Yvonne Orji is back with a new HBO comedy special, Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me, and she's not kidding about that subtitle. Premiering October 1 at 10pm ET before streaming on HBO Max, her latest stand-up extravaganza explores everything from growing up as the child of Nigerian immigrants to dealing with the pitfalls of modern dating. While it's only been two years since Momma, I Made It!, the world has changed drastically since then—and Orji makes the most of that difference.SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY
Orji first rose to fame in a very different HBO program, Insecure, where she honed her skills as a comedic actress. Since then, she has worn several different hats, branching out into film acting (such as in last year's Vacation Friends and its upcoming sequel) and even trying her hand at directing with a short called "Jamal." She executive produced A Whole Me, and a full range of her acting and writing talents are on display between the vignettes and stand-up.
Related: What To Know About HBO Star Yvonne Orji
Screen Rant spoke to Orji about how Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me came together, skits and all, and how she feels about the universal appeal of her very specific stories.
Yvonne Orji Welcomes A Whole Me
I really enjoyed this special, especially the vignettes. When you are putting together the project, how do you decide what the topics are in these vignettes and how they're going to fit in?
Yvonne Orji: We actually did the vignettes before I wrote my special, so we had a writers' room. I'm just like, "These are things that I want to talk about."
It's funny, I sold the special to HBO like, "Africa in living color," and they were like, "Okay!" So, in my mind, I was like, "We're gonna do a ton of these skits!" And then they were like, "But where's the stand-up?" Oh, yeah. The stand-up. "Okay, guys. Pivoting!"
We had the writers' room already set, and we did [it] for three weeks and kind of fleshed out what we wanted. And then we took a break for about a month and a half while I wrote, and I wrote the special in a weekend. I want to do [something] that not only moves people, but that has heart, humor, and has a moment of reflection. It was truly a special that felt special. I'm not trying to be deep, but I really wanted to have levity and also have a moment for clarity to live.
When I took the weekend, I was like, "What did I go through in the pandemic?" Because that's really where we were; we had been in isolation for two years. What did I learn? How did I grow? What was hard for me, and what was fun for me? I just kind of put that all together in a sauce, and then I was really intentional about not making the skits and the vignettes feel very jagged from the stand-up. I needed them to be cohesive, and I wanted it to flow one right into the other.
It was only after I wrote this special and was touring it that it was like, "Oh, that skit could fit right here!" It wasn't happening in real-time. It was just like, "Wait a minute. There's a line I say that, so what if we do this? What if we break from stage here? And then we cut to the vignettes there?" It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, and we were figuring it out as we were going. But I'm really proud of how it turned out.
I would watch a series based on the vignettes.
Yvonne Orji: I hope you say that out loud for the people in the back, whoever they are, to buy this show that doesn't exist yet.
You've already worked with HBO on Momma, I Made It! and Insecure. What is it that you like best about this partnership?
Yvonne Orji: What I like is that they share the same desire that I do about pushing the envelope, whatever that looks like for me. For instance, people were like, "Yo, was it hard to convince HBO to let you go back to Nigeria?" I was like, "No, not at all." I literally was like, "I want to go back to Nigeria," and Aaron Spina was like, "Have we ever gone to Nigeria for special? No? Alright, that sounds great." And that's how it happened. They're interested in doing the fun, fresh thing that no one else is doing. I love that about them. They are willing to indulge my visions as much as possible.
For this special, I was like, "And then I want Afrobeat dancers!" and they're like, "Wait, what?" Each time, I'm like, "I'm selling you all a music video documentary comedy special sketch show." They go, "We just really thought you were gonna sell a comedy special." But as you can see, we had dancers. Again, who else is coming out to Afrobeat dancers? Afrobeat is literally being played on commercials now. This is where the culture is going, and I happen to be part of that culture. So, why not include what speaks directly to me as a creative, as an artist, and as a woman that identifies as Nigerian-American?
It's a fun partnership. And they're not overbearing, like, "You can't do that. You shouldn't do that." No, it really is a collaborative partnership.
I love what you said about the things that speak to you, because while the stories that you're telling are true to your experience personally, I think they resonate with so many children of immigrants. As a child of a Latin American immigrant, I'm like, "Yep, that was my mom. That is exactly her but with a different accent." Have you gotten that feedback come from not only those in your community, but others around the world?
Yvonne Orji: When I tell you that is the thing that got me going, when I first started comedy in 2006. I'll never forget it. I was performing at The DC Improv for DC's Funniest College Student Competition in 2007. My parents were not happy, because they were like, "You're just talking about me!" We have to have a separate conversation when I get home.
But there was an Indian guy, an Asian guy, and I want to believe a Latin American guy. It was three of them. And they came up to me and said, "You sound just like my mom with a different accent." I know you just said it, but literally, that's what got to me. And I stuck with that for so many years, especially when I was shooting the trailer for a project that I wanted to work on. I know this is very specific to me, but [it's true of] any child of immigrants. Our parents went to the same school, they was just on different continents! I promise you. It was that thing of, we can all have a connection, even though I'm speaking specifically about what it was like for me.
Given the time between your first special and now, what do you think you are bringing to A Whole Me that wasn't present before?
Yvonne Orji: I think it's bringing the most authentic version of myself, that's why it's called A Whole Me. To be honest, the you that you are is always in you, but it's fighting to be the best version of itself. There's things in my character and my personality that, like, it is what it is. Now, there are better ways for those things to come out, and there are easier ways for those things to be achieved and seen and done.
In the pandemic, when I had nothing but time—everybody had done nothing but time and space to process—you had to sit with yourself. And then it was a thing of, "Do I like me?" And it's not like there's anything wrong with me, but do you like the fact that you're letting people get over on you? Are you not tired of that? And it's just like, "I am but I feel like if I change that aspect of me, they won't like me anymore." You'll find new people to like you. That's the kind of conversations [that are] very hard because I know people pleasing is not great for me. However, it has given me this circle that I get to do community with. But in your mind, you're like, "Is this the best circle? I don't want to find out!" But I have to find out in order to become a whole me.
Part of becoming whole is the breaking, so there was a lot of breaking [in the] through processes of relationships, of even how I work, how I operate, and what I say. Then the breaking became A Whole Me.
The people-pleasing aspect is certainly aspirational for me, if you will.
Yvonne Orji: It's a lot, but you realize that we understand in a relationship sense. When you hear your girlfriend being like, "I mean, I would break up with him, because he says the worst things to me. But every once in a while, he treats me good." And you're just saying, "Girl, you know there's somebody that will treat you good every day." "I know, but I just don't know if I can find better." "I promise you that you can find better."
You understand that more, but that's how we barter with ourselves with jobs; with friends; with so many different things. ""I know they don't pay me enough, but I like my title."
You obviously can do it all: acting, stand-up, executive producing. What is next for you? Is First Gen still happening and what can you say about it?
Yvonne Orji: That is still in development. What I am really excited about now it's that I've dabbled in directing. I directed my first short with Paul Feig's company, Powderkeg. Right now we're in post for that. I'm about to head out of town to shoot a movie, and I am also putting on the EP hat in a lot of different ways. I'm getting some IP that I want to turn into TV shows.
It was just announced that I'm going to be doing Stronger with Netflix. So, I've got a couple of hats that I'm juggling. But I'm really wanting to take a vacation. That's what I really want.
That is a great first step. What has your time on Insecure and on these specials taught you that you've taken into your career?
Yvonne Orji: I think the thing that the specials taught me, and that I had to really sit with, is this notion of "proud not perfect." Can you be proud of it and not seek for it to be perfect? Can it be something you put out, and you can be proud of it? There may be things that didn't make it in, there may be things where we didn't have that shot. But can you be proud of it if it's not perfect? I think that was a lesson that I had to continuously tell myself. Because what I'm looking for, the average person would be like, "We didn't see that at all!"
But they also taught me to be true to what I want to say in the season. I stand by a lot of the things that I said in the first special. And at the same time, in the second special, I'm older. I have new information. I won't give it away, but the last joke is something that I probably wouldn't have felt comfortable doing in the first special. But it may be something that people will [respond to] like, "Oh, we didn't see that coming..." As I get older, as I mature, there will be new terrain that I delve into. Don't box me in. I think that's one thing that I'm leading into: everyone will deal; we're all adults; we're grown.
[As for] Insecure, that was one of those I'll never forget. We were in season 1, and somebody wanted to cheat Northridgefor Inglewood. I remember Issa [Rae] being like, "That's not a thing that will ever happen." And they were like, "Yeah, but we don't know if we'll have time to make it." "We will make time. We're gonna have to shoot this in Inglewood."
I just remember her just being like, "The things that are worth fighting for, I will fight for. Because this doesn't make sense. I know that it's probably trying to save some cents, but it doesn't make sense. The authenticity that I desire for this show to have will be watered down, because anyone from Inglewood would know that this is Northridge." And she was just so cool and calm. "No, I don't really want to do that." It wasn't an argument; it wasn't her being difficult. It was just her being like, "As an artist, I have to protect the art and stand for something."
There were lots of moments I learned from throughout the five seasons of shooting that show, but that's one thing that really stuck with me: know how to protect your vision. And aren't we glad that she did? Because how you start a thing sets the precedent and sets the tone. There was never a moment where that aspect of that vision was compromised.
About Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me
Picking up where her debut special left off, Emmy®-nominated actor Yvonne Orji (HBO's Insecure) returns to the stage to offer up her point-of-view on the pandemic, estate planning, being the child of Nigerian immigrants, and the brutal realities of dating.
Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me premieres Saturday, October 1 on HBO before streaming on HBO Max.