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'Insecure': Kendrick Sampson on His 'Cathartic' Portrayal of Mental Health Issues (Exclusive)

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Kendrick Sampson is back on Insecure -- but what does that mean for his character, Nathan's, future with Issa (Issa Rae)? 

The show's season 3 finale centered on the pair's dissolving relationship after Nathan ghosted Issa. His sudden disappearance was explained as a result of mental health issues, which offered understanding on Issa's part, but uncertainty about their romantic relationship. 

Nathan reappeared midway through season 4 as he and Issa reconnected around her big Block Party. They were together when Nathan FaceTimed Andrew (Alexander Hodge) on last week's episode, which also brought mental health to the forefront. It's a topic that's "personal" to Sampson, who has been open about his history with mental health and dealing with his own anxiety. 

"Especially that last scene last season, it was tough to read and even more difficult to portray and experience on set, and then watch. But it was also cathartic," the actor tells ET in an interview to wrap up Mental Health Awareness Month. "It gave me an excuse to utilize my platform and this character to talk about liberating mental health for black folks and in America in general." 

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Merie W. Wallace/HBO

Promos for Sunday's episode feature Issa's meetup with her ex-boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), leaving a potential rekindled romance with Nathan seemingly in jeopardy. Regardless of whether Nathan and Issa give things another shot, Sampson is hopeful we'll see more of his character -- and his mental health journey -- featured on the show. 

In an interview with ET, Sampson opens up about his return to Insecure, the importance of showcasing mental health issues in the black community and how his organization, BLD PWR, is making strides to "leave this world better than we found it." 

ET: Issa told ET that she wanted to bring you back sooner this season, but couldn’t find the right opening for Nathan to come back into Issa’s life. So, how has it been being back on Insecure -- and what can you tell us about where Nathan and Issa stand now?

Kendrick Sampson: It's been good, especially right now. It feels good to be people's release, in terms of providing some people with some entertainment and some real conversations, and some life experiences and seeing us portrayed as we are. But I think, right now, Nathan and Issa are trying to figure it out. He just came back into her life, and they're just trying to figure out what that looks like.

Sunday's episode is going to see Issa and Lawrence have a serious conversation. How will that potentially affect things for Issa and Nathan? 

Who knows! I mean, look, Issa's gotta hash things out with a lot of people. You've got Issa and Molly and Issa and Lawrence. And the unspoken thing right now with Issa and Nathan is what actually happened and how does she feel about that. So who knows if it messes anything up or affects anything between Issa and Nathan, because neither one has made it very clear. Even though there seems to be some subtle hints or energy between them, we don't know what it is yet. We don't know if it's a friendship, if it's romantic still, if they still have feelings for each other, or if they're gonna go off on each other. Nobody knows. Well, I'm sure Issa knows. (Laughs)

Your character really provided an opportunity to create conversations around mental health, which isn't often discussed in a lot of communities, including communities of color. What has it been like for you to portray that onscreen and create that conversation? 

It's a very personal thing to me because of my history with poor mental health and anxiety, and my brother's struggle with mental illness. We actually have a lot of various mental illnesses and poor mental health issues in my family, and substance abuse and such, as I think many families do. As a culture in this country, and even right now, as you can see, whenever there's a crisis, whenever something happens... especially right now, black folk are under attack. Their mental health is under attack. 

You can't be born in this country as a person of color, but especially as a black person, without generational trauma, so that's our baseline. And then things get layered on top of that, and it's hard to deal with those things and have the language because we are taught to hide those perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities. ... I’m working on that really hard with my nonprofit, BLD PWR, what tools and systems are out there to help us work through these things. So, it's an incredible opportunity to be able to talk about something I'm really passionate about. 

Are we going to see more of what exactly Nathan is dealing with in Insecure? Would you like to explore more of that onscreen?

I would love to. I think that it's really important. We need more of those stories. A lot of the reason that we have the sickness that we have is because of the portrayals of mental illness in Hollywood and the demonization of it... or how it's the butt of jokes. 'Oh, he must be crazy,' those types of things. I really hope that we see more [of Nathan's struggle] and think we should definitely explore more. I would love to explore it as much as we can.

Your work with BLD PWR is so important in the mental health space, but also in the social justice sphere -- especially with what's been going on recently. Talk to me about the mission of the organization and why advocacy in these areas is so important to you. 

BLD PWR I launched with Tia Oso and Mike de la Rocha, who are cofounders, and our mission was to build a community through education, expansion of radical thought, and community building. We wanted to create these safe spaces for us to ideate and converse, hold each other accountable, and learn about solutions to the issues we care most about, in a spirit of liberation. 

We realize Hollywood is just a heavy part of perpetuating negative stereotypes and images and oppression. We always think of Hollywood as a liberal bubble that we get to do whatever we want in, but then you go to your corporate Hollywood job or the writers room and you find what the #MeToo movement highlighted, which is the same oppressive forces that plague America, that are the foundations of America, are in Hollywood as well. So, that's what we’re building community around. 

On Wednesday, we had a very successful demonstration with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. Out in the streets of Downtown L.A., hundreds of people came out in the name of George Floyd and those who have been killed by police in L.A. County here, like Kenneth Ross Jr. and Wakiesha Wilson and over 600 others.  So, we have that. We are also launching our Liberate Mental Health campaign this week. We want to inspire and build a community around our generation and the next generation of freedom fighters. We have some amazing folks in our community -- artists, athletes, writers, directors, musicians that are doing that work, that are engaged and ready to go out. We want to leave this world better than we found it. 

We see these stories all the time with George Floyd and others -- it's constantly happening. What is your message to people who are angry, frustrated and have lost hope that things can change? 

I do feel hopeful. I feel like right now, as heavy as it is, what I hear organizers, activists, and people involved in liberation work saying all over the United States is that their hope is in the fact that people are primed for an ideological shift. People are fed up and these systems are exposed. And it is forcing people to expand their imagination as to what's possible.  

There are oppressive people and systems that are very well funded that are tormenting that change with all their might. But we have exponentially more people than the people that benefit off of this oppression. We are seeing that we have that people power, and we do have the power to change these things... The examples of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Brionna Taylor... [occurred because these systems] were not founded to care for our communities. And we, because people are ready for this shift, we can imagine better. I mean, think about Hollywood -- Hollywood is full of prejudice.  If we can’t imagine better than these systems, then we shouldn’t call ourselves creatives.  

I really, truly believe I can imagine better than this. I know that it exists. I have seen it, so it's not as hard for me to imagine. I know a lot of people have not seen these examples, but I believe that the bar is so low that we definitely can imagine better. And these systems, a lot of them don’t need to be reformed, they need to be transformed. We need to actually put a new foundation that is built on care, and radical love of the most vulnerable in our communities.

Insecure airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. 

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