Niecy Nash, TV’s Most Grateful Scene-Stealer, Is Changing Lanes and Getting All the Laughs

by Stacy Lambe 1:30 PM PDT, October 13, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

“For such a long time, I felt like I was told in the business that ‘you do one thing. This is your lane, and you stay right here,’” Niecy Nash tells ET over the phone. The Emmy-nominated actress for HBO’s Getting On and current scene-stealer in Scream Queens is describing her TV career mostly playing a hilariously funny, sassy black woman -- best personified for six seasons on Comedy Central’s cop mockumentary, Reno 911! -- that left her stuck in neutral.

Despite the breakout potential and being her most steady work at the time, it didn’t get her the same attention as her co-stars after the series was canceled in 2009. Creators Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, and Kerri Kenney-Silver came from The State, and continued to pick up steady work writing, producing or starring in various TV and film projects, from the Night at the Museum film series, Party Down, and NBC’s The Odd Couple. Wendi McLendon-Covey appeared in Bridesmaids alongside Kristen Wiig and is the star of ABC’s The Goldbergs. Even sixth season newcomer Joe Lo Truglio ended up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and reprised his role in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series.

Although she hosted Clean House on the Style Network, and even earned a Daytime Emmy, what followed for Nash were a lot of roles that she says “all had a singular tone.” She made guest appearances on various TV comedies and voiced characters for American Dad! and The Cleveland Show.

“I’ve always wanted to do something else,” Nash says of the work that followed until she was cast as Nurse Denis “DiDi” Ortley on Getting On.

Photo: HBO

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The role -- a true breakout that earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series this year -- saw the actress strip down all the layers of outlandish, broad comedy that she became known for and play a soft-spoken, makeup-free nurse in the extended care for the elderly of a Long Beach, California hospital. Ortley was still funny, but tonally, she was something new for the actress.

“Not only is the style of acting very different for me, the look of the character is very different from anyone I’ve ever played,” Nash says. The series requires her to go makeup-free, only wear her natural hair -- often curly and tucked into a bun -- and don pink nurse scrubs.

She’s often on the fringe, a witness to the antics that happen in the ward. “My character is sort of a window into this world, she doesn’t really have those bigger moments for herself,” Nash says. (Watching the actress keep a straight face during a season one episode, “Nightshift,” as Alex Borstein’s drunken character navigates nurse duties is a testament to the power of holding back.)

Even though Nash did not win the Emmy, she’s still grateful for the recognition from her peers. “To have the opportunity to do [the series], number one, I thought was such the blessing,” Nash says, “but then when you add being acknowledged for it, it becomes a whole different thing.”

The series will return for its final season, a six-episode run, on Sunday, Nov. 8. The actress promises that it will end on a high note, with just enough wiggle room for a last-minute renewal. “The good thing is, just in case there’s a change of heart, we leave it in such a way that the show could come back,” Nash teases. 

Photo: FOX

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As the series draws to a close, she’s just getting started on the FOX hit, Scream Queens -- a college-set horror-comedy co-created by Ryan Murphy.

There’s no question that Denise Hemphill, a home security guard hired by a sorority house, relies heavily on a character that Nash has longed to leave behind. However, the series -- a satire of the horror genre, often flipping many tropes on its head -- plays on the image the actress herself cultivated on TV. Sure, Hemphill serves up a lot of attitude mixed with enough dimwit to make her a sure victim in the slasher series, but Nash adds enough brashness -- and a much-needed wink -- to the character. She’s slowly putting together all the pieces, even if she’s not exactly following the right trail. And so far, she’s getting some of the biggest laughs.

The role is a full circle moment for an actress who used the same outlandish characterizations to get her noticed in Reno. Nash, like many of Murphy’s acting troupe, said yes without even knowing what the project was. “Ryan had me at ‘Hello,’” Nash quips, adding that it just builds on the momentum she’s cultivated with the HBO comedy. “Getting On was the way that I found my way into Selma, which was directed by Ava DuVernay. I mean, it was nominated this past season for an Oscar. I ended up in that space because of Getting On. And there were some other opportunities that have come my way, because of that.”

“I’m already looking forward to whatever is next,” Nash says of her future scene-stealing moments on TV.

Scream Queens airs Tuesdays on FOX; Getting On returns to HBO on Nov. 8