Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Before becoming Florida’s premier manicurist-slash-crime boss on TNT’s Claws, Niecy Nash was a mainstay within the comedy landscape. Reno 911! introduced many to Nash’s distinctive voice and quick timing. Her recent shift into more dramatic work confirmed her range, sparked by her Emmy-nominated turn as nurse Didi Ortley in HBO’s Getting On. She tells The A.V. Club that the role of Didi was not even the one she was originally tapped to audition for (Nash had to convince casting that she was a better fit for Didi). The ability to advocate for her own success would become a recurring theme throughout her career, starting with her very first credit as “Woman At Diner” in Boys On The Side. Nash has been on a roll as of late: Her work in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us won her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Limited Series, and she just made her directorial debut for an episode of Claws. Before her Emmy nomination was announced, she walked us through the various paths that led her to where she is today.
Niecy Nash: Let me tell you something that I realized as a first-time director of television, [of] the idea that you have to divorce yourself from this baby you birthed after you turn in your edit: In theory you’re like, “Yeah, I get it,” but when you finally look at how the folks above you move the pieces of the puzzle around, it’s jarring.
I feel like I may be better served for film, where you have the final say. Because once I looked at my director’s cut and then you look at the cut that comes out after everybody else makes their cut… I was like, “not so much.” You have to take on this role of journeyman and accept the fact that you may have turned in something that you feel definitely speaks to the series, speaks to those characters, speaks to your art—because there are details in everything, from the music transitions to when the camera pushes in—and then others go behind you and undo it.
I love directing. I don’t know if I’m built for directing television, because I want the final say. I knew every shot. I knew everything that was missing. I love the craft, but I may have to do it in a different medium in order for me to have peace with it.
AVC: Do you think the audience will ever get to see your director’s cut? Is that something that you feel like you’d have to lobby hard for?
NN: I don’t think they’ll ever see it, but I think that is the path when you direct TV. One thing I will say about Claws: What I love about playing Desna is that she is a picture of so many women that I know in my life who are on the south side of 40, haven’t been married, don’t have children, are having sex for their own pleasure, and living life on their own terms. She’s not a size 2. She’s unapologetic about who she is, but she’s a lover and a protector, even though she does nefarious things for a good reason.
AVC: The story of the Exonerated Five is something that defines the Black American experience and is a cultural source of trauma for us—so much so that either choice to take or to not take the role would have been understandable. What encouraged you to take on such an important role?
NN: I had dreams of becoming an actress since I was 5. But when I was in the third grade, I became obsessed with justice, so much so that I would be the arbitrator for any school yard. “Okay, wait a minute. Who had the candy first? Okay, and then what happened?” Because justice was paramount and I wanted everything to be fair. I followed the story of the then-known Central Park Five many years ago and… I felt like I was carrying a burden for people I did not know. For years.
Cut to many years later, I hear that Ava DuVernay is doing The Central Park Five—originally, that’s what it was called. I slid in her DMs, I texted her, I called her, I sent a carrier pigeon. I put two cans together with a string. I said, “Girl, listen, I don’t care if I’m a fly on the wall. I have to be a part of this story. I will play anyone.” If Ava was like, “Guys, I’m bringing everyone together to read the phone book,” I would be like, “Oh, let me get A through F,” you know? Because not only is she my dear friend, but she is one of the most talented people I know personally.
Family Guy (2018-2019)—“Sheila”
American Dad (2007-2012)—“Lorraine”/ “Angel”/ “Patty LaBelle”
The Cleveland Show (2010)—“Janet”
The Boondocks (2006)—“Cookie Freeman”
NN: Voice-over is the only job in this industry [where] you can show up basically in your pajamas with your hair uncombed and still get the job done. When you think about the number of days you spend in hair and makeup, them trying to make you look like angels are dancing on your face—you know, you got to put on a Spanx and slide into these tight-fitting clothes or, you know, whatever else it is. That you can literally roll up to work looking like you were rode hard and put up wet, and all I’m using is my vocal instrument? I’m there. I would really love to do more voice-over.
You know what I really want to do in my heart of hearts, to be honest with you? I want to do another feature. I did one before, but I want to do, like, a big feature. An animated feature would be really, really fun to do. And here’s the other thing: I grew up my whole life hating my voice. While most girls had a nice little dainty voice, at 10 years old I sounded like I needed to drink a glass of lotion. I had the same dumb voice as a child. If I can use it for something that can make sense, then I’m about it.
AVC: So many popular animated shows feature voice-over artists who have made careers out of having distinctive voices. We don’t have to look at a screen to hear your voice and go, “Oh, that is Niecy.”
NN: If I had a dollar for every time that happened in the line at the grocery store, I would be sitting on a pile of money. People say, “I didn’t know that was you, and then I heard you speak.”
A.P. Bio (2018)—“Kim”
NN: I had such a good time, especially with Speechless because I got to work with my Reno 911! alum Cedric Yarbrough. So putting the band back together in any capacity is great. Patton Oswalt from A.P. Bio recurred on Reno, and he also did the movie. So, going back to work with people who you really think are talented and who let you play and go off-script is always a good time.
NN: Ava calls me and goes, “Hey girl, hey. You busy Saturday? I need you to do something for me.” I was like, “Okay, what?” “I can’t tell you. I’m going to send you an address and just send me your sizes.” And that was it!
So I showed up. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know who else was in it, who else she called, nothing. And then I just started seeing the ladies, you know, one-by-one. That’s when we were told what this project was. And I was like, “All right, well let’s get after it!” So it was just a great day in Los Angeles where I hung out with amazing women. And we ran the world.
Scream Queens (2015-2016)—“Denise Hemphill”
AVC: After Reno 911!, were you ever worried about getting typecast as a police officer?
NN: Absolutely not because those two women are their own things. [Reno 911!’s] Raineesha Williams was such a lover of herself that she almost didn’t even realize that she was a walking parody, you know what I mean? She was very different to Denise, who was more like, “I know what I’m doing.” I feel like what they shared in common was the mental belief that white people were crazy. Other than that, I think they were two different people. I could see them being related to each of them, but I never saw them as the same person. Raineesha wanted the most and she was willing to do the least, whereas Denise was more like the voice of reason. Now, you talk about someone I would love to play again.
NN: Oh yeah, for sure. That’s another person, Ryan Murphy. When he calls you, you, just put your shoes on and walk out the door.
AVC: With Claws, the cast of women had to learn how to do nails. Was there similar training for Getting On?
NN: With HBO, they were very thorough. We had to follow real nurses around on a full shift. We had to take all the medical training to know how to take senior facilities. That was a big thing for them. They wanted it to be very grounded in that world.
Originally I went in for the role that Alex Borstein played. I had a callback for that character, and at the callback I said, “Can I read this other role?” And they said, “Absolutely not.” I began to talk about how much I loved her and the fact that she didn’t even talk that much, but you had to understand what was going on in her mind and on her face. And then they said, “Well, if you love it that much, you can go ahead and read it. Do you want to come back on Friday?” I said, “No, I do not. I’m here right now.” “Well, we don’t have the sides ready.” “Well, I’ll wait.” I didn’t want to run the risk of them seeing somebody else before me. So I walked out in the lobby and waited, and I saw Laurie Metcalf and I was like, “Laurie frickin’ Metcalf, I love her.” And I went back in and I read for Didi, whose original name was Marta, by the way. When they hired me, I was like, “I’ve been Black a long time and I don’t know one Black lady named ‘Marta.’”
But that was the first time somebody bet on me to do anything other than broad comedy, and I was nominated twice for an Emmy and Critic’s Choice. So I was very grateful that taking that chance on me proved to be favorable.
The Mindy Project (2014)—“Dr. Jean Fishman”
AVC: How often are you asked about kissing Mindy Kaling?
NN: It comes up from time to time! It was funny because I kissed her on the show and then after they said “cut,” we had to do it again. She was very apologetic. She was like, “You know what? I’m a way better kisser than that. Like, give me another chance when we do this next take.” And I was like, “Uh, it’s all good. We don’t go together in real life, sis. You’re kissing game is fine. Let’s just push through.”
Reno 911! (2003-2009)—“Deputy Raineesha Williams”/“T.T.”
NN: I had no idea what sketch or improv was when I walked in that room. I don’t know how they picked me. I tell actors all the time about being comfortable in your own skin, but I had to call somebody and be like, “What the heck is sketch? What do I have to do before I walk in there?” I was the girl on the list that had the least amount of credits. I had never heard of Groundlings, I had never heard of Second City, but I walked in there with all my machismo and my foolishness. And it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life.
I [also] played T.T. I played a couple people, and we got to create those characters. That was important to me because I had never seen a woman like Raineesha on television. When they say, “What do you need to play this character?” I was like, “Baby hairs and a big booty. What’s good?” I needed all the accoutrements to look like my auntie and everybody who I loved growing up who never saw themselves on television.
NN: That was one of the first medical dramas that had an all-Black cast. That was Blair Underwood. That was Vivica Fox. That was Hill Harper. Viola [Davis] was in it. Listen, that was the company you wanted to be in at the time. And when it went off the air—this was before we had the groundswell of social media—people wrote letters and did a campaign to get it back on the air. That’s how much they loved that show.
AVC: Do you remember how you got your foot in the door on that one?
NN: I walked in and I auditioned when I was nine months pregnant. I killed it. And they were like, “When is your baby due?” I said, “I’m having a C-section, when do you want her to be due?” “Can you have her on the 27th?” “No, but I can have her on the 28th.” And that was how we did that. When I came back to the show, after I had my baby, there were maternity clothes in my dressing room. They said, “We like the character pregnant and we want to keep her pregnant.”
NN: That was the very beginning, my first job ever. I called the casting director and I said, “I’m broke, I got a baby, and I need a job.” He said, “Be down here by three o’clock.” And that was it. I auditioned for three parts.
They didn’t tell me in the room that I got the job and I thought that that was rude because it was my first professional audition. I thought it was like a job interview, that they reach across the desk, shake your hand and be like, “Okay, thanks, you’re hired.” And they didn’t do that. I thought that was so rude and I told him that. “That is so rude that you would have me drive all the way over here and not tell me that I got the job. Shame on you.” I did all that stuff and they still gave me the job, so I can’t complain. In my first job I have a scene with Whoopi Goldberg. I started off right.