Retta on why she's "So Close to Being the S**t, Y'all Don't Even Know"

The "Parks and Rec" star sits down with "Salon Talks" to discuss how she built her career and her new memoir

By D. Watkins

Published June 3, 2018 6:30PM (EDT)

Retta (AP/Brent N. Clarke)
Retta (AP/Brent N. Clarke)

Retta, who played Donna on "Parks and Recreation" and currently stars in "Good Girls," sat down with me for a recent episode of "Salon Talks" to share her hilarious journey to Hollywood and stories from her new memoir "So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y'all Don't Even Know."

Retta tells me about why she abandoned her medical school plans and chased her dream of starring in her own sitcom instead. Plus, she opens up about race and finding her own voice in the industry. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the book come about?

I got a call one day from someone who claimed to be my lit agent. I was like, "I've never written a book. How do I have a lit agent?"

They're everywhere.

It was the department within my agency. And she said there's an editor who thinks you should write a book, let's set up a meeting. So we set up the meeting, we talked about a bunch of different things and then I left. And she said you have to do a book proposal. And I was like, "Oh." I was heading back to Vancouver to go shoot "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce" and while I was there I was so frustrated. It was a lot of work to do a book proposal. It stressed me out.

It's a lot of work! You need comp titles, you need an overview of what the book is going to be about . . .

The first chapter, the last chapter. And I said, "I can't do this. I don't have the energy or the patience." She was like, "All right, well I'll go back to them and tell them and we'll resurface at another date." Then she said, "What if they offered you money to do the book?" I said, "Well if they pay me I'll do the job."

They offered me money and I was like, "OK." That's how it happened. They were like, "Here's some money go write this book." So I wrote the book and took the money.

Watch our full conversation with Retta

The "Parks & Rec" and "Good Girls" star talks about her career and new book

At that moment did you feel like it was something that you really needed to say when you got the opportunity, or did it just come gradually over time?

Well, when I was writing the original book proposal — that never got finished — that's when I thought about what should be in this book, what this should be. But because I was having so many struggles with it, I let it go. Once they said, "OK, here's the money, do the book," I really had to sit down. Dibs Baer would interview me. She had originally sent me this long list of topics of things that happen in someone's life: mom, dad, brothers, and sisters, just words and lists, and I would go through and decide what stories I wanted to tell and pull from her list. Then once I had made a compilation of all the stories I wanted to tell that's when I was like, "Oh, this story is telling how close to being the shit I am."

So that's what I wanted to get into. How did you come up with that title? Because I think it's so important.

The book was done before I did the title. Once it was done I felt like that's what this book is saying, talking about how cool is my life. I'm not on top of the list of actors that they're going to for these big movies but I've hustled enough that my name is known and I get to do cool things. I get to go to the Golden Globes. One of the chapters in the book is how I've gotten to go to "Hamilton" as a result of being on shows that people like and that's why they know me. It was after I'd written the book that I was like, this book basically is talking about how close I am to being the shit.

You actually are really popular and successful and have a great career. So from the perspective of a lot of people trying to get into the industry, they're saying, "Retta is the shit."

When you're in it you realize how much you're not the shit. You realize . . .

You're not ordering bald eagle meat with like a side of lobster.

So there's no toilet in my trailer? No? OK, all right. [Laughs.]

People on the outside of the industry assume certain things. They see you on TV, they think you're rich. I'm like, oh no, I have to hustle. I'm in between seasons. I am not earning money. I get a few residual checks for certain things but I'm not earning money. I came home from Atlanta after we finished the season and I told my agent and my publicist and my manager, I was like, "We've got to find me work until I go back to work."

That happened to me before. I was on CNN twice and then I was back in my projects and it was like, "Shouldn't you be in the Hamptons?" I was like, "Isn't it winter?" Then I was like, "No." They didn't even pay for that at that particular time.

Right, exactly.

So knowing those levels and understanding those levels of success, does that motivate you and make you work extra hard?

One hundred percent. Chris Rock said he bought his house and that forced him to hustle because he had to pay for the house. It's one of those things where I want to work but I have a lot of responsibilities now. So my thing is, "Hey Holly, we need to find me some work before I go back shooting in August," because I have responsibilities. I have parents and things to take care of.

Now you have the confidence to be able to get out there and do the work. When you started out you read about this opportunity you had to be in "Dreamgirls," to play Effie —

To audition.

— to audition for that role, but you psyched yourself out of that. Tell us about that experience.

I'd never understood the phrase "a fear of success." I never got it. And then I was at a point where I was actually getting auditions and my manager had said, "There's a big audition coming up; it's for 'Dreamgirls,' the role of Effie." I knew the story. I knew I would have to sing and dance. I would have to be dressed like the two other girls in the group. In my head, I have a bad ankle so I'm like, "Those girls wear heels. There's no way I'm going to wear heels. Then I'm so much bigger than the other girls, how are they going to find clothes and we're wearing matching outfits." I was so green I didn't know that they made the clothes for you to wear on the show.

So you thought they went to Nordstrom to go get them?

I thought they were going to have to go to Nordstrom and find a line that has a size 26 and a size 2 — as if — but I just didn't know. In my head, I was like, there's no way. I don't want to be the problem. I've got this bad ankle, and dancing is going to be hard and I certainly can't wear heels. So are they going to shoot me from the knees up?

All these things are running through my head and because of these things I didn't go to the audition. I kept putting it off. They kept asking, "When can you go in?" I was like, "Oh, I have a scene next week." In that time they had a show to cast, they had a movie to cast and so they cast it with Jennifer Hudson. So I never went in for the audition.

What do you think was the root of that fear?

A fear of being the problem. I don't want to be seen as the problem on set. Not that they would see me as a diva — certainly not, because nobody knew who I was — but I didn't want to be the person that they had to stop rehearsals for because I had to ice my ankle.

Because you can't get the two-step right.

No, I could get the two-step right.

OK.

Being on my feet for a long time. I can dance, OK.

So do you feel like that could ever happen to you again or now you're in 100 percent control of that?

I'm sure I'll have moments of fear, but in my head now it's like, you came to this city for a reason and the process is auditioning. I'd love to get to the place where I don't have to audition anymore, because I don't like auditioning, but I know that I have to do it and so I'm just going to do it. I'm not going to sit in the corner with a stomach ache like "urgh" because you're sick that you have to do it, but you're sick that you're not doing it, so you might as well do it and live with that sickness.

Did you ever audition for a role that you thought that you weren't going to get and ended up getting it?

Yes, once, and it was a small role. The audition was in Santa Monica, parking was bad and I was like, parking is the worst in this area and I'm not looking to get a ticket. So I kept saying I can't go in, I can't go in, and it was right after I had injured my ankle so I was in a boot. I was like, "I'm in this cast. I can't go in." And they are like, "That might work for the role." Anyway, I went in. I parked on the street and I ran in and I was like, "Hey, I'm parked illegally. I can only stay here for a few minutes. So if I can get in that would be great -- otherwise I'm going to have to leave."

Did they know you?

Mm-mm. They put me in really quick, and it was a small part — it wasn't for a major lead — and I ended up booking it. I knew for sure that I wasn't going to get it because I was like, I don't want a ticket. I'm broke and I can't afford tickets in Santa Monica.

Hollywood has a history of being racist, [of] typecasting black people. Do you feel like with all these different movements [for diversity] that it's getting better?

For me, it's better. I don't know that it's better for everybody. But I've been lucky enough. My last three gigs have been headed by writers who haven't chosen to put me into that small box. I used to go out for the same audition: the same nurse, the same secretary, the same meter maid, the sassy black girl who's funny. I did that for a long, long time. And then my last three big jobs have been for writers — Mike Shaw, Marti Noxon and Jenna Bans — who saw me as a whole person and not adjectives.

One of the things that you talked about that I really think is informative and invaluable is this idea of you learning that you being yourself is the best thing you can do on stage. You don't have to pander to a black audience because you think that's what they want. You don't have to pander to a white audience because you think that's what they want. Retta just has to be Retta. At what moment did you discover that?

I used to fear the black audience, and this was earlier on in my stand-up career. I did a show with — it might have been Sheryl Underwood.

This was a college gig and the audience was mostly white and I opened for Sheryl at the time. I remember watching Sheryl just be herself and killing in this room. I was like, "Oh, you should just be yourself." I've seen it where I've done black rooms where I was like, "I don't know if I'm urban enough for this room." Then I'd watch white comics get up and decimate a room. I was like, "That person is just being themselves."

That's how I feel with your book, too. A lot of the writing is just straightforward and it feels like we're having a conversation with you.

That was very important to me. I wanted it to sound like myself, and so — I'm like "yessssss" and "yessssss biiiiiiitch" — I put a lot of i's in "biiiiiiitch" when I type it, about six or seven.

Unless it's not too intense, then it's just four. I'm like, "biiiitch."

It was very important to me to sound like myself because I fell like sometimes you won't get it unless it sounds like me. You don't get the personality, and I feel the personality is as important as the story.

So that was a game changer for you?

Yes, but I feel I decided that a long time ago. I feel I decided that when I joined Twitter. I made a conscious decision to be myself on Twitter even though I worked for a network TV show and I didn't know if they'd want me cursing so much, but I curse. I know that's what I do.

They say Facebook is the place where you lie to your friends and Twitter is the place where you tell the truth to complete strangers.

Right, yes. That's exactly what I do.

Now you have these experiences and you've traveled to these places and you've paid a lot of dues. What type of advice would you give to a person who was on the verge of giving up if you had to talk to them based on your own experiences?

The thing that got me through getting to where I am is belief. I feel like you have to just know it's going to happen. You have to accept it in your skin. I didn't know when I would get to where I wanted to be. I just knew it was going to happen and I knew I was going to have to hustle. When I was sleeping on a friend's floor and eating ramen noodles with American cheese —

Ramen noodles is the official food of the oppressed. I've never met a person with a come-up story that didn't have —

Ten packs for a dollar.

I like hot sauce sauce in mine. I might be bougie. When I get paid, I throw eight shrimps in there. Not the little hard frozen ones — what do you call that, when you suck all the juice out of something?

Dehydrated.

Little dehydrated shrimps. That can't be shrimp.

I don't even remember. I was going to say I don't even remember that.

Maybe that's like an East Baltimore thing.

It's strictly American cheese.

I think because I always believed it that the struggle portion of it wasn't that hard. I was like, this is what it is -- you're supposed to struggle. You rarely hear that someone stepped off a plane and got put in "Jurassic Park." It's work.

I knew that I had to go through some things. I didn't know exactly what, but I knew in my head this is supposed to be hard. So as long as you know it's going to happen, it makes the hard part bearable. When you're feeling like you're on the verge of going home you have to take an inventory of is it really what you want? Because if it is you're not going to leave.

Does that struggle become obsolete once you actually have some success, or do you have days where you're like, I used to sleep on the floor and eat filthy noodles?

It comes up when I'm in situations where we get a restaurant bill and everybody owes $150 and I'm like, "Daaamn, remember the ramen?" I do remember it for sure. But I don't look on it as a bad time, because I had fun. That was another thing — I always needed to have fun. So I was around people that I enjoyed being around. I would go to bars that my friends worked at because I knew I could get a hook-up on my bill, that kind of thing.

It's good to have friends who work at bars.

For sure. I recommend it.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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