Skip to content

Issa Rae initially worried her body wasn’t ‘Barbie-ready’ for the Barbie movie

The Insecure star opens up about the lengths it took to get into character, the costar who made the biggest impression, and why director Greta Gerwig described the film as “kind of batshit.”

Issa Rae's reaction to seeing the Barbie movie for the first time—at star and executive producer Margot Robbie's home theatre, no less—was definitely not what she expected. In fact, after she finished watching, she almost wished she hadn't seen it at all.

“It was such a great experience,” says the 38-year-old, who plays President Barbie in the Greta Gerwig–directed film. “It's so great, and I love the movie so much, but there's so much happening it's hard [to talk about] because you don't want to give things away.”

Oversharing has been the name of the game in Hollywood for years now in an attempt to get as many eyeballs on a TV show or bodies in a theatre as possible, but the approach to Barbie has been completely different. The movie has been overexposed when it comes to brand collaborations and merchandise, but the actual film—and plot—has been tightly under wraps. (Case in point: For Robbie's Vogue cover, editor in chief Anna Wintour was permitted to see just 20 minutes of the film. Most press only recently screened the movie in its entirety.) But how do you explain a film whose official synopsis is “To live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place. Unless you have a full-on existential crisis. Or you’re a Ken?”

“I'm so terrified of overhype,” Rae says. “Everybody has their notions about what this Barbie movie should be, what they think it is, what they want it to be…. You're not going to fulfil everybody's expectations, and you may disappoint some people, but I think the best way to go in is with no expectations and just be excited to see it. Barbie means so much to so many people. People also hate Barbie or aren't interested in Barbie. I honestly think whether you love or hate her, there's something here for you.”

And now, mere days away from the July 21 opening, the reviews are glowing, with talk of possible Oscar nominations as well. Until the public can judge for themselves, we asked Rae—who is also the executive producer on the upcoming second season of Max's Rap Sh!t, out August 10—to open up about body image, navigating a career in Hollywood, “the ickiest part” of playing President Barbie, and more.

Glamour: How would you describe the Barbie movie?

Issa Rae: It's self-aware, it's self-deprecating. I was thinking about some of my favorite movies, the defining movies for me growing up. If this had come out when I was 11 or 12, it would be on par with Clueless, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, etc. All those types of movies that didn't take themselves too seriously but also had so much heart and a long-lasting impact.

Greta Gerwig had a Barbie slumber party at Claridge’s in London before shooting began. Were you there?

No. Sadly, I was still in Washington, DC, and wasn't able to attend the sleepover, but I heard all the stories. Greta organized the sleepover for all the Barbies to come. The Kens could come, but they couldn't spend the night. I heard that Ryan Gosling sent a gift of someone playing bagpipes and singing the Braveheart theme. There were competitive games. America Ferrera's very competitive. I missed out. My first day on set was probably the rehearsal before a big dance number, and that's when I met everybody. It was extremely intimidating.

The cast, including yourself, is so stacked. Tell me how the role came to be.

They said, “Greta is doing the Barbie movie, and she wants to meet with you.” And I was like, “Oh, I love Greta. That sounds amazing.” I asked if there was a script but was told she wanted to meet with me before sending me it. She described being a hard-core fan of Insecure, watching it live for five seasons. I was very appreciative of that. And then she started telling me about the Barbie movie. She was like, “The reason I don't want to just send you the script is because I want to give you context first…. It's kind of batshit.”

I love that she said the movie is “kind of batshit.”

She described the journey to me, and it was still confusing, and then she told me that she wanted me to play president because, she said, “I realised that I would want to be in a world where you are the president.” I was like, “That's so nice of you, but never and no, you wouldn't.” Anyway, that was the conversation—Greta describing her vision for the movie. Then I was allowed to read the script and everything came together. Her words made sense to me, and I was excited to be a part of it.

Given how secretive the plot of the movie has been, I’m picturing men with white gloves delivering the script to you and not leaving until you’ve finished reading it. Or that it was watermarked and dissolved after…

This is how secretive it was: I got a link, and then I had to go through this process to download the app to read the script on my iPad. Then that was watermarked. Of course, it's attributed to your log-in. Because I don't use my iPad that much, I somehow accidentally screenshotted a page and everything shut down and it alerted—

Sure, “Accidentally.” [Laughs.]

It really was an accident! Because it was such a nothing page. It was probably page two, and it just shut down. I was like, “Oh no.” I got an email telling me I was locked out and had to ask for a copy again. They were like, “Hey, just make sure you don't screenshot anything.” I've learned to never do that again.

How did you prepare to play President Barbie? Did you study the mannerisms of world leaders?

I don't even know if I can say this. It's not anything obviously political, but Greta referenced how devastating it was for her to see such a sprightly vice president next to an old president and was like, “Why haven't we had a woman president yet?” So, in a way, I just wanted to convey that sparkliness, that energetic nature. There aren't many presidents who are very young in our history outside of Obama, but in other countries there are. For me, it was about tapping into what a youthful, fun president would be and then what the childhood version of my Barbie president would be. In that way, it was the most fun, limber, fashionable president I could think of.

Right before [the role came to me], I was post-Insecure, post–Rap Sh!t, and post-the-final-season-of-Insecure-press-tour. I was like, “Well, I'm going to let myself go. I'm eating everything.” And then I got the call to do Barbie and was like, “Oh, no, I am not Barbie-shape ready.” But then I realised Greta's Barbie world consists of all body types. So, while I was still on my fitness journey, I felt less insecure about my Barbie body or lack thereof.

I’m glad you brought that up. We all want to look our best, but we also shouldn’t have to worry that we let ourselves “go,” whatever that looks like. Did you have those conversations with Greta about body image and representation?

Absolutely, and that was something that I was concerned about too—who are the other Barbies, and what do they look like? That was so top of mind for her. I saw that immediately on my first day when I was doing the dance sequence rehearsal. There were so many different types of Barbies, and so many different types of Kens. Some able-bodied, ages, genders. Greta did her best to try to include everybody. Barbie Land is perfect. Everyone in Barbie Land is a perfect Barbie. I found that so beautiful. Almost everyone in the world is represented in some way here. That's not an easy piece. I'm sure someone might be like, “Where am I?” But know that there was such an effort made to have Barbie Land be inclusive.

The first Black Barbie, named Christie, was introduced in 1968. What were your memories of Barbie growing up? Did you feel represented?

In some ways, I was made hyperaware of my Blackness because of how intense my mom and aunt were about, “We're giving you Black Barbies.” [At the time I was] like, “Okay, I mean, I have white…okay, sure, whatever. I don't care.” They said, “It's important for you to play with dolls that look like you,” which I didn't really understand. I was like, “Okay, more toys, thank you.” But some kids would say, “Oh, you're still playing with Barbies? You're a baby.” So I would say, “Oh no, I don't. I hate Barbies.” Then it became cool to shit on Barbie. I wanted to play with the dolls in public with friends, but for the most part, outside of close cousins who didn't judge each other, I was playing in private. They served as ways to role-play in various ways.

I never played with Christie. I don't think I knew about Christie until later. It was just Barbie with blackface kind of, and it didn't necessarily have Black features. It didn't really mean anything to me until I got older and understood why it was so important for my mom and aunt for me to have this.

I remember at one point I renamed my Ken doll Peter, who just happened to be a Jewish guy, because I didn’t think Jews existed in Barbie’s world and I wanted my Barbie to be able to marry someone of the same faith as me.

You were hyperaware that Ken was not Jewish.

Exactly. There are not many blonde Jews, but in my world, blonde Ken/Peter was. [Laughs.]

That's so dope.

Did you have any storylines that you came up with for your Barbies?

For sure. I had 90210 Barbies, but I couldn't watch 90210. My mom wouldn't let me, but she still got me some of the Barbies. I didn't know their names. I just knew they were in this show. I probably renamed them wrong, but I was doing what I thought were 90210 plot lines since I couldn't watch it. There was always a love triangle of some sort with my Barbies. I loved businesses, so Barbie had a restaurant and there was chaos there. I didn't get many of the houses, so I had to always turn the Lego house into a Barbie house, which just didn't work. It was just a lot of imagination. You're playing God in a way…running their lives, and there was so much fun in that for me.

Meanwhile, I sometimes think people who aren’t in the entertainment industry view Hollywood like Barbie Land—all glitz and glamour. But just like Barbie and Ken, sometimes you want to escape it; a lot of people come to LA and find a world that doesn’t quite exist as they imagined it. Does that seem like an accurate parallel?

I completely get what you're saying. On the Barbie Land side, I will say that, yes, it's what people think Hollywood is, but Barbie Land is perfect for Barbies. I think any world that is perfect may not be perfect for somebody else. It may not be perfect for everyone who's there, but generally, yes, I'd imagine that it's the best version of Hollywood and super, super liberal, of course. One of my pet peeves is that people think I'm hanging out and not working [here in Hollywood] because it does feel like—to your point—that you're at events or in magazines or on a talk show having fun. That's part of it. I love those parts sometimes, but there's so much work to stay afloat. You know how ducks float and you don't see their feet pedalling? That's what I feel like all the time. It's just like, What's next? I don't want people to see that necessarily. I don't want them to know how much I'm struggling and all my career insecurities and the like, because they're also high-class problems. It's navigating that too. We're all going through different struggles, and we all have different perceptions. My friend is a lawyer, and I think she's doing trials all day. She's like, “No, girl. Most of my stuff is paperwork….” I think that's just human nature. We're full of assumptions.

Does your President Barbie have a platform or specific causes that are important to her?

She has dance parties at least twice a day as well as universal free everything, like health care. When we meet President Barbie, she's signing a bill into law. Of course, it's unanimous, but she just wants to maintain Barbie Land's perfect order and have a good time. She's all about good vibes, which is the most important thing to me as well.

Are there any hidden Easter eggs in your costumes?

There are more Easter eggs in the production design and set design, which I thought was absolutely fantastic. The attention to detail that has been put into the desks and the mailboxes, as well as the Barbie motif, is amazing. Hopefully, upon the second or third watch, people will latch onto them and appreciate it.

What was your hair and makeup routine like each day?

You spend an hour in hair and makeup getting airbrushed so that your skin is even-toned and perfect. That was the ickiest part of my day, but it got me in character—doing the body makeup, making sure my legs matched my arms, and then putting my pink Barbie outfit on. It was the most even-toned I've ever looked in my life, but it felt gross. Not all of it would wash off at the end of the day, so I had to put all these oils on to get it off, and then I'd go home and take another shower. But, truly, once you put on that costume and have that body makeup on, you are a doll and there's no going back. That's the fun part.

Who did you bond with the most on the film? And who was the Ken to your President Barbie?

I loved meeting everybody, but I have to say it was such a pleasure to meet Alex Shipp. She had my back in such a wonderful way. Everybody had cast chairs, and for some reason mine didn't have my name on it. I wasn't tripping. I was like, Oh, maybe it's because I come in and out of town. But then I thought, Dang, I want to be able to take my cast chair with my name on it home. During the second-to-last week of production, I saw that someone had taped my name with hearts on it on the chair. I asked, “Who did this?” And Alex said, “I saw you didn't have one, so I just did this.” The next day I had my name on a chair. It was just that little act that meant so much. I didn't say anything about it. I never vocalised it. She just saw me in a way that I really appreciated.

That is wonderful.

She's awesome. And my Ken is Scott Evans. That's bae right there. He serenaded me, and I had to look into his eyes for an uncomfortably long amount of time on set. Since then I've been in love.

This article originally appeared on GLAMOUR US.

Share this article: