Niecy Nash’s ‘Claws’ is the future of television
The veteran actor is flourishing in an unapologetic lane she created for herself
Niecy Nash is having a moment.
Finally. After 22 years of working in Hollywood. After hearing the kinds of feedback that would send even the most confident person into an emotional tailspin — Nash has the lead role in one of the most provocative summer TV series since … well, ever.
In TNT’s new Claws, Nash portrays Desna, the owner of a South Florida nail salon. There are so many sharp curves in the first few episodes, viewers will be grasping — and gagging — for air. The series comes to the network from a team of executive producers that includes Rashida Jones, and critics so far are impressed by Nash’s dramatic range.
“When I entered the business,” said the mom of three in her familiar and melodic voice, “I had challenges with people hiring me because I was chubby. ‘She has a cute face, can’t she lose weight?’ And, I’m like, ‘No, she can’t because she’s about to have three babies.’ The industry was very polite, but they told me: ‘You do sitcom. You’re a sitcom girl. That’s what you do, and that’s your range right over there.’ ”
So Carol Denise Nash worked. And she collected accolades like a daytime Emmy for Style Network’s Clean House (for which she was producer/host), and Emmy nominations in 2015 and 2016 for her role as Didi Ortley in HBO’s Getting On. Nash went after roles — such as her big breakthrough in Comedy Central’s Reno 911! — no one thought she should ever read for. And importantly, the Los Angeles native entered rooms with her head held high, and her self-esteem intact.
“That’s why it’s called self-esteem, and not them-esteem,” said Nash. “I didn’t need anybody to believe in what I felt like was the call of my life,” she said. “I didn’t need my father to believe it, I didn’t need my friends to believe it, I didn’t need the people who looked at me like, ‘Oh, my God! You bringing three kids to audition?‘ Yes, I sure am, and I’m gonna get it. Watch. Hashtag: Booked it.” She said she often felt bad when people wanted her to get her teeth fixed. But: “Nope, that gap ain’t going nowhere. Nope. Sorry. Too bad. I was unapologetically who I was.”
And now, in the midst of one of the most watched NBA Finals of all time, Nash’s new series, Claws, is premiering. The diverse cast of women she leads is hot with the type of badassery we’ve yet to see from Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and his crew. “Maybe we could get some men who would never have watched the show otherwise,” said Nash of all of the Claws promos airing during the Finals. “They may be like, ‘What are they doin’ over there?’ We can invite them very politely to our party!”
Set to run at the tail end of this annual celebration of athletic masculinity, Claws is a series about women who go up against men in violent and bold ways. It’s a fantastic and rare dynamic. This is not a role that casting directors, years ago, would have brought Nash in to read for. But Claws — in which Nash rocks sexy looks boldly and unashamedly, and has intense sex scenes with a young lover — is exactly where she’s supposed to be. “She has the heart, and the soul,” said showrunner (and former ER and Criminal Minds producer) Janine Sherman Barrois, “and the humor.”
The show is a dark and twisted comedy centered on manicurists. Nash’s character is the owner of Nail Artisan of Manatee County salon, and she desperately wants to escape the temporary life of crime for which she’s signed up. She’s hoping for a cash payout that will allow her to take her nail business to the next level, but as these things go, that plan gets remixed. A life of crime ain’t going away anytime soon. Acrylic fill-ins and dope nail art be damned — it’s time for unexpected action in the money-laundering business. “You just don’t see women that are that strong, and provocative, and three-dimensional,” said Barrois. “Normally they’re archetypes. You just don’t see people that are this fierce. She’s everything women strive to be.”
The imagery of this series is powerful and striking. A black woman “of a certain age,” as Nash often says with a cackle, moves in and out of each scene in her tightly fitting, curve-accenting wardrobe, demanding to be heard on matters of all kinds. And she does all this with a diverse band of friends: a conservative ex-con white woman, a black and Asian vixen, a married white woman with two children (one of whom is a black daughter) and a lesbian Latina who drives her current lover so crazy that the lover is stalking her. “These type of characters don’t come along every day,” Nash said. “We’re doing things that typically have been reserved for a male storyline.”
The imagery behind this series is powerful, as well. Two women — Barrois, who is black, and Jones, who is biracial — are calling the shots. And everything from the writer’s room to the extras looks like the world that Barrois, Jones and their producing partners Eliot Laurence and Will McCormack live in.
“When we started casting,” Barrois said, “we wanted to — not in a contrived way, in a real way — show the human experience through five different women from five different walks of life. We believe that that’s real. We’re at a time right now where you’re seeing a lot of women and a lot of people of color in high positions. The more that happens, the more you’ll see more images change, and more stories reflecting that. It’s important. Our point of view is essential. When you have a multiethnic writer’s room, you have all different points of view coming into play.”
Being on set for this show is unlike anything Nash has experienced. And she loves every bit of it. “I am so tickled when I go to work and I see women leading the charge: Rashida Jones and Janine, and not too long ago we had Victoria Mahoney directing us, which was amazing. It is so completely delicious,” Nash said. “One of the girls who’s my stand-in on the show said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this! I’ve never been a part of something where there are so many black women bossing everybody around!’ ”
Barrois remembers that day well. It was special for nearly everyone around. “That was a very moving day on set. I remember when we were walking across the set with Victoria, people — some stand-ins, some extras — came in and said, ‘You guys inspire me. This is inspiring.’ Because you saw a leading lady, you saw a showrunner, you saw a director, and you saw they were all black women. That’s huge. That’s huge! Mind-blowing,” Barrois said. “We’re trying to make it the norm. The more we normalize it, the more it will continue to happen.”
So perhaps it’s Hollywood that is actually having the moment? Perhaps the industry has caught up to what real people navigating life look like and this series is a direct response to it? “Whenever you’re a woman and you’re a person of color, you’re trying to move up the ladder. Those are the demons you are fighting with every day: being sort of undermined, being counted out and being told you can’t get something. That’s been a theme in my career, and I’ve always said [to] the people who told me no, I’m going to get a yes,” Barrois said. “There has to be some sort of inner belief that’s bigger than the societal belief.”
Nash certainly believes it so. It’s what has guided her all these years. “The three words I’ve always lived by, especially at the beginning of my career, were ‘No Matter What.’ Whatever the price was, I was willing to pay it because I believe what I believe,” Nash said. “And the most important thing for me right now is to continue to raise the bar to challenge myself. To challenge myself in this process. Just to continue to push myself in ways to say, ‘You can do this. You can do that. You can try this.’ ”