'Insecure' Actress Sujata Day on How Issa Rae Inspired Her Directorial Debut (Exclusive)
By Rande Iaboni
Atajus Productions/Datari Turner Productions/June Street Productions
The fourth season of HBO’s Insecure earned a whopping eight Emmy nominations this year, including Outstanding Comedy Series and a Lead Actress nod for creator and star Issa Rae. As it turns out, Rae’s ripple effects of inspiration began many years ago for co-star Sujata Day.
Day, best known for her role on the series as Sarah -- part of the “We Got Y’all” gang -- first met Rae on Twitter over eight years ago. What started as an audition for Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl -- which served as inspiration for Insecure -- has now led to Day’s feature directorial debut Definition Please.
“We were all inspired by being on that web series and we were starting to write our own stories,” Day tells ET. “Issa said, 'I am writing my Black girl story, you have to write your brown girl story.'”
In addition to directing, Day wrote, produced and starred in the South Asian family dramedy, which follows Monica (Day), a former Spelling Bee champ who hasn’t achieved much success since her big win 15 years prior, as she reconciles with her estranged older brother (Russian Doll’s Ritesh Rajan) when he returns home to help care for their ailing mother (The Good Place’s Anna Khaja).
Day remembers watching Rae create her web series while using her own money. “We were shooting in her dad’s doctor’s office with just her and her brother manning the camera and microphone. Watching her journey grow and being alongside of that was inspiration in itself,” she says.
The cast and crew of Definition Please are predominantly Asian American, something really important to Day after witnessing a set run by women of color on Insecure, from the production assistants up to the directors. “I have always been lucky to be a part of that and I wanted to create that for this movie. For me, it is really important to make sure the behind the scenes matches what’s in front of the camera,” Day says.
For co-star Ritesh Rajan, who also spoke to ET, the diverse set was a refreshing experience for him. “Personally, for me, this is the first time I have ever been in a full-blown Asian cast at this scale,” Rajan says.
The film also tackles mental health, a topic that can sometimes carry a stigma in the community. For Rajan, portraying an Indian American man living with borderline personality disorder was a delicate process. “Sometimes being vulnerable is seen as weakness in Asian communities. I really wanted to dial into all of that nuance and detail to play a character that was as authentic as possible,” he says. “His denial of his sickness and his confrontation with his sister, it was all ultimately about finding the humanity within the South Asian story.”
Following this year’s success of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever from creator Mindy Kaling and reality series like Indian Matchmaking and Bravo’s Family Karma, Day is optimistic about the future of South Asian storytelling. “I feel like there is a place for all of our stories and that’s what keeps me going,” she says.
Another sign of optimism for Day and Rajan is Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden naming Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, the first time an Indian American is running on a major party ticket.
“I called my mom and she had been crying all day,” Day admits. “You don’t understand how important representation is until a moment like that happens.”
“My eight-year-old niece was super excited,” Rajan chimed in. "Just to see women of color in power and our heritage up there is a big deal. It is hard to put into words how that can inspire a future generation.”
While Day isn’t running for politics anytime soon, her film is inspiring future generations all the same. “I have already heard from young brown girls saying this has inspired them to write their own story and that’s all I can ask for,” she shares.
“I want to inspire as I have been inspired by people who came before me and that was the goal of making this movie, for all the little brown girls whose stories haven’t been told yet.”
Definition Please premiered at Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival in August and is currently in search of a distributor.