Why You Know Her: She plays power lawyer, online dater extraordinaire, and Issa’s best friend, Molly, on HBO’s Insecure.
Why You Will Know Her: She’s the creator and star of the David Oyelowo-produced sitcom FirstGen, currently in development.
It’s not every day that one’s first break is on a buzzy HBO comedy, especially when acting was never in the cards to begin with. “I was supposed to be the doctor in my family,” says Yvonne Orji, who emigrated from Nigeria to Maryland when she was 6. But after realizing she fainted at the sight of so much as a scar, she moved to Liberia to work in HIV and teen-pregnancy prevention. “I went to a postwar zone because I couldn’t tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Orji says with a laugh.
Doing virtually anything to dodge medicine, she entered the Miss Nigeria in America pageant at 22, where she did a comedy set for her talent portion. “I wrote about growing up Nigerian in America. To my surprise, people laughed and were like, ‘Hey, do you host weddings and birthdays?'”
It was then that Orji, now 32, came up with FirstGen, a pilot based on her own experiences, that she created after raising $7,000 and posted online. “Africans are either a caricature or fleeing genocide. They’re never the next-door neighbor,” she notes.
David Oyelowo came on board as an EP after a FirstGen producer looked up the award winning actor on IMDbPro and cold called his manager. While the series is in development, Orji is shining on HBO’s Insecure (Sundays, 10:30 p.m. ET), playing Issa Rae’s loyal best friend, Molly. (She’s the inspiration behind the show’s catchy “Broken P—y” rap.)
Rae, a fan of FirstGen, and Orji first met in 2012 at a game night in Rae’s home (the invitation came via a Twitter direct message), and a few years later Rae suggested she’d be the perfect Molly. Five auditions later, Orji is making her parents proud. “For so long they were like, ‘What can we show to prove you’re successful?’ Now they have something: Insecure is airing in Nigeria. It’s surreal.”
Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.