Natasha Rothwell Can Do It All

Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

It’s perhaps not correct to say that Natasha Rothwell is “transitioning” from being a writer to an actress, because she still seems to be excelling at both and doesn’t intend to stop working behind the scenes. It’s just that you may be seeing a lot more of her in the coming years. A lot more.

After years of sketch and improv training in DC and New York, Rothwell’s first major break came as a writer on Saturday Night Live for the 2014-2015 season. She has since had her own episode on Netflix’s The Characters, where she could write and perform her own material, and then was hired as a staff writer on HBO’s Insecure, becoming a series regular by season 2. HBO has doubled down on the career success of Rothwell, signing her on to create her own show that she is currently in development on. You can next see her in the coming-of-age movie Love, Simon, in which she plays a high school drama teacher, a role she is quite familiar with, which allowed her to improvise and put her own experiences into the part.

This is just the beginning of her career as an actress, and certainly not the end for her as a writer. She’s a performer who can do both.

Can you remember the first thing you wrote that was comedic? As in, you intended it to be funny, like a short story, a joke, a sketch?

I remember writing monologues and one-act plays and stuff in high school. I had a project in English that was just a short book of limericks. It was so weird. I enjoyed the challenge and rhyme of it. I was always putting on plays and stuff. I would just take dolls around the house – there’s old VHS footage from my dad, who was an early adapter and had this RCA camera – and it’s me taking a Michael Jackson Barbie doll and putting on a show with that. I come from a funny family. We would always play games where we would put someone in a chair and try to make them laugh. We called it “Make Me Laugh.” It was always how I expressed myself, through writing and performing and the crazy book of limericks I did in ninth grade.

You started doing improv in high school. Typically when people start that early it seems to be short form at first, maybe getting into some long form in college, but what was your experience like?

My high school theater teacher was Mr. Walsh – not Matt Walsh, I don’t remember his first name – and Mandy O’Neill. I really got into it with Ms. O’Neill, and she came out of NYU and improv there, so she did long form and short form. So I feel a little bit lucky that I got introduced to long form when I was young. When I went to Maryland after I transferred there from Ithaca College, I got into Erasable Inc., which has been an improv troupe there for 25 or 30 years, and they were started by Yale Purple Crayons. The base there was long form. Our shows were also a mix of the two. The dexterity to be able to play the punchline of short form lends itself to long form; I feel like good long form performers are really good short form performers, but not always the other way around, because you have to have the commitment to take a joke all the way and I feel like short form is long form just truncated. You have the intention of playing it all the way out but you have to do it in a short amount of time. I feel like both of those skills played with each other and helped me out to find my comedic voice and how to play with commitment, but also, brevity being the soul of wit, how do you get it across in a short amount of time? And sometimes with rules where you have to rhyme, whatever the game limitations are, you put that on top of it but to me it was a combination.

You’re in this film Love, Simon, about a teenager who hasn’t come out of the closet yet and is terrified that one of his classmates is going to out him. What did this material mean to you personally?

I feel really proud of the film and to have been a part of it. The subject matter is close to me because I was a high school theater teacher in the Bronx for four years and I play a theater teacher in this, Ms. Albright. The theater, especially high school theater, has always been sort of a bastion for outsiders and when you’re in school, you’re young and you’re figuring out who you are in your sexuality, feeling like an outsider when you’re feeling emotions that aren’t widely accepted – whether it’s because of your family or society – the theater seems to be a safe place. In my experience as a theater teacher, I had students come out to me, and it was important for it to be a safe place for students to feel free to express themselves. Playing Ms. Albright felt very close to home. She’s not exactly me, clearly, but it’s an extension of my passion of helping people feel at home with themselves. It’s important to me. It made sense to me to play Ms. Albright.

Having gotten to know you through Insecure and The Characters, this character also feels to be very much like you. How much were you able to improvise and put your own touches on the role?

There’s definitely what was scripted, but I think to (director) Greg Berlanti’s credit he really allowed me to improvise and play. Improv is such a huge part of my background, and a huge part of character discovery is really being inside the character and trying to think through them without the limitations of the script. In this case, the script wasn’t limiting at all. I got to play with it, and on top of that, he allowed me to improvise with her. I truly had a blast, and to me, that is just what I love about Insecure, because they also allowed me to play and improvise and find the character of Kelli that way as well. I feel really lucky and fortunate to work with directors that let me do that and trust that I’m not going to go crazy. It’s just a part of my practice. To that point, I think Greg gave me directions in the right direction with the improv, and we worked together to find this character and how she differed from the book and how she lives in this world with this specific cast and in the style of the film.

You were originally a journalism major in college, so how did you end up getting into drama?

I remember coming home and crying to my parents and saying “I wanted to major in theater” and they said “Yeah, we thought that’s what you were gonna do, we’re surprised you did journalism.” So at that point I majored in theater and transferred to the University of Maryland because I got a full scholarship in theater there. To me that spoke to “Okay, I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing” because it’s less going against the tide, and it felt very natural. It felt like home. Teaching theater, I felt very lucky. In a world where there’s few options for someone who graduates with a theater degree, trying to figure out how to make rent and pay the bills, I always gravitated towards teaching jobs and things like that. I wanted to stay close to my passion as well. Crazy respect to my friends that waited tables and did retail, there’s so much respect in putting in that time in order to do what you love, I just really feel fortunate that I was able to find jobs that were in the world of theater.

After you found out that you were going to be on The Characters, how difficult was it to cut your options down to the four or five that you’d be highlighting in your episode?

It was incredibly difficult. I had just come off of SNL, where it’s well known the rigidity of the writing process there, and when I got The Characters I was expecting rules from Netflix as far as what they wanted and how long, and they truly just slid a blank piece of paper to me. “Where’s the margins at least?!” And they were like “No, do what you want.” “Okay, really?” I kept asking almost for permission to just have that freedom and they were so great about just saying “What do you want to do? You have 30 minutes. What is your dream to do?” That was terrifying at the beginning because I was just wanting to get it right, and I think for me the success that I had on SNL was when I stopped trying to get it right – I was just trying to go back to what made me laugh and what I was passionate about. I tend to gravitate towards characters that are subversive and I love flipping expected dynamics and status; I played a little girl who ran the office. She’s precocious and smarter than you expect, and playing with expectations to me is where I get a lot of excitement writing characters. It was much longer than I expected and I left a lot of characters on the cutting room floor, but for me the selection came down to wanting to show a range and picking characters that could actually tell a story – sort of a through line over the course of the episode and thematic tie-ins and how they play off of each other – and that helped me through the decision process.

Character creating and play seems to be an underrated aspect of comedy, almost the place where improv and sketch meet to form a perfect union. What would you say is your secret to creating a great character?

I think you’re right. I think characters are so crucial and I don’t think talked about as much as I’d like to talk about them because I love it so much – the ability to tap into a character, and not a caricature. And I think that’s the biggest difference. A lot of comedians, when starting out, they take this idea of “Oh I’m just doing a caricature” or just an echo of what an actual, fully-formed person would do, because they’re trying to be funny. To me, the real comedy from characters comes in specificity and the details. I really do think with characters, God is in the details, and the hardest I’ve laughed when I’m watching sketch or improv or a movie is when a joke is so specific. I think that’s why Curb Your Enthusiasm is so funny – because it’s so specific. It’s why Insecure is so funny – it’s so specific about a specific world and has fully-formed characters. For me, I’ve always tried to tap into characters by trying to ground it and trying to really think through the character’s lens and find something specific to explore in a particular moment.

Insecure has a ton of great moments just in terms of things that white people say to the central characters – things that may not seem offensive to the people who are saying it, but does marginalize or is at least a form of appropriation. How much of that is pulled from real life? And does it ever come full circle from fans of the show who approach you to talk about it and their experiences?

I’m obsessed with our writers room. We’re very close, and we pull so much of the story from real life. We have a diverse writers room – it’s not all black and it’s literally the most diverse room I’ve ever been in. That’s helped us tell stories. Intricate, specific stories that I spoke to, that make shows special because we’re not trying to be “every black experience.” This is a very specific story that we’re telling, a very regular story. She doesn’t have super powers, she’s not on a crime spree, she’s not running from the law, she’s just a regular girl who’s just trying to figure her shit out. To me that is the trick of the show – that we’re elevating the ordinary to extraordinary by showing a slice of life that is not often told. I think a lot of times black women are expected to be certain things, so we don’t have the opportunity often just to be regular or to be not that inspiring or being sort of not good at a lot, not embodying black girl magic all the time. There’s something special about that.

To your second point, I think the conversations that we’re able to have in the writers room with the writers who are white and their experience in black environments and vice versa is crucial to how we’re trying to tell stories. I think that just the visibility of people of color on TV telling these specific types of stories help people to have conversations that I don’t think they would have had otherwise, which is really cool. Most of the people that come up to me about the show expressing “I watch and I love it!” are not always people of color. Old people, white people, you name it, come up to me and say they’re fans of the show, and I think that’s what you get when you tell a specific story about the human experience. It allows people to connect to the truth of what you’re telling the same way that I was a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld, and Friends; I didn’t see myself represented, but they were telling stories or playing upon the human truth that resonated with me. So I think that we’re just feeling that it works regardless of the dress you put on the truth. You can still have people and be entertained by it and connect to it if you tell specific, honest stories.

Natasha Rothwell Can Do It All