Kelli is the friend we all want, the friend we all need, and the friend who makes you go, “What the fuck did they just say?” Kelli is also the person who will fake a British accent for a date, and do the absurd things you wish you could while also being incredibly grounded. She always makes me laugh, and completes a key piece of the HBO Insecure ensemble. Natsha Rothwell has given life to one of the best scene-stealing women in recent years on television.
Rothwell is also an asset to Insecure behind the scenes. She wrote several episodes, but her signature episode credit this season was “Lowkey Happy.” The episode follows Issa and Lawrence as they navigate the land mines and topics they never touched after their break-up.
Rothwell adds so many layers to Insecure, and we had the best conversation about black female friendship, truth telling in relationships, and the joy of getting to deliver some of Kelli’s dialogue.
Awards Daily: Kelli is an absolute scene stealer. Obviously writing is a key component to this, but how did you craft Kelli?
Natasha Rothwell: Ben Dugan, and I were talking about expanding Issa’s world, and new friendships for the and he pitched the role of Kelli. Someone who would speak her mind, but also adds the comedic levity you wanted to see in the series.
It was not until a month or two after she was formed in the writers room that I was asked to play the role. The writers knew I had an acting background and thought I would be a fit for the role. Once I was cast it was important for me to make Kelli a character not a caricature. I wanted her to not play the stereotype, but also be authentically herself, and unapologetic. This was so crucial for me in helping develop and define Kelli’s voice for the show.
AD: I think my favorite moment from Kelli this season has been the British accent in “Low Moving On.” How was this key comedic element crafted for the series?
NR: I love the way we storyboard or construct the series. Once things are done, everyone will break into different groups to work on episodes. As people begin to work on different elements of the scripts and performance we are able to craft what we want in the performance. I have been a part of the writers room from the beginning of the show, so the team working on this approached me. They knew I had previously don’t work with accents so that was the birth of the accent
Once everything was settled I started to do the accent at the table read, and at first it was so outlandish, but everyone was laughing so hard and it felt like it played well. Again I wanted to bring this life and vibrancy to what role Kelli plays in this group. I had so much fun playing Kelli trying to woo her new boo, playing Kelli is such a joy.
AD: This season has centered on an authentic female friendship and maybe the most accurate portrayal of the disillusionment of a friendship.We also get the added layer of showing black female friendship. What has this season and this story meant to you?
NR: I think the cool thing about Kelli, with regard to all of Issa’s friends, she is not experiencing problems. She has lived through some shit. She is able to bring this perspective, and she can bring this perspective because she has lived through some stuff. She is not contributing to the collective chaos of the friendship. She is the person people can go to for advice, Only in mature friendships do you know that you are not there to solve the problem but rather to help carry the burden.
For me the goal of friendship, or well a good friendship with Kelli is to read you when you need to be read, or to hold your hand when you need that. My favorite definition of friendship is “a person who has the habitual inclination to promote the good in one another.” It’s my favorite definition. My grandmother said people tell themselves all the time, and you know true friendship when it presents itself, and how to be there for one another.
AD: I always view Kelli as Switzerland with Molly and Issa. Do you have a side with these two characters?
NR: I am definitely team Issa because we see her story more. Unlike most of Twitter I do not think Molly is a villain, she is a casualty of her own personal demons. She fell prey to self sabotage. It was such a privilege to portray black female friendship. I love the way the writing team was able to tell complex and personal emotional stories
I also think men and women handle friendships in very different ways. I had a friend in high school who I sent a text to and the text was confused. We never spoke again. Meanwhile I have male friends who got in a fist fight, and it’s all good two minutes after the fight ends. Women process pain differently. It was interesting to see this play out over the season. There is so much trauma and psychology that is different in friendship, and we got to explore this with two black women.
AD: You wrote the episode “Lowkey Happy” this season where Issa and Lawrence have a night together. What were your goals in re-visiting their relationship? Did you have any inspirations?
NR: At the writers room we were going through Issa and Lawrence’s journey and where we wanted to take them in season. I pitched in a writers room a capsule episode. I wanted to see them unpack their emotions that were not overshadowed by other drama playing out in the same instance. They did not get to have that moment in earlier seasons, and I wanted to see them explore the complexity of their relationship. Both Issa and Prentice Penny were very on board.
It was interesting to explore infidelity in a heternormative CIS relationship. The typical representation of cheating is that if the man does it he needs to be forgiven, and if the woman does it she needs to be punished. In this situation we got to explore Issa cheating, and the impact on Lawrence with all of its complexity. There were layers to their relationship they did not communicate to one another. Issa wanted to be heard and loved. We also wanted to show a black man speak his pain. When Lawrence says “Why Daniel” we wanted to give power to this.
I wanted to tell this story as an anti-rom com, rom-com. You had a perfect blend of humor, like when Issa falls at the beginning of an episode at the restaurant, but then some genuinely painful moments that explore this break-up, and potential make-up. We wanted to walk that delicate balance.
AD: What work did you do with Issa and Jay to help navigate the emotional impact of the relationship and create forward momentum for the characters?
NR: We wanted to put a lot in that one scene, where they let out all their emotions. That one scene was a six page scene. There was a lot for them to unpack four seasons of trauma. We wanted to write about them unpacking everything they did not name out loud. Issa and Prentice were amenable to letting this happen. You do not always get the opportunity to have a six page scene, but it meant a lot to have their trust and support. We also did not want to over write that scene. Economy of language says so much, for example Issa saying “You did not want me.” That is a gut punch.
We wanted to drop these bombs and allow people to speak to the truth in their experiences, and allow that scene to feel powerful. I was sitting in Video Village, and watching. Ava Berkosky directed the episode (been a DP for four seasons) and she let me go over whisper to Issa or Jay when I had a note, and I was grateful to have someone who has been with the show for so long maintain my involvement in creating this scene and process with Jay and Issa.
AD: One of the key elements to this story was showing black male vulnerability and letting a black woman show her experience in an authentic way. How did you create this space for authenticity and vulnerability?
NR: A lot of the writers have been around since season one, It’s like you are raising children. The anecdotes for insecurity is not security, it’s owning the experience. It’s powerful to speak your insecurities out loud. It was very important for us in the writers room to show the evolution of them being young and plucky to young folks turning 30 and figuring out authenticity and how to be an adult. That journey for Lawrence, Issa, Kelli, Tiffany and every performer on the show was so important. You can see the characters
For Issa a big realization she had this season was around her own happiness. A statement that guided this principle we lived by wasa quote from episode where Issa said “I realize happiness is a choice”Issa acknowledging this in my episode was her understanding that even if I am broke, or things are messed up I can choose to be happy. The same is true for Molly, Lawrence, and all of the other characters in the show, and we wanted to make that present, and show their development.