The Gospel of Niecy Nash, the TV Star We Need Right Now
The star of the hit show ‘Claws’ on how she weathered brutal personal tragedies on her way to fulfilling her childhood dream of being “black, fabulous, and on TV.” It’s her moment.
“I have something very simple today,” Niecy Nash says, spreading her hands on the table and showing off her statement pieces: her fabulously painted fingernails. “An onlooker might look at these and go, ‘Wow! That silver sparkle metallic is decadent!’ But compared to the nails I’ve had on the show, this is very tame today. So I’m keeping it low-key, but cute.”
The hit TNT drama—the unicorn TV series that grows in viewers week after week, and that’s airing its finale this Sunday—has been described as Steel Magnolias meets Breaking Bad, about manicurists at a West Florida nail salon who find themselves cuticle deep in a crime ring and murder coverup.
It’s a show about colorful, verging on flamboyant women—just like their nails. They are adorned, studded, and swirled. Sometimes they rely on fake accoutrements to accentuate their beauty, but they are authentically themselves. They are attention-grabbing and sharp—viciously so—and it just so happens that the majority of them are in their late forties.
There’s a line that Nash’s character, Desna, says early in the series: “You know how people say that eyes are the window to the soul? Well I don’t think so. For me, it’s nails.”
It’s fitting then that, when we meet in Los Angeles near the end of Claws’s run and the most celebrated summer of Nash’s 22-year career—it was announced in June that the Emmy nominee will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—her nails are painted with such sparkling confidence, like a trophy. Like a star. Like it was destiny that she reach this point.
Because, for so many reasons, it was.
Niecy Nash, born Carole Denise Ensley in 1970, grew up in Compton. When she was just five-years-old, she knew what she was going to do, and who she would be.
She was watching TV with her family when, she says, “I saw the most gorgeous black woman I’d ever seen in my little five years of being on the earth. She was gorgeous. I said, grandmama who is that? She said, ‘Grandbaby that’s Lola Falana.’ I said, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to be black, fabulous, and on TV.’ And I felt like in that moment God stamped on the canvas of my imagination my destiny.”
From that day on, her grandmother would call her Lola.
There’s lots of advice from her grandmother that Nash still smiles about. Like most of the pearls of wisdom that emerge during our conversation, the advice rhymes. Her grandmother used to tell her she needs to “fix yo’self up,” because “a little bit of hair, a little bit of paint makes a woman what she ain’t: a lady.”
Nash is every bit the lady, a ferocious high ponytail complementing a skin-tight black ensemble as she greets a fan in the Beverly Hilton lobby bar where she’s enjoying a glass of wine.
“You look promising!” she exclaims as she reaches her hand out to a young black teenager wearing a dapper suit who stopped to tell her he’s a fan. “That’s what my mama said when you look good. ‘Put something together for the people!’ That’s right.”
Her signature helium-rasp speaking voice gives way to a cackle that pierces through the cacophonous room. (“I know, my voice sounds like I need to drink a glass of lotion,” she once told RuPaul on the drag superstar’s podcast, What’s the Tee. “Five-years-old it sounded like I smoked a pack a day.”) In fact, she’s built such a career on the unique delight of that voice and laughter that it’s surprising she nearly didn’t pursue comedy.
She saw herself in those black fabulous women she saw on TV, but the ones who were doing drama, like Cicely Tyson or Jane Pittsfield. When she was starting out in showbusiness, she would get offended when casting directors said she was funny. She never saw that as a path. In hindsight, it was because she was always being admonished for it: hushed in church, or punished for having “talks too much” on her report card.
Now that she’s made the majority of her living cracking people up on TV and in movies—as Deputy Raineesha Williams on Reno 911!, security guard Denise Hemphill on Scream Queens, Lolli Ballentine on The Soul Man, or any number of her over 70 acting credits—she’s able to look back and see how that career path might have been destiny, too. Though a difficult one to weather the road to.
In 1985, Nash found her mother after she was shot by her boyfriend. Her mother survived, but in 1993, when Nash was just 23, her brother did not. Burying a son who was shot and killed put Nash’s mother in a severe depression. Nash didn’t know what to do, but would spend nearly every day at her mother’s bedside, hoping to make her laugh. Eventually, her mother would sit up for these sessions.
One day, to Nash’s panic, her mother wasn’t in her room. She heard her calling for her from across the street. Her mother thought Nash was so funny that, finally cheered up, she went to the neighbor’s house and demanded that Nash perform stand-up comedy with a karaoke machine from the fireplace in the living room. “That’s when I realized comedy is a gift,” she says.
The gift has blessed her with a fruitful career through the years, but it was after Nash’s gorgeously subtle work on the HBO series Getting On that the industry at large started to really notice her. Words like “revelation” and “refreshing” and “unexpected” were excitedly thrown around in praise of her turn as Nurse Didi Ortley, the heart and soul of a floundering geriatric extended care unit of a resource-drained hospital.
There was a warmth and a pain—and, of course, a sense of humor—that Nash brought to the grounded, makeup-less Didi that awakened those who had become used to seeing her play, as Nash says, “the sassy black woman.”
Nash was nominated for two Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series awards for her work. The first nod was such a surprise that when a P.A. told her on set she had won something she smiled and got excited because she thought he was referring to some sort of raffle. When she received the second consecutive nomination, she wept, because she knew the first one wasn’t a fluke. She was truly being honored by her peers.
The skillset was always there, of course. But the opportunity wasn’t to show it.
“The industry was very polite,” Nash says. “But they were clear when they say you have a lane. You do broad, over the top comedy.”
It took Getting On creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer to see that in her. They, Nash says, believed what she believes: “That people who make you laugh can also make you cry, but it’s not always true the other way around. We’re not rushing out to see our dramatic actors [Nash puts on a big dramatic voice] starring in a new sitcom on Fox. That’s not the story that’s being told. But you can take a comedic actor and get a performance out of them that makes people go ‘I didn’t see that coming.”
To that end, Desna in Claws is the hybrid of broad comedy and intimate drama that perfectly utilizes an actor’s talents in a way that few roles—for any actor—ever do.
One scene might have Desna dancing along to Patti LaBelle in her nail salon, or struggling to run from a mafioso in lucite heels, spewing out an aria of hilarious expletives with each comedic gem of a step. The next will have Desna cradling any one of the charges she passionately protects, in tears as she coaches, say, her autistic brother through a breakdown, or her best friend through marital problems.
“It’s interesting because she’s not a wife. She’s not a mother. But the care that she has for the women in the salon and for her brother makes her feel like she’s everybody’s mama,” Nash says. “So many black women that I know who I was raised by—my aunt, my mother—take care of everybody else first. So when your back is up against the wall like Desna’s is, you wonder who’s going to have her back, who’s going to catch her when the bottom falls out of this thing.”
Nash remarried in 2011 and has her own three children, but she’s been mothering long before that.
When she was the captain of her cheerleading squad in Gardena, California, each of the girls had their names on the back of their sweaters. On the back of Nash’s was “Big Mama.” “They said, you always acting like somebody’s mama,” she says. “So that maternal aspect of Desna has been with me for a long time.”
Nash is famous for her work ethic. When she started in the business, she says, she had three jobs, and she’s had three jobs ever since. (It’s an ethos that led to, of all things, a Daytime Emmy Award for Best Special Class Special for producing and hosting the home improvement series Clean Sweep.) She jokes that she the ink was still wet on her Claws contract before she was asking her agent for more work; to that end, she recently completed shooting the buzzy, if shrouded in mystery, Alexander Payne drama Downsizing, alongside Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Laura Dern.
With all that’s going on, does she ever get a chance to reflect on what’s happening in her life and her career right now? A huge smile spreads across her face as her silver claws excitedly drum the stem of her glass of wine.
“I’m from Compton, and a friend of mine was in Compton and a bus went by with my picture on it, she says. “She took a picture of it and sent it to me, and I said, ‘You came a long way.’ You see the street sign in the background of the picture, and I’m like, that was my stomping ground.”
She takes a beat.
“The thing that I always say is that, this is the reason why it’s not called ‘them-esteem’ or ‘us-esteem.’ Because you don’t need people to believe for you what God called you to do. There’s always going to be naysayers. There’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t believe the call in your life. Doesn’t believe your gifts and talents. That’s OK. They don’t have to believe it in order for it to be true. You have to believe it.”
She goes back to the five-year-old girl who proclaimed her destiny to be black, fabulous, and on TV:
“Now, my mama was like, ‘This girl ain’t going to do nothing.’ My daddy was like, ‘That’s pie in the sky.’ I had one aunt who’d used to say, ‘That girl is gonna do something!’ But even if she didn’t say it, I knew. And I carried that with me. So the things that manifest in my life don’t come as, ‘Oh my god I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ It’s like, ‘Finally! As it should be! C’mon! Catch up!’ People are like, ‘Are you surprised that you’re doing this role? Are you surprised that you’re getting a star on the Walk of Fame at such a young age?’ I’m like, no, and I hope you’re not surprised by it.”
There’s one more great story about destiny in there, too.
When she was nine, she saw Ed Asner while walking down Hollywood Boulevard. She excitedly told him that she recognized him from TV, and then pointed at the Walk of Fame they were standing on.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get a star right here on this ground. My name is gonna be on this ground. I promise you. My name is Niecy.’ He said, basically, OK, scram, little girl. And as he walked off I was screaming ‘Remember my name!’ Does he know my name today? Probably not. Am I OK with that? Yeah.”