Retta Has a Story to Tell

Retta has made herself comfortable. She’s created a pillow throne on the long, burgundy settee at the bar of the Four Seasons hotel; a couple of red, plush cushions rearranged as armrests, another two behind her. She came down from her room in a gray sweater and fuzzy purple slippers she got from the set of her latest TV show, Good Girls. “I am in a space of trying to Zen out,” she says, projecting a cool, pay-no-mind calm as though now, at the age of 48, she’s fully internalized the serenity prayer to accept the things she cannot change, the courage to change the things she can, and the wisdom to know the difference. It’s a philosophy she’s carried throughout her career, which she began as a stand-up comic and led her to a starring role on the hour-long NBC dramedy Good Girls. “I’ve always thought that I would have to prove myself with some really small role before I’d get on the level where there’s a stack of scripts that I had to get through and make a decision,” she says. “I’ve never been in that position — still not. There’s no stack. But I’m working, so I’m not that pressed anymore.”

That small role, of course, was Donna Meagle, the office manager on Parks and Recreation whose catchphrase, Treat yo’ self, has so fully infiltrated popular culture that it’s on mugs, T-shirts, and anything else Etsy can imagine. When she first auditioned for the part, it was presented as a “glorified background” role. For the first season, Donna was an office worker quietly typing at her desk at the Pawnee Parks Department, but show creator Mike Schur always planned to bring both her and co-star Jim O’Heir (Jerry/Garry) into the foreground. Slowly but surely, she became a regular cast member in season three, and eventually a beloved favorite. “We’d written some dummy scenes, and Retta performed them in this wonderfully tiny and realistic way — and then the conversation we had afterwards was a revelation, because she was ebullient and vivacious and so funny,” Schur wrote in an email. “She’s an onion, and the more layers you peel back, the cooler the onion gets.”

The role was a turning point for Retta, who had been working the college comedy circuit for years. She began her career as a stand-up after college, when she was working as a chemist for GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. She had done her pre-med requirements at Duke University and was taking a year off to study for the MCAT. “School was my shit,” Retta says. “I still have my MCAT study books and all my science notebooks in the closet of my guest room. Because I really feel like, if this does not work out, I can pack up those bags, move in with my parents, start studying for the MCATs, and go to medical school.” Living alone meant that she had free rein over the remote, and that she could freely binge television. It helped her realize that what she actually wanted was her own sitcom, so in 1996, the year after she graduated from Duke, she decided go into stand-up comedy.

She started off doing open mics at Charlie Goodnights in Raleigh before packing her things and driving cross-country to L.A. in January of 1997 to pursue stand-up full-time, but it wasn’t until gigs dried up after 9/11 that she started to go out to auditions more aggressively. As she worked, she found herself, as many black women comedians did, competing for a small number of parts against the likes of Wanda Sykes, Octavia Spencer, and Sherri Shepherd, who eventually became a close friend. “I feel like Sherri got every job that I didn’t get before I started working. Seriously. Like, legit got every job that I went in for,” she says.

Today, Retta might not be getting endless offers, but she’s “made it” by any ostensible metric: She worked steadily after Parks, booking a guest arc on Marti Noxon’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce before getting upped to a regular cast member. Good Girls, which recently wrapped its first season and has been renewed for a second, is her biggest role to date. She stars alongside Christina Hendricks and Mae Whitman as Ruby Hill, a desperate parent trying to pay for prohibitively expensive health-care costs for her child, who’s suffering from kidney failure. She provides the show’s emotional backbone for when they do crazier things, like rob a grocery store — twice. And she has a book tracking her rise called So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, out May 29.

“When I first moved to California, I used to drive around in this ’84 convertible Mustang playing Prince, like, blasting it with my top down, literally thinking someone was gonna discover me while I was driving on Sunset. I was like, ‘I know there’s like some like agent that’s gonna see how fun I am in my car singing my Prince. I know people were like, ‘Can you turn it down?’” she laughs. “I used to see billboards on Sunset and I was like, ‘When my face is on the 9000 building, that’s when I know I made it.’” She got close: Last fall, the Good Girls advertisement appeared two blocks away from the tallest building on the Sunset Strip. “I told my bestie, ‘I’m only two blocks away from the 9000 building. I’m very close to making it.’ And my friend goes, ‘You’re in Times Square, bitch. You made it.’”

Photo: Bobby Doherty/Vulture

Retta was born Marietta Sirleaf to Deborah and George Sirleaf, who immigrated to New Jersey from Liberia the year before she was born. She grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with six people including her parents, her two younger brothers George Jr. and Michen, and a “revolving door of cousins,” in a compressed living situation familiar to anyone from a big immigrant family. Her mother worked as an insurance adjuster while attending college, and her father worked at the Revlon warehouse. Eventually, they moved to a seven-bedroom fixer-upper in Cliffwood Beach and her father got a job at the packing department of Conair. When Retta got into Duke University, her dad took on a second job at Stern’s department store as a way to pay for her tuition. That last detail in particular provides an emotional wallop. She told it to a group of high-school students recently and started crying. “I was like, I don’t know what’s happening. I know this story. Why am I crying?” she says.

If there’s a through line in Retta’s career, it’s her unvarnished honesty, which comes through in her work. It’s a quality that she’s learned to embrace by playing Donna, who even though she might have existed in the background of the narrative clearly lived as the protagonist of her own show (her cousin is multi-platinum artist Ginuwine; her Mercedes-Benz is named Michael Fassbender). “Donna knew exactly what she wanted and she asked for it,” Retta says. “There was nothing that was going to make her be fake. I actually learned to do that better and not do what I thought people wanted to hear or wanted me to be. In the past I’ve done stuff I didn’t want, and I’ve gotten to a place now that started when I was on Parks, of not doing stuff I didn’t want to do.”

Some of Retta’s most formative years as a comedian were during Parks and Recreation, where she felt like she took part in a high-level and extremely raunchy comedy masterclass with the likes of Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, and others. The cast would regularly do a roulette of celebrity impressions and improv on set. There was the now-infamous time that Chris Pratt showed up naked in a scene when he was supposed to be wearing a modesty sock. In the episode “The Comeback Kid,” she remembers a gag reel line when Pratt said, “Yeah, she’s the Comeback Kid because of the cum on her back.” And then there was the time when the female cast members were in Ron Swanson’s office and “would pretend to jerk off like they had little penises.” “I was like, ‘We’re going to get in trouble, you guys!” she says. “I was really new and like, ‘You can’t do dirty jokes like that! They’re filming!’ I would never say anything. You could see the heat fill up in my face and I’d just stand there.” She eventually found her groove with the episode “The Hunting Trip” when someone shot Michael Fassbender (the car, not the actor) and cracked up the normally tough-to-please co-creator Greg Daniels, who was directing the episode. “I was like, Okay. I’m gonna make it in this town.”

She’s still close with her Parks and Recreation castmates, including Aziz Ansari, whom she often shared scenes with. When the story about Ansari broke earlier this year, she felt defensive when she saw her friend lumped together with other men like Harvey Weinstein. “I read it, and I was like, ‘It’s not the same as what’s been going down.’ And someone had done some video and it had a bunch of the men that were in this hot water for this, and they had Aziz in the list. I was really pissed about it,” she says. “I just felt bad, and I texted him to check on him to be like, ‘Are you okay?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m okay.’ But I know he feels really bad about it.”

She regularly texts with Ansari and the rest of the cast, and talks about them in effusive terms: Amy Poehler was an inclusive leader (she threatened to pull out of an Entertainment Weekly cover of the cast if Retta and Jim O’Heir weren’t included on the cover), Aubrey Plaza has a “hidden sweetness,” Chris Pratt was a lovable if extremely dirty little brother. They all had dinner together in Los Angeles a couple of weeks before we met in New York, and they have a group chat where Ansari sends them photos that people took of him asleep on the set of Master of None, a habit they clowned him for during Parks.

Retta is in her element when she’s telling stories like this, ideally with a glass of wine in hand, which is exactly the vibe of her upcoming memoir, So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know. The book is what happens when a stand-up comic who has spent much of her professional life observing other people break into the gilded ranks of Hollywood at awards show parties (Pre-parties! Night-of parties! Brunch parties!). Retta is still an avid television watcher, a fact well-known because she regularly livetweets her favorite shows, including Scandal, Girls, The Good Wife, and The Vampire Diaries. And there’s still a touch of fandom when she encounters a celebrity that she’s watched onscreen for so long: Yes, Idris Elba is dreamy in person. If Robert Redford accidentally steps on your foot, he’ll be very apologetic about it. Meeting Sidney Poitier is a religious experience. Oh, and did you know that Michael Fassbender (the actor, not the car) totally digs black women?

The best encounter is a micro-drama that encapsulates the surrealist joy of a celebrity interaction. It happened during the 2014 Golden Globe Awards, the second time the proceedings were hosted by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Her Parks and Recreation co-star Jim O’Heir kept refilling her glass with the giant bottle of Moët & Chandon on the table, which meant that, eventually, she had to pee. Retta got in the very long line for the bathroom, where pop star Taylor Swift was standing behind her. “We’re standing there forever in line, standing in line, moving up, moving up, and I was next. I was looking off to the left, and I see Taylor walk past. I yelled ‘Taylor!’ She turns around and was like, ‘Oh, were you next?’” Retta recalls. “I was like, ‘Was I? We was standing in this together for like 15 minutes. Bitch, you know I was next,’ and I walk past her and went to the bathroom.”

It’s not what she would call a “deathbed story” (she’s saving those, duh), but the anecdote is prompting some anxiety since it had to be vetted by lawyers for St. Martin’s Press. “The lawyer was like okay, how can we work this because [Swift] may be like, ‘That never fucking happened.’ It did because I told the story the minute I came out of the bathroom, and I’ve been telling it ever since. It was pretty fucking funny to me,” Retta says. Still, she’s not sweating it: “I was thinking I’ll be in her songs next.”

You could imagine a world in which Retta had her own talk show, interviewing celebrities and ribbing Swift for that very encounter. In fact, in 2014, she had a deal to host her own HBO talk show, produced by Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham, that eventually fell through because she wanted to establish herself as an actor first. “I just didn’t want to be seen as a talk-show host, and people don’t see me as an actor,” Retta says. Instead, she went to Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, which allowed her to flex her dramatic range, a skill she’s expanded further on Good Girls, where she’s proven that among other things, she can cry on cue. More recently, she’s been losing roles to Oscar-winner Allison Janney, who got the job she wanted for Spy, as well as another part in a serious indie film she was up for. “I’ll say I’ve made it when I win an Oscar. That’s my new goal,” she says. “After she won her Oscar [for I, Tonya], I was like, ‘Maybe it is in my future — I’m just a few steps behind.’”

Fun fact: Octavia Spencer also auditioned for the part of Donna on Parks before going on to win an Oscar for The Help.
Retta Has a Story to Tell