Thanks to a mega-watt smile and personality to match, actress Niecy Nash has been a stand-out in everything from Reno 911! to Scream Queens to Dancing with the Stars to The Soul Man to The Mindy Project.
She shone bright in HBO's Getting On, but it wasn't until the TNT drama Claws came along that she landed her first leading role.
Nash plays Desna Simms, a Florida nail salon owner who launders money for the mob so she can help her special-needs brother and take care of her all-female staff. In season two (which premiered June 10), "My character leans harder into the mafia, and in true Claws style, all hell breaks loose," Nash says. "She's like a female Walter White." The Compton, California, native shares more with emmy's Mara Reinstein.
How does it feel to topline your show?
I'm proud, because I've joined a short list of African-American women who are leading ladies. To be part of that sorority — along with friends like Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson — is very special. I was around when the industry didn't recognize that women of color were necessarily leads. There's been a shift, and there's more to come.
Is there a part of you in Desna?
A lot of people ask me if the role was written for me, because it's such a good fit. It wasn't! But the part of me that intersects with Desna is her mothering nature, the way she takes care of her crew of manicurists and her family. Not to mention that both of us are a fan of the jumpsuit. It's a whole outfit. You don't even have to think of putting separates together!
Is it difficult to rein in a comedic persona when you take on a heavier role?
I've always been seeking drama. But I started in comedy and the industry was like, "Dear, you have a lane. Stay over here in this broad, multi-camera world." When I was on Getting On, people were like, "Oh, she's a revelation! Where did she come from?" I've been here! But I will be funny until the day they throw dirt on me.
In 2015 and 2016, you were Emmy-nominated for Getting On. Was that series a game-changer?
I was in the party, but Getting On got me behind the rope in the VIP area. I didn't think anyone was watching it! The reason I ended up in Selma was because [director] Ava DuVernay saw me on the show and said, "That's my Richie Jean Jackson." Alexander Payne saw me and put me in Downsizing. And Eliot Laurence, who created Claws, was a fan and asked me to be the lead in the show without even an audition. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Growing up just a few miles south of Hollywood, did you ever think you'd be such a successful actress?
Yes! I always believed. Why not? When I was nine, I was on Hollywood Boulevard, and I saw Ed Asner. I walked up to him and said, "You're on TV!" He said, "Yes, little girl, I am." I said, "I'm going to be on TV too one day!" He said, "Okay, kid, whatever." He walked away and I said, "My name is Niecy Nash! Remember my name! I'm going to have a star right on this ground!"
And this summer, guess who's getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Me! Am I surprised? No! Because I already knew it was going to happen. I'm grateful, but I'm not surprised.
Does Ed Asner know about this?
I told that story on a talk show, and he sent me a hand-written letter with a card that read, "Of course I remember your name." He drew a star and put my name in the middle of it. I'm inviting him to my ceremony.
What's next on your to-do list?
I want to direct. A lot of women have not been represented in storytelling, and I'd like to be a part of facilitating and bringing them to life. And I want to have a talk show about love and relationships. I don't know what spare time is. I had the flu, and the doctors told me I had to stay home for three days. I cried. Not because I had the flu, but — stay home and do what?!
Viewers can catch up on Claws via the TNT app or on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018