‘Love, Simon’ star on her breakout role as a gay-supportive teacher and why the LGBTQ community loves the ladies of Insecure
By Chris Azzopardi
Oh, sure, actress Natasha Rothwell’s scene-stealing drama teacher in out director Greg Berlanti’s groundbreaking gay teen rom-com Love, Simon is bitter – and therefore, funny as all hell – about overseeing amateur teens in a student production of Cabaret. Hey, she had an oh-so-prestigious part in _The Lion King_ musical! (As, um, an extra.)
But Ms. Albright is a dogged ally for life, demonstrating heartfelt compassion for her LGBTQ students when Simon and his queer schoolmate, Ethan, are bullied in the lunchroom. Enter Ms. Albright, who breaks up the fight in true Ms. Albright fashion: “That’s mine now,” she scolds, confiscating the bullies’ speaker. “I’m’ma sell it, get my tubes tied.”
Rothwell knows the teacher life well: She was a high school teacher in the Bronx for four years. Queer students confided in her, some even came out to her. Now, the 37-year-old actress and former SNL writer returns for a third season of actress-writer Issa Rae’s terrific HBO comedy Insecure, as Issa’s freewheeling, zero-fucks friend Kelli. And no details on her role just yet – she couldn’t reveal any during our recent interview, sorry – but Rothwell is also set to star in director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman sequel.
Plenty to chat about until then, though, including the importance of LGBTQ inclusion in her projects and her reaction to the criticism Love, Simon received for not being progressive enough.
Why do you think the women on Insecure have resonated with the queer community?
I think what attracts the queer community to Insecure is authenticity and seeing a group of women being celebrated on television for being their authentic selves. The courage that it takes for marginalized groups like the LGBTQIA community to be authentic – it’s so difficult and so brave and so admirable to do so that when you see a group of people doing that on screen I can understand why that resonates with the queer community. I feel that way when I see other marginalized groups of people on TV shown as full-fledged characters. I’m like, “Yes, yes, yes!”
It should be noted how effortlessly LGBTQIA just rolled off your tongue. You didn’t stumble over a single letter.
(Laughs) I think having been a part of Love, Simon and doing press for that I was like, “I’m gonna get this! They’re not gonna get me on camera or on tape!” Because I’m an ally through and through, and they better know I know what I’m talking about. (Laughs)
So, Kelli: Surely her unapologetic boldness – I mean, in season two, she got fingered at a diner – resonates with the community.
(Laughs) She was living her best life. She’s not gonna apologize for it. Until I got into my 30s, I felt like I was apologizing for being a woman, for being black. The beauty of playing Kelli is I get to have a character match how I now feel, and I get to play a woman who’s never known any different. Like, I imagine this is Kelli from the crib; when she was an infant, till now, she’s only ever known this version of herself. I love playing someone who doesn’t experience doubt in the way I do.
Do you write Kelli?
We all write Kelli. We’ll do internal table reads of the script and I’ll sit down and get to see what the other room was working on, and I’m like, “Oh shit, I’m getting fingered? OK!” It’s a real team effort to develop her and all the characters.
You’ve cited Lily Tomlin as an influence. How did she influence your comedic voice?
Female comedians that weren’t trapped by femininity is what resonated with me most. She was such a chameleon, subverting expectations. She plays a little girl (Edith Ann) and she’s sitting in this giant, oversized chair and having this monologue, and she’s so playful and inventive and completely embodies the POV of a small child and using her body to tell a story. I just remember watching that and being obsessed.
You’re writing a rom-com called Bridal Recall for Paramount Pictures, and you also have a development deal with HBO to write and produce and star in your own project. Will the queer community have a place in those projects?
If I have a say. To me, I don’t think talking about inclusion and diversity is enough. We have to do it in actuality and in action. One of the brilliant things about Issa’s writers’ room? It’s not all black. We have representation from all over the spectrum. We have different sexualities represented, different ethnicities represented, and we can tell a nuanced story that way. So, I have every intention of making my writers’ room reflect the nuance that I want to tell in those stories, that I feel make worthwhile stories.
What did it mean to you to be a part of Love, Simon?
It meant everything. When I read the script and the book, I was just honored that I could participate in a project that really felt bigger than myself. The response has been insane and continues to be. People are discovering the movie even still and are responding to it in a really visceral way. I imagine it being that way for young people of color watching Black Panther for the first time. To me, that’s powerful to see your story represented and it’s not – it’s a love story first and a coming out story second.
It’s one of the things where it’s just, I want more of this. I want more people to see themselves represented in this very specific, common way that straight white people have had the privilege of. So, I want to see more of those stories being told, because I’m a child of the ’80s. John Hughes is my jam, and I loved Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. So, to see this story get that treatment was a magical thing. I will be forever grateful to Greg Berlanti for thinking that I could play Ms. Albright. He’s such a wonderful man and encouraged me and brought me to tears. He pulled me aside after I finished shooting and he was just like, “I have the same feeling about you I did when I directed Melissa McCarthy.” And I was like, “You just said a lot in that sentence!” And then I burst into tears. (Laughs)
Do gay fans recognize see you as Ms. Albright on the street?
I don’t get “Hey, Ms. Albright!” I live in West Hollywood and the LGBTQIA community is en masse here and I love it. So, I’ll get recognized from Love, Simon and as Kelli, sometimes at the same time. It’s a great community, and I feel so welcomed and thankful for it.
In an episode during season two of Insecure, you and Issa call out Molly for being revolted by a male suitor because he has sexual history with another man. The episode acknowledges a glaring double-standard between men and women, and also hypermasculinity in black versus white communities. What part did you play in bringing that storyline to light?
We all talked about our experiences and something that would give us pause before entering into a relationship, or something that we wouldn’t even stop and think twice about. It varied by gender, by sexuality, by age. What boiled up to the top was the hypertoxic masculinity of communities of color, especially the black community. So, we really loved to present that specific part of the show to our audience because it caused conversation around the topic. One of the things that I love about our show is we don’t present answers – we present questions. We want people to have these conversations in a public way.
Recently, a massive Twitterstorm ignited when GQ featured the straight male cast in a photo spread that some deemed “gay.” One of the featured actors, Sarunas Jackson, called out the homophobic tone of the comments. I’m thinking, we’ve already been here.
We’ve already been here, we already did this, guys. We’ve already evolved. Let’s just move on. But this just goes to show that continued conversation and continued moments for educating yourself are helpful. One of the more palpable things that I think that photo spread did was spark that conversation again, so people can really, once and for all, understand their own toxic masculinity. I was shocked by the number of women jumping on board. I’m like, you were indoctrinated to think that way, and we have to unlearn some things in order to be the progressive, thoughtful, inclusive people that I know we are capable of being.
You responded to people who don’t feel represented by Insecure by telling them, well, then you tell your story, because no one story can encompass all of our stories. Love, Simon received similar criticism for featuring a white man in its lead role, versus someone of color. Would you respond to that criticism in the same way?
Absolutely. I think I would be remiss to say, “We did it guys. Let’s pack it up! We fixed it! We fixed inclusion in Hollywood!” I think that would be a gross mistake to be made. I don’t look at Insecure and even see myself represented all the time and I write on the show, because this is a story. This is Issa and her girlfriend in Inglewood, California. But what it requires is more art to be made to reflect those things that aren’t being shown. Let’s tell those stories because, if there’s anything I’ve learned when really resonating with audiences lately, it’s a hunger for diversity.