Issa Rae is, be it noun or adjective, the definition of boss.
As a creator and star of HBO’s ‘Insecure,’ she has racked up praise and awards navigating the ticklish terrain of young black womanhood, and is now putting her producing power behind projects like Robin Thede’s ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show.’ She’s also propelling her acting career into film, with Michael Showalter’s ‘The Lovebirds’ and Stella Meghie’s ‘The Photograph’ due out next year.
So you’d think Rae would have no trouble making herself heard.
But for her latest role, in ‘Little,’ the ‘Big’-in-reverse comedy starring Regina Hall and Marsai Martin, she found herself mining experiences that had threatened to silence her candid voice.
“I was tapping into that fear of speaking up that we all have,” Rae recalled. “There are some terrible people, even within this industry that I work in, that are known to be yellers, and I can’t take it, personally. But sometimes you just feel like you have no option, like you have to endure verbal abuse to get to the next step.”
“Some people really think that they have to be mean — women especially, sometimes — to be heard and to be respected,” she added.
In ‘Little,’ Rae plays April, the beleaguered assistant to a tyrannical tech mogul (Hall) who is sent hurtling back via a swish of a wand into her nerdy, bullied younger self (Martin). Which in turn leaves the dismayed April to run her company, if only she could get the words out. Directed by Tina Gordon, ‘Little’ is based on an idea pitched by Martin, of ‘black-ish’ fame, when she was 10 years old — leading her at 14 to become the youngest executive producer of a major studio movie.
“I just loved that Marsai had come up with this idea as a little girl and I wanted to be a part of that,” Rae said. “I used to watch ‘Big’ every single day as a child and this movie is paying homage to that.”
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Rae, 34, talked about some indispensable advice, the future of ‘Insecure’ and what she has called a golden moment for black women.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: So, did you land this gig because Marsai is a big fan of yours or what?
A: I still don’t know how that conversation came about. But I was happy to be there and now I’m trying to be on her best side, you know? I’m just like, hey girl, now that you’ve got this first look, I could play other roles too.
Q: In an interview with Stephen Colbert, you said that the best advice you’d been given was don’t be afraid to be a [expletive for female dog]. Do you ever find yourself going there?
A: That’s just not my way to operate, to be mean or to yell. But I sometimes get crippled by a fear of being labelled... And it’s just like, that shouldn’t prevent you from speaking up if you really need to. And that’s the advice that I heed.
Q: Your first movie role was in ‘The Hate U Give’ and you have four more coming up after ‘Little.’ Why the leap into film?
A: When you’re doing ‘Insecure,’ it can be limiting and suffocating. I want to have different experiences to bring to the stories that I’m telling. And now that I’ve taken a longer break, I’m excited to get back. It’s been fun and less stressful not having to be one of the bosses or writers or producers. I’ve shifted in every single role that I’ve played. I’ve had maximum responsibility and I love that. I love also getting a sense of what it’s like behind the scenes where nobody cares about me.
Q: When is season four of ‘Insecure’ happening?
A: No date yet. No time soon.
Q: Can you tease where we’re going to find Issa, Molly and Lawrence after that cliffhanger you left us with?
A: I always called season three the setup season. We were having to get all our characters to this place where they have to face each other and face themselves. There’s that point in your life where you question everything around you — where you’re like, I’m at this certain age. Do I need to make the effort to make this career or these relationships last? Like, where and who do I want to be? And that’s something we’re going to hone in on.
Q: You’ve revealed that you know when, where and how ‘Insecure’ will end. Do you have that actual endpoint in sight?
A: Definitely, but I’m kind of torn and I’m working through that. Prentice [Penny, the showrunner] and I just met up to have our annual poolside discussion of the season, so that’s kind of where we are right now, answering those questions.
A: Yeah, every year the two of us meet up, rent a cabana at a hotel and get drinks and talk about the season. This is our fourth time doing that and we’re really happy to see each other. He just finished directing his feature debut [‘Uncorked’], and I’ve done other projects, and we’re just sharing our war stories.
Q: You’ve also said that you learn with each new episode. What’s the takeaway after 24?
A: I still appreciate the opportunity to tell concise stories but we do want to tell longer [ones] — to use not necessarily more episodes but maybe just develop those episodes further. A lot of the basis of our meetup this year was just, OK, where are these characters now and how do we tell a story that still feels fun to tell in a fresh way?
Q: Has there been any change for you at HBO with the resignation of its CEO, Richard Plepler?
A: Richard was such a champion of our show. Like, every time I would encounter some rich white man, he’d be like, ‘Richard recommended the show. I loved it.’ He’s been really responsible for introducing our show to different audiences and just genuinely believed in us. So I’m sad to see him go. And Casey [Bloys] and Amy [Gravitt] have reassured us that they’re here, and that’s kind of who I came up with. So if I lose them I don’t know how I’ll feel.
Q: You’ve called this a golden moment for black women in terms of shaking the culture. Can you elaborate?
A: I think so many eyes are on us and the acknowledgment of the impact that we have. People want to be involved in what we have to say. So many of us are united in making sure that our voices are heard. We’re protective of each other and we’re protective of our culture in a new way that feels like other people are hearing us too. And that’s just so important.
Q: Are there any emerging creators popping for you at the moment?
A: Amy Aniobi is someone I’ve been working with forever and I’m just so excited about her career. There’s Lala Milan, whose Instagram I’ve been following for a while. She’s such a joy to watch and going to be one of the next female comedic voices, if not now already. And Robin Thede. I’m doing an HBO show with her and she’s phenomenal.
Don’t miss it!
‘Little’ releases in the UAE on April 11.