Yvonne Orji shines as Molly in “Insecure,” but her dream as a comedian was almost deferred. Here, she shares how the wishes of her traditional immigrant family almost directed her toward science instead of your TV screen.
I grew up in a place called Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the youngest of four. What I remember most about Nigeria was the ease. I would play by the pool, have fun with friends. When my mom got a job at Howard University, she went to America, and we came a year later in the dead of winter. It was very cold and different from anything we had experienced in Nigeria. School started, and because I had an accent, I was bullied by other black kids. I was like, “Wait, I came from a country where everyone was black!” My immigrant parents said, “You did not come here to make friends. OK? You came here to study, so just read your books.” But I kind of wanted someone to sit next to in the cafeteria!
At that point, I found solace in being the best student and making my parents happy. I thought, I can’t control it if people don’t like me, but I can control getting the heck outta here — by earning a college scholarship — so that was where my focus went. I remember the words of encouragement my parents gave me: “One day, these people making fun of you, they will be working for you. You will be their boss.”
By the time I got to George Washington University, I had been a straight-A student in high school. I majored in sociology and double-minored in biology and public health (my parents wanted me to be a doctor). I thought, “I’ll take the prerequisites for a career in medicine, but it’s not gonna work out.” I took organic chemistry, and I got my first-ever F. I ended up going to summer school, and the whole time I’m thinking: “I am not good at sciences.” The only way I’d go to med school is if I got into GW’s early-acceptance program where you could fast-track your medical degree. I didn’t get in. So I went to grad school because that’s what you do, right? Nigerians like education.
I got my master’s in public health and even worked in Liberia just so I could prolong the inevitable — which was me taking a different path. In 2006, in the midst of getting my master’s, my brother asked if I wanted to be in this pageant that his friends were putting on. But I didn’t have a talent! I can’t sing, I was not tribal dancing, and the last thing I learned on the piano was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I prayed on it and came up with comedy, which I had never done. But all those years I was bullied meant I didn’t take rejection lightly. I ended up writing a five-minute set about growing up Nigerian in America. To my surprise, people laughed.
People who were familiar with my story told me, “We know that mom. We’ve been there with that dad.” It sparked something. Six months later, I performed at GW in a contest, D.C.’s Funniest College Student. I ended up winning for GW, and part of the prize was doing a set at DC Improv. Two guys in the audience told me later, “Your stories are like my mom, just with a different accent.” I was like, “Maybe there’s something here.”
So I saved up $425 to take an acting class in New York City and bought a bus ticket. I told my parents, “I’m gonna go give this entertainment thing a shot.” This was not the path they approved of. My mom started crying, and my dad yelled before driving me to the bus station. But I figured if it takes eight years to become a doctor, give me eight to make it in comedy. If I fail, I have a degree that doesn’t expire.
When I got to New York, comics were being paid $5 for shows. I was broke a lot. But I reminded myself: You have a mission; you need to stay the course. My L.A. journey began as an unpaid internship in a writers’ room. I was hosting African-related open mics. Friends told me, “You’re so good — we’re not worried!” I was five seconds from giving up. I’d respond, “Please worry. I haven’t eaten in two days!” I had a meltdown on Sunset Boulevard. I kept thinking, I’m doing my best, but it’s not working — I gotta renegotiate this plan.
At a point when I felt so forgotten, Issa Rae remembered me. After I put out the trailer for a show I developed about my family called FirstGen on YouTube, which a lot of people related to, I connected with Issa. She had been following me. We had an organic connection — two creative black girls in Hollywood, appreciating each other from afar. So when the pilot of Insecure was green-lit, she told me I’d be great as her best friend. After coming off one of the hardest points in my life, I was so grateful that she reached back to me. My life has changed, and my parents are proud of me, but I won’t let them watch Insecure because they’re still conservative!
The moral of the story: Don’t take it personally if you’re met with opposition. Work hard anyway. The thing that dispels worry is your success, right? Believe the voice inside and not the ones telling you that you can’t do something.