“I feel like that’s just a part of my personality where if you doubt me, I want to show you that you’re wrong.” —Issa Rae
We’ve all come to know Issa Rae as the intelligent Stanford grad and self-professed Awkward Black Girl who chose to create her own opportunities when doors did not magically open for her. As a talent, Rae initially felt as if acting roles that she auditioned for were too limiting for her.
She launched out on her own to later become not just an actor, but a writer, producer, and director as well. Rae’s most recent project is the role of Mae in Stella Meghie’s film, The Photograph. In this film, Rae plays an art curator. Rae has been very transparent about the fact that playing a character like Mae is refreshing for her and that she appreciates all of the new opportunities that are now coming her way.
During a set visit for The Photograph, BGN recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Rae. In the interview, Rae spoke candidly about diversifying the types of roles that she chooses to take on, the benefits of rejection, and what it’s like working alongside another female writer/director, Stella Meghie.
What about The Photograph’s script enticed you to take on this project, and what type of research did you do in preparation for the art curator role?
I thought that it was just so well written, and it’s a story that I wanted to see on screen. That’s what I found enticing. I realized midway through the film that my sister’s a curator. I asked myself, “Why can’t you just talk to her?” But I read a lot about it. I used to work in a museum myself, and I mostly focused on the relationship between [my character] and her mother. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced that kind of loss before. I was mostly read stories about how people cope with this strange stuff with their family members.
You are now the leading love interest and no longer the awkward Black girl, in a sense. You’ve gone from tripping over Jay in Insecure to this. How has this transition impacted you?
I had to look in the mirror and laugh. They really have me playing LaKeith Stanfield’s love interest? I joked about that. I mean, it’s really cool and flattering. I just never imagined playing this type of role — being the lead and the object of affection. I can’t describe it any other way. It’s like little girl me dreaming to play these roles, and now and I get to play alongside someone like LaKeith, who’s also incredible.
In this film, you have an entirely different look. It’s very different from what we have seen of you in your prior roles. How did you feel transitioning physically for this role?
My whole look is polished. My hair is straight. To be quite honest, I was like, “What is this?” But Stella has a vision for this particular character. It makes it kind of fun playing dress up and becoming someone else. But me and Felicia, who does my hair, were like, “Girl…” I didn’t know it was going to be like this, but it’s fun. It’s always fun to feel like you’re embodying someone else. I don’t identify as what has typically been seen as a leading lady. I don’t operate with the “whisk me away” sort of thinking. But I love those kinds of movies. We haven’t had a lot of representation in the past, outside of someone like a Nia Long or even a Gabby Union. It is just funny to picture myself in that type of role. It’s not how I personally identify.
In reference to this new arc in your career, can you speak to some of the benefits of rejection?
It’s so much more beneficial to be rejected early on in life, because you just learn to bounce back. It also teaches you that you have to have a sense of resilience if you really want something. It teaches you to ask yourself the question, “Is this something that I’m willing to fight for? Is it something that I’m willing to circumnavigate to figure out how to get in, how to break in?” That’s something that I was faced with constantly. It was just like, “Okay, they’re not accepting my idea here. They don’t want me to play this card. Okay, that’s fine. How do I figure out how to get it made anyway?” Or, “How do I figure out how to accept me? How do I get them to accept being this way?” Or, “How do I decide to be the exception? I’m just going to make it for whoever messes with it.” So the rejection is always humbling. For me, it always ignites a sense of. “I want to prove you wrong. I want to prove to you that I can do it.” I feel like that’s a part of my personality where I’m just like, “You can doubt me, and I want to show you why you’re wrong.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
The Photograph is set to release in theaters nationwide on February 14, 2020.