Issa Rae Talks 'Insecure,' Emmy Nomination and Creating a Supportive Environment for Her Peers (Exclusive)
Issa Rae is one of ET’s featured first-time Emmy nominees.
“I’m the holdup in everything,” Issa Rae tells ET with a laugh. “Everything that hasn’t moved forward is because of me.”
During a busy day of promoting Insecure season three (which returned on Sunday, Aug. 12), the series co-creator and star is sitting in a room at the Park Hyatt Hotel in New York City cheerfully answering questions about the show and her Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series despite an already busy morning that has her running behind schedule.
Though, her comment has nothing to do with being late and everything to do with being in high demand following Insecure’s premiere in 2016. Since then, Rae has appeared in star-studded music videos for JAY-Z’s “Moonlight” and Drake’s “Nice for What,” will co-star alongside Amandla Stenberg and K.J. Apa in the film adaptation of The Hate U Give (out in October) and is filming Little with Regina Hall. She is slated to produce the upcoming film Feud with former NBA player Baron Davis and the TV pilot The Awoken, as well as two series for HBO, Him or Her and Sweet Life. She’s been cast opposite Bill Hader in Empress of Serenity. And then there’s the highly anticipated Ava DuVernay-directed Lupita Nyong’o/Rihanna heist movie, which she’s attached to write. (When asked if she could share an update on that particular project, Rae only responded with “I wish I could.”)
“It all comes down to time for me,” Rae says of making room in her schedule to get everything done. But until then, there’s the matter of her first-ever Emmy nomination, which comes after she was unceremoniously snubbed for season one.
Explaining why the second season may have resonated more with audiences, leading to the Emmy recognition, Rae says it comes down to the cast being freer to play with their characters. “That comes as the cast gets comfortable with who they’re playing. In season one, you’re tentative and very much respecting what the writers intend, what the showrunners intend, what the directors intend,” she says, adding that she and showrunner Prentice Penny told directors to let the cast play. “We just want to have those opportunities to riff off the cuff. In season two and three, we got a chance to do that.”
Not only that, but the third season of Insecure, which has earned rave reviews, see Rae at her best on the show. She definitely feels looser -- able to play with her physicality while the writing lets her go deeper into her character and add layers of nuance that weren’t there before.
Rae’s nomination put her up against Tracee Ellis Ross, marking the first time more than one black actress has been nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in the same year. The groundbreaking moment comes as a bit of a surprise to Rae, but she doesn’t “want to pat the Emmys on the back,” she says. “I think black people are having a moment right now, but there’s still a lot of people missing.”
Going beyond the Emmys, it wasn’t so long ago when there was “this one spot for you guys,” Rae says, referring specifically to late ’90s black TV. “It created a competitive environment where some people were like, ‘I have the ladder and I’m gonna kick you out so you don’t make it.’” But now, with the black renaissance, there’s much more support among the current generation of writers, producers, directors and actors. “We just don’t think like that; there isn’t just one spot,” Rae continues. All one has to do is scroll through Twitter to see how the likes of DuVernay, Justin Simien, Lena Waithe and others all celebrate each other’s achievements -- not to mention working together in any combination on one project after another.
“We’re all holding doors open together and making sure that we work, and that’s a beautiful thing because we realized if we don’t, then this will just be a moment -- and there are just so many stories to tell,” Rae says before listing her adoration for Waithe (“I was like, ‘You’re going to make my favorite show,’” she said of Waithe’s upcoming Kid Fury project), Simien (“I’ve just been a fan of his for so long”), DuVernay and Ryan Murphy, whom she applauds for mandating inclusion behind the scenes of their projects. “I really feel overwhelmed by how much we have.”
When it comes to Insecure, which is largely written, directed and produced by women of color, it was something that came naturally to Rae. “It was just like, ‘These are our peers and we’ve been working together and we recognize the talent,” she says before mentioning recent comments made by Magnum, P.I. reboot executive producer Eric Guggenheim, who said it was a struggle to find Latinx writers for the show, which features a Latino lead.
“We’ve all heard that as writers, as directors: ‘We’ve been looking [for you], but didn’t know you existed.’ And it’s like, ‘How hard are you really looking?’” Rae says. “For us, we didn’t have to look, they were all around us. And it felt like our time to work together.”
The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, co-hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che, will air live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on NBC. Check out the full list of nominees and ET’s ongoing Emmy coverage here.
2018 Emmy Nominations: The Complete List