Issa Rae is busy. She just wrapped production on season 2 of Rap Sh!t, announced the launch of Fête, the new brand marketing platform for her production company, Hoorae Media, at Cannes Lions Festival; and served as a mentor on an upcoming season of Project Greenlight. Once the writers’ strike ends, she’ll start working on a new comedic relationship thriller. So it’s no wonder she decided to take a break—of sorts.
Starring in two current projects—Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and the highly anticipated Barbie movie—Rae allowed someone else to take the reins behind the scenes. “Insecure was such an all-encompassing task for me. And it was amazing to be able to wear so many hats and to bring my vision to life in that particular series, but I was tired,” the actress tells EBONY. “I wanted to branch out and do more ensemble pieces, just to be able to check on my own skills and learn from other people.”
In Barbie, which hits theaters on July 21, Rae plays President Barbie, who’s in charge of all of the lives in Barbie Land. It’s an incredible arc, stemming from the first Barbie doll to have Black features, a friend of Barbie’s named Christie, which Mattel released in 1968.
“I gave a shout-out to Christie as President Barbie in the movie that, isn’t in the final cut, but I was basically saying that Christie walked so I could run for president,” Rae says. “And it’s true. Christie paved the way for this particular Black Barbie, and I’m honored to ‘rule over the Barbies.’ She’s just one of the Barbies that can do it all.”
Having played with the popular toy as a child, Rae recalls her Barbies looking a lot like her. “My mom was super intentional about making sure I had a Black Barbie, and I think it made me realize that I was Black as a kid,” she shares.
“‘Insecure’ was such an all-encompassing task for me. It was amazing to be able to wear so many hats and to bring my vision to life in that particular series, but I was tired.”
“It was another step on the ladder of my journey with my racial identity, just because I saw how passionate my parents were about me playing with Black Barbies, though I didn’t know it was that serious,” she continues. “I was just there trying to make scenes with my Barbies. And I think in some ways, that was my first foray into storytelling and directing.”
With other powerful women at the helm of Barbie, Rae took a back seat, which suited her just fine. “It’s produced by Margot Robbie and directed by Greta Gerwig, two women I just immensely respect,” she gushes. “To be able to observe them and watch how they work and watch their processes — as actors, that was just super cool and fulfilling for me. I’m putting their processes in my own pocket for when I do take the reins again.”
Taking a break from the roles Rae has held simultaneously for the past several years — writer, producer, and star — can be a challenge. It’s often demanded that Black women do it all, and without complaint.
“The strong Black woman trope hasn’t really helped any of us because it’s become an expectation,” she says. “Even when you express vulnerability, people are like, ‘Nah, you’re strong. You got it, you’re gonna get through this.’ Well, what if I can’t? Is it okay, if I don’t make it through this?”
Rae abandoned that exhausting theme with Insecure, which ran for five seasons on HBO, giving audiences a refreshing chance to see all aspects of Black womanhood.
“I wanted these characters to be multifaceted, because so many of the Black women we saw on TV at the time were these flawless women who couldn’t be pierced,” she explains. “I felt like that was a bit harmful and didn’t capture all of who we are and all of who we’re allowed to be. It gives me great joy and pleasure that people found solace in their vulnerabilities, their stupid decisions, and their choices.”
Vulnerability is something Rae embraces when she’s in charge. “When there are moments where I feel like I need to be [vulnerable], then I am,” she says. “Whether I’m upset about something or dissatisfied, whether I’m sad or scared, I express those things.”
She delicately balances it with being in control. “No one wants a flip-floppy leader,” she declares. “But it doesn’t inhibit me from expressing how I feel. I want the people who work with me to feel secure with who they’re working with and who they’re working for.”
Rae says she doesn’t identify as a perfectionist, but, “I still want things to be done a certain way. I think wrestling with that has been a struggle, but I’m definitely a hands-on person. And it just makes me appreciate it when I do work with people who just get it and work as hard as I do, if not harder.”
Issa wears stylist’s own top, Jockey briefs, and Dinosaur Designs jewelry. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
Being communicative and transparent when running a company have been keys to her success. “I am a control freak,” she admits. “And I didn’t know that. And I’m not mad at myself that I am. But I understand that about myself, where I need to let things go.”
While she’s taking some much-deserved time for herself, it’s sometimes hard not to blur the line between work and pleasure, something she was reminded of when she invited a friend on a work trip.
“My mom was intentional about making sure I had a Black Barbie. It was another step on the ladder of my journey with my racial identity. In some ways, that was my first foray into storytelling and directing.”
“Christie paved the way for this particular Black Barbie.”
Issa wears a Bode top and pants, Polo Ralph Lauren bra, Misho earrings and Jennifer Fisher and Dinosaur Designs jewelry.
“She said, ‘Why isn’t it just a vacation?’ and I said, ‘Because I have a deadline, but I’m planning another work trip around it.’ She asked if I could say that I wanted to take a trip to just take a break,” Rae recalls. “For some reason, I felt like I needed to justify a vacation with a project. And so the next trip [after that one] was just an impromptu trip to Greece where I was like, I should be working. But if I don’t get any work done, I’m not gonna feel bad or punish myself.”
Leaning into “Soft Girl Summer,” she wants to spend most of it vacationing. “I feel good when I’m lounging in hotels; I plan to be in hotels and villas for the rest of this summer,” she declares. “My Barbie promotional tour is taking me all over the world — I get to go to Australia for the first time, and to Germany and London. So while that’s for work, I’m still finding the pleasure in it.”
“The ‘strong Black woman’ trope hasn’t helped any of us.”
Issa Rae wears a Hudson Jeans top, Misho earrings and Jennifer Fisher and Dinosaur Design bracelets.
Her close-knit group of girlfriends also allows her to enjoy a more relaxed life. “We’ll make grand plans, and then we just end up at somebody’s house or apartment all night and just order food and eat and talk and laugh. My friends know that I have the Prosecco on deck,” she declares. “That’s my happy place.”
That friends circle is also a safe place to share, vent, and support. “I have a group chat with my closest friends, where we constantly share work grievances, and we work across industries,” Rae continues. “It’s always fascinating to see that a job is a job, and we’re the main characters in our own work stories. We’re rooting for each other.”
Issa Rae wears a Ganni top, Levi’s shorts, Tecovas boots, Janessa Leone hat, Misho earrings and Dinosaur Designs bracelets. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
It’s there that she can be her most vulnerable. “I really lean on my personal relationships to express my full vulnerability,” she says. “I don’t know where I would be without those people in my life.”
Looking back on it all, Issa realizes that it’s all been one meteoric ride. “I think I was thrown into a lot of this,” she shares. “All of a sudden, I have a company with people and employees and all these things. It’s such a learning process as you go along, and oftentimes a frustrating one where you’re just like, I want to get to the work, I just want to be creative,” she surmises.
But it’s all come together for this media mogul.
“With hindsight, you get to see so much of the journey, and so many fork-in-the-road moments and decisions that were made that could have gone the wrong way, or that could have not led me to where I am now,” she says. “And I am very happy about where I am now.”
Issa wears stylist’s own shirt, Jockey briefs, and Dinosaur Designs jewelry. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
Delaina Dixon is a writer, journalist and media personality who has written for numerous publications such as TV Guide, OK! Weekly and Avenue magazine. She currently serves as EBONY’s Culture Editor-at-Large.
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