The star of HBO’s ‘In­se­cure’ re­flects on her real and her fic­tional selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

The mo­ment seemed al­most too per­fect. Issa Rae, the stun­ningly tal­ented and glammed-up star of her own HBO se­ries, walk­ing onto the stage at the BET Awards look­ing noth­ing like the “awk­ward black girl” who made her a YouTube star. But be­fore she could reach the mi­cro­phone, Rae was in­tro­duced as . . . Yara Shahidi.

No joke. Yara, of course, is 17 and plays Zoey on ABCs “Black­ish.” Rae, 32, stars on HBO’s “In­se­cure,” which launches its sec­ond sea­son Sun­day.

“That’s Issa!” screamed Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly on “In­se­cure,” try­ing to cor­rect the mo­ment from her seat at the Mi­crosoft Theatre.

Rae, af­ter a pause and a stam­mer, pushed through a clumsy bit with host Les­lie Jones to in­tro­duce a per­for­mance by SZA. Back­stage, be­fore re­turn­ing to her seat, she texted her writ­ing staff about what had hap­pened and man­aged to retweet a spot-on anal­y­sis by a fan named Deon.

“Wouldn’t be @Is­saRae if some­thing awk­ward didn’t hap­pen LOL,” Deon tweeted.

Deon’s right. For Rae, a cre­ative dy­namo ca­pa­ble of turn­ing heads on the red car­pet and in the writ­ing room, these mo­ments just hap­pen, whether in real life or on a set. And Rae’s abil­ity to turn ev­ery­thing, whether a dis­as­trous date or a work­place bum­ble, into com­edy has car­ried her from You-

sen­sa­tion to a dif­fer­ent kind of lead­ing lady. In “In­se­cure,” she plays Issa Dee, who can show view­ers her vul­ner­a­bil­ity with­out to­tally show­ing her hand, a char­ac­ter as self-as­sured as she is self-loathing. She’s funny, mad­den­ing, ma­nip­u­la­tive and try­ing her best. To her le­gion of fans, she’s sim­ply Issa.

Which, in­ter­est­ingly enough, is some­thing the real Issa ad­mits has started to get tire­some. As Rae grows older, she’s find­ing it less charm­ing to be con­fused with this fic­ti­tious Issa. If only she had named her “In­se­cure” char­ac­ter Nia or Amani.

“I just didn’t think. I was so pressed with telling a good story that I didn’t think about the fact that this char­ac­ter, named af­ter me, was go­ing to air,” Rae said last month on her way to the BET Awards. “And even while shoot­ing, it didn’t cross my mind un­til it aired. This is not by any means my life, and this is where it gets muddy be­cause peo­ple as­sume that it is.”

Or, as “In­se­cure” writer Laura Kit­trell puts it, “Peo­ple think they know Issa in a way that’s dif­fer­ent than the leads of most shows. I don’t think peo­ple are nec­es­sar­ily walk­ing up to Sarah Jessica Parker and say­ing, ‘Oh, she’s Car­rie Brad­shaw.’ ”

More than six years have passed since Rae emerged on YouTube as the cre­ator and star of “The Mis-Ad­ven­tures of Awk­ward Black Girl.” The Web se­ries, clicked on by mil­lions of view­ers, led to a false start (a failed pi­lot for ABC), a chatty, un­var­nished mem­oir and, fi­nally, “In­se­cure,” which she de­vel­oped with vet­eran co­me­dian and writer Larry Wil­more.

The show’s ac­claimed first sea­son packed much of what’s driven clas­sic sit­coms — of­fice con­flict, dat­ing foibles, dishy friends — with much that is rarely, if ever, seen on TV. The show’s black­ness is as es­sen­tial as its comic sen­si­bil­ity. And be­cause they’re in­ter­twined, “In­se­cure” can pull off hi­lar­i­ous, twist­ing sub­plots, such as sea­son one’s un­for­get­table “bro­ken p---y” de­ba­cle, a drunken rap turned into a girl-feud turned into a so­cial me­dia dis­as­ter. “In­se­cure” also puts a spin on how race plays out in the work­place with a speci­ficity never be­fore seen on a sit­com. “In­se­cure” pro­ducer Pren­tice Penny de­scribes this as cap­tur­ing the “pa­per cuts of racism.”

“Where the white co-work­ers are send­ing each other emails about the un­cer­tainty of Issa plan­ning the beach day, or the boss ask­ing Molly to talk to the black co-worker,” he says. “Things like that where it doesn’t come off as so in your face.”

Direc­tor Ava Du­Ver­nay, whose own TV drama, “Queen Su­gar,” re­cently kicked off its sec­ond sea­son, is just glad “In­se­cure” ex­ists. She has never bought into the crit­i­cism of “Girls” cre­ator Lena Dun­ham for not in­clud­ing sig­nif­i­cant black char­ac­ters on the show. The way to di­ver­sify pop­u­lar culture isn’t through token char­ac­ters, she says, but through shows such as Aziz An­sari’s “Mas­ter of None” and Rae’s “In­se­cure.”

“We don’t need to be in­serted into this woman’s story if she’s say­ing I don’t know that ex­pe­ri­ence and I don’t want to force it,” she says. “Issa’s show is an an­swer to so many years of not hav­ing ‘Friends.’ They didn’t have any black friends. The show ‘Girls.’ There’s no black girls. ‘Sex in the City.’ We’re women and we love these sto­ries and we try to in­sert our­selves in them and see our­selves in them, but we are not in them. But now we’re there. And we’re not just there as to­kens. and it’s frig­gin’ funny. She’s frig­gin’ funny and has a voice.”

A celebrity in progress

There are times when Rae’s been re­ferred to as a kind of black Liz Lemon, a ref­er­ence to Tina Fey’s char­ac­ter on “30 Rock.” She loved that show, but whether she em­braces that com­par­i­son, she ad­mits, de­pends on “the mood and con­text.” No­body, af­ter all, runs around call­ing Chris­tian Bale “the white Den­zel.”

In late June, as Rae wrapped the sec­ond sea­son of “In­se­cure” and pre­pared to give a talk dur­ing the BET Awards week­end, she con­sid­ered her place in en­ter­tain­ment. On cam­era, as Issa Dee, she’s elec­tric, snap­ping off im­pro­vised raps in the mir­ror, bat­tling with friends and wrestling with her con­flict­ing emo­tions about her long­time live-in boyfriend, Lawrence.

Off cam­era, she’s qui­eter, less di­rect and friendly, with­out be­ing con­fes­sional.

Dur­ing a live on­stage talk BET week­end talk with Char­la­m­agne Tha God, the ra­dio per­son­al­ity asks her about her love life. She brushes him off. Later, off­stage, she’s asked about the mo­ment and her dat­ing sta­tus. She de­clines to of­fer any de­tails.

“Even my friends don’t know about my re­ally per­sonal life,” Rae says. “They al­ways tease me about be­ing very pri­vate.”

Not even a year into her HBO run, she is the pic­ture of the Web star in tran­si­tion, the celebrity in progress. She’s on bill­boards, but she still goes to the su­per­mar­ket by her­self. (“Girl,” one of the “In­se­cure’s” di­rec­tors Melina Mat­soukas will tease her, “you got to get some­body else to shop for you.”) Ask her about fame, and she’ll shake her head.

“I think fame is dead,” she says. “Ev­ery­thing is sort of tem­po­rary. There is tem­po­rary fame, and I feel like I have tem­po­rary fame dur­ing a spe­cific sea­son, but I think the era of movie star­dom only ex­ists for the older crowds. The Ge­orge Clooneys and Brad Pitts and An­gelina Jolies and for mu­sic stars. But for tele­vi­sion, I just don’t feel the same way, be­cause it is so flighty, and there is so much hap­pen­ing at the mo­ment.”

That’s not to say she does not re­al­ize her life has changed. In “The Misad­ven­tures of Awk­ward Black Girl,” her mem­oir, Rae wrote of her child­hood in Mary­land and her trau­matic move to Cal­i­for­nia — mid­dle school was mis­er­able — her strug­gles with weight, her par­ents’ di­vorce and even her com­pli­cated her­itage. Her fa­ther was born in Sene­gal, and her mother in Louisiana. (Rae’s full name is Jo-Issa Rae Diop.) Now, she ad­mits she reTube be­ing so open in parts of the book, which came out in 2015, be­fore “In­se­cure” pre­miered.

“I wrote in such a vac­uum place that it felt like diary en­tries, and I was so iso­lated in the process,” Rae says. “It felt like, ‘Oh, I’m ex­chang­ing sto­ries be­tween girl­friends, and it never oc­curred to me that the coun­try will see it, and the world will see it, and form opin­ions about me.’ ”

Issa Dee is safe, for now, but Rae says she will never again give a char­ac­ter she plays her first name. Penny, the “In­se­cure” pro­ducer,” isn’t sur­prised.

“Last sea­son, when Issa Dee cheated on Lawrence, guys were re­ally tweet­ing at her, like, how could you do this?” he says. “And she’s like, ‘I’m not f-----g around on my guys.’ Those are the mo­ments when she would like more of a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the char­ac­ter and the real me.”

The real Issa Rae is in­tensely loyal and craves her long-term friend­ships, whether with her high school pals, sip­ping Pros­ecco, bop­ping to Aminé and Fu­ture in her ho­tel room as she gets ready for the BET Awards, or with the cre­ative part­ners who helped her along the way. Penny notes that when he and Rae were staffing up “In­se­cure,” she in­sisted that “Awk­ward Black Girl” writ­grets ing veter­ans Amy Aniobi and Ben Cory Jones be brought on. Ac­tor Tris­ten Winger was also a no­brainer, she told Penny. Never mind that he’d never been on TV. He had proved him­self on “Awk­ward.” He got the role of Thug Yoda on “In­se­cure” with­out an au­di­tion.

Rae can dress the part — she wears a cleav­age-baring sweater and short shorts to the BET Awards — but one thing she shares with her char­ac­ter, she says, is a pref­er­ence for jeans and T-shirts. She also has her pri­or­i­ties. There were no af­ter-par­ties on BET night. Rae had a 5:30 a.m. call time to shoot the fi­nal episode of “In­se­cure’s” sec­ond sea­son.

“It’s un­usual for some­one to be so in­volved in the nuts and bolts,” writer Ben Dougan says. “It’s why, when we write scripts, her scenes are clearly the best-writ­ten scenes be­cause the show is in her voice.”

At the BET Awards, Rae emerges from a black SUV to screams of “Issa.” The line of pho­tog­ra­phers on the red car­pet scream her name, as well, plead­ing for her to turn right, turn left, smile. She’s hugged by Maxwell, begged by both net­work TV in­ter­views and Snapchat­ters for mo­ments on cam­era, and fi­nally gets to the the­ater.

And that’s where Rae is re­minded that not ev­ery­thing goes as sched­uled.

She doesn’t com­plain pub­licly or pout about the name flub. Even­tu­ally, an­nouncer em­cee Lyte cor­rects her­self.

Orji, in her seat, does her part, scream­ing Rae’s name.

“It was so per­fectly Issa,” she says later. “It’s just like, she’s not go­ing to be up­set. She took a mo­ment and paused, and they got it right.”



ABOVE: Ac­tress and writer Issa Rae at the Lon­don Ho­tel West Hol­ly­wood on July 13. She’s the star and co-cre­ator of “In­se­cure,” which is back for its sec­ond sea­son on HBO.


BE­LOW: Yvonne Orji, Issa Rae, Amanda Seales and Natasha Roth­well on “In­se­cure.”

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