Claws' Niecy Nash on her long road to Peak TV stardom.

Claws’ Niecy Nash on How Peak TV Is Finally Paying Off for Women of Color

Claws’ Niecy Nash on How Peak TV Is Finally Paying Off for Women of Color

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Slate's Culture Blog
June 14 2017 11:32 AM

Claws’ Niecy Nash on How Peak TV Is Finally Paying Off for Women of Color

TNT-Celebrates-New-Original-Series-Will-And-Claws-At-Vulture-Festival
Niecy Nash at the TNT Supper Club: Claws brunch event.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TNT

For Niecy Nash’s first on-screen leading role, Desna Simms of TNT’s Claws fell into her lap pretty easily. The series, about five women who run a Central Florida nail salon, had been in development for years, beginning its journey at HBO before executive producers Will McCormack and Rashida Jones shifted it over to basic cable. Nash was busy playing the lead in a different pilot, but on the same day that project fell through, the producers of Claws called asking to discuss the character of Desna: a headstrong business owner embroiled in the seedy Florida drug game, as she struggles to keep herself and family afloat. Nash loved the script, set a meeting, and before she could get off the studio lot, was offered the part.

Desna Simms is an antihero: a committed, principled, but morally compromised character likely to polarize audiences; in a bid to move the salon to a more upscale locale, she starts laundering money for a neighborhood pain clinic owned by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, pulling her ever further toward the wrong side of the law. Nash still gets to be outrageous and wild, but it’s the rich dramatic moments—the way she so effortlessly anchors such a messy, fast-moving series—that’s both thrilling and new.

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Nash rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, courtesy of her role on the long-running mockumentary Reno 911! and a hosting gig on Clean House, for which she won a Daytime Emmy. She’d established herself as a comic force worthy of attention, but showrunners and casting directors were already boxing her in. “The industry was very polite, but they were very clear in that I was told that I had a lane: to do broad comedy,” Nash tells me. “When I would try to break out of that to try to do other things, it was met with resistance.” Often, she couldn’t even get in the room to audition.

Nash’s career abruptly changed course with the arrival of Getting On, a low-profile HBO half-hour set in the geriatrics ward of a Southern California hospital. The underrated gem co-starred Laurie Metcalf and Alex Borstein, also known near-exclusively for their comedy work, and challenged all three to play a disarming mix of tones that kept critics satisfied and ratings dangerously low. Nash’s turn as Nurse DiDi Ortley, the ward’s newcomer and audience surrogate, was quiet and subtle, with the kinds of nuances that her previous roles couldn’t make room for. It was met with wide acclaim. “After I did Getting On, the industry was like, ‘She’s a revelation! Where has she been?’ ” she says, before deadpanning, “I’ve been here.”

Nash knows many of her peers share that experience. Getting On premiered the year after Scandal, the first broadcast drama in decades to feature a black woman in the lead role. In 2013, its star, Kerry Washington, became the first black woman in 18 years to receive an Emmy nomination for Best Drama Actress; in 2015, by a very large margin, a record number of black actresses were nominated for Emmys. That year, Viola Davis earned her first Emmy nod for How to Get Away With Murder, Regina King earned her first nod for American Crime—both won—and Taraji P. Henson received her second career nomination for Empire. That’s in addition to recognition for Angela Bassett, Mo’Nique, Khandi Alexander, Uzo Aduba, Queen Latifah, Cicely Tyson—and Niecy Nash. Despite Getting On’s lack of other awards attention and its meager viewership, Nash netted her first ever nomination. The next year, for the show’s third and final season, she got another.

It’s especially unusual that Nash would receive such a boost from such a little-seen, short-lived project. But in 2014, she was cast in a meaty recurring role on The Mindy Project because producers were huge fans of her work in Getting On, and her 2016 role on Masters of Sex, as an Alcoholics Anonymous moderator who acts as a sort-of sponsor to Michael Sheen’s Bill, came about the same way. The opportunity to play these kinds of parts, opposite these kinds of actors, on these kinds of shows, was very new to Nash. “I loved it because it wasn’t something that I got a chance to do often,” she explains. “But even more than that, I loved that there was a reciprocity in the exchange and in the relationship, in that they were as big a fan of me as I was of them.”

Claws, like Getting On, centers on a group of older women working unglamorous jobs—a description that, fortunately, doesn’t sound quite as uncommon in the era of Peak TV as it would have even five years ago. The drama is also ambitiously stylized and innovatively assembled in a way that feels very new for TNT, the latest network venturing into risky areas of original programming. (The creator, Welcome to Me director Eliot Laurence, pitched the show to TNT accordingly: “Imagine if John Waters and Patricia Highsmith had one magical night together at a Florida beach motel—this show is their love child.”) The show commits deeply to themes of sisterhood and struggle, providing an unvarnished portrait of its Manatee County, Florida, community and leaving plenty of room for improvised nail-salon banter.

Nash views Claws as “a testament to people who have gone through something” and to “the resilient nature of humanity”: There are multiple core queer characters on the show, and as Nash frequently reminds me, it’s three-dimensional women who are driving the crime-fueled action. “It’s a story,” she points out, “that you would not think twice about seeing men execute.” Having Nash herself front and center speaks volumes. “Ten years ago, I would have been maybe No. 4, No. 5 on a call sheet behind a white lead in this series,” she says. “The culture in television is that it’s [now] OK to have a black woman lead the charge.” Later, she takes a step back: “Have we made some advances? Yes. Do we have a ways to go? Yes.”

Once she signed on to Claws, Nash took an active role in the series’ development. She “dated” several contenders for the role of Virginia, which producers struggled to cast, and her recommendation (Karrueche Tran) ended up booking the part. She hopes to continue this behind-the-scenes work and venture into directing.

Nash admits to being a little tired as we chat, but she’s showing no signs of slowing down—especially as exciting new opportunities continue to present themselves. The most recent example: Alexander Payne seeking her out and asking her to be a part of his new movie, Downsizing. (“You had me at hello,” Nash remembers thinking.) Payne made the trip down to Los Angeles and asked to introduce himself; when Nash said that she was busy working, he headed to the Claws set so they could finally meet face to face. For the most part, he talked about Getting On, and how he “absolutely fell in love” with Nurse DiDi. A friend of Nash’s approached her later that day, asking to why he was hanging around, of all places, the set of a TNT drama. “He must really like you,” the friend said, surprised, “because he never puts black people in his movies!” Nash took a breath. “Well,” she responded: “It’s a new day.”