Issa Rae wants you to know that she is NOT "J."
Yes, the 29-year-old played the awkward black girl known as J for two seasons on her hilariously (and deliberately) uncomfortable hit Web series but the two women don't actually have as much in common as fans might think. The real Issa -- funny, whip-smart and, maybe, a wee bit awkward -- comes alive though in her newly published The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. On the eve of the release of her book of nonfiction essays, MTV News hopped on the phone with the author who first cracked us up with tidbits from the tome before tackling some weighty questions -- from being black in Hollywood to why ABC stays losing and the never-ending Lena Dunham comparisons. Read on and be sure to check her fearless new series, "The Legend of Human Black Guy."
MTV News: Was there anything you recalled being particularly painful to write about in the book?
Issa Rae: Just stuff with my family. I definitely talk about my parents' divorce and how that affected me. You know it seems cliche to talk about but a lot of people have gone through it … and for me it was definitely something that affected me and my dating life, my creative life. And so just talking about that, and I'd never really talked to my dad about it before. It was just something that happened and I never got his side of it and so the book actually helped me to have a conversation about it.
I let him read it in its entirety just to see if the stuff that I was saying was OK to put out there, and you know he had his issues with it but he respected it at the end of the day and that was really, really groundbreaking for our relationship.
MTV: That's really cool when a project can do that for you.
Rae: Exactly. I don't know when else we would have had that conversation.
MTV: You may have heard about Eddie Huang, the author of "Fresh Off the Boat," who opened up to Vulture about his sour experience with ABC and getting the TV adaptation off the ground. I know that you and Shona Rhimes had worked together, and ABC eventually passed on your "I Hate LA Dudes" project, which a lot of people were excited for. Do you feel like network TV is just not the place to tackle issues in a complex way?
Rae: Shonda and Betsy [Beers] were my partners throughout so they were helping me develop the project and then we took it to the network and the studio. That process was just really arduous and just really antiquated and so they ended up passing on -- after they gave us their notes to change the script to fit their mold -- they ended up passing on the project, which was fine.
But it was like such a big learning experience for me because I can definitely relate to Eddie's story. ABC, in particular, their model and their brand is that all their shows are kind of family-oriented. Even when it's a group of friends [on a show], they're a "family" of friends. And so [the characters] come together at the end, and that's their model. But I hate L.A. dudes -- I'm never gonna come together at the end with them [Laughs].
And that's why they're losing right now. That's why no one's really super excited about traditional network television because they're not placing themselves in a position to be innovative or to make change or to even align themselves with what audiences want.
In addressing his Oscar snub, David Oyelowo, who plays the lead in "Selma," recently told The Hollywood Reporter that he felt like black actors and actresses are rewarded when they play subservient roles and not when they play kings or leaders or strong characters. Thoughts? Do you think a certain "white guilt," as he put it, is at play in Hollywood in general?
Yeah, completely! I've thought that for a very long time. Like even with Denzel [Washington] and Halle [Berry], of course I celebrated their [Oscar] wins but then after a while you take a step back and you're like, "Wait a minute." When you look at the history of who's been awarded and for what, you're just like,"What? So he's a hardened criminal [in 'Training Day'] -- he didn't get it for 'Malcolm X,' he didn't get it for 'Hurricane,' he got it for this thug role that he played. And then Halle Berry's this vulnerable sexpot. We won't get awarded for being characters that don't have to be black, and that sucks.
Someone brought up, why couldn't Lupita [Nyong'o] be in "American Hustle" in Jennifer Lawrence's role? One of my main things is that default characters are always white.
Even with "Selma," the huge part that Ava [DuVernay] played is that she transitioned the script from being Lyndon B. Johnson's narrative in helping Martin Luther King to just being Martin Luther King and SNCC and SCLC's story and how they took ownership of getting their voting rights. There was no white gaze, there was no white person helping them to make this happen for themselves -- and it wasn't rewarded [by the Academy].
They think that they're groundbreaking every single time that they nominate a black person but they're not. Not really.
Still, Rae isn't calling for an Oscars boycott.
But I do get frustrated when people say to me, "Oh, why are you tripping about the Oscars? We need to stop letting these people validate us." At the end of the day, the Oscars were founded by actors and directors and producers who wanted to nominate their peers and who wanted to nominate "the best." And currently as it stands Oscars celebrate the best, so to be snubbed from that -- it's not about white validation but the "best" validation, you know? That's what's frustrating. But we have to just get up in there.
MTV: Get up in there!
MTV: Do you wake up with that as a mantra now?
Rae: In some way I do. I want to interrupt the system. I'm trying to do that on the television side, that's what my web work aims to do. But it's also rooted in also the kind of stuff that I want to create and see. ... I want to have people of color be relatable, because we are!
MTV: I have seen fans of yours tweet that Issa Rae is just as talented as Lena Dunham and should have the same opportunities. And now you have an HBO [pilot order] in the works, a book on shelves, so do you feel like the comparisons are even fair? Has she been afforded opportunities that you've been denied?
Rae: I feel like I am getting opportunities. I'm very much of the mindset that I have to make my own opportunities and so even to compare me to her, I don't think it's fair because we're different. We're not even making the same kind of content. I think people compare us because we're both young women. But I don't compare my success or lack of success to her. I'm proud of her either way. She's doing it on her own and you know I'm trying to do it on my own and I don't want anyone to be mad on my behalf. I'm still over here working.
MTV: Are there people you feel inspired by -- who goes on the inspiration board?
Rae: Donald Glover, all day. I don't want to do half of the sh— that he's doing but what he is doing on every level really inspires me. So creative and smart. I've always been a fan but it seems like every year I just grown into an even bigger fan of his.
I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; they're definitely inspirations. Even the way they collaborate with one another and build each other up, I love that.
MTV: What advice would you have for a young person who's looking at you right now and is thinking, I want to do what Issa Rae does?
Rae: Be patient and be consistent and collaborate with like-minded people. Those are really the keys and what I have to remind myself everyday when I get frustrated.
MTV: Before you go, I'm so curious what counts as essential viewing for you. Can you name your top 5 on any screen?
[Laughs] My favorite Web show -- and she claims she's stopped it -- is "Got 2B Real." I watch those over and over. On TV, I binge-watch a lot of series because that's how I relax. So "Veep," I love "Fargo," "Broad City" ... "Orange Is the New Black." There's just so much. And then, of course, "How To Get Away With Murder" and "Scandal."
MTV: So you're about that TGIT.
Rae: TGIT, all day. [Laughs]
This interview has been condensed and edited.