Issa Rae is a triple threat. She is an actor, writer, and producer, and has been creating amazing stories ever since launching her viral web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl on YouTube in 2011. The success of her web series allowed Rae to make the jump to television with Insecure in 2016, but it also solidified her, for better or for worse, as Hollywood's go-to goofball.
On HBO's Insecure, Rae plays the uncomfortably relatable Issa Dee, a 20-something trying to build a life for herself in sunny Los Angeles. Much like Rae's Awkward Black Girl heroine J, Insecure's Issa has what I call "the spirit of play-too-much." Both characters are unique, known for their tendency to joke around (they particularly enjoy awkward freestyle raps) and be chaotic and, at times, spastic. Though the parts have been great opportunities for Rae to showcase her creativity and brilliant sense of humour, they may have also unintentionally pigeonholed her into the trope of the quirky black girl.
That's why Rae was genuinely surprised when writer and director Stella Meghie scouted her to play the textured lead role in the romantic drama The Photograph. In the film, Rae plays a New York City career woman named Mae Morton, who is carrying a lasting suspicion about romance due to the pain of her past. When Mae's cynical heart softens after a chance run-in with dreamy journalist Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield), our protagonist has to work through her dark family trauma to build a bright new future.
Rae spoke about The Photograph in conversation with Meghie and writer Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, Hunger) at Harlem's nonprofit cultural community centre 92Y. "I saw that it was a love story — a black love story — and was immediately like 'Oh, what best friend does she want me to play?'" Rae said onstage. "It was an honour that [Stella] was thinking of me for the lead. The idea of playing someone who, as a little girl watching films growing up, I never imagined I could play was a treat for me."
To bring Mae to life, Rae had to switch gears and tap into her personal struggles to properly inhabit the character. "I did share a lot in common with Mae," she revealed. "The lack of vulnerability, feeling like you're not necessarily good at love..."
Meghie was strategic about selecting an actor to play against Rae in The Photograph. Whoever played Mae's love interest would have to be equally as complicated but open and expressive, the type of man that any woman would want to let down her walls for. The director admitted that while Stanfield and his "beautiful eyes" were on her radar, she wasn't sure that he was the right fit for the role.
"I didn't talk to him for a while," Meghie told the audience of her leading man. "Because I did think, He's quirky, and he's not this guy — he's not going to want to play this. I don't know if he's right."
Like Rae, Stanfield isn't what Hollywood might consider a typical romantic lead; he's known for being a little bit weird, a misfit of sorts. His idiosyncrasies also lend to his choice in projects, which run the gamut of "okay, that's weird" (FX's Atlanta) to "wtf did I just watch?" (Sorry to Bother You). But like Rae, Stanfield also has the chops and the desire to play softer, more emotional roles — remember how he gave us butterflies in the 2019 Netflix romantic comedy Someone Great?
Meghie got those same butterflies after speaking to Stanfield over Skype. When she gathered Rae and Stanfield for their first script reading in New Orleans, Stanfield proved that he was the perfect Michael. "He was so in tune with the character, and he was honest about how he related to Michael because of personal experiences," said Meghie. "As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew that that was it."
Both Rae and Stanfield played against type to bring forth delicate and vulnerable performances, resulting in a story that hits a little too close for home (I may or may not have texted an ex when the end credits rolled). Thankfully, The Photograph's emotional nature doesn't mean that its leads somehow forgot their sense of humour at home; the film is equal parts wistful sighs and laugh-out-loud moments.
The Photograph and its versatile cast are a timely reminder in an industry where black entertainers are still fighting tooth and nail for opportunities and recognition that black actors have the range. If Hollywood doesn't give us a chance, we'll tell our own stories.