Our NYC Girl Talk series with Lou & Grey was such a hit, we decided to bring the series to LA for two special events at The Grove. Our first panel featured Yvonne Orji, Actor & Comedian on Insecure, and Amy Aniobi, Writer & Co-Executive Producer of Insecure. These ladies shared with us the humble steps that they took in the beginning of their careers and how they’ve pushed through their toughest challenges. Our favorite OKREAL quote: “It’s good to be strong, but it’s also good to be vulnerable.”
Amy: On the HBO side, I wrote for the second season of Silicon Valley and then another show called Brothers in Atlanta. That show did not see the light of day because of another show you might know, called Atlanta. That show is amazing, and I write for Insecure. I was just in New York writing for 2 Dope Queens—the podcast will be coming to HBO in February, so I stay busy!
Yvonne: My trajectory was not glamorous. I’ve been doing standup since 2006. In 2008, I released my very first YouTube video. I literally posted it and went to Liberia to do public health work because I’m African, and that’s what you do when you tried to avoid med school; you just leave the country. When I got back to the US in 2009, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not going to med school. I’m going to New York to do stand up.’ Then in 2011, I got an internship at a writer’s room in LA. That’s when everyone was talking about Awkward Black Girl and I was like, ‘What in the world? What is this thing?’
Yvonne: When I moved to LA in 2012, I hit up Issa on Twitter: ‘Hey girl! I’m here. You here. Let’s be here together!’ And she was like, ‘Cool, cool. I’m having a party.’ And I was like, ‘Twitter works!’ I was not expecting that, so I go over to her house and, of course, everyone is asking, ‘How do you guys know each other?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, I DM-ed her.’ And Issa was like, ‘Is that how you think you got here? I don’t just invite strangers to my house from Twitter. But, I remember you did this thing in 2008, and I started following you then. I thought you were funny.’ I was like, ‘What?! The power of YouTube!’ I was working on a show called ‘First Gen,’ and sent Issa that trailer. That trailer then became my audition tape for Insecure.
Amy: Issa Rae remembers everything and she’s extremely supportive. I remember when Insecure got picked up, she said, ‘I’m going to be talking to you. I’ll find you if we can staff.’ And I was like, ‘You will not have to find me. I will be standing in the field with no camouflage, arms wide open.’ I remember thinking, ‘She has so many mouths to feed. There is just no way.’ But she hustles, so she remembers people who hustle. She’s also very supportive of women, people of color, and people who are like her and different. So shoutout to Twitter, but also shoutout to Issa.
Yvonne: Anything that had a mic, I was hosting. If it was a baby shower, I’m there. If someone died, I’m at the wake. I’m like, ‘Well, he lived a great life!’ And Issa would see me host, but I never did the webseries. So when she hit me up with that email I thought, ‘Wait a minute. So I didn’t do the YouTube joint? But you’re going to call me for HBO? You’re the real one!’
Amy: If you’re in Los Angeles, you are probably a hustler. When I graduated from grad school at UCLA, I was $40,000 in debt and had no job. I was also burnt out from school, so I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘I don’t think I can even handle a job right now because I’m so stressed.’ I made this post on Facebook being like, ‘Friends, I love you, but I have no money. I can’t go out. If you need to find me, hit me up in my apartment. I’m working on scripts because I’m trying to be a writer.’ I couldn’t leave the house because I was focusing on my hustle. Those eight months where I didn’t have a job, I wrote two pilots, I put up a play, I produced two webseries. It was hustle, grind, hustle, grind. Then January came around and I applied to the writing program at ABC. I was named as an alternate, which just means that if someone didn’t get in, or if someone died, I’d get in. I didn’t know what to do so I decided to regroup and be an assistant again.
Yvonne: Shoutout to you for being an assistant because what people don’t realize is that that’s how you get your two degrees. By saying, ‘Yes, I’ll get you your coffee.’
Amy: My parents would ask, ‘When is your summer bonus?’ I had to explain that wasn’t a thing.
Yvonne: I was a PA for Betty White, and then as a grown woman, I was a babysitter, but to an executive. And every night that I babysat, that executive would come home and give me advice about the film industry. Advice that you can’t pay for, and he was paying me to be there. Sometimes the way up is down, and nobody teaches you that.
Amy: It’s interesting because I think being an artist is the coupling of crippling self-doubt and extreme confidence, in equal play. You think, ‘I can do this! I’m so good! Look at that shit! I’m better than that! But why won’t anyone listen to me? I don’t understand. I should move back to Texas!’ It’s always a spiral, and it goes both ways. I feel like the insecurity can be really deep because you’re always questioning why you didn’t get an opportunity. It’s not even comparing yourself to other people, it’s just knowing your value and questioning why. That’s natural and that’s OK. On the flip side, you also have to know that you’re getting better. You can’t control if someone thinks you’re great, but you can control how much work you put into your craft. It goes hand in hand.
Yvonne: I’m an eternal optimist. I’m like, ‘With God, all things are possible!’ And then also my alternative was moving back home to Laurel, Maryland, where dreams go to die. So I think for me, it was just do or die. I got to do this. The agony of defeat always kept me afloat. Sometimes you think you’re hustling, but you’re low-key procrastinating. When I was doing the trailer for First Gen, I did not sleep. I was fasting forty days and forty nights. Jesus could come back and he would find me working. I was a hard worker, but this was on another level, so much so that it made the people around me nervous. They’d ask, ‘Are you good?’ I was like, ‘Imma be good.’ That spiraled so many things. This was pre-Insecure, so it just showed the power of how truly working hard could actually pay off. That’s when I knew, ‘OK. Imma be alright.’
Amy: I have two things right off the bat that I always say when I have the opportunity to talk to people who are starting out. Number one, do things before you’re ready, because by the time you’re ready somebody else will have already done it. I’ve heard people be like, ‘I want to do a webseries, but I need a car to explode and I don’t have that car to explode, so I better not do that webseries.’ Figure it out. Figure out what your limitations are and make your constraints work for you. My first webseries, I edited completely by myself. It was hard, but I taught myself how to use Final Cut. I was like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ Just climb in and do it, because your first thing won’t be great. It just won’t be, so get it out there and do the next thing. Get the feedback. Do the next thing. The second piece of advice is network across, not up. I see people spending a lot of time talking to people who are more powerful than them asking, ‘Can you feed me?’ And that person being like, ‘What are you talking about?’ What you should be doing is talking to your peers. The person sitting next to you. Your best friend. Spend all that energy making friends, being genuine, and being nice. That will go further than an email to some producer.
Yvonne: That last piece is critical because the assistant you think is not important today has the ear of the boss you want to talk to. Know your worth and know your brand. Before you even make it, know what that looks like. Who are you? Who you are is what people don’t even know they may want. It’s easy to be like, ‘So and so is doing something like that. I’m going to do that, too.’ What is it that you do? And what are you going to bring?
Yvonne: I really do believe that you should be excellent at whatever level you’re at. If you’re broke, be excellently broke. At some point, there is a level of excellence that becomes the status quo that everyone’s expecting. Be excellent at any level and be nice. If you see Oprah, be nice to Oprah. If you see the dude that’s picking up trash, be nice to the dude that’s picking up trash. Your gift makes room for you.
Amy: Don’t go broke acting like you have money to people who ain’t got money. Don’t compare yourselves. Instagram is a lie to ya’ll. One of our writers, Dayna Lynne North who is an EP on the show, she always says, ‘Instagram causes you to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.’ You gotta let that go. You need to work on yourself and your voice.
Yvonne: I often say ‘Trust your gut’ and ‘I’m enough.’ I’m a pretty confident person, but I was also bullied for years, so I have to constantly encourage myself in situations where I feel less confident. I’ll never forget the first day of shooting… You try so hard for the auditions. I think by audition four I was like, ‘OK, if they don’t want me, then they don’t want me.’ It was a chemistry read with Issa. When I left that, I was walking like I owned it because we had just such good chemistry! But then you gotta shoot the show and I was thinking, ‘Am I a fraud? Did I just trick them for five really good auditions? And now do I know how to act for real?’ I constantly remind myself, ‘You are enough. They want you. They want the you that also grows.’ I’m a different actor season 2. You learn more and get in the groove. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Just be the best version of yourself. You’re not for everybody, but you’re going to be for some special someone, somewhere.
Amy: The growth from season 1 to 2 is amazing, not like you haven’t always been talented since day one, but watching you grow into the confidence of the space you possess. In season 2, I saw you become a leader. We love breaking new talent on Insecure. We have people from YouTube and other Internet stars who are not used to being in that high budget HBO comedy setting. Watching you help people find themselves is remarkable because you are so generous and giving to people. It shows them, ‘Oh, I can be comfortable. I can crack jokes with her.’ Watching numerous men feel very comfortable next to this force is pretty damn cool.
Amy: When you get in a space of learning with people who are at your level or above you, trust your instinct, number one, and also listen. As my dad always says, ‘You have two ears, and one mouth.’ So you listen, and then you talk. On set, I always try to remember that. Let me just focus and pay attention and be listening and so that I can absorb more and be able to give more the next time I’m given a position of power.
Yvonne: You’re also good at knowing what you want. We have a lot of women on our show, in front of the camera and behind the camera. One time Amy said, ‘You know, I didn’t like that shot.’ And everybody was like, ‘We got it.’ Amy was like, ‘Yeah, I’d really like one more.’ This could have gone awry, but she was just like, ‘I know the words I wrote, and I’m really confident that we need to give it another opportunity for us to get it. Please give me my shot.’ And I was like, ‘You better stand your ground woman.’
Amy: What you don’t know is that I was sweating.
Yvonne: Sometimes you gotta do what scares you. I might get fired, but I gotta stand for something.
Amy: Some people are mentors and some people are advocates. Mentors are the people who are going to give you advice. Advocates are the people who are saying good things about you when you’re not there. Maybe someone’s not your mentor, but they’re your advocate, and you might not even know. You might suddenly get a job offer, and you’re like, ‘Where did this come from?’
Yvonne: The currency in Hollywood is not just money. There are different exchanges. If you’re somebody’s assistant and even if you’re not getting paid, the amount of stuff that you are privy to just as their assistant can be invaluable. You don’t know who else could be here. A CEO could be walking by. You have no idea where your holy hookup could actually come from.
Amy: Some of my closest friends, advocates and mentors, I’ve met at events like this by turning to my neighbor. I’ve met people who have offered me jobs, and it’s from going across. When you come to these things, you are sitting with the people who are going to be in the rooms with you when you are trying to make things happen later. Take advantage of that. You’re in the room where it happens right now!
Amy: 25-year-old me was a little stressful, I was a year into grad school. I applied to some fellowships and had not gotten them. I was questioning myself. Shonda Rhimes was just becoming a big deal and people would say to me that I should aim to be the next Shonda Rhimes, and I was like, ‘But I want to write comedy. I want to be the first Amy Aniobi. I don’t want to be the next Shonda Rhimes.’ I was writing this script about a badass woman who talks very crass. The whole room was telling me, ‘It should be a drama. You know Shonda Rhimes? Write it like that.’ And I emailed this professor, ‘Should I change this whole thing? I don’t know.’ He sent me one line back: ‘Stop. I know your voice. You know it, too. Follow that.’ I was like, ‘Okay!’ That was the day that I knew I was a comedy writer. Know your voice.
Yvonne: 25 was when I really told my parents, ‘It’s going to take me eight years to be a doctor. Give me eight years to make it in entertainment.’ By the grace of God, we did it in seven. I had so much faith, but not enough compassion or humility at 25. It’s good to be strong, but it’s also good to be vulnerable.
Amy: Remember to check yourself because sometimes when we get into that indignant space of, ‘I know what I’m doing, and you don’t understand.’ You can miss a critique that is valuable or word of advice that is important. Really analyze. When you feel that fire, pride, or hubris, look back inward and say, ‘Where is this coming from?’
Yvonne: If you tell me no, I will think that I just asked the wrong person. I had that blind faith. I was also putting my best foot forward because LA is one of those places where you never know who is in the audience. As a comic, I would always go on stage like, ‘Imma tell this joke. This is my 30-minute special.’ Because I have no idea who is there, so I was always putting my best foot forward. In 2014, three doors closed back to back to back. When the first thing happens, you’re just like, ‘Alright. Harlem shake it off.’ Then the second thing happens, and you think, ‘OK, that one stung.’ The third thing rolls around and you start to think, ‘What’s the point of getting back up?’ I remember I was walking down Sunset Boulevard crying. I gave God an ultimatum because that’s what you do. I was like, ‘God, I’m done!’ There are a lot of things that I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: I have seen the hands of God’s work, and right now it may not look like it’s working, but I know that it does work. So if I hold onto that one morsel of possibility, maybe I can come out of this. I had to believe in God and his work.
Yvonne: Before I took the role, I asked, ‘What do you envision for this character?’ I had a strict no nudity clause, so they’re very creative with how they work with me. You have to use your words. Everybody is an adult. Everybody has to understand, ‘Maybe she’s not comfortable doing this.’ Amy will come in and say, ‘This is exactly how we’re going to shoot it.’ But also understanding that I have a limit. Molly is not me. To bring someone else’s vision to life, I have to meet them halfway. How do I balance this gift of wanting to play a multitude of people? That was a compromise. Language wasn’t a deal breaker for me, nudity was.
Amy: If I’m being honest, there are no days off. Not only do I work on Insecure, and work on the 2 Dope Queens special, but I have two movies in development, and I’m pitching a show in a couple weeks. I also sold a show last year to Amazon. So my days off are spent working, but I love my work, so I’m not mad at it. But in terms of self care, I love long walks. I love a long neighborhood hike. I also occasionally get massages. I don’t go to expensive places. I just go to the ones that have specials on Yelp, so they’re affordable. I don’t meditate, but I appreciate silence. As a writer, when you’re in a writer’s room, you’re talking all the time. So I like to go home and just have my own quiet time.
Yvonne: Are we the same person? I spend a lot of time on airplanes or speaking, and I love people, but when I don’t have to be around ya’ll, I’m a hermit. I love being home. I don’t like to talk on the phone that much, so when I retreat, I retreat. I’m kind of a loner in that way. When I’m out, I’m out. I’ll go to the store and I’m like, ‘I would like to buy this big bouquet. Now make the card out to me.’
Actor & Comedian, Insecure
Writer & Co-Executive Producer, Insecure