“My dad is in the Air Force, so I grew up all over the place—mostly on the East Coast. I was always very outgoing, and I was a ham. I loved the camera. But what I loved more than anything was making people laugh. When I was very young I would play ‘make me laugh’ with my family, where I would try to get them to break. I realized I could do that with theater, so I found the theater department at every school I went to. After I graduated high school, I spent a year at Ithaca College before transferring to the University of Maryland to study theater. I’m classically trained, so I was doing everything from Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams to modern comedy playwrights. For me, the way I approach comedy is with grounded truth. You have to really believe this ridiculous thing you’re saying, the crazy thing you’re doing, and that’s why audiences laugh—because they’re like, ‘Look at that person believing what they’re doing!’ as opposed to trying to be funny. My dramatic theatrical education really helped me in my comedic education. I got my performance footing in DC, right outside of the Maryland campus, and that’s where the seeds were planted as to how to do this for money to feed myself. [Laughs]
After DC I went to the Tokyo Comedy Store in Japan, and I performed there for a year. That was really cool—I mean, it’s a wild thing to go to such a homogenous country and be a person of color, but I truly had the best time. It was a comedic education on what’s universally funny, versus the specific, niche, Capitol Hill jokes I had honed while I was in DC. Then I went to New York and hit the ground running. I got involved with UCB and the People’s Improv Theater—the PIT—and really put to use all the things I had learned prior. I was in New York for almost eight or nine years.
When I first moved here, I was a high school drama teacher in the Bronx, so that’s how I paid the bills. Instead of waiting tables, I was like, ‘Let me teach some kids about Oedipus.’ [Laughs] When I was able to leave the school and do this full-time—to teach at UCB and go on tour with them—that felt pivotal. It’s such a supportive community at UCB, and it was a really important part of the trajectory of my career. [Moving into screen] acting was always the goal. My first big TV thing was Wild ‘N Out. Later, Love, Simon was a big part of my professional work that overlapped with my personal interests. I consider myself an advocate and an ally, and finding a project that was so necessary and relevant to the LGBTQIA community, to me, was really important. Like it’s a celebratory, fun, sort of ‘80s rom com take on love, and the protagonist happens to be queer. Those are the roles I look for and that I hope to create for myself. Those are the moments where I laugh the hardest.
On Insecure, I play the character Kelli. She’s sort of the funny one in the group who is very honest and grounded. I’m not like Kelli in real life, oh no. She gives zero fucks about most things. It’s so funny, because I feel like as a writers’ room we’ve worked really hard to make sure these characters are relatable, so when people see us on the street they just assume [we’re the same]. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Kelli, let’s turn up!’ And I’m like, ‘I’d really much rather hide in a corner and sip a latte.”
The show is really embracing the idea of, in some ways, the aspirational quality of television. People would watch Sex and the City, where a writer in Manhattan wears Manolos. In what world, right? But we’re embracing that a bit. No Black woman’s hair looks that perfect, all the time. No one gets to date that many fine men in LA! I think there’s still the relatability quality in [Kelli], and many Black women see themselves in her, but there are aspects that are slightly aspirational. But that’s the fun of television in general. You get to wear dope clothes and have someone come over if you have a booger hanging out of your nose. They get to make you a little bit better than you are in real life. I’m a sweatshirt hoodie, jeans, Chuck Taylor kind of girl, so I’m a big headache to my stylists on set. I’m like, ‘I love this, this looks great, but how do we get it to be jeans and a T-shirt?’ [Laughs]
I love face products—masks, foams, cleansers, creams, astringents—anything that can restore my face to feeling as normal as possible. When I’m on Insecure I have to get my makeup done so much, and it really takes a toll on my skin. I use Neutrogena Makeup Remover Towelettes to get off all of the makeup as best I can. And then depending on the day, I kind of alternate between Sunday Riley Saturn and Glam Glow Instamud. [The Glam Glow] is usually for days where my pores are huge and out of control. And then I use the sulfur acne mask as sort of a cleanser after the makeup remover. Both of those tend to dry me out, so I will go in afterwards with Sunday Riley Good Genes, which is incredible. It’s a miracle worker—it tightens, it firms, it lightens. It has lactic acid in it, and that has magical powers. I follow that with Tidal from Sunday Riley, which is an amazing brightening moisturizer—it feels like you’re putting water on your face. It’s just really hydrating. After that, I usually put the Caudalie Vineactiv under my eyes—it usually takes down any dark circles. I also do it on the creases of my mouth to help with wrinkles or fine lines. And then I use the Caudalie Overnight Recovery Oil. I put it on, and it does exactly that. It feels very restorative and moisturizing—I wake up and I’m like, ‘Who’s this young person?’ [Laughs]
In the morning I will use the Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser. If I’m not super pimply, I’ll do that instead of the Sunday Riley at night, too. Or, if it’s not a day when I’m getting done up and other people are taking care of me, I will just do Dr. Sturm's cleansing foam. I also like the Sonya Dakar Daily Cleanser—it doesn’t foam and it’s not tough on your skin, but it cleans it well. I follow with the Biologique Recherche Lotion P50—it smells very much like apple cider vinegar, which it might be. It helps with dark spots, blotchiness, that kind of stuff. I don’t use it every night—maybe three times a week, or when I feel like I’m having more dark spots. If I’m feeling particularly sleep-deprived, I will do the Sonya Dakar Superlift Eye Serum. Sometimes I alternate it with the Caudalie eye cream, and sometimes I use them together if I’m feeling super run-down. Trial and error. There are times I try something and I’m like, ‘This is not for me! My face is on fire!’ I remember how I was so excited that the Sunday Riley Saturn worked the first time, that I used it every day and almost made my face fall off. So I use that sparingly [now]. And then I do this Caudalie Premier Cru Oil that’s like [the overnight oil] but not as thick. I really like it—it’s a nice overall thing. It makes me really shiny, but when it seeps in it’s not that much. And it takes makeup really well.
The makeup artist I work with outside of Insecure is Terrell Mullin, and he’s amazing. When someone else is doing my makeup, I usually just let them go. I love lashes because my lashes are very thin. I typically like full-coverage, but not cakey foundation—I like to look like me, but the me where people are like, ‘Oh, wow, she doesn’t have any blemishes!’ And I like a natural lip, like what I have on right now—it’s just a little bit darker than my lip. I like a strong lip sometimes, but if I’m getting done up for me as opposed to a character, I like the more neutral look, like Tom Ford lip gloss in Rose Crush. I really do like lip gloss. It’s low maintenance, like me. My lips are kind of naturally lined, so I can get away with it.
Before foundation, I always put Neutrogena Ultra Clear Liquid sunscreen on first. I have Fenty foundation in 420, and then I also have Make Up For Ever in 1505. I blend those in with a Beautyblender, and for concealer I use a little blender brush and a sponge. The concealers are from Make Up For Ever and Koh Gen Do, and I use them together. Before I started having my makeup done professionally for work, I had one foundation, one concealer. I’m learning that your skin has different tones, and you can use different [foundation] combinations for it to look more natural, as opposed to looking like you were painted with one brush. So these are the two that my skin really likes, as far as covering up blemishes. I also have a lighter and a deeper foundation, so that gives me a little definition and all the shades I need, and I set it with the Make Up For Ever powder. I can be oily, and that has been a strong defense against my oily nature. Recently I found this Colore Science stick that’s an SPF 50 powder, and I really like it. My skin is very sensitive to the sun, and I tend to break out because of it. I put on the sheer Ultra Liquid, and then I put this on top of my makeup. And then I have a myriad of pencils and eyebrow stuff. I have the Naked Smoky Palette. I use Nars Torrid blush, and I don’t use a bronzer or highlighter or contour—it’s all in the skincare. Even though my face is pretty worn down from production, I take the best care of my skin while filming. When my face is right and I’m doing my routine, that’s it.
My hair is coily, so when you stretch it it’s super long. I don’t have all the soldiers in the army with me right now, but the main soldier is the Multicultural Curls by Miss Jessie. I swear by it—it’s really the best thing that I’ve found for my hair. I wash maybe two to three times a week, and I wear a lot of headwraps, which help cut the shampooing down. Right now I’m using Pantene Curl Pro-V. I have a tiny bottle of shampoo and a huge thing of conditioner because I’ll wet my hair every day with the conditioner if I’m wearing it curly. One thing I don’t do is sleep in a head scarf—I’m out here wild and free. Does it mess up my curls? Of course it does! That’s why I have to wet it every day. I use a diffuser sometimes, but if I can let it air dry, my curls like that the best. If I don’t have time to just walk around my apartment with wet hair, then I will diffuse it. When I’m wearing it out, I typically will run conditioner through it before I shampoo, because the shampoo will just strip the oils out. And then I’ll have to put those [oils] back in, and that’s where the Multicultural Curls comes in. Usually I wear my hair up—in a high ponytail, not in a French roll like this now—and then pull my bangs forward. Felicia Leatherwood is Issa’s stylist, and is an incredible natural hair stylist. When I discovered her I was like, ‘You’re cutting my hair.’ She cuts me for Kelli, and she cuts me in real life.
FRAGRANCE AND NAILS
My perfume sticks allow me to try stuff. This is my favorite—Daisy by Marc Jacobs. It’s light and clean and girly—I don’t like heavy floral, and I don’t like things that smell too acidic. My nails are courtesy of Bel Townsend, and she goes by Sohotrightnail on Instagram. I discovered her in LA, and she’s incredible. They’re really short because I type for a living. I had to get them long once for Kelli—she had long wild nails for the Coachella episode—and it was just the most impossible thing. I mean, I had to pee myself that episode, so that was the craziest. But I was the most frustrated human in the whole world because I couldn’t type. So I like them nice and short, that way I can get stuff done. I usually go matte—black is my go-to, but today I wanted something that was a little bit iridescent—it looks a little bit like a beetle, which I like.”
—as told to ITG
Natasha Rothwell photographed by Tom Newton in New York on September 11, 2018.