Yvonne Orji - LEAD
Credit: Courtesy HBO

I say all the time that when you first meet me, you know three things right off the bat: I’m Nigerian, I love to laugh, and I love Jesus.

I grew up Catholic, so I had a more traditional relationship with religion. When I was 17, a college friend asked me to come to a Bible-study group with her. I wasn’t very familiar with born-again religion or "being saved," but when I listened to the minister that night—a beautiful, young med student—talk about how much she loves God, to the point that she kept calling him “Daddy,” something changed. At first I was like, “Why is she calling him Daddy?” I’d never heard anyone be so personal when talking about this deity because, for me at least, God was in the sky.

That experience opened up something inside me. It felt very authentic and intimate. That same minister shared that she was waiting until marriage to have sex, and again I thought, “I don’t understand—she’s beautiful.” In my mind I was like, “Girl, you can get some! Why would you do this to yourself?” But she talked about all the things that God has done for her, and how she felt like the sacrifice was not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. And I thought, “Wow, I want to be at a point where I feel so compelled to sacrifice something for the greater good of God.” I mean, I was 17, a freshman in college. I had big plans to have sex when I turned 18 (because at 18 I would be an adult and could make adult decisions), but then God got me at 17 and sold me on a plan to remain a virgin until I get married. I like to say that I was "bamboozled by Jesus."

Exposure is a biggie for me. When you’re exposed to more, you can believe in more. So with my religious awakening, it felt as if I had been exposed to more of something good, and I wanted all of it. Over the years, my relationship with God has changed my life for the better—it's grown me up, given me a sense of purpose, and grounded me in my identity.

I’ve definitely had to think a lot about reconciling the roles I take as an actress with my faith. As difficult as the hungry days were—the borderline depressing days when I wasn’t working—they served as a form of grooming because I thought about what I would do when a good opportunity did come along. I thought, “What does that looks like for you? What will you compromise on? What will you not compromise on?” So many people are just focusing on getting their big break, but it’s more about what you do when the big break comes. What will your character be like? You can’t prepare in the battle. You have to be battle-tested and ready.

Yvonne Orji - EMBED
Credit: Courtesy HBO

So when my big break actually did come—the role of Molly on Insecure—I had already decided what I was and wasn’t comfortable with. For me, cursing onscreen wasn’t a deal breaker, but I limit it to during rehearsals or when the cameras are rolling. (I sub things like “Shonda Rimes” in the place of certain curse words, which made for an interesting day when Kerry Washington was on set shadowing our director.) Some people edit themselves in front of me, and I’m like, “It’s cool. Live your life! My beliefs don’t mean you’re not free to be yourself. That’s not what God's about. Yes, He compels people to do better, but His approach is really from the place of love.”

The other big thing I had to think about in terms of my job was sex scenes. What would those look like? I knew I'd inevitably play a character who has sex (and Molly has a lot of it!), but I also knew that nudity wasn't an option. Thankfully, I was able to have conversations with the producers and the directors and figure out a way to achieve their vision while maintaining my personal brand. At the end of the day, I know I gotta sell it, but I also gotta look my momma in the face!

My faith—as well as my Nigerian culture—really gave me the substance and foundation to be who I desire to be in life. It’s definitely been a journey, but at the end of the day, I’m a representative of Him wherever I go. If you see me and enjoy anything about me, it’s directly because of the God that’s in me. It's like when you're at a restaurant and you see another couple dining and their food looks so enticing, you don't even need to look at the menu—you just tell the waiter, "I'll have what they're having." I want to live in such a way that could compel someone to say, "I'll have what she's having."

—As told to Leigh Belz Ray