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‘Insecure’: Issa Rae Gives a Voice to Authentic, Flawed Black Women and Even a ‘Broken Pussy’

The "Awkward Black Girl" web series creator discusses getting what it takes to be real on her new HBO comedy.

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in HBO's "Insecure"

“Insecure”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

On Issa Rae’s new HBO comedy “Insecure,” her on-screen alter ego Issa Dee is slowly finding her own voice – both at work (at a non-profit that helps underprivileged children) and in her personal life. It’s a voice that is increasingly playful, open but blunt all at once.

In one scene from Sunday’s premiere, Issa diagnoses her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) with a “broken pussy” that’s causing her lack of success with men. “If it could talk it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan,” Issa says.

READ MORE: ‘Insecure’ EP Prentice Penny on Issa Rae’s Brutally Honest Show — TURN IT ON Podcast

“There is no line drawn. Everything is kind of fair game as it applies to our lives,” Rae told IndieWire. “Every writer in the room has a piece or a morsel or a chunk of their lives in the show as well.”

Finding that voice is something that Rae has been perfecting for a while, beginning with writing and directing plays during college. That eventually led to her hit web series “Awkward Black Girl,” which “Insecure” is partially based on. She now has the help of a writer’s room, as well as co-creator Larry Wilmore and showrunner/executive producer Prentice Penny.

“These conversations are some of the real conversations I’ve had with friends,” Rae added. “The ‘broken pussy’ conversation was a very real conversation that I took from my own life, told Larry about, and he was like, ‘This is funny. This has to go in the show.’”

Insecure Issa Rae

Issa Rae, “Insecure”

HBO/Anne Marie Fox

Check out the rest of the interview with Rae below:

How did Larry Wilmore first get involved as a co-creator of this show?

Rae: The great thing about being represented is when they’re mad useful. When I sold the pitch to HBO, they were like, “Okay, you need a showrunner. We represent Larry Wilmore. What do you think about him?” I was like, “I love Larry. Are you kidding me?” And so we set up a meeting, just for us to meet each other. We just hit it off immediately. He’s just a great guy… He was like, “Honestly, I’d love to write this show with you. Do you mind?” I was like, “I would love for you to.” That writing process with him as a collaborator was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

READ MORE: ‘Insecure’ Review: Issa Rae’s Debut Is Familiar and Adventurous in Unequal Doses

What is writing with him like?

Rae: He just has a process where literally we were sitting on his office rooftop for a couple weeks… just getting to know each other, asking each other questions. He was very open about his life, I was very open about mine. What I didn’t know what was happening during that time was that we were building the foundation for character. And then by the time it came for us to actually write a series outline to submit to HBO — not a series outline, a pilot outline. We did that in a couple of days. They loved the outline and then we wrote the script, and that we knocked out in five days. Through conversation, we had such a clear idea what we wanted this show to be and who the characters were we wanted to build. It was just such an organic experience.

How many episodes did you write together? Was it the whole season?

Rae: No, unfortunately during the development process. Larry got the opportunity to do “The Nightly Show.” We were working on it for a year and a half. So he ended up leaving the project, and I did a couple of the rewrites and it got picked up for pilot. That’s when I was introduced to the amazing — I never thought I could replace Larry, and still haven’t, but Prentice is amazing. We’re from the same neighborhood. He actually worked in a non-profit as well. He comes from “Scrubs” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and all of these other shows. He gets it, even the experience of not being black enough. We just had so much in common, and he’s so smart.

Insecure Issa Rae HBO

Although this is inspired by your experiences, do you also depict real places? There is so much of Los Angeles I recognized in the show, including that Ethiopian restaurant.

Rae: Where LA is concerned. I was very adamant about, if this house is in this neighborhood, if it says that in the script, then we need to be there while we shoot,” she said. “I wanted an authentic experience. The Ethiopian restaurant [in the pilot] is something that on Fairfax and Pico there’s Little Ethiopia. We wanted to be there. I love that restaurant. There are just so many different parts of trying to capture the real life, a literal slice of life.

Did you add any wish fulfillment to the show, adding things you want to see or do?

Rae: I’m sure there’s a degree of wish fulfillment, like the men on this show are absolutely gorgeous and great people. But for the most part, we keep it grounded. There are a lot of wish fulfillment conversations I wish I were having in my real life that I aim to have.

Like being more straightforward with people?

Rae: Yeah and just being a bit more straightforward with myself. This show has definitely been like key to introspection in a way that I didn’t think it would.

Could you discuss the title, “Insecure”? Did you know you wanted to call it that all along? And what are all the things that are insecure in the show that you wanted to explore?

Rae: No, the title started off initially as “Non-Prophet,” like this person was supposed to be [one]. But that was when the show was more focused on the workplace. Then it started focusing on the relationships of people, with work as secondary. I think “Insecure” is a more appropriate title just because one, who the character is, and the journey that we’re portraying. For one thing, black women right now are always portrayed like flawless or fierce or superhuman in a sense. I feel like that’s not real right now. I wanted to see a story about a girl who doesn’t have it all together, who isn’t that, who’s on her journey to that and what that means, what that looks like. That goes for every character in the show. You see her best friend…

Right, Molly. That is interesting, switching the POV to her friend Molly or to Issa’s boyfriend in later episodes. What’s it like sharing the focus? Are these stories more challenging to tell?

Rae: No, a lot of them are based off of some real people. You can’t date [an “Insecure”] writer or be friends with a writer because you’ll end up on the page. It’s true. A lot of my friends and people I’ve dated are in this show. Once you start off with real people as the base, then you can use that foundation and their personalities to understand them. That’s also the best part about a writer’s room is that you’re always discussing and talking about these characters so you all understand who they are fundamentally. That became the fun of it.

Jay Ellis on HBO's "Insecure"

Jay Ellis on HBO’s “Insecure”

You mentioned that feeling of being perceived as too black or not being black enough. How much do you think about that when you weigh what you write in a scene? Finding that balance?

Rae: We’re not just making up [situations], like “Oh, this is the black person of the show. There are no other black people.” So it doesn’t feel the need for one person to represent everything… this is a show with lots of black people who are all different. So we’re just writing people at the end of the day. So we never really have to be like, “Oh is that stereotypical?” It didn’t matter because there are a hundred different black people on this show who aren’t that. So by definition, it couldn’t be a stereotype.

Is your experience working in non-profit the reason why you included We Got Y’all in the show?

Rae: Yeah, I worked in several non-profits. It always amused me that there were people working for the good of altruism but also wanting a lot of credit for it. It’s just oddly competitive and the environment and the people who decide to work at non-profits are just really funny to me. So I always have this thing about how amusing I find white guilt and also this new generation of policing: tone policing, gender policing, race policing, all of that. And how people because they’re more socially conscious and P.C. and use the correct language that they feel kind of superior in a sense. So to work in an environment where you’re working with underprivileged kids and to have them share your skin color and your experiences but to work with white people who feel like they know what’s best for them would be my nightmare. So I wanted to have the character work in a nightmare environment. Also in addition kind of being frustrated with how they’re operating.

Issa Rae and Lisa Joyce on HBO's "Insecure"

Issa Rae and Lisa Joyce on HBO’s “Insecure”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

It’s so awful, but I love the business name, We Got Y’all. How long did it take to dream up that name? What other names were considered?

Rae: [laughs] It’s so obnoxious. I have to give credit. It used to be We Got You. “We got you!” And then that was taken. I think BET that was their slogan or something. So we had to change it to We Got Y’all. But that was all Larry. There were a lot of names considered initially, but that was the one that seemed the most appropriately obnoxious.

What is the importance of doing rap and giving Issa that voice? How much of that will be part of her journey?

Rae: I think the rap device and just rapping in general for Issa is the only opportunity she has to purely and rawly express herself. The fact that she does it in the bathroom, it’s her safe space, it’s where she can really go and just examine herself and be honest with herself and get out her frustrations, her excitement, just all of her emotions. I just like it as a device. In “Awkward Black Girl” we used voiceover and rap. I feel like in this show, voiceover was already overdone in a sense. We used it in the pilot but I felt like we didn’t need to have that device. And so that’s where you’ll find the real Issa, is in that bathroom.

Serious question: Vaginas play a big part of your material, like the line, “Nina’s vagina smells like fish,” from “Awkward Black Girl” and then there’s Molly’s “broken pussy” and the amazing rap that it inspired. Do you feel discussing the female anatomy in such a straightforward manner is important?

Rae: I do. It’s again an actual part of conversations woman to woman. If you have great friends, you talk about everything and you talk about it down to the detail. I remember in first making friends and making my fast friends, hearing them talk about sexual experiences down to every last detail, [I was] being like a prude, then, like, embracing that. Like, “Oh wow!” Some people describe things differently but that’s like friendship. That’s how we talk.

The show mentions this in Episode 2, and I had to ask: Are vagina facials real?

Rae: [laughs] Yes! Jenny Slate did one. She wrote about it. We thought we were making it up and then someone pulled up the article by her. It was hilarious.

“Insecure” airs Sundays at 10:30pm on HBO.

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Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae on HBO's "Insecure"

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae on HBO’s “Insecure”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

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