Despite her brand of awkwardness and insecurity, a sleep-deprived Issa Rae is pretty confident these days. Well, mostly. “Sometimes I feel like Khaleesi and other times, I’m like, ‘Who are you, girl? Take a nap,’” she tells ET over the phone between editing sessions for the second season of Insecure, which returns on July 23.
Co-created by Rae and Larry Wilmore, the HBO comedy explores the black female experience as Issa (a character played by Rae, not the real person -- but more on that later) and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) navigate work and relationships in south Los Angeles. The show -- an extension of Rae’s hilarious web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl -- debuted its acclaimed first season in October. Six months after the finale aired, Rae’s already turning around another eight episodes, leaving her to only catch three hours of sleep a night.
Born to an American mother and Senegalese father, Rae grew up in L.A. after brief periods in Dakar, Senegal, and Potomac, Maryland. She’s told Essencethat most of her comedy comes from her youth, when she was “chubby, into boys who weren't into me, and [trying] too hard to fit into this ‘blackness’ I was supposed to be.” While attending King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, she began acting and continued on that path at Stanford University and the Public Theater in New York City.
Rae’s career took off in 2011 with the success of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which followed a quirky woman named “J” who worked in an office filled with weirdos. She found the funny in the mundane; she’d make up raps in her bathroom but be completely rhythmless at parties. The show’s rabid online following thrust Rae into the spotlight.
Soon Pharrell Williams invited Rae to join his iamOTHER YouTube channel, where she launched the second season of the series. In 2012, Shonda Rhimes brought her into the ABC fold after Shondaland bought Rae’s I Hate LA Dudes; the following year, HBO teamed up with Rae and Wilmore to develop a new series. But in mid-2015, after nothing had materialized, The New York Times wondered why Rae couldn’t seem to translate her online success on TV.
“The ABC project was completely different than Awkward Black Girl. I wasn’t in that at all [as an actor],” Rae says. “I think removing myself completely lead to its voicelessness and non-specificity.” But just as any doubt set in, HBO picked up Rae’s Insecure for a series order. “When I tried this new project with HBO, I put myself back in it and clearly recognized what I wanted to say.”
Now, on the heels of a hit first season that averaged 3.2 million viewers each week and earned Rae a Golden Globe nomination, it seems like she just needed to do things at her own pace.
But she also fully admits Insecure is a team effort. Taking on the roles of writer, producer and star, Rae’s learned to delegate to the people she trusts. “You want to make sure the show remains true to your voice, but you also have to recognize that you can’t do everything yourself and some people are stronger where you’re weak,” she says.
In addition to Wilmore, Rae brought in Prentice Penny, known for his work on Happy Endings and Scrubs, as the showrunner, and GRAMMY-winning filmmaker Melina Matsoukas, who also recently directed Beyonce’s “Formation,” as executive producer and director for four episodes. “I feel blessed and honored to work with a team that makes me feel better as an actor and writer. I’m learning so much,” says Rae, who also counts Mara Brock Akil, creator of Girlfriends, as a mentor. “She always offers a supportive ear; her show paved the way for Insecure.”
That synergy manifests as Insecure nimbly jumps between humorous exchanges like “Why are you looking at me like you’re Stacy Dash and I just told you you’re black,” and piercing heartbreak as it follows Issa Dee and her relationship with Molly. Issa is stuck in a frustrating job at a nonprofit for at-risk kids where co-workers have “secret white meetings” without her. At home, she’s languishing in a long-term romance with her boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), who doesn’t seem to have direction.
Issa’s missteps in her relationship have caused such frenzy that fans often confuse Rae for her onscreen character and fuss at her on Twitter. It became the virtual version of All My Children fans slapping Susan Lucci because they couldn’t separate the actress from her role as Erica Kane. “I’m just highly entertained by it all,” she says. “If anything, I’m kicking myself. I should’ve called her Claire or Mila or some sh*t. Now people will think Insecure is an autobiography.”
But as Issa blows up her love life and Molly, a lawyer who excels at work but fails in love, strikes out repeatedly at dating, Insecure betrays its real focus: the bond between Issa and Molly. “Their friendship is a sisterhood, where they’ll constantly call each other out and hold each other accountable,” Rae says. “They may get upset and get on each other’s nerves, but they know each other’s true intention. We’re just watching them grow into secure individuals together through their faults and calling each other to the carpet.’”
Where Insecure will pick up with the two women or even Lawrence is clouded in secrecy, but Rae admits all she cares about is trying to match the show’s success in its sophomore season. “I just want to make a good second season and not to f**k up. Then I can breathe again,” Rae says. Or possibly get some sleep.