Find out more Insecure fans, few characters have brought as much joy or as many side-splitting laughs as Kelli Prenny, Issa’s hilarious, loyal and irrepressibly confident friend. Natasha Rothwell has had a wonderful experience bringing Kelli into life in all of her comedy glory.
Rothwell is a classically trained actor who has performed with Upright Citizens Brigade in the past. Saturday Night LiveIssa Raie, the series’ creator, tapped a star to help her join the Insecure She was in the writing room creating Kelli’s character, before being requested to be her portrayal on the show. Over Insecure‘s five seasons, Rothwell has assumed a range of roles, onscreen and off: she plays Kelli, has written and produced multiple episodes and made her directorial debut with an episode in the final season.
Other than InsecureRothwell has multiple projects at the same time. In 2021, she became a fan favorite on Mike White’s hit HBO series, The White LotusHer portrayal as Belinda (a caring and hardworking spa manager in Hawaii), is a highlight of her acting career. A multi-year agreement was signed with ABC by Big Hattie Productions to produce television programs. The coming-of age feature is also being co-written and produced. We Were There TooHBO Max. We’ll be seeing more of Rothwell on the big screen, too—in the Sonic the Hedgehog The sequel and the future Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryPrequel is the musical movie Wonka, which she’s currently filming in London.
Get ahead of the Insecure series finale on Dec. 26, Rothwell spoke with TIME about directing for TV, what she’ll miss most about InsecureWhat we can expect next from her.
TIME: Recently, you made your directorial debut on an episode of Time. Secure. How was the transition to this new role in the series?
It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Over-preparing is a problem. So I decided to prepare enough, both for the episode and to understand the view from behind it. I’m so grateful in Issa’s vote of confidence in me and I think preparation met opportunity. It was really exciting to be in relation to my cast mates in that way—to feel that they understood my directorial eye and really earned their respect. It’s hard to put into words how great of an experience that was and and I feel really lucky that my first time riding the horse, I didn’t get bucked off.
There are many hats you can wear. You are insecure. Obviously, you’re one of the most beloved characters on screen as Kelli, but you’re also a writer and a producer on the show. What’s it like to have such a range of work on one show?
It’s really a dream come true. It was a dream that I realized after having started in the industry. Being able to express myself in a variety of ways is a huge blessing. I think that it’s made me a better creator to be able to experience storytelling in such a myriad of different ways.
You’ve been on Insecurefor all five seasons. What do you think Kelli has done in this period?
Kelli has been consistent in a lot of ways and that’s one of the things I love about her. The growth we’re seeing from her this season is something that’s been building over the course of the last four seasons. It’s really introspective, juxtaposed to the other characters on the show, who have marked their growth in a sort of external way. She’s being super reflective about her experience, what her friends mean to her and what she wants her legacy to be. She’s experiencing what it means to not be needed as much by her friends, as they get their “sh-t together,” so she’s able to realize that she has the bandwidth to do some more soul searching and it’s really true to life. When your circle of friends level out with the drama and the fires to put out, if you’re the helper in the group, it can be a jarring and eye-opening thing to ask, “What are my needs? What do I need?”
And do you feel that you’ve grown or evolved as well during this time?
Without a doubt, my life has been transformed as both a producer and a creator. I feel like it’s impossible to be so enmeshed in this show in the way that I’ve been and not be changed for the better by it.
Issa is such an incredible, fearless leader, and I really did learn from her in every aspect her approach to creating her empire—the show and how deliberate she is with picking who is in that world and how they’re aligned with her vision. Being a creator means being bold in your creativity, expressing your beliefs and not imposing your ideas or scripts on others. When you’re part of the production that really sees you and and believes in you, it’s hard to return to your normal life and be surrounded by people or things or projects that don’t believe in you and see you, so I’m so grateful for my experience on the show over the last five years.
Does this feel unique? Insecure?
The show provides a safe and supportive environment for creativity to explore new ideas. And it’s not by any means unique in this industry, I just don’t think it’s the rule—more often than not, it’s the exception. Everyone in this industry who’s been fortunate enough to be in a room or a part of a project that allows them such creative freedom and the fullness of being seen, is always searching to find it and create it again. I’m so grateful that I’ve had this experience because when you have an experience like this, it lets you know it’s possible. You don’t have to settle for anything less than a supportive, open, safe environment that’s inclusive in front of and behind the camera. I hope that people will have the opportunity to experience these rooms and other shows, and so can they be encouraged and set an industry standard.
Do you think this is what ABC wants to achieve with your new TV Development Deal? This partnership: What are we to expect?
I’m definitely excited and encouraged by all the projects that I’ve been bringing to them and hope to bring to you all very soon. It’s taking the creation of these specific writers rooms and bringing on people to the project to produce and direct, but doing it with intention and being very deliberate about it. The environments that I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of, they don’t just happen—it takes a lot of thought and consideration and understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. Make sure that those you invite to join your team share the same vision as you and have the same ethos. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in a position to create those environments and opportunities for people because when it comes to inclusive, authentic environments, you have to really be selective. [They understand] what I’m trying to do is not just creative achievements, but really trying to make a change in the industry with casting and hiring.
What do you consider the most tangible and effective ways to create inclusive workplaces?
I think that question is best answered by someone who doesn’t look like me. I’m hoping that studios, executives and voices that tend to be the gatekeepers have an answer about what they plan to do, so the slates that they approve and the green lights that they give reflect the black squares they put up last summer. There are creators of color out there, from disenfranchised groups, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA community—we know what we’re doing, the real question is, what is being done by folks that don’t walk through the world with the lenses that we have? They want to challenge the status quo.
We don’t want to beg for seats at tables, but to create tables for ourselves, making sure that those tables are populated with folks who don’t always get the opportunity to have a seat. So that’s what I’m doing, what I’ve been doing and what I plan to continue to do.
You played Belinda this summer. She is a fan favourite. The White Lotus, who’s a very compassionate, but much more serious character than Kelli. Was it difficult to play such an entirely different role?
It’s funny to me because I’ve played versions of Kelli before and more dramatic roles before. Prior to stepping into comedy, there was a fair amount of theater. However, gravity and humor are interdependent so I feel I bring groundedness and laughter to Kelli, just as I brought levity to Belinda. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to return to my drama roots, and to play a role like Belinda with empathy, humor and hopefulness. Kelli is an actor choice and not an extension my personality. In the same manner as Belinda, it was deliberate to make Kelli look that way. Unfortunately, the industry likes boxes and people being put in them. However, I felt that Belinda’s portrayal really opened that box.
Belinda felt very emotional to me.
When you are telling that kind of story, there’s so much that she doesn’t have the literal permission to say, so she just has to feel it intensely. I really wanted to show how people of color in servile positions to a largely homogenous group of people, when that’s your employment, you’re not allowed to say what you think always. It’s a really painful existence a lot of the time and I’ve been there. That was something that I felt was important. Mike [White] is just such an incredible director and gave me the space and room to wrestle with those internal pains show that part of the story that he’s telling about visibility, what you see and what’s really happening.
Kelli launched her podcast on this episode. Prenny’s Preguntas and I was wondering if there are any good podcasts that you’re listening to now.
Oh, my goodness—Brené Brown’s Get Unlocking You. This is something I love and that I cherish so very much. It’s also wonderful that she is so passionate about her family. Ted Lasso; she’s just down to earth. These are my regulars The DailyIt is something I listen to every day. You can also find it here. ReadIt is amazing, especially with Crissle and Kid Fury. The Heart also just came out, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I don’t know if Kelli would listen to those.
I get big Super Soul Sunday vibes from Kelli on Prenny’s Preguntas.
Yeah, I think she’s Oprah with a few…margaritas? I think that’s what it is. I think it’s Super Soul SundayYou can be sure to have a lot of fun with this little piece. Super Soul sangria.
Do you remember a favourite moment from the show?
Ah boy. There’s just so many moments. Millicent [Shelton]It was unbelievable to see her as a director. She did Coachella and the episode had a lot of emotions for all four girls. Kelli was all over, and she got tased as well as peeing. We became friends as actors during this episode. Just having so much fun.
Off-screen, the episode I wrote last season, “Low-key Happy”—it was a career highlight to be able to write something and shepherd it through production. I still remember Issa approaching me during our final day of filming. She wrapped her arms around me and we hugged. And she sort of pulled me aside and said, “You’re ready.” And she and I both knew that she was talking about my directing. It was one of those things that wasn’t for public consumption and it’s something that I didn’t know I needed to hear, but it was a really special moment between us. It was a really affirming moment and I’ll always be grateful to her for that.