On Insecure, the fabulous foursome at the center of the show’s drama has always garnered laughs. That’s largely thanks to Kelli Prenny, the band’s bold, charming and confident friend. While she’s not always the center of the drama, Natasha Rothwell, who plays Kelli onscreen, made the character a fan favorite, making her the epitome of growth on the show. In the fifth and final season of Issa Rae’s beloved HBO series, Kelli goes to her college reunion at Stanford to be presumed dead by her classmates; stop drinking to try to find enlightenment; and has, surprisingly, pivoted into full aunt mode with young daughter Tiffany (Amanda Seales). Rothwell, who wrote and produced the series for many seasons in addition to starring in it, also directed an episode this season (and wrote a standout one in season four) in which the romantic relationship of Issa with Nathan could be on the rocks for the last time.
Calling from London, where she is currently filming Wonka starring Timothée Chalamet as the titular confectioner, Rothwell talks about Kelli’s arc in the final season of Insecurewhale watching with Jennifer Coolidge during filming The White Lotusand the only musician who can make her giddy as a schoolgirl.
You’ve been there from the start – what it’s like Insecure to really end for you?
I am very much in denial. [Laughs.] The show is everything to me. This, in no uncertain terms, changed my life for the better. People always look at us on Instagram and say, “Do you really like each other? And it’s like, yes, we do! I spoke to Jay [Ellis] yesterday. For me, it’s not just saying goodbye to Kelli, who has also changed my life, but it’s saying goodbye to the family who met me, helped raise me and gave me opportunities. I’m not ready to say goodbye, but what gives me peace is that I have them in my life forever.
Kelli has always been hilarious, but setting her up this season to have an existential crisis from the jump was next level. You’ve been a writer on the show as well as starring in it, but did you always know where Kelli would go as a character?
From the start, one of the things I loved about Kelli as a character is that she’s cohesive. She’s not trying to be anything else. She makes no apologies for who she is or what she plans to do. She loves herself, she loves her job. She loves men! She loves her body. She’s the glue, trying to make sure her group stays together. Making this season’s premiere a time where she’s forced to really think about who she is and what she wants to leave behind is such a cool opportunity to show more color on Kelli, and a soul-searching that we don’t necessarily do to see. Over the course of the series, she has more grounded moments. She is capable of being hurt, she wants to be there for her friends. She has a lot of colors that keep her from being a caricature.
It’s also a lot of fun to watch Kelli transform into a fun aunt to Tiffany’s daughter, Simone.
In season four, she says some things that suggest she’s not going to click with Simone. But this little baby is now her best friend and she’s really leaning into being the aunt, in a very fabulous cut by Shiona Turini. Got me on my best Janelle Monáe! I was very excited for people to see this look.
You directed episode six, which ends with Nathan and Issa seemingly at an impasse. You also wrote the season four episode where Issa and Lawrence start to stir things up. What’s going on in Issa’s love life?
When I launched episode 408 last season, I was like, let’s do a capsule episode where we get to see them well. At the end of the day, my heart beats in the romantic comedy. Their journey has feelings of an anti-rom com, rom com. The episode I did in season five, the heart of it is about owning your choices. Nathan owning his choices to be part of this barbershop, Issa owning his choice with Crenshawn. We see Issa really trying to come to terms with that. For me, it wasn’t necessarily her inability to see things from Nathan’s perspective, it was her realization, here’s this guy she likes and wants to have a relationship with and wants to make it work, but wanting something and needing something are different! And she realizes that her needs are not being met. The devastation you see is that she realizes that he doesn’t have the ability to give her what she needs. Issa would have already tried to make it work even if it didn’t, and it would have been inauthentic to the extent that she doesn’t honor his wants and needs. But she’s growing, and part of that growth is making decisions and finding her own path, not feeling like you have to cash the check the company wrote.
I was supporting Nathan and Issa! Are you Team Nathan or Team Lawrence?
As a fan of the series, I will always be Laurent’s team.
Your performance on The White Lotus also received critical acclaim earlier this year. What’s the most memorable part of being in this highly acclaimed project?
We shot during the pandemic, before the vaccination. Before that, it was just me and my dog for five months, alone. I hadn’t seen anyone else and it was just amazing to arrive on set and be around other humans and socialize! We supported each other during the elections. It was a very weird time. Just being there was a positive memory. One of my favorite scenes: Jen [Coolidge] and I’m on the boat and she’s trying to wave at the character of Jake Lacy. It didn’t make it into the show, but we were in the ocean and a whale did a cartoon-style jump. I messed up the take cause I lost my shit! I was like, we’re in nature! The team grabbed their cameras and everyone turned into a kid. Then another croissant popped! They were all doing that. It was crazy to be in open water, to shoot the show that none of us knew would have that answer. But boy, am I grateful!
Let’s get into these culture regime questions. What is the first thing you read in the morning?
The New York Times. I listen The Daily, but if I can’t listen to that, I just read the headlines of the day. I go to Twitter to see what’s going on so I know what’s going on in real time. Then I’m on Instagram, scrolling through TikTok, watching TV.
What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?
“How to ship coffee to UK” There is a specific brand, iced coffee situation. A lot of my searches are “can it come here?” I will be here until the end of January so I need my stuff. I did with.
Outraged Insecurewhat other shows have kept you up at night?
I loved Sex education on Netflix. I watched Starstruck on HBO Max, it was too good! Ted Lasso. I watched so much. inner work-I do a ton of animations and voiceovers, so I watched this on Netflix. There’s a documentary about houses on Apple TV+, and I love everything about architecture and design. And there’s a category I call “my kill streaks.” Any crime documentary I’ve probably seen or aired while I’m writing.
What is the last movie you saw at the cinema?
The premiere of sonic the hedgehog. February 2020, I did the big red carpet and it was in a theater and it was the last time. I’ve seen a ton of video on demand. I cut my teeth in New York, so there were days when I was choosing between a slice or a movie. I was broke! I would just go to the cinema by myself. If it was one of those awfully hot summer days, I’d go to the movies. It’s been one of the biggest devastations when it comes to the movie industry.
What’s the last song you had on loop?
It was a song about Insecure. “Sunbathe” by Tainy and Miguel. It’s a boo. I already tweeted it, but I want there to be a music jukebox of all of Miguel’s music. I would go see that. I was nervous as a schoolgirl when I met him because he’s so talented. I never assume people watch the show or know who I am, so I introduced myself and he dropped my hands and gave me a hug. My spirit has left my body!
What is the last concert you went to?
Lizzo! October 18, 2019. On my birthday. It was the church. It was a religious experience!
You mentioned being really into design. What’s the last piece of art you ogled or bought?
The last purchase was a reprint of Ronald Jackson, an incredible black artist. He does paintings of black individuals wearing colorful floral masks, and it’s an interesting study of the masks we wear and how we are perceived. [in life]. Frieze London in Hyde Park was performing when I got here and I wasn’t touring yet, and it was great to see.
You are Libra, but do you like astrology? Do you feel that is correct?
I think it fits me in a way that scares me. I’m very cynical, but when I moved to LA, it felt like hiking and astrology were mandatory. You have to know your sign, so you do your birth chart, and then some bitch has crystals. There is a slippery slope in this world! [Laughs.] I take what helps and leave the rest.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I usually listen to music or an audiobook. I’m not going to lie, I wish I could say I turn off all my screens and meditate. But I am very addicted to my screens. I read The evanescent half right now and it’s my favorite thing to put on audiobooks and walk around London. My first month was that of Brené Brown Workbook for the Gifts of Imperfectionso I’m really thriving here.