Love, Simon may be a groundbreaking gay teen romance, but the film’s surprising secret weapon comes in the form of a tired but passionate teacher played by Insecure‘s Natasha Rothwell.
Directed by Greg Berlanti and written by This is Us duo Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the John Hughesian coming-of-age tale centers on the titular Simon (Nick Robinson), who is secretly discovering his sexuality as he traverses the challenges of high school. One of his many hurdles includes being in the ensemble in a production of Cabaret, headed up by Rothwell’s Ms. Albright, who’s just as likely to spout a good one-liner lamenting her career trajectory as she is to show an immense amount of heart during Simon’s coming-out process.
“In the Venn diagram of those emotions, there’s Ms. Albright, because, like most teachers right now in the country, there’s an exhaustion,” Rothwell tells EW with a laugh. “And I think hers is particularly funny because she has the nostalgia for a life lived before she became a teacher, and she takes her job seriously. That’s what’s really cool about playing her and exploring her as a character.”
After reading the script for Love, Simon, Rothwell says she was desperate to land the role, putting herself on tape when she couldn’t make it to the audition in person. “It’s just exceptional storytelling of love at its purest,” Rothwell says. “It was a story that is close to my heart, and I was just thrilled to be a part of it.”
The character of Ms. Albright is not a huge stretch for the actress, who was actually a theater teacher in the Bronx for four years. “In a world where you graduate with a theater degree from college, you gotta find your bread job,” Rothwell says with a laugh. “You gotta find that job to pay the bills. I always gravitated towards teaching and doing things as a teaching artist. And then I found a job teaching theater. So I truly lived the life of Ms. Albright.”
In Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the book on which the movie is based, Ms. Albright had an expanded role, but Rothwell knew going into the film that it would be pared down to keep the focus on Simon and his journey. And while most of her very quotable lines were on the page, the scene-stealing actress says Berlanti was a champion of her improv during production. “It’s just such a huge part of my background,” she says. “And so we would do a take as written, and I would ask to play around. And he was so willing to indulge me and even participated in that. Like, he’d run over and say, ‘Try it this way.’ So it was a real creative conversation that was happening around some of the things that she says and finding some funny lines to play with, too.”
The outcome has already had an impact on viewers who have seen the film in previews — Love, Simon officially debuts in theaters on Friday. “There’s so much Ms. Albright love out there,” Rothwell says. “It’s been really overwhelming. With sort of the reduced role, I just didn’t anticipate as much attention as it’s getting, and so it’s been really heartwarming to feel the love of people who are just like, ‘I wish I had a theater teacher like you.’ They welcomed the comedic relief of the film, and it’s been a real treat to have people tweet at me lately.”
Rothwell is far from new to the scene. Back in 2014, she became a writer on Saturday Night Live during its landmark 40th season, subsequently joining the writers’ room on HBO’s Insecure in 2016 before star and executive producer Issa Rae and EP Prentice Penny wanted her in front of the camera. “It was about three months into the writers’ room for season 1,” Rothwell says. “I was called into the office with Prentice and Issa. And I, of course, am just a goody-goody, so I thought I was in trouble. At the time, we were in the middle of a Nerf war, and so I’m like, ‘Is this an ambush with Nerf guns, or am I in trouble?’ They were just like, ‘Would you want to play Kelli? We would love to cast you as her.’ And I cried instantly. I’m pretty sure my tears hit them, they came out so hard, because I was just so excited to have that happen.”
Before breaking big, Rothwell’s tenure also included bit parts on Royal Pains, Netflix’s The Characters, and UCB Comedy Originals, in which she played Oprah. “There’s a grandiosity of just delivery,” Rothwell says of playing Winfrey. “She feels almost like deity. I feel like when I played her for that UCB original, there’s the approach of just presenting her with deference and honor, and demanding that kind of respect from the audience. Which they’re all too willing to give because it’s Oprah, hello. So it was very fun to play her.”
But long before that, Rothwell always knew she was funny. “I was constantly trying to make my family laugh and my parents laugh,” she says. “It’s just something that always felt natural to me. And then I learned how to use my powers for good in high school. I’m a military brat, so I moved around a ton. When you’re making friends and you’re funny, it makes that easier.”
“Then I went to school for theater, but after college, I was complaining that I kept getting cast in comedy roles,” Rothwell continues. “I had coffee with an old professor, and said, ‘I wanna be taken seriously, and I keep getting cast in things that are funny.’ He was just like, ‘You’re resisting something that you’re naturally good at. It takes a lot of skill to do. It’s not easier to do comedy; it’s actually harder. You just have a gift for it.’ And when he framed it in that context, I got excited about it, and that’s when I just started pursuing it hardcore after that conversation. And just accepted what I’d been doing all along.”
While Rothwell will continue with Insecure for season 3, she’s also developing a new series for HBO, which she’ll star in, write, and executive produce. “There’s not too much I can say, but it’s a comedy,” she says. “And it’s something that I haven’t seen before. I’m interested in stories being told by marginalized voices and specifically people of color. I think it’s something that will be really fun to see and something we haven’t seen before. So I’m excited to share my point of view with the world.”
It’s the same reason Love, Simon is so relevant, she stresses. “I think it’s an important movie because of the time that we’re living in,” she says. “I feel like, under this current administration, marginalized people and the voices of the marginalized deserve to be amplified and celebrated, and have their stories told. That’s exactly what Love, Simon does. It celebrates love and it speaks to everyone. It’s the tagline of the movie: Everyone deserves a love story.”
“Visibility is so huge right now,” she continues. “It’s not just huge, it’s crucial to maintaining and trying to keep alive democracy. And this movie does that in a funny, heartfelt way, and it’s just so relatable. Watching it, and even shooting it in an actual high school, you regress back to yourself when you were that young. So I felt all of my old insecurities come back. And I’m just like, ‘This is so, just so relatable.’ So I think people will connect to it.”
Love, Simon opens in theaters on Friday.