‘Insecure’ Star Yvonne Orji and Other Emmy Contenders on the Trap of ‘Diversity Porn’ and How Viewers Can Make a Difference (Video)

Orji was joined by “Silicon Valley’s” Thomas Middleditch, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’s” Alex Newell, “Never Have I Ever’s” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and “Normal People’s” Paul Mescal for the roundtable discussion

Last Updated: July 8, 2020 @ 3:28 PM

As Hollywood takes strides toward becoming more inclusive and fully representative of the real world, it’s worth considering who bears the burden of advancing those conversations and in what ways they’re allowed to do so, “Insecure” star Yvonne Orji says.

“That the question [about advancing diversity] needs to be asked is so overwhelming, especially for people of color,” Orji said. “Like can we just make a show without an agenda? That’s real progress. Can we just be Black without having to talk about something? We’re never afforded that opportunity.”

Orji’s comments came during TheWrap’s Emmy contenders virtual roundtable on Thursday, which also included “Silicon Valley” star Thomas Middleditch, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” star Alex Newell, “Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and “Normal People” star Paul Mescal.

Ramakrishnan was quick to agree that people of color aren’t often afforded the opportunity to “just have fun” as artists and performers when their communities aren’t being represented on screen. “All I want to do is bring a realistic representation of a South Asian girl who was born in the western world,” Ramakrishnan said. “Because that’s who I am. And that’s just one story of an entire community.”

Orji called out awards voting bodies in particular for their attraction to what she dubbed “diversity porn,” projects that center on the struggles of communities of color and “white guilt.”

“What are the things that have won awards?,” she said. “It’s the things that makes the voters, who aren’t always people of color, feel like, if we award this — not that they shouldn’t be awarded — it makes us feel like we’ve done our jobs. But, hey would you also award the show that’s just about black people being black in a city and living their lives and having experiences?”

Elsewhere in the conversation, the actors also discussed how they first landed their roles on their respective shows. For many, these projects were their first major television gigs. Prior to landing “Insecure,” Orji primarily worked as a comedian and emcee (“Imagine telling jokes a funeral. I did that”).

Most of Mescal’s experience before leading Hulu’s Sally Rooney adaptation was in theater. “I was staring into the abyss of unemployment when that audition just came into my inbox,” he said. “It was was one of those ones where the audition process seemed to go really smoothly, which I haven’t found to normally be the case.”

“[I was] just performing and writing and hustling,” Middleditch said of his career before “Silicon Valley.” He had already been working on a different project with series co-creator Mike Judge when Judge pitched him the show. “I always thought they were pulling my leg because that is so insane. HBO, getting to work with Mike Judge, they had me as the lead — that all seems nuts.”

Newell, who had previously done work on Broadway and starred in the later seasons of Fox’s “Glee,” shared a story of forgetting the lyrics to “My Man” during his audition. “I had just ended a run in a show on Broadway. It closed and I was very unemployed,” he said. “I walked in and I botched the audition. I forgot the majority of the lyrics to a song that I have sung time and time and time again. … In that moment it said, I don’t know you and you don’t know me.”

But thankfully he made up for it with “the interview portion” of the audition: “It was like Miss America. If you fall on your face, just have a great answer to the question.”

Ramakrishnan had what was perhaps the most Hollywood version of a casting process, winning the part after a friend saw the open casting call on co-creator Mindy Kaling’s Twitter account.

“I remember walking from school five minutes over to our community center, going into the library for a good solid 30 minutes, Googling up what is a slate, what are sides, and figuring out how to work the camera that we got from my mom,” she said. “Once we figured that out, we were flying.”

“The actual intent of me auditioning was just to have fun with my best friend,” Ramakrishnan said, later adding that such a process is a good way for the industry to seek out new and other kinds of talent.

“It’s okay to add a little bit of color, and I don’t mean just whatever fits your checklist for token representation because that’s just disgusting and pointless, but realistic people of color doing their thing,” she said. “Maybe it’s deep; maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just about a brown girl who wants to get railed.”

But the onus isn’t just on executives and creatives to be more expansive in what they consider is a worthy story for television and film. There’s a role for the consumer to play as well, Orji said.

“How do you think you can help with this issue? What are some action plans? Hey other people that are not brown, how do you think they can help? There are no right or wrong answers and if there is a wrong answer, we can correct, we can amend, but I feel like so many people are afraid of being wrong or being called out for being wrong,” she said. “And it’s like hey I’d rather you take a stab at it.”

She called on viewers to seek out things they don’t necessarily relate to. “It’s always so interesting when white people who discover ‘Insecure’ are like, ‘I know we’re not the audience, but I love it,'” she said. “It’s on HBO! The audience is anyone who can afford HBO and HBO Max.”

The essential source
for entertainment insiders

Sign up for your
FREE TRIAL!