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July 06, 2018

Pursuit of Happiness

Choosing the arts over medical school has worked out just fine for Yvonne Orji.

Amy Amatangelo

Yvonne Orji always knew she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up — specifically, an "amazing OB/GYN."

There was only one problem with this master plan. "I don't even like blood," she says, laughing. "Who thought this was a good idea?"

Her parents, mostly. They immigrated to the United States from Nigeria when Orji, who stars as Molly on the HBO series Insecure, was six years old. "When you're a child of an immigrant, they say, 'This is what you are going to do.' And you think, 'This is what I'm going to do. This is why you sacrificed everything to bring me here.'"

After earning a master's degree in public health from George Washington University, Orji worked in Liberia educating adolescents about pregnancy and HIV prevention. When she returned home in 2009, her parents expected her to enroll in medical school. Instead, she asked them for eight years — the time it would take to complete medical training — to develop a career in the arts.

Orji did stand-up and juggled temp jobs while hosting corporate events and weddings. Her comedy night in Midtown Manhattan, "Mama, I Made It," led to an artist residency at the University of Richmond.

"I'm hopeful. I'm always hopeful" she says of her career. In 2008, before leaving for Liberia, she'd posted a funny video on YouTube, in which she parodies African reactions to a Barack Obama presidency.

Three years later, Orji scored a writers' room internship on the TV One comedy Love That Girl by cold-contacting its producer, Michael Ajakwe Jr., on Facebook. That job brought her to L.A., where she reached out to Issa Rae on Twitter. Rae had yet to create Insecure, but she'd seen and loved the 2008 Obama video and invited her over.

Molly, Issa's best friend, is beloved by viewers who relate to her dating and career woes. As the show enters its third season, Orji has one wish for her spunky alter ego. "I told Prentice [Penny, executive producer], 'All I want is like three episodes of happiness for Molly.' And he said, 'Molly can never be happy because if she is, the show ends.' So get ready for another bumpy ride with this character."

Orji, who can be seen opposite Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in the upcoming movie Night School, is developing First Gen, a half-hour comedy loosely based on her own life. She's also writing a book that is "telling my story through a very interesting lens."

As for her parents, they're fully on board with her career now. Her mom goes around asking people, "Do you have HBO?"

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018

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