Ever since the 2016 election, Insecure's Natasha Rothwell has felt compelled to speak out. For the actress and writer, who we know as the lovable and unapologetic Kelli on HBO's Insecure, scary political times have turned up the volume on her philanthropic side. "If there was one silver lining to the last election, it's that it turned everyone into advocates and activists who weren't before," she told MyDomaine.
Rothwell's advocacy work is no accident. As a plus-size black woman, she grew up not seeing herself reflected in the media she consumed. She faced challenges every day in an industry that was historically homogenous. While forging her path in Hollywood, first as a writer on SNL and then as a writer and actress on Insecure, Rothwell made a conscious choice, whenever possible, to work on projects that gave a platform to marginalized groups. Most recently, she starred in the movie Love, Simon, a romantic comedy/drama about a gay high school student finding the courage to come out to his friends and family. In the film, she plays a theater teacher standing up for LGBTQIA rights—a full-circle moment from her days teaching drama to young kids in the Bronx.
"Voices of marginalized groups need to be amplified right now, so taking this role was really a no-brainer to me," says the actress. "I just wanted to be a part of the conversation because inclusion and visibility are very important to me." By remaining unapologetically true to herself, Rothwell has bridged the gap between her two passions: acting and activism—both on and off Twitter.
"Being a person of color, regardless of the industry that you're in, there are already challenges that you wake up to every day," Rothwell told MyDomaine. When she started at SNL, she felt the need to be funny in a specific way. "It took a couple of months for me to realize that they hired me because I was me. I had to get back to myself and be unique and have my own voice, and that's when I started getting more sketches on the air, and I thought, this is what it means to be true to yourself." Since then, she has made a point to remain authentic at all times. "I found that the more committed I was to the idea of my own authentic self, the more I got respect."
The community of black writers and creators who supported each other throughout her career propelled her to find her voice and challenge existing paradigms and assumptions. "I'm not playing to other people's expectations. My answer has always been to stay true to who I am, to tell the stories I want to tell, and to not feel like I have to perform a version of what it means to be a black plus-size woman."
Even starting out as a theater teacher, Rothwell had always been committed to helping young kids find their authentic voice. "Theater has always been the home for marginalized groups and voices. For me, it was so important to create a safe space for students trying to figure out who they were—even if they were confused or scared." Playing Ms. Albright in Love, Simon only brought her past career and her fierce advocacy for art education full circle: "Something that I really loved about Ms. Albright is that she was an ally and an advocate and stood up to injustice when she saw it. And I think I did that as a teacher, but I feel like Ms. Albright does it in a way that's unapologetic."
In a way, Rothwell's character on Insecure is also an unapologetic version of her own self: "In the Venn diagram of who [Kelli] is and who I am, there's an overlap. We will tell the truth even if it's sometimes hard to say. I think how we differ is how we communicate that information. Kelli doesn't give any fucks, and her heart is always in the right place, but her message isn't always delivered with a lot of tact. It's always really well-intentioned but not well-aimed."
The actress has always spoken out against injustice and given back to her community. In her early days in D.C., she helped teach art education to underprivileged communities—something she continued in the Bronx in NYC. But after the last election, she really felt the call to support groups that fight for the voiceless. "The rallying cry in my heart ever since Trump was elected was to really answer the hatred that I've experienced with kindness and to use my mouth as a tool for injustice and to speak up and speak out."
Turning up the volume on her activism, she began supporting the Southern Poverty Law Center, hosting events with Planned Parenthood, and getting involved with Emily's List, an organization that supports women running for office. When she moved to Los Angeles, she found the Downtown Women's Shelter and started helping out in the kitchen. "The election just turned up the volume on the philanthropic side of me. I wanted to really feel like I was doing something instead of just screaming into the void of Twitter." On Twitter, she isn't shy to speak out against injustice. "For every new Twitter follow, they know that I tweet at Trump every day. I post my opinion and try not to separate the professional and personal because it's just who I am."
For Rothwell, having a platform as an actress is an opportunity to be louder. "With everything that's going on, I feel like it's impossible to stay quiet and not do anything. It's been an interesting journey to try to figure out how to apply my talent to a cause and find ways to give back any way I can to resist the foolishness in office right now."
She is currently working on an HBO comedy pilot—another way for her to give marginalized communities a voice. "I seek those projects out, and when they're not there, I feel compelled to create them." She points to Black Panther as the perfect example that if people create the content, the audience will follow. "They're proving that audiences can connect to material written by people of color. People will show up—we just need to give them an opportunity and a platform to prove it."
Issa Rae, Insecure's creator, is a testament to that theory as well: "What makes me so proud to be on the show is that Issa is an example of 'if there is no way, you make a way.' This is the siren song that we need to be answering because we have the ability to create, and we shouldn't always have to wait for permission."