‘Insecure’ No More, Yvonne Orji Still Enjoys Cheap Pizza

Posted December 13, 2017 10:11 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Not long ago, after performing for a packed audience at Carolines on Broadway as part of a stand-up show called “Sisters of Comedy: Night of Levity for Black Lives,” Yvonne Orji gathered more than a dozen of her friends who live in New York to celebrate.

They did not go to Wildair or Le Coucou or Cosme or any other restaurant where the wait can be as long (or longer) than dinner itself. Instead, they crowded around two shaky high tables outside of 2 Bros Pizza on Eighth Avenue and 38th Street.

As it turned out, the lovably scruffy pizza joint has significance for Orji, 34, a comedian, writer and actress who is best known for her role as Molly Carter, a confident lawyer with a messy love life, in the HBO series “Insecure.” The show ended its second season in September.

Orji stood on the sidewalk in Saint Laurent heels and a light blue Forever 21 jacket (as well as some other clothes), a slice of plain pizza with garlic and chili flakes in hand. She told of how in 2009, after a six-month stint in Liberia fighting teen pregnancy and HIV for a global health organization, she found herself working at a Cheesecake Factory in Bethesda, Maryland, about an hour from where her family had moved to from Nigeria in 1989.

The year before traveling to Liberia, Orji had completed a master’s degree in public health at George Washington University, so her parents were not entirely pleased with the new gig. She imitated her father: “'So you’re wearing all white to serve people? You could be wearing all white to be a doctor.'”

Being a doctor was not what Orji wanted. But neither was being a server. She saved up enough money from her restaurant job to pay for an acting class in New York and boarded a bus. “The only person I knew in New York was this woman I had met in Liberia,” Orji said. She called her from the road. “She was like, ‘Oh, where are you staying?’ ‘Funny you should ask. I don’t know, but I’ve got two hours to figure it out.'”

The good Samaritan offered Orji the basement of her apartment in Queens, free. “One day, I’m in this apartment,” Orji said. “I’m starving. I was like, ‘I got to go to 2 Bros Pizza.’ It feeds the artists and the homeless. I just need $2.50 for the subway and $2.75 for two slices and soda.” She paused. “I did not have $6.”

Despair struck. “I’m hungry and I cannot afford a slice of pizza,” she said. “I have two degrees, and Sallie Mae is still calling. I did not plan this right.”

“And in that moment, I heard the Holy Spirit calling me,” said Orji, who is a practicing Christian. She decided to write down everything she was hearing. “It was lofty,” she said. “God gave me a dream.”

Nothing changed the next day. Or the next. Or the next. But Orji found a vision that sustained her through the disappointments and setbacks of the next seven years. And in October 2016, with the well-received premiere of “Insecure,” she finally got her big break.

Since then, Orji has gained hundreds of thousands of fans; earned herself an opening spot on Chris Rock’s “Total Blackout Tour”; and been cast in the movie “Night School,” alongside Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart. She also was featured in Net-a-Porter’s weekly digital magazine, The Edit, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nicole Richie, Sarah Silverman and Evan Rachel Wood. In early January, she will headline several more shows at Carolines. Orji is not entirely used to her new life. One of the bits she performs as part of her act for Rock’s tour is about being able to use automatic bill payments. “Auto-pay is not for convenience, it’s for the gainfully employed,” she said while having her makeup and hair done for the New York leg of the show last week.

Same goes with paying the rent on the apartment she shares with a friend who is also in the industry. “Rent’s due? ‘I put it in your Venmo already,'” she said. “We’re paying ahead of time. It’s direct deposit now.”

It is a stark change from when her roommate, who used to work as a production assistant before becoming a television writer, would call Orji to tell her there was extra food on set and Orji would drive over to avoid spending money on lunch or dinner.

She is not the only one who is still adjusting. Orji said she does not let her mother watch “Insecure” because she is afraid its sex scenes would scandalize her. “She started Googling,” Orji said of her mother. “I don’t know if that’s better or worse. She’s like, ‘I read this article and this is what they said about last week’s episode. What is Molly getting herself into?'” In the second season, Molly decides to have sex with her longtime friend Alejandro Peña, or Dro, who is in an open marriage. It is a choice some fans were unhappy about. “A lot of people are mad at Molly because they see themselves in Molly,” Orji said, gesturing animatedly as a makeup artist smeared highlighter across her cheekbones. “They’re like, ‘If we can avoid these pitfalls for her, she’ll thank us later.'” As for any parallels with herself, Orji said: “It’s something so different from anything I would entertain in my real life.”

She said she is a virgin and does not plan to have sex until after she is married. According to her parents, she should not date until after she is married either, but she has chosen to ignore that suggestion. So far, though, no one has stuck. “I didn’t know I was allowed to even start dating,” she said.

On the ride from Carolines to 2 Bros, she recalled her most recent relationship, which she ended several years ago because she wanted to focus more on her career. “To not have the wherewithal to give fully to a relationship bothered me,” she said. “His birthday would come around and I would say, ‘I made you a card. I hope you like it. It has macaroni on it. I went to Trader Joe’s, that’s dinner.'”

Now, she said, “there’s random people calling my phone, ‘Your mother gave me your number.’ My mother has tried to set me up so many times long-distance.” Her parents are not shy about making their desires clear. “They’re like, ‘We just want grandchildren before we die,'” she said. Orji is up for the challenge but not at the expense of her career. “I need more,” she said. “I want to do more good work. That’s very much my parents’ influence in me.” She imitated herself as a child talking to her mother and father: “'I got all As and a B.’ ‘Why did you get a B?’ ‘I was too busy getting As in all the other stuff?’ ‘No, you can get all As if you try harder.’ ‘OK, I will try harder.'”

“There’s just still so much to do,” she said. “It’s super-dope, but I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface.”