How Natasha Rothwell Made Us Laugh on ‘Insecure’ and Cry on ‘The White Lotus’
Former SNL writer Natasha Rothwell on becoming the hardest working actor on HBO with her scene-stealing “Insecure” performance and devastating turn in “The White Lotus.”
Natasha Rothwell has had a very big year, from facing off with Jennifer Coolidge in The White Lotus to stealing scenes in the final season of Insecure. And things are only looking up from here, with two new shows in development at HBO, a third in the works with Disney-ABC, and a mysterious role in the upcoming Wonka movie starring Timothée Chalamet.
In this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Rothwell opens up about auditioning for Saturday Night Live as part of that show’s “clunky” search for a Black female cast member and ending up as a writer instead, getting hired as a writer on Insecure before landing her breakout role as Kelli, and returning to her dramatic roots as Belinda in The White Lotus, a role that became very different after she was cast.
When I begin our podcast interview by asking if she’s still in London shooting the new Wonka movie, Rothwell replies, “That’s right, chocolate fun times!”
She’s using that unique experience to distract her from the “grief” she’s feeling about the fast-approaching end of Insecure, which wraps up its fifth and final season this fall on HBO. “I’m in what they call the denial phase,” Rothwell tells me. “I probably really won’t accept it to be true until the finale airs, but it’s been quite the ride.”
It was just over five years ago—hot off her one season writing for Saturday Night Live and on the verge of premiering her hilarious Netflix sketch comedy special as part of The Characters series—that Rothwell was originally hired by Issa Rae to write for Insecure. She had no plans to join the cast, but as they were putting together the first season, Rae would assign each writer to read different characters, just to hear how the scripts were sounding out loud. Rothwell kept getting asked to read the role of Kelli week after week.
When Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny officially offered her the role, Rothwell “burst into tears” because it wasn’t even on her radar as a possibility that she would appear on screen. The experience has changed her life forever.
Rothwell says playing Kelli has actually made her more confident, explaining, “I’m very much an extroverted introvert and that remains the same, but I think being able to go out and authentically not care what people think has been such a revelation. Kelli is Ms. ‘Give Zero Fucks’ and I give all of the fucks, I care so much. So to relax into who I am as an adult, being this character, I can actually make the conscious choice to let go of some of that fear and anxiety and just be confident in who I am and what I’ve done. So I’m grateful to her for that, for sure.”
While Rothwell made the smooth transition from writer to actor on Insecure, she had the opposite experience at SNL, where she auditioned as part of the show’s very public search for a Black female cast member but ended up getting asked to serve as a writer instead.
“I think at the time it was definitely a necessary step,” Rothwell says of the show’s deliberate effort to diversify after six years without a woman of color in the cast. “It’s a historically white institution that didn’t reflect the world we live in. And I think that huge credit goes to Kenan [Thompson] and Jay [Pharoah] for saying, ‘We’re not going to do drag because there are funny women out there.’ I think that took courage for them to do. And it became very clear to me that the effort that SNL made, as clunky as it may have been, spoke to the need for other institutions to audit what their shows look like and what their rooms look like and make deliberate, conscious choices to diversify and have their baseline be inclusive casting and hiring.”
Rothwell goes on to say that SNL was never on her “vision board” as something that she wanted, “by and large because I didn’t see myself reflected in the cast.” When the opportunity presented itself, she started to imagine what a future as part of that institution might be like, but when she didn’t make the cut she says it was like being “rejected by the guy you weren’t even checking for to begin with.”
Once she got offered a job on the writing staff, Rothwell says it “became something that I very much wanted” because she felt it was “almost as important to have that representation reflected in the writers’ room” as it was on screen. “If they’re going to really do the work and have inclusion be not just visual tokenism,” she adds, “they needed to have writers in the room that looked like the cast that they hired.”
But that’s not to say things were easy once she joined the writing staff for the show’s 40th season in 2015. “My first month or so there, I was just desperately trying to write sketches that I thought would make the air and I was not getting anywhere,” she says. Eventually, she “made a very quick pivot,” deciding that she was “no longer going to try to write and do something in an effort to please someone else.” It was only then that she started getting sketches on the air. “It really changed my perspective and my understanding of my own comedic voice,” she adds, asking herself, “What do I want to say?”
For anyone who had only seen Rothwell provide comic relief on Insecure, her performance as the empathic but beleaguered spa manager Belinda on HBO’s beloved limited series The White Lotus was a revelation.
“I found that aspect of people’s surprise so shocking, but also, of course, because they didn’t go to drama school with me,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like it allowed people to see that Kelli is actually an acting choice, not just an extension of who I am. So to dig into a dramatic role in a story that was so nuanced and layered and where I played the straight man in the scenes against Jennifer [Coolidge], it was so much fun to be able to let go of the pressure and obligation to be funny.”
Rothwell knew from the beginning that the part of Belinda “wasn’t written expressly for a woman of color.” So when she was offered the role, she wanted to make sure her specific identity was taken into account, “because it means something for someone who looks like me to be playing this.”
“When you have a character without a cultural identity baked into the role, when you cast it, then that’s inherently put on it,” she tells me. “And so by being cast as Belinda, it changes the words on the page when you have someone who looks like me in a mostly homogenous environment.”
“I think my biggest fear is that you have a character, a woman of color in a servile position, the tropes and the potential pitfalls were there, just in the perception of just my playing the part,” she continues. “And so I wanted to get ahead of that and really give her moments where we could see her agency, and see that she’s not just the ‘Magical Negro’ there to solve Tanya’s problems, but that she has a passion for mental health and physical health and spiritual health. Showing her empathetic connection to Tanya allows us to see her as a character and not a caricature. And I jumped at the chance to be able to subvert those expectations.”
As for that thick envelope of cash that Coolidge’s character gives Belinda at the very end of the season after withdrawing her offer to invest in her women’s wellness center, I asked Rothwell if she viewed it as a gift or an insult.
“It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” she says. “I think it’s both. It’s an insulting gift. I think it is less than what she was promised and not enough to do what she wants to do.” Rothwell reveals that she had conversations with the props department about the size of the envelope. “If it’s too thick, it’s going to suggest that she made good on her promise,” she says. “And we wanted to make sure that that’s not what happened.”
The White Lotus is set to return for a second season, but while Coolidge is reportedly returning as Tanya, creator Mike White has indicated that it will be set at a different resort, presumably with a new cast of characters serving the ultra-rich guests. So is there a chance Rothwell’s Belinda could be back as well?
“I’m Jon Snow, I know nothing,” she says. “I know it was announced that there’s a season 2, which is super exciting. And I honestly can’t wait to watch, but I’m so far away from the epicenter of decision-making. I love Mike and I love the crew and the cast so much. And I mean, if Belinda ever circled back around, I’d jump at the opportunity, but I don’t think that’s the plan.”
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