“We’re doing well,” Yvonne Orji says, though it’s hard not to miss the slight hesitation in her voice. It’s not that it sounds like she’s lying, but she’s clearly still processing. As we speak, she’s wrapping shooting on the fifth and final season of HBO’s era-defining hit Insecure, which has made household names of Orji and her co-star Issa Rae.
“Shooting anything in the middle of a pandemic presents its own set of challenges,” she admits. “But I think we’re doing all right.”
All right would be an understatement. It’s been a remarkable journey for Orji, who had never acted before auditioning for Insecure. But she’s been vital to the show’s journey into the cultural discourse, which came at millennial perspectives on race, careers and dating from a fresh angle. The show received raves for its courage and intelligence in tackling the kinds of issues that have tripped up other TV dramas, but reviewers tended to miss just how smart, funny and compelling the show was on its own merits.
It’s also launched Orji into a rarified stratosphere of fame. In between this year’s upcoming Vacation Friends with John Cena and the upcoming Disney+ series based on her life growing up as a Nigerian immigrant (which is being produced by David Oyelowo and some woman named Oprah Winfrey), Orji has also written a book called Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams.
That’s a lot for a woman who, just a few years ago, was struggling in the stand-up comedy scene. But, like the title of her book suggests, Orji sees all of this as part of a bigger plan — not necessarily the one she had for herself, but the one she’s supposed to be on. And if that story has included a few surprise twists — like, say, filming a series finale during a global pandemic — then so be it.
“We are standing,” she says. “We are stronger. God bless it.”
Nothing Was Ever the Same
Like many immigrant parents, Orji’s moved here with grand ambitions for their kids. Orji was a good student, excelling at Pennsylvania’s prestigious all-girls boarding school Linden Hall before getting her liberal arts degree at George Washington University and then her master’s in public health. So far, life was going more or less according to plan. Her parents had hoped she would become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a pharmacist, “and I was kind of going down that path,” she says.
“My gut was saying, ‘Nah, that’s not it,’” she said. “But I didn’t know how to really lean into that or what my backup would be. So, I just kept going.”
But then came a beauty pageant that changed everything. Orji was told she would need to do something for the talent portion of the pageant, and was struck with the realization that she didn’t really have anything she considered a “talent.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have one of those. I’m a child of immigrants. We are not raised to have extracurricular activities that don’t help you get into really prestigious colleges,’” she laughs. But the officials were firm — either pick a talent or drop out of the competition.
“I was like, ‘OK, God, I’m trusting you like I say I do: Help,” she says. “Cause I got nothing.
“And loud as day, I heard the Holy Spirit say, ‘Do comedy.’”
It’s quite a story, all the more striking because Orji had never seriously considered comedy before. She says she grew up with few friends, and spent most of her formative years facing rejection from her peers. The idea of doing comedy, in which rejection is a necessity, sounded daunting. “I didn’t want it,” she says.
“But then God said, ‘Well, what else you got?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘I got nothing.’”
Orji took a chance on comedy, trusting that God knew “something about me that I don’t yet know.” It was a risk, but it worked. The crowd liked her material, and she felt emboldened by the experience.
“That was 2006 and nothing was ever the same,” she says. “Like a Drake album.”
More Than a Stepping Stone
When asked how Orji’s parents felt about her sudden interest in comedy, she’s frank. “Tears were shed.”
A career in medicine has a reliably straightforward trajectory, and the comedy scene is anything but. There are more variables than certainties, and the success-to-failure rate isn’t exactly encouraging. And on top of that, Orji was pursuing success in a scene that was — and remains — a scene dominated by men who bristle at change and gatekeep with fervor. Comedy clubs aren’t known for the respectful boundaries they put up around women, and Orji says she faced plenty of misogyny and outdated stereotypes early on in her career (“I would come to the clubs and some guys would be like, ‘Oh, are you here to sing? And are you here to do spoken word?’”). The early days were a struggle. She began to wonder if comedy was less of a career goal than a “gateway drug” or entry point to getting into more serious acting jobs. But then came a conversation with a guy who knows a thing or two about stand-up comedy: Chris Rock.
Orji booked a gig opening for Rock and the two hit it off. Orji told him that she was thinking of comedy as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
“He was like, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” she says.
Rock told Orji that she was selling her abilities short. The comedy life she’d felt called to early on was too special to be demoted to “gateway drug” status. Rock urged her to lean into her talents as a comedian and never let the promise of shiny acting jobs rob her focus from her true gift. (This, it should be noted, is advice that Rock himself seems to have internalized a lot over the course of his own career.)
“[Rock] said ‘There are tons of actors who are all competing for the same thing,’” Orji says. “‘But you are in a very unique group of people who can make people laugh and all you need is yourself and a microphone. Don’t ever let that skill go.’”
Orji took that to heart. Comedy has remained the beating heart of her career, even as it’s begun to soar to new heights. No matter what happens after Insecure, the Disney+ show about her life, the book, all of it, the only thing she’ll ever really need is herself and a microphone.
“I didn’t set out to write a book,” Orji says, in yet another example of a career move that seems to have caught her off guard as much as anyone. “I have a ton of things that I am doing. But I know that this was God led and it was one of those things where He was just like, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’”
Here’s the way Orji sees it. She’s 37 years old. If life can be roughly split in quarters, she’s completed the first one. She says the more she thought about it, the more it felt like a “natural, progressive point” to reflect on the wisdom she’s picked up so far and distill it for others. She’s been seeing a lot of big dreams come true lately, but her career hasn’t soared so high that she’s lost touch with the struggling grad student who had those dreams. She liked the idea of writing a book at a time when she’s just transitioning into seeing a lot of her hard work pay off. Her career has been successful, but she hasn’t become so red-hot famous that her advice would seem out-of-touch. She could write this book as more of a peer than a platform.
“Sometimes you can talk to people and they’re like, ‘You’re so far removed or you’re so far advanced. Like how can we get to wherever you are?’ And I’m just like, ‘Girl, I’m here with you. I’m just one rung up. Here’s what worked for me in this phase. If anything works for you, please take it, use it.”
“I know that there are people who are in the phase that I just left,” she says. “So this is a great time for me to impart whatever I’ve learned on the journey in a way that it feels like it’s real time.”
Orji’s not blind to the reality that chasing dreams is no picnic. She still remembers her own fear about taking a chance on comedy. That’s the thing about taking a risk — the word itself implies that success is not guaranteed or even likely. It’s scary. “You will find so much evidence for all the things that could go wrong,” she says. She herself remembers fretting about all the ways her decision to pursue her dreams could lead to disaster. But then she switched her perspective and decided to focus on the ways it could work out.
“When you shut your mind up and look for receipts of things that could possibly go right?” she says, laughing. “That’s when your mind gets blown.”
Refreshingly, Orji doesn’t pretend that these are all lessons she’s fully internalized. She still gets afraid. The way forward doesn’t always seem terribly clear. And she knows how fickle the industry can be. That, more than anything, is how her faith has been shaped.
“There’s a [worship] song that says ‘You can do all things, but fail’” — (That’d be “Never Lost” by Elevation Worship) — “And for me, I see the touchdown,” she says. “I see the moments where it looked like a fumble and then God turned it into an intersection. And now we run it for the goal.”
You’ve probably noticed that this is how Orji talks. Her career — her entire life — has been one leap of faith after the other, trusting that there was more to God’s plan than she could see at the moment. This has led to some pretty wild stories, like the time she decided to move to New York City with no idea of where she would stay and only enough money for one class (during her trip, a Facebook acquaintance messaged her to say they’d just had a spot open up in their apartment and would she like to move in?) and those stories have led to one big story of God coming through.
“Sometimes people want to have this A plus B plus C lineup, and then they’ll make a move,” Orji says. “I’m the kind of person that’ll see A and I’m like, ‘Let me just try it. Let me just go.’”
“And what I’ve come to find out in my life is that it’s not always linear,” she continues. “Sometimes F leads to Z. But, well, that worked out. And those are risks I’m willing to take, because I know what the alternative is.”
She takes a quick beat. “The alternative is more of the same,” she says. “And I don’t like the same.”
There’s no fear of the same in Orji’s life. She’s allergic to it. But there still is some fear about what’s next. Just because one risk worked out doesn’t mean the next one will. But when Orji starts to worry, she’s got a little spiritual trick, one that leverages her past divine bamboozling for future confidence.
“Now when I’m tempted to be like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know,’ God is like, “Hold on,” she says. “‘Go back and play the footage of your life. Where have I steered you wrong?’”