AUP S2E9: Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me 

AUP S2E9: Transcript

TRANSCRIBED: Albert Parnell

Completed 9/30/22

You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified. 

Cortney Wills [00:00:08] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills entertainment director at theGrio. And this week we’re sitting down with Yvonne Orji. Welcome back for another episode of Acting Up. This week we have the always lovely and ever so talented Yvonne Orji, who’s debuting her second HBO comedy special, A Hold Me on October 1st, filmed in downtown Los Angeles, the Emmy nominated actor, best known for her role as Molly on HBO’s “Insecure”, returns to the stage after her first special “Mama I Made It” made quite the splash. This time around, she’s serving up a unique mash up of stand up comedy and scripted vignettes, showcasing her range and vulnerability, and also diving into how she was affected by the COVID lockdown and why she’s feeling more whole than ever. We also get into other things that Yvonne is working on from developing projects from the continent to directing her first short recently and kind of figuring out what life is like after “Insecure.” We’ve got all that and more coming up. So let’s jump right in. Oh, my gosh. It’s so good to see you. It’s been a while since we last spoke and this new comedy special is so much fun. I loved it. 

Yvonne Orji [00:01:35] Thank you so much. I’m glad to hear that. 

Cortney Wills [00:01:38] Yes. I feel like it’s it was kind of a new day for you and your material. I felt like you were way more, I don’t know, like in your bag. Like it was very authentic. 

Yvonne Orji [00:01:50] Okay. Okay. I’ll take that. Yeah, it’s I call it grown up comedy. It’s just more reflective. It has Levels. The first part, I’m just talking a lot about the healing, the journey, what I learn and unlearn. And then, you know, right around the 23, 24 minute mark, it’s like we ramp up the fun. I’m like a I’m an upper kind of comedian, you know, so I can’t let it go too low. 

Cortney Wills [00:02:19] When we spoke about your first special, I think it was really like, okay, what what are we going to get from from you? Separate from what everyone knows of “Insecure” and what everyone knows about the stuff. You know, the older stuff with Lovie. Like, who is Yvonne as a comedian? And then the second one rolls around and it just seemed like you were a bit more. Comfortable, you know, and confident, like in your skin. And I wondered if you thought that that was more a result of having one under your belt or more a result of the introspection that came with like COVID lockdown? 

Yvonne Orji [00:02:56] I think it’s a little bit of both. You know, the first one, you’re just kind of like, oh, my God, I got to make it good. You know, I want to say, like, I mean, I think for me, actually, the second one brought a little bit more nerves. The first one, I’ve been doing standup for years, so people didn’t know I was a standup comic. So but it was just the logistics of it all, like, okay, camera here and then like and then I’m going back home to Nigeria and then like I really want this to be the one that like puts me on the map, puts Nigeria on the map. And so that was the, you know, the pressure with the first one. The second one was more like, oh, it’s it’s not even that. I have to top the first one. It’s that I hope people will send the same one to me because that’s the thing, you know, sophomore album, it’s like, I hope people will understand that. These are some where some things are different. 

Yvonne Orji [00:03:48] And the way that I’m approaching them is because of all the introspection that I’ve had in the pandemic. And I am, like you said, a little bit more in my bag now. And so it was the I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like. I knew like the color scheme I knew that I wanted to do. Like I sold it to HBO as African “In Loving Color.” I was like, I kind of just want to do African “In Living Color.” I was like, I mostly want to wanted to do more sketches, more and the answers that you saw. And then like it, it was like, cool, cool, cool, cool. But where’s the stand up? And I was like, Oh yes, the one who get on this tour. Yeah. And so that’s why you’re get you’re kind of getting a little bit of everything that I envisioned all at once. And then there’s the part of me hoping, like, I hope we execute it correctly. 

Cortney Wills [00:04:38] Yes, yes. So here you are, this new special under your belt. And it’s like life after “Insecure” for you. What is that like, as you know, on the acting side? 

Yvonne Orji [00:04:50] Well, you know, I think what I was able to do with the special was bring some of my acting chops to it. Yeah. So I’m in I’m in all of the I’m in all of the the breakouts that you will see the vignettes. And I’m also able to give I also kind of step more into my URL hat by giving other some unknowns a chance. People that I have known and some other some people in other parts of the world know very well, like Tea Girl, like Mama, but not on a large scale. So for me, I’m like being able to produce, put on that, that and like bring them in and you’ll be able to trust me, be like they’re going to sell it. You know, Neal, my, I saw her on, on Instagram and I was like, I think she’s so funny. I followed her and some something you were writing for specific people in mind. So I think that like after Insecure is letting people know, like I can do drama, I can do comedy, I can do producing, I can do writing, you know. So it’s just like I’m even more further in my bag as a young people say. 

Cortney Wills [00:05:55] Do you feel? Do you feel any pulled in any one direction more than the other, whether it’s producing or whether it’s wanting to jump into, you know, drama roles like now that Molly is behind us and, you know, when you have a character like Molly that people are so invested in and a show that people are so invested in. I think I talked to a lot of actors in that position who feel like, you know, I don’t want to be typecast and I don’t want people to see me in new things and be like, Oh, it’s Molly in this drama, you know? And like, that’s something that sometimes they feel a need to fight against. And I wondered, do you feel pulled in any one direction of like, this is really what I want to sink my teeth into next? 

Yvonne Orji [00:06:40] I think for me, you know, you can’t control what people would think. Like some people really thought Molly was real and wanted to fight her season 4. And I was like, wait a minute. Hi. Well, it’s just me, guys, so you can’t control how people will perceive you even if you do other things. For me, it’s just more doing the things that feel most right for me. Right. So if, if it is a drama, but I’m just like, okay, not going to do a drama, just like it’ll be something different. It’s like, okay, well, what’s the drama saying? Like, why do I resonate with it? Why am I the one playing this role versus anybody else? And so that’s kind of where I am. I just directed my first short and I’m very excited. Yes. With Paul Feig’s company Powder Keg. That was that was like that was very exciting for me to do. 

[00:07:25] You know, Jerah Milligan directed the vignettes in the special, but he was such a collaborative director. So when I’m telling him, like, Here’s what I see, can you get the shot that it like because I see. But I create what I see it in my mind before it’s ever on the screen. And so he just allowed me to kind of, you know, get get in it, you know, get my feet wet in that respect. So when it was time to direct my short, I felt like I had a really good handle on like, all right, this is how we execute it. Because I had the vision and so now it’s like, Oh yeah, all the decisions have to be made by you. And that was a little like, Oh, yeah, we are, you know, what do you think? No, you still want me to do? Okay, you know. So that was a different hat. It was a new hat. But I, I stepped into it and I really liked it. But producing like right now, I’m optioning a lot of my books from the continent, books that I found very interesting. So I was like, Well, how do I get this for TV and not just do it for like a local market, but bring African stories to the global market and be like, hey, listen, you know, it’s not the traditional Nollywood, but it has themes from Nigeria, from other countries in Africa. So those are the things that really make me excited to jump right into. 

Cortney Wills [00:08:43] I’m so happy you said that, you know, content from the continent has been so front of mind really for a couple of years now. But there are so many people and entities, I think finally really paying attention and willing to invest time and dollars into developing those stories, whether we’re talking about Netflix or like John Boyega’s Production Company or yeah, Amazon this weekend, “The Woman King” is opening. Have you seen it yet?

Yvonne Orji [00:09:11] Not yet. 

Cortney Wills [00:09:15] But I mean, I’m so excited. I know what we how we are going to react to that film. But I’m so curious about how everyone else is going to respond to not only such a large scale and powerful story and representation, but one that is through, you know, Black Panther was so aspirational and, you know, Afrofuturism and it was a superhero movie and that was certainly a movement. But like, yo, this one is not about what we could be. It’s about where we’ve been. Yeah. And like where who we have been being. And I don’t know if like the whole white world is actually ready for that, but I’m so excited and I think it’s really going to clear away and open a dialog that we really. Need to have. I mean, we know that Africa is so rich in so many things, but entertainment is absolutely one of them. 

Yvonne Orji [00:10:14] I mean, we’re original storytellers, like things before they were written down, we’re told from grandfather, it’s a grandchild. And then, you know, legacy continues. I remember reading my father’s beautiful daughter when I was a kid and I was like, Oh my God, this is just a it’s just a fairy and not a fairy tale, but it’s like an old wives tale. But, you know, this is about treating people well. But I remember like these characters are from Africa. I think, you know, there is that resurgence now, right? Like when you see the reactions of little brown kids watching the trailer for The Little Mermaid, it’s like Ariel Brown, like me. You know, there’s there’s a lot of stories being told from a different lens, a more inclusive lens. And I think, yeah, why not? It’s not. And I think everyone is getting ready for it. So whether whether you’re ready for it or not, it’s here. It’s happening. And I think they will make a lot of sense because they will make a lot of dollars. 

Cortney Wills [00:11:11] Yes. Yes, absolutely. And even I mean, like in different aspects of entertainment from like the music to perspective films to writings, but also like shows examining the food, you know, on Netflix, like High on the Hog, you know, and they’re coming back and like I’m seeing so many more like pop up restaurants here in L.A. and in New York, like catching on and like saying an African food. Like, people know what Joseph is now. I mean, that was they didn’t know you’re. 

Yvonne Orji [00:11:42] Selling Jollof rice in Trader Joe’s. Yeah, they’re getting a lot of folks trying it. And I’m like, Oh, okay, tell me how that go. Tell me how that goes. Because it’s so intricate. And I was like, how how do you there are some your samples that you can freeze and you know, whatever Jollof rice is not one of them, but my my roommate gets a meal delivery and one of the meals was jollof rice. I said, Oh, let’s make it right. That’s what she made it. She was like, okay, it’s more just like tomato sauce. But, you know, this just. 

Cortney Wills [00:12:16] Flavor of Rice-A-Roni. Oh. 

Yvonne Orji [00:12:19] I can just put red color. It has to taste like it. Yes, I. 

Cortney Wills [00:12:24] Have some in my pantry. Somebody sent me in some promo kit and it is it’s like an instant, you know, add water and you will have it. And I’m like, Whoa, I think this is a no, but I get where you’re going. And I think I kind of. 

Yvonne Orji [00:12:35] Appreciate if you ever watched African cooking in the kitchen, you know that nothing is nothing. Like 3 hours later, I’d be dinner ready. Just give me one more ally. Oh, my God. Oh, yeah. 

Cortney Wills [00:12:50] Oh, my gosh. Yvonne, I could talk to you forever, but I know I have to let you go soon. I want to know, like, what’s been making you laugh? Like the Emmys just happened. There were so many Black people on that carpet. There was a lot of celebration of comedy on that carpet and in that nominees list. And I just feel like it’s a a different time to be a comedian, particularly a stand up comedian. Like, our sensitivities are really heightened. But at the same time, like there is a lot more access, an opportunity for people to carve out their own lanes in comedy. And so I wondered for you, like, is there a perceivable shift? And if so, like, what is the biggest change as a Black woman comedian navigating the industry now as say, you know, five or, you know, five, ten years ago? 

Yvonne Orji [00:13:37] I mean, then one of the last specials that really inspired me was drugs. And I was so happy that you got to win. But annual was like it. I remember it because we were working on the vignette part of the special. So I actually wrote my this hour in one weekend and I wrote it the weekend after I watch with annual like two or three times because I just was like, also, this is what’s what’s possible, this is what making a specials special looks like. And so it was at that point, I’m like, Oh, I mean, I want to just tell jokes, you know, and I get it. We need it. I mean, we’re we’re going through a lot, you know, and so you need some levity. But I was just like, what do I want to say? And it being after watching Jerrod say what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say, it got me thinking like, what do I want to say? And I we had one phone call with a friend of mine. We’d been talking throughout the whole pandemic about just growth and change and things that are different. And I was like, you know what with that what happened literally in that after I got off the phone with them, I wrote down 4 hours and I was just like, all right, let’s figure out which which of these ten pages will make it to 60 minutes worth of material. 

Yvonne Orji [00:15:01] And that was that’s what I feel like art should do. It should motivate you. Should inspire you. It should make. Your heart sing. And for me, that’s what we’re than you did. Hassan. Hassan Minaj and I are really good friends and I loved his specials and I saw him perform, and I was just like, You’re a genius. Like, I cannot wait for people to see his new special. He’s just so clever. And what how he presents his material is so inspiring. And so I really had, like, passenger underwrite, and I just was like, yeah, I don’t look at myself as, like a female comic or this or all of that. I’m just like, What do I want to say that is real for me, but also like real for whoever is coming and like, you know, in the special when you know, when it got deep and I’m like, Yeah, I’ll come back with it. It was like it was like that the whole time I was touring. Like, people were given a moment to just sit in their own thing. And I think that’s what happens. Like sometimes when life is really hard, we don’t want to sit in it. That’s why the pandemic was so rough for a lot of people. It was like we would rather be at work or doing anything else, but like I got to sit with myself. 

Yvonne Orji [00:16:11] What if I don’t like me? And it’s like, well, that’s the whole point of becoming a whole me was one. It was a callback from the first special, but it was the fact that, like, I became the most truest, realest whole this version of myself these last two years. And it was work. It was hard, but I love her and she’s not going anywhere. And she may look different two years from now, but it will come from the same place of evolution. And so that’s that that was you know, we talked about what makes me laugh or what I’m inspired by. I’m like, I’m inspired by just honesty and in from a well of betterment improvement through I mean it’s like, you know what what does thriving look like for people? Because I know people who have lots of money and big houses, they’re not driving here to the Ritz. So the two different words. And so I’m really fascinated, interested, inspired by the people who go in to come back out. 

Cortney Wills [00:17:12] Oh I love that you are that to such a perfect spot. And that was such a pleasure to chat with you today. And I’m so excited for this new special and everyone to see it and to see what’s next from you. 

Yvonne Orji [00:17:22] Yeah, thank you. And congratulations on the baby. Want you to do that because I’m December, baby. 

Cortney Wills [00:17:28] December 2nd. That’s my birthday. Really? 

Yvonne Orji [00:17:34] It means that you rather have two kids on the same pursuit. And I like this for you. 

Cortney Wills [00:17:38] Yes, I like it for me, too. Oh, wonderful. So good to see you. Thank you so much. 

Yvonne Orji [00:17:43] All right. Have a good one. 

Cortney Wills [00:17:45] Okay. Bye. Bye. 

Yvonne Orji [00:17:46] Bye. 

Cortney Wills [00:17:50] Things are tuning into this week’s episode of Acting Up. Download theGrio app to listen to acting up and other great podcasts. See you soon.