Niecy Nash -- the current star of Claws and When They See Us -- always wanted to be a dramatic actress, but everyone kept telling her she was funny. “And I got offended,” the actress tells ET.
It wasn’t until her brother was shot and killed that Nash learned to appreciate the power of her humor, slowly bring her mother back to life with her jokes and quick wit. Resigned to her bed with grief, she admittedly didn’t know what to do, Nash recalls, “but I knew I could make my mother laugh.” That’s what she did until one day her mother was in the living room calling her neighbors over to hear her daughter perform.
“It was then I realized comedy was a gift,” says Nash, who first broke out in 2003, playing Deputy Raineesha Williams on Comedy Central’s Reno 911. From then on, the actress made a career in comedy, appearing on The Bernie Mac Show and in films like Code Name: The Cleaner, Cook-Off and Guess Who. “People started to hire me, but I stayed in that lane for a very long time,” she says.
While she says the industry was kind to her -- and there’s no denying she can make audiences laugh -- it wasn’t until a decade later, when a supporting role on Getting Onchanged people’s perceptions about what she could do. On the beloved HBO comedy, Nash played Didi Ortley, an empathetic but exasperated nurse working in the extended care unit of a hospital. The performance earned her two back-to-back Emmy nominations -- and suddenly new doors opened up.
It was actually how filmmaker Ava DuVernay found her, Nash recalls of being invited to co-star in Selma, the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic that focused on the 1965 marches for voting rights. From there, new opportunities kept coming, with the same folks behind Selma offering her the starring role on Claws. Meanwhile, the time between Getting On and the TNT dramedy, she was busy as ever, appearing on Masters of Sex, The Mindy Project and Scream Queens.
Premiering in 2017, Claws -- about a group of manicurists living in Manatee County, Florida -- marks Nash’s first leading role on a TV series. It’s garnered her some of her best reviews, given her ability to balance the high camp and the emotional lows as Desna Simms, who has to hustle just as hard as anyone to keep her business afloat and her family safe. For Nash, it’s also stretched her beyond acting, enhancing a leadership quality as the top-billed on the call sheet.
While the show is certainly a victory lap for the actress who has worked tirelessly over the past two decades, it’s her role on When They See Us that may earn her a third Emmy nomination.
Reuniting with DuVernay, the Netflix limited series tells the human story behind the Central Park Five case, which saw five black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of brutally raping a white female jogger in 1989 after being coerced by police into making false confessions. After serving years in prison, the men were later exonerated and won a lawsuit against the city. While the case made headlines at the time and was later the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, the stories of the five boys and their families had remained largely untold.
In the four-part series, Nash delivers a harrowing performance as Delores Wise, mother to Korey (portrayed by Jharrel Jerome), who was 16 years old when he was convicted and served over a decade in the adult prison system. Unable to do anything for her son, she has to watch from the outside as he suffers years of violence and isolation.
Thanks to DuVerany’s diligence, the actress was able to get as much background as she needed, including an hour-long phone conversation with Wise. “That helped a lot,” Nash says, revealing her one takeaway from the conversation: “Even after all this time, she’s still in a lot of pain.” Leaning into that conversation, Nash tried to deliver on that emotion she heard in Wise’s voice.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about the role is the fact that it’s someone who is still living. “You’re not playing a character you can create and you can inform,” Nash says. “You’re playing someone who already exists and has their experience. And now you come along and try to embody that. It’s an uber responsibility to make sure that you get it right.”
What Nash ultimately is the proudest of when it comes to portraying Wise is the fact that Korey was on set and gave her a huge hug. “He said, ‘You’re my mom. You did an amazing job,’” Nash recalls. “That’s what I’m the most proud of.”