Best known as the complex character Nathan in Issa Rae’s Emmy-nominated television series Insecure, Kendrick Sampson has often spoken about how he identifies with the role. He and Nathan are both from Houston, Texas and recent transplants to Los Angeles. They like the same spots, and they speak the same slang. They also both have experience with mental health struggles: Nathan is bipolar as is Sampson’s brother. Sampson himself has “severe anxiety,” he reveals.
When first introduced in season three of the series, Nathan felt sadly familiar: that guy with which you shared a great date only to never hear from again, left scratching your head as he ghosted. You brushed him off as a fuckboy, trying to hide your serial disappointment. But Nathan did come back, and revealed it was anxiety and depression that held him away. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye to those ghosts? Or maybe not. However, it is the courage to speak up that redeems Nathan in our hearts and certainly, in Sampson’s.
“I've always seen him as multi-dimensional, very deep,” he says of the character who is sharing more of the spotlight with Issa in the current fifth and final season of Insecure. The finale airs on HBO on December 26, and, for Nathan’s sake, Issa has an important choice to make. “He has dark, beautiful places that are insecure and frightening that he's exploring.”
In this exploration and his bipolar diagnosis last season, the character has allowed Sampson to kick off an important conversation around mental health for Black men, something he says is “usually framed in violent terms” despite the very small percentage of those who suffer severe mental health issues that ever enact violence. Such stereotypes allow lazy characterizations of sufferers being “crazy, enraged or a fuckboy,” he continues, but the truth is far more subtle. The character is an opportunity to show a regular man, living his regular life and dealing with regular mental health.
“Getting an opportunity to portray, connect with and embody this character that I already know and love and feel like is family, it was really important to me to show all of his gray areas and his nuance and make sure that I did it right,” says Sampson who speaks openly to help destigmatize. Last year, he penned an open letter for Complex about American’s mental health crisis and the toll it takes on the Black community. “It is a part of the liberation movement that we're fighting so hard for,” he explains.
The actor has long used his platform for the advancement of Black and marginalized rights and equality. In 2019, Sampson cofounded nonprofit BLD PWR, an initiative that organizes athletes and entertainers to make radical social change and end the historic harm the industry has done in enforcing propaganda, misogyny, racism and oppression. With star power, passion and strength in numbers to avoid blacklisting, exclusion and other toxic methods to halt activism, the group has partnered with similar coalitions like Hollywood for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Movement for Black Lives and Black Alliance for Just Immigration to call upon Hollywood changemakers to divest from police on studio lots, right unsafe working conditions for crews, quash the creation of anti-racist content and end the glorification of police culture in entertainment media.
The movement swelled last summer after George Floyd was murdered, says Sampson, and he has continued to see members working to shift consciousness around equity in the United States. However, when President Biden took office, he felt “a white lash.” White conservatives and complacent white progressives put Black liberation on the backburner, and conversations shifted to the pandemic economy all the while ignoring the safety of those marginalized people in the workforce who were bolstering it. “Instead of taking those questions and seeing them all the way through and finding solutions to get to the root of the problem, they immediately opted to go back to status quo capitalism,” he explains. “I think we have to take a serious and strong look at what that says about our values as an industry. We’re working to transform that.”
The immediate step Sampson, and other actors of color, can take in the fight for equal rights is in the roles they choose to portray. His respect for Rae, Prentice Penny and all the Black writers, producers and talents involved in Insecure is obvious. And his breakout role as Nathan is groundbreaking in its “regular degular” way. “I think it's one of the closest that Black people have gotten to autonomy over their narrative,” he claims of the show.
“We're always portrayed as subhuman or superhuman, right? We have to either earn the right for our story to be told by being a hidden figure or some barrier breaker or we're criminalized and demonized,” he says of the stereotypes that plague entertainment media today. “The genius of this show is that you can't have a show called Insecure without exploring the gray areas. Because that's where we really live."