Natasha Rothwell is heading back to school.
Known for her hilarious antics as Kelly on HBO’s Insecure, Rothwell, 37, is stepping into a new role for her movie Love, Simon. In the big-hearted teen comedy, she plays Ms. Albright, a teacher who helps guide her students through some of their biggest personal problems as they struggle with high school, their sexuality and finding their identity. It’s a role that Rothwell is very familiar with.
Before making it in Hollywood, Rothwell taught high school theater for four years in the Bronx. She says her experience teaching was part of the reason why she connected to her character.
“I had students come out to me, I had students that came out much later after they graduated and they spoke to their time in my classroom saying, ‘You created this safe environment, you created this world that was a safe space,'” Rothwell tells PEOPLE.
Rothwell provides much of the comic relief in the film with her funny wisecracks, but her arguable standout scene is when she publicly stands up for the film’s protagonist, Simon (Nick Robinson), after he comes out. Rothwell explained to PEOPLE that the scene mirrored similar experiences she had during her years as an educator.
“When I was a teacher, I definitely noticed bullying happening and I noticed people choosing to be quiet when they should speak up,” Rothwell says. “And so for me as a teacher, it wasn’t just about advocating for students who were being picked on, but trying to teach the bystanders how to speak up and not be afraid.”
She also added that her experiences advocating for students in the classroom inspired her to keep that mentality in all aspects of her life.
“It was a really huge life lesson for me because I was in the classroom teaching and trying to promote that and I would have felt like a hypocrite if I didn’t do that in real life,” she says.
The actress practices what she preaches by being vocal on her social media accounts about the issues that matter to her — and believes that silence can be one of the most dangerous things.
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“My social media is riddled with me speaking out on stuff that matters because silence is a petri dish for hate,” Rothwell says. “For me it’s important to speak out.”
Rothwell also believes that now is the perfect time to tell the coming out stories portrayed in films like Love, Simon and the Oscar-winning film Call Me By Your Name because of the current political climate and the growing need to have diverse stories told on screen.
“I think that right now so many people of various communities feel threatened, feel that our stories aren’t being told and feel that there’s no sense of community because it’s not being touted as something to be cherished and protected,” Rothwell says. “So I feel like in true form, art is answering the call.”
Love, Simon is now in theaters.