After more than 20 years in the business, Retta is having a moment.
If the mononymic actress isn’t quite a household name yet, she’s well on her way to becoming one. For seven seasons, the stand-up comic-turned-TV-actor delighted viewers as Donna Meagle, the no-nonsense, catchphrase-spouting office manager on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which made up for its low ratings by spawning a devoted, meme-happy fan base. Following the Mike Schur comedy’s end in 2015, Retta segued into a role on Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, while offscreen, she cultivated an even larger following by obsessively live-tweeting her favorite TV shows and Instagramming her daily routines. This year, she reached a new plateau when her NBC comedy-drama Good Girls (from Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal alum Jenna Bans) was picked up for a midseason bow. Not only is Good Girls her first leading role on a series, it’s primed to expand the way audiences see her: as a capital “A” actress.
“As she will proudly tell you, she can cry on cue — and she can,” says Bans, who wrote the series with Retta in mind after becoming a fan of her work on Parks and Recreation. Retta’s longtime Parks and Rec co-star Amy Poehler can also attest to her dramatic abilities. “I would argue Retta is probably the best actor in the [Parks and Rec] cast,” Poehler says via email. “I directed an episode that I wrote where she had to cry after listening to Chris Pratt’s character Andy Dwyer explain the plot of the movie Babe. She cried genuine and beautiful tears every time, no matter what ridiculous nonsense Pratt was spouting.”
At least on paper, Good Girls is Retta’s best chance yet to show off the full range of her talents. In the series she plays Ruby, a suburban wife and mother who robs a grocery store with friends Annie (Mae Whitman, Parenthood) and Beth (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men) after the trio fall on hard times. When their haul proves much heftier than anticipated, the criminals whose cash was stored in the supermarket’s vault arrive to claim it. Potentially life-threatening hijinks ensue — albeit with a healthy dose of comedy to balance out the darkness.
“I’m excited that I get to work a muscle that I haven’t really gotten to work so much,” Retta tells The Hollywood Reporter from the show’s Atlanta set. “I got to do a little bit of drama in Girlfriends’ Guide…but [in] this, I get to experience the full spectrum of TV emotion.”
It’s been a slow climb getting to this point. At 47, Retta has attained “leading lady” status after years spent as a supporting player. Before achieving TV fame on Parks and Rec, she toured on the college stand-up circuit for more than a decade, where she garnered acclaim and, eventually, a measure of financial security. In 1999, she became the first winner of Comedy Central’s Laugh Riots Stand-Up Competition, which led to a coveted showcase at Montreal’s iconic Just for Laughs festival and a development deal with ABC/Disney. Strangely enough, none of this was part of her original plan.
“I was a science and math girl,” Retta says of her educational years, which culminated in a premed degree from Duke University. Although she’d indulged her love of performing during high school and college by acting in student plays, attending medical school and eventually becoming a doctor had always been the goal. But while working as a chemist at the GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals lab in North Carolina and living alone for the first time, she began reconsidering her career path after noticing that the TV dial was littered with shows starring stand-up comics-turned-sitcom stars. Friends had always told her she was funny, but for the first time, a career in entertainment seemed attainable.
“Roseanne, Brett Butler, Tim Allen, Drew Carey…I’d seen them do Caroline’s and that sort of thing, and then would see them on TV. And I was like, ‘Oh, it looks like they’re just giving out TV shows to comedians,'” she recalls. That realization emboldened her to try her hand at stand-up, and eventually the path forward revealed itself. “It was the alone time that I had for the first time in my life that I took the time to think,” she says. “And I decided that I wanted to perform more than I wanted to become a neurosurgeon.”
Retta is arguably as famous for her authenticity and nerve as she is for her talents as a performer, but leaning into her personality onstage didn’t come easily in the beginning. Her early forays into stand-up were heavily informed by the cadence and attitude of comedians she admired, particularly megastar Chris Rock. Rock’s career-making 1996 special Bring the Pain was in such heavy rotation that she began to mimic his delivery during shows. Luckily, she was savvy enough to recognize that imitating her idol wouldn’t be a winning strategy long-term.
“It didn’t feel authentic,” she says. “The reason I thought I was funny, the reason why I thought I could do it is because people always thought I was funny. And people always thought I was funny because I was being myself, I wasn’t being Chris Rock. So, I finally decided to be myself onstage — and that’s when it started clicking for me.”
Retta’s path to sitcom stardom was far more circuitous than she originally envisioned. Her heavy touring schedule on the college circuit kept her from pursuing roles in any meaningful way, even as she booked the occasional small part in film and TV (her first on-camera gig was a 1997 episode of Moesha). She began to feel as if her dreams had been sidetracked. “It kind of took me away from what the plan was,” she says, adding, “You can’t audition for [shows] if you’re in North Dakota.”
Still, her work as a stand-up had become so lucrative that when she finally landed on Parks and Recreation as a recurring character, juggling the two commitments became a source of stress. Forced to cancel multiple stand-up gigs due to her schedule on the star-making series, she began to worry about gaining a reputation as an “unreliable comic.” Back then, of course, she had no way of knowing what Parks and Rec would turn into — or that she would become such a vital ensemble player in the series’ cast.
While Retta began the series as “glorified background” (her words), Poehler sensed her potential from the very beginning. “From the minute I met Retta I knew that she was a total force,” she says, citing a moment from the show’s first episode that demonstrated her improvisational chops. “Leslie asks Donna ‘What a wonderful leaf. Where did you get this?’ And Donna looks up slowly and deadpans, ‘Outside.’ In just one word we knew what kind of character she was.”
Glorified background or not, Retta became a hit with viewers, and she was rewarded by being promoted to series regular for season three. Early in season four, her legend was secured when Donna and Tom (Aziz Ansari) introduced “Treat Yo Self Day,” an ebullient, hilarious paean to self-gratification. The popular catchphrase is something she still hears from fans on the street today, but when asked, she denies feeling annoyed by the unsolicited callbacks. That said: “I always think it’s funny that people always think it’s the first time that I’ve heard it,” she says. “Where they’re like, ‘Right? Treat yo self, right?’ And you’re like, ‘Yes, right, been there, heard that.'”
Still, as a pop-culture obsessive herself, Retta well understands the kind of enthusiasm that would lead an otherwise level-headed person to approach a beloved celebrity in public. Now that she’s rubbing shoulders with A-listers on a regular basis, she enjoys frequent opportunities to interact with idols like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rimes (“I played it cool with Shonda”), Gayle King (“All I wanted to tell her was, ‘You were so right about the red velvet cake at Doughboys,'”) and Vampire Diaries creator Julie Plec (whom she claims to have “harassed” with questions about the now-defunct CW series on multiple occasions). After imbibing in a few too many cocktails at the Golden Globes one year, she openly declared her infatuation with Michael Fassbender to her entire table — an event she claims to have no “true memory” of and only learned about after others related the details to her.
“He walked by and said ‘Hi’ as if he knew me,” she says of the incident. “And I turned to [him] and I was like, ‘What’s up?’ And then I sat at the table and I was like, ‘He likes black chicks.’ I was like, ‘Did I say that out loud?’ They’re like, ‘Yes.‘”
If anyone has earned the right to have some bawdy fun at an awards show, it’s Retta. Luck is a factor in every successful showbiz career, but the New Jersey native is perhaps more keenly aware than most of just how unlikely her ascent is. In an industry whose barriers to entry have historically been far greater for people (and particularly women) of color, she knows how fortunate she is to have been cast on a show whose creative team recognized and valued what she had to offer.
“I used to only go out for the receptionist nurse or the meter maid, you know what I mean?” she says. “They were very limited things and the characters…weren’t fully developed characters, necessarily. It was either the angry black woman, or the girl with the snappy comebacks, or whatever. And Parks allowed me to grow into a fully fleshed character.” She adds later: “I don’t know how many other shows it would have happened for me on.”
But it did, and she’s here, with a new series and even a book of essays slated for release in June titled So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know that charts her “not-so-meteoric rise from roaches to riches,” per its official description. Perhaps because she worked in the trenches for so long, Retta can’t quite wrap her head around her own rising stardom. Therein lies a very un-Donna Meagle-like foundation of her appeal: a genuine sense of bewilderment, fascination and exhilaration that she’s living her wildest dream.
“I remember my friends’ sister came to [the Parks and Recreation] set, and was like, ‘Oh my god, you work with Rob Lowe,'” she relates. “And I was like, ‘Oh, right! Holy shit! I do work with Rob Lowe. Look at me!'”
Good Girls premieres Monday, Feb. 26, on NBC.