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Natasha Rothwell didn’t plan to be on HBO.
The rising multi-hyphenate star was writing for “Insecure” when creator Issa Rae took her aside and suggested she play Kelli Prenny, the core friend group’s loose canon who would remain MVP throughout the show’s five-season run. Rothwell, then just three months on the job, remembers thinking she was in trouble before bursting into tears in Rae’s office.
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“I really just wanted to be a part of my very first writers’ room for a scripted television series and kind of had blinders on,” Rothwell told IndieWire in a phone interview. “I’m so grateful to Issa and Prentice [Penny] for seeing what I was refusing to see: My unspoken desire to express myself in front of the camera as well.”
Rothwell cut her teeth on various aspects of “Insecure,” writing throughout the series’ run and working as story editor, producer, and eventually directing during the final season.
“I never wanted for it to appear that I was just trying to be in the writers’ room as an effort to jockey for position in front of the camera,” she said. “I wanted to really be focused on the work and really develop and hone my voice as a writer.”
But multiple hats have always been part of Rothwell’s career, from the days of theatre school to stage productions in D.C. to writing all the while, finding her voice and sharpening her skills. On “The White Lotus,” where she played spa manager Belinda, Rothwell bonded with creator Mike White as a writer while trying to maintain distance and focus solely on performance.
“There are projects that come in that feel so right for me to be in as an actor, and then there are projects that come in that speak to me as a director, and then I read something and I know I have to write it,” she said. “So I try not to pick one. I just try to find the right thing and I’m grateful that I have the ability to play around.”
“The White Lotus” came to Rothwell during the first year of the pandemic, when her only immediate reaction to it or any project was fear.
“Most of my conversations with my agents were just like, ‘How can we do this and I stay alive?'” she said. “Once we figured that piece out, I was really able to enjoy the process of falling in love with the script. I Zoomed with Mike before I even accepted the role and had conversations about Belinda and who she was to me on the page, and who she would be if I would wear her. Belinda was written without a racial identity, and just by putting her on I change the context of what’s on the page.”
“Mike was so lovely to have those conversations with me and inviting me into his process, and really developing her so that way she felt authentic,” Rothwell continued. “To be able to find a project like this, in the throes of a horrible global pandemic, and to be sequestered with some of my favorite actors at a Four Seasons — I was pinching myself the whole time. It’s unreal we pulled it off, frankly, under those conditions, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.”
She’s now earned her first Emmy nomination (for Supporting Actress in a Limited Series) for playing Belinda, one of the handful of marginalized characters in “The White Lotus” whose arc ends up tinged with tragedy.
“It was an opportunity for conversation unlike anything I’ve seen before,” Rothwell said. “People really are forced to reconcile their behavior and the way they see themselves, and the way they see class and how it expresses itself in travel and resort life and vacations. We specifically try to extricate ourselves from having to think about good and bad and ugly things on vacation. Mike’s way into that is so beautifully awkward and funny and sad. I think that he did an excellent job allowing Paula (Brittany O’Grady), Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), and myself to be the backbone — to use us as a ruler to measure the behavior and psychology of the other characters.”
Quiet commentary like that echoes throughout Rothwell’s recent career. On “Insecure,” she prioritized representation for plus-sized Black women and subverting the expectations she faces in her own life.
“A lot of people have preconceived notions about what I can and can’t do and who I am and who I’m not,” Rothwell explains. “It really does delight me in a very mischievous way to subvert those expectations. I want to continue to do roles that do that. I want to continue to direct and produce and act in ways that elevate those stories and to effectively change the way the world sees me and other people that are like me, in film and in television.”
Merie Weismiller Wallace
With “Insecure” wrapped and “The White Lotus” moving to a new location and characters, Rothwell’s next steps are unwritten. She has a deal with Disney that includes contributions to Onyx Collective, a newly launched content brand for creators of color. She’s seen firsthand what happens when leading creative voices find and cultivate talent both in front of and behind the camera, as Rae is known for doing, and wants to carry that into her own work.
“The cultural impact of the show has been amazing to be a part of, and I think that we are affecting change in a real way,” Rothwell said. “Even the shows that have come out since the inception of ‘Insecure’ that feel inspired by the work we’ve done… There’s this connection through those individuals that dare to center marginalized voices and it’s not just a great thing, it’s a necessary thing.”
Ahead of the Emmys, Rothwell remains focused, eyeing her inbox next to our Zoom window as projects call for her stellar skill set. She’s helming her own series under a multi-year, multi-project deal with one of the biggest entertainment brands in the business. The future is hers for the taking, but she’ll never forget this moment.
“‘Insecure’ taught me iron sharpens iron. Surround yourself with smart, funny, talented people because you’ll only get better,” she said. “‘White Lotus’ has taught me that necessity is the mother of invention. You can create anything under the worst circumstances and make something beautiful. None of us had any idea what the show would be or how it would be received. We just really believed in the project and trusted each other.”
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