.

ORJI: So she was like, yeah, no. You need a talent. And I was so mad because I was like, this is a pageant for Nigerians - right? - because they know the only talents Nigerians have are to, like, excel at school. How are we all going to do that on stage? Like, you know what I'm saying? Like...

SANDERS: I will take the LSAT on stage (laughter).

ORJI: Girl, I was like, you ask me any question about covalent bonds, I got this. Like, come on.

(LAUGHTER)

ORJI: And so I was just kind of - literally, I had nothing else to do. Yo, when I tell you, Sam, I went to my room and prayed - I was like, God, I'm not about to look...

SANDERS: Wow.

ORJI: ...Like a fool in front of all these people because Nigerians are the toughest crowd.

SANDERS: They'll clown you.

ORJI: I mean...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: You know how, like - so, you know, as a comedian, you have different groups of friends that you can bring out to shows, right? You can have...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: Like, your white friends are super-supportive no matter what. It's like, hey, guys.

SANDERS: They're going to laugh and clap. Yeah. Exactly.

ORJI: Like, we really just - hey, guys. We're just here to support. Your black friend like, she better be funny. Like, it's just, like...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ORJI: ...'Cause I don't want to see her (unintelligible) if she not funny, you know? And then Nigerians are like, if she's not funny, can we go? Like, It's just - it's like, we're not...

SANDERS: They'll just walk out.

ORJI: We don't want to associated with this crap. Like, just get - and so I...

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

ORJI: This is, like - there is so much riding on this moment. And if it doesn't work out, it's going to be a problem. So I rehearsed my jokes, Sam, like I was, like, an actress. Like, I did not leave any room for laughter because I didn't know if there would be. So, you know, I felt like this is my script, and I'm...

SANDERS: So it was like a monologue. You were just getting through your copy.

ORJI: It was a monologue. I felt like it was a one-woman audition. Like, let me be.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: Like, let me be (laughter). But to my surprise, people were laughing. And I was kind of mad because I was like, you messed me up. I know this is what you supposed to do, but you messed me up.

SANDERS: The laughter was annoying to you. The laughter was annoying to you. Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

ORJI: Clearly, I did not know the ins and outs of comedy.

SANDERS: Tell me one of the jokes that you said.

ORJI: Oh, my gosh. One of the jokes - I did a joke about how (laughter) African parents specialize in the two-day delayed backhand hand slap. And you got to understand because like, they won't - you'll do something, and they won't immediately discipline you. They'll wait till you least expect it. Like, they'll look at you in the moment like, look at you (ph). And then, like, when you're at the grocery store, and they're, like, can you hand me the grapes? The grapes? Yeah. And then as you're reaching for the grapes, you get a backhand slap. You're like, what the heck happened? Two days ago I asked you to do something. You're like, what the - like, this is the moment?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yep. Well, I found that my mother growing up, she would love to save a spanking or whatever, she would love to save it for a public setting. She was like...

ORJI: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...She was that mom who was like, wherever you show out, that's where I'm going to show out. And like, I'll never forget, it was in sixth grade. Everyone in class had been cutting up, so we all got pink slips. And my mother was determined to give me my spanking in class. And the nun had to be like, you can't do that, ma'am. You have to go home.

ORJI: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: Leave.

ORJI: My mom - I remember the most gangster discipline was when she showed up in class. And I was, like, talking to a boy by the locker. And I didn't realize that she had been waiting in the car for, like, 20 minutes after working, like, a full shift. Baby - she came with that full anger. And I was like, oh, this is not going to end - it's not going to end well for me. It's one of those moments you're like, hey, guys. If you don't see me tomorrow, just tell my daddy I love him, you know, because Mama is going to take me out tonight.

SANDERS: (Laughter) I love it. I love it. You know, also, before we, you know, move on to other stuff, I totally forgot to ask you when one prays to God asking for a talent portion for a Nigerian pageant, when God says do comedy, how does God say it? What were the words that were delivered to you from high?

ORJI: The exact words were do comedy. It wasn't even - that was, like, a full sentence. It was, like - I always know when something's God versus me because it don't make sense.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: Like, I have more questions. When it's me, I'm like, yeah, I got all the answers. Then it's like, just probably, hey; slow down. When it's God, I'm like, so you're doing this on purpose? You're strategically not giving me all the answers so I can just come back to you. And basically, he's like, I know you're always going to need me. You're always going to need me with this comedy thing because it wasn't your idea. And I'm just like, oh, this guy. He's actually pretty smart. Get in on it.

SANDERS: Keeps pulling you back.

Time for a break. Coming up, we chat about "Insecure" and the fight. You know what I'm talking about. BRB.

You know, thinking more about your mother, who just seems like - I don't know, I want to meet her. She seems delightful and hilarious. She's kind of into the life you've chosen and the career you've chosen a bit more now than she was before. You know, there's the whole immigrant parent, be a doctor, be a lawyer. But you're saying now she'll tell folks that you're on Home Box Office. You're on HBO. She's proud of that. Like, has she accepted Yvonne the comedian and the actress?

ORJI: She has in a way that what most immigrant parents, like, want to do. They want to be able to, like, one, know what their child does and be proud and, like, share it with the community, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: It's like, if your child is a surgeon, it's like, he just did surgery on twins, and they separated the hearts. You know, it's just like, wow, that's important. Like, heartbeats were separated? How do you do this thing? It's a way for us to brag, right? But when I say, oh, Mom, I tell jokes for a living, it's like, so you're a clown. You're a jester. You're just like - what does that mean? Like, I can't brag about this. I don't even know what to tell my friends.

And I think now that, like, I think her friends are like, we just saw Yvonne on X, Y and Z. It's just like, oh, wait. Other people are seeing my daughter. Other people approve of this situation. Let me take a deeper look at this. And because the community has received it, I think they can now receive it as like, oh, yeah, we are proud. We were tripping. My bad. We are proud. The community knows. It's all out in the open. Everyone's good. Everyone's happy.

SANDERS: Yeah. They want the bragging rights. That's really what parents want.

ORJI: It really is. It really, really, really is.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Which is harder for you, stand-up comedy or acting?

ORJI: Stand-up comedy.

SANDERS: Why?

ORJI: Acting, someone else is writing these lines. You know, you got a whole group of writers who are just creating the character. You have everything working for you. You got lighting. You got gaffers. You got a scene partner. You know, it's all of these things that are working in your favor. Comedy, it's you, a microphone and maybe one light. And you got to galvanize everybody. You got to use everything on the inside of you to make this entire room at the same time laugh.

SANDERS: Yeah. It's true. And it's like you are on the hook for all of it, for that entire set. Like, on a show, your lines aren't the entire half hour. It's a little bit of it, you know? And it's like, you don't have to carry the whole thing.

ORJI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, for sure. It's like, you'll see Molly in a 28-minute episode for, like, maybe 15, you know? Keep it moving.

SANDERS: Let's talk about Molly a little bit if you're cool with that.

ORJI: Let's do it.

SANDERS: Let's do it. This has been a season. I want to talk about the really big fight between your character Molly and the character Issa on the show. They've been best friends since the start, and now we find ourselves in the situation, Season 4, where they've had this big, humongous fight that could mean the end of their friendship. It surprised me to see the fight. Did it surprise you to see it in the script?

ORJI: I mean, this whole season surprised me. Like, Issa and I genuinely love each other, like, in real life. So when you see our characters, like, fighting, you're just like, oh, so we're not going to be friends? This sucks.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: So before Episode 5, you know, any time we're on set, you know, the energy is off because we're not supposed to be friends. But then also, we're not on set at the same time this season specifically because she had Condola in her world. You know, her world was existing without Molly. And so it was kind of like, so I'm not going to see you. And then when I do see you, we beefing?

SANDERS: That's hard.

ORJI: Who wrote this, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: It was kind of hard. And then when we get to that moment, it's kind of like, oh, I don't like the fights. I mean, the first one that really rocked me was Episode 7 of Season 1 at the fundraiser. And I don't know why Molly be choosing real public places to have beef with Issa.

SANDERS: Y'all do do that. Y'all really do do that. And it's a look.

ORJI: (Laughter) It's not a good look, but it is a look. It's a look. It's something.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

ORJI: Yeah. Yeah. So she definitely - that one was the one that rocked me because it was, like, the first dramatic - kind of really, really dramatic moment for us. Like, the earlier fights, I would end the scene and be like, girl, I'm sorry. You know I don't mean that. Like, y'all wrote this. Like, you know, I love you. After this one - and I think this season was also a lot for a lot of people because we've all had friendships that break up. And I know personally, I told Issa, I'm like, man, I'm reaching into the well of friendships dead and gone to to play this.

SANDERS: So you were channeling other friendships ending to really pour it into this scene.

ORJI: Yeah. No, that fight was probably things I would have wanted to say to people, could never say to people. So it was it was like, I don't like this, but I get this.

SANDERS: Yeah. How many takes did it take you all to get that scene right?

ORJI: Oh, man. It took a couple. And each time, it was silent. I remember it just being silent in between the takes because it was very needy. It was very much like, we don't - this is the moment where she says I don't - that, like, led to her saying, I don't F with Molly anymore. And I remember that - this particular fight scene feeling very different, feeling like, oh, it has - have we gone too far? Have we gone too far?

SANDERS: Yeah. It felt like it was going too far. And, like, I, as - I mean, like, you know, you get invested in these relationships in these shows. I was like, taken aback (laughter) watching it. What do you think watching this whole thing is going to do for fans of "Insecure?" Like, what do you want them to take from this season and this fight? What is the lesson in it for folks and also a lesson in it for you?

ORJI: Use your words. The lesson is use your words because we could have avoided so much of this if we just talked. So many - like, if we talked at Thanksgiving, we could have avoided this. If we talked after the grocery store, if we - like, if we talked during the lunch that Condola invaded, we probably could have gotten to a better place. But now it's just like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: Good luck.

SANDERS: It's also all about timing. There were multiple moments where one of y'all was ready for the conversation and the other one was not. And it's so important to have these critical conversations when both people are in a place where they can have them. And often, that is just as much of a challenge as having the right words to say.

ORJI: For sure. For sure. Like, I think - and sometimes you don't know the word, but you know the feeling, if that makes sense. Like, I don't know what to say necessarily. But I feel - and Molly then, like, I feel used. And Issa's like, I feel like your boundaries are stupid. But it's just like, basically, I feel let down is what Issa - you know? It's like, you were supposed to be my ride-or-die. And I feel like you're now my die and not my ride. So yeah, for sure, finding the right words, the right time, it's all - man, this is - adulting is hard. They don't teach you this in kindergarten. They tell you to take naps.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

Time for another break. When we come back, how Yvonne Orji was bamboozled - that is right, bamboozled - by God - bamboozled into the dream life she has now. She'll explain. BRB.

I want to ask you a few questions, if I can, about your upcoming book.

ORJI: Sure.

SANDERS: OK. I mean, I am so intrigued by the title. It is called "Bamboozled By Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into The Life Of My Dreams." I'm going to need you, right now, to give me one example, before this book is even out, of at least one trick that God played on you that turned into a dream (laughter). Please, tell me.

ORJI: Man, God's been bamboozling me my whole life. He bamboozled my parents with me...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: ...Because I was born holding my mother's IUD. And it was basically like...

SANDERS: Shut up.

ORJI: Oh, I promise you. In 1983, in late - in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, I came out clutching the thing that was supposed to prevent my conception. And I was like, are y'all looking for this?

SANDERS: Wow.

ORJI: Y'all thought you could keep me out?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Take that.

ORJI: Real talk. So I think God was like, oh, I'm going to send her off on a path from birth. And so he bamboozled my mom then. And then he bamboozled me like, I know you thought you was going to be a doctor. You not. You not. But don't worry. Just - it's going to take about eight years for you to make it. And it's going to be long. It's going to be rough. But, hey; stick with me, kid (laughter).

SANDERS: OK. Yeah (laughter).

ORJI: You know that - like, that's how bamboozling works. Like, nobody would choose to get bamboozled.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: But you keep going, and you just keep saying yes, and you just keep trusting and believing and having faith. And then you get to the promised land. You like, Jesus knew what he was doing. That - you know, I rock with Jesus.

SANDERS: Hearing you talk about this, what I find really interesting and probably really hard to do for, like, people who are looking to a higher power for guidance, you know - when you say to yourself, I'm going to let God trick me, you have to admit two things. You have to admit that you think God is smarter than you and knows more than you do and that you aren't the smartest. And you have to kind of say, I'm not in control either. And those can be two hard things to do. It sounds like you've been listening to God and letting him bamboozle you for a while. Was it always that way for you? Were there moments where you didn't want to listen, where you just did not?

ORJI: Well, I grew up Catholic. And then when I got to college, I became a born-again Christian. And I remember being like, so let me get this straight. We can have a personal relationship with God. Like, we can talk to him. Like, he's the homie. Cool, cool, cool, cool.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ORJI: Well, this seems pretty, you know, if I - input-output.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ORJI: And I think I was just dumb enough to take - you know what I'm saying? I was just dumb enough to take God at his word. And like, well, I mean, either he's right and I'm wrong or the opposite. And I think he's been doing this longer than me. So I'm going to go with him being right. Like, I know personally when I'm not in the sweet spot with God. Like, it's like, that's when I need to go back in the four-hour tub, where it's like, oh, my bad, Jesus. I left you a long time ago. Talk to me again.

SANDERS: Yeah. How have your conversations with God in the bathtub changed since the pandemic hit?

ORJI: I don't think they've changed. I think they've gotten more frequent...

SANDERS: OK. Same here.

ORJI: ...Because, you know, when we were outside, you know, we were too busy for God. It's like, oh, yeah, you good. Like, God, you know I'm on tour. God, you know I've got to work on my special.

SANDERS: He knows my heart (laughter).

ORJI: God, you know what I'm saying? God, you know where I'm at. You see how busy I am. And he's like, OK, cool, cool, cool. I'm going to just shut down outside so I can get your attention.

SANDERS: Yeah. I've also found that, like, just, you know, not even just in prayer, but just, like, in life, this is - the last few weeks - the last few months of, like, lockdown, if you sit still, quiet enough in your own house, you start to just, like, also hear your past a lot more. I think so much of our life pre-corona was like, what is today? What is happening right now? What is on my calendar today? And something about the last few weeks where we're just out and about less - I don't know. You start to hear ghosts from your past and have to grapple with that in a new way. And you have more stuff to talk to God about in terms of all that old stuff. It's been...

ORJI: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Quite interesting to me.

ORJI: You know, my friend Devi Brown, who's doing a lot of work with Deepak Chopra - she was saying that this is a divine time out. And she called it, like, our time to, like, excavate things in us. And I was like, ooh, excavation. I was like, dang. Are you digging...

SANDERS: That is heavy.

ORJI: ...With a shovel? You know, excavate this...

SANDERS: It is a violent act. Oh, my goodness.

ORJI: Get the shovel. This is coming out today. We ain't got time for this. And, you know, I think we've let things kind of simmer for far too long. And this is why God's not playing games with us no more - is we got to...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: We either got to get better...

SANDERS: Excavate it.

ORJI: ...Or get left.

SANDERS: Excavate it. Yeah. I am curious because I was raised Pentecostal/Apostolic. How born again are you? Like, what kind of church you talking about - like, tongue-talking, shouting in church kind of stuff? Like, tell me.

ORJI: I speak in tongues, pay tithes, you know, praise and worship.

SANDERS: OK.

ORJI: You know, I'm sold out for Jesus.

SANDERS: Soul sister.

ORJI: I love...

SANDERS: I'm connecting to you right now. I am the son of a church organist, a Pentecostal church organist. I am in...

ORJI: Listen.

SANDERS: ...There with you, girl.

ORJI: (Singing) The only man who could ever love me was the son of a preacher man.

I don't know why I did - broke out into the song. I apologize.

SANDERS: I loved it. No, that stays in. That stays in. That was gold.

(LAUGHTER)

ORJI: Just horrible. Just - I mean...

SANDERS: It sounded good.

ORJI: God said make a joyful - he said make a joyful noise. And I believe I just made noise.

SANDERS: As long as you felt joyful, it's joyful.

ORJI: Listen. Listen.

SANDERS: He didn't say it had to be good. He said noise. It's noise. It's fine.

ORJI: I mean, y'all go and take this noise and add a tambourine to it - (singing) get your tambourine on.

SANDERS: That's - come on.

ORJI: (Singing) Get yourself a whistle.

All the - all, like...

SANDERS: (Vocalizing).

ORJI: I combine Eve and, like, a gospel. So, like, I was just - I would...

SANDERS: Yes.

ORJI: ...Be like, (singing) the Lord is good. Get your tambourine on. Get yourself a whistle.

It's like, OK - copy, copy, boom.

SANDERS: And I would twerk to that song in church. I would. I ask about your faith background because, you know, it is still in 2020 a rarity to see folks working in your industry talk as candidly about your belief as you do. As you navigate the industry and the world of comedy and TV and acting, do you see your faith and your career intertwined, or do you see them as separate? Is there some stuff you just leave at home or in the bathtub and don't take to work? How do you live your faith in those spaces?

ORJI: For me, it's intertwined because, like, I don't know how to take him off - you know what I'm saying? - because it's like, I - like, I don't know how to take my Nigerian-ness (ph) off, you know? Like, and I wouldn't.

SANDERS: OK.

ORJI: And so it's like, in the same way, like, I can't take my blackness off.

SANDERS: There you go.

ORJI: There is aspects of me that's just, like - I can't take my gender off. Like, I - when I show up, I show up as what you see. And so when I open my mouth, I also show up as what I believe. Now, that doesn't mean I'm like, hey; you got to believe the same thing I believe. That's not it because that's not even what Jesus came to stay and do.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: But it is like, hey; if there is anything in me or on me or of me or about me that you like, here's really why, you know? Like, here. I'm an amalgamation of African immigrant parents and the Bible and, you know, like, and - literally. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ORJI: Two degrees - like, everything about me that you see and love, this is why.

SANDERS: Thanks again to actress-comedian Yvonne Orji. "Insecure" Season 4 is out now, and Yvonne's stand-up special "Mama, I Made It" airs in June. You can find both on HBO.

Listeners, if you enjoyed my chat with Yvonne about faith and spirituality and God and bathtubs, please tune in next month. The theme for all of our episodes in June is faith and belief. We're going to talk with different actors and musicians and writers about their faith and how it keeps them going in this really weird time. You will hear from the likes of Nicole Byer, Hasan Minhaj, Kirk Franklin, James McBride and so many more. I'm really excited to share it with you. It's all the feels, and I think you'll like it.

Before that, we're back in your feed on Friday with another episode, and for that episode, of course, we want to hear from you. We ask our listeners to share with us the best things that have happened to them all week every week. You can be part of that. Record yourself, and send that voice file to me at samsanders@npr.org. I should also point out here we accept audio and video and pictures of pets and kids and babies, even cats. You can send pictures of cats. It's fine.

All right. Until Friday, thank y'all for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

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