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Natasha Rothwell, The Breakout Star Of 'Insecure'


The hit HBO program "Insecure" wraps its third season Sunday. The show follows four friends as they navigate love and life as young, black professional women in Los Angeles. And, over the past season, a breakout star has emerged. Natasha Rothwell plays Kelli. She is the friend you need with the tough love you don't always want. Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: There's this episode in the third season of "Insecure." Issa Dee, the lead in the show - she is having money problems, and she's crashing on couches. She's trying to move into her own place. And she goes to her friend Kelli for advice. Kelli is an accountant, and Kelli keeps it real.


NATASHA ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) The basic credit tiers are excellent, good, poor, bad - this is Issa.

SANDERS: She says Issa is below the bottom.


ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) There's no way to get around this credit issue unless you get a cosigner - not me.

SANDERS: Kelli starts going over Issa's bank statement.


ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) ...You've been saving.

ISSA RAE: (As Issa Dee) Oh, I have been saving.


RAE: (As Issa Dee) (Singing) I've been saving, I've been saving, I've been...

ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) Hey, hey...

SANDERS: And she's got some questions.


ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) She's been saving. Uh-Uh. Uh-uh. Uh-uh.

RAE: (As Issa Dee) You know, I eat out a lot.

ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) Oh, girl. Lids?

RAE: (As Issa Dee) I like my caps fitted.

ROTHWELL: (As Kelli) That is just - Radio Shack ain't even a store no more - Rite Aid? You buying groceries at Rite Aid?

RAE: (As Issa Dee) I buy panties there, too.

SANDERS: This is Kelli - often the comic relief but also always the grownup in the room. Natasha Rothwell told me that what she loves about playing Kelli is that Kelli never apologizes for any part of herself, and that means not apologizing for being a woman or for being black - a thing Rothwell says she sees a lot on screen.


ROTHWELL: Not that every character I saw was apologizing for it but was aware of it. And that, to me, is the beauty of Kelli. She has known no different.


ROTHWELL: She knows that freedom of self-possession that, like, I dream of. And so...

SANDERS: Yeah, she's as free as a wealthy white man.


SANDERS: Like, she is just...

ROTHWELL: Yes. And in her - she would say she's as free as a black woman, you know what I mean?


ROTHWELL: Like, she doesn't even have that...

SANDERS: There's no difference.

ROTHWELL: There's no difference.

SANDERS: Rothwell is acting and writing on "Insecure" at a time when prestige black TV is having a moment - recent shows like "Scandal" and "Empire" and "Black-ish" and "Atlanta." But these shows are still pretty rare. And it's still unusual to have a diverse writers' room with black people at the table. That puts a certain pressure on "Insecure."

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: I think that pressure is a direct effect of scarcity.

SANDERS: Soraya Nadia McDonald is a culture critic for ESPN's The Undefeated. She says "Insecure" often faces undue scrutiny. Viewers complain all the time about how the show handles certain situations. For example, there was a big online debate after one of the characters on the show had unprotected sex. MacDonald says, give the creators - creators of color - space.

MCDONALD: The challenge for viewers is always to remember that you are consuming art. This isn't your personal diary. You know, what someone creates isn't always going to match with your view of the world, and that's OK (laughter). It means there should be more voices and more views.

SANDERS: Natasha Rothwell says she hopes "Insecure" and Kelli can inspire more people to share their own voices. And there's one story she wants to tell that she hasn't yet. At some point, she wants to do a rom-com...


ROTHWELL: ...Where the protagonist is a plus-size woman of color, and those things aren't central plot points (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

She told me she'd love to star in a "When Harry Met Sally" remake - as a lead, of course.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATREESTO'S "BACK AT IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.