Niecy Nash on the comedy of ‘Claws’ and tragedy of ‘When They See Us’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Niecy Nash had a strong year on television this year between her work as a nail salon owner in TNT’s “Claws” and the mother of one of the Central Park Five in Netflix’s “When They See Us.” Nash is previously a two-time Emmy nominee for her work in the HBO comedy “Getting On.”

Nash recently sat down with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws to discuss the operatic style of “Claws,” the tragedy in “When They See Us,” and the experience of directing her first episode of television. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Niecy Nash, this second season of “Claws” wrapped up. Give us a sense about some of the obstacles and changes that your character goes through in the second season and where we leave off in anticipation of the third.

Niecy Nash: At the end of the second season, I was married for five minutes (laughs). I was married for five minutes. Then, my spouse met with a timely death and I find out near the end of the [season] that I inherited a casino. Right after I find that out, somebody takes a shot at me and the character Virginia jumps in the way and she’s shot. Dun, dun, dun, dun! What happens now is where we leave off on on Season 2.

GD: Talk a bit about some of the things that happened to you preceding those things and how your character deals with them.

NN: Oh honey! How much time you got?! This woman has been through many things. She thought she killed her lover only to find out he wasn’t dead. She has had a lot of challenges within her crew. The girls in and of themselves have had separate storylines where you get to know them a little better and find out what they’re dealing with. She was selling drugs and laundering money for the Dixie Mafia, then she left the Dixie Mafia and moved into the Russian Mafia, left the Russian Mafia and moved into the Haitian Mafia. Yeah, she’s been through a lot.

GD: As an actress, is it enjoyable to get to delve into this kind of operatic material? It really is a grand melodrama, as we say. It gives you a lot of different nuances and shades to play with.

NN: Oh yeah, quite a bit. I started off in the series very tough. I could handle it all. Then there was some fear once the Russian mafia got involved because it was like, “Wait a minute. You are taking me way too fast down this road.” And then I transitioned into a bit of feeling a lot in Season 3 what all of this is really costing me. So yeah, it’s a nice little ride to go on.

GD: It sure is. When you get a script, what’s going through your head when you’re reading these things?

NN: First of all, we scan it to see if I have to have sex on-camera. Do I have to unleash the Kraken? Wait a minute! What is happening? So we start there. I start there. And then after that, I take a look at where it’s going and then I have several phone calls about where I’d like it to go (laughs). Then comes the task of memorizing it and bringing it on home.

GD: One of the interesting things about this show is it is about a group of women criminals and we see these kinds of roles played primarily by men, mostly. This is about some tough ladies. Can you talk a bit about the dynamic between you and the other women in the show, not just character-wise but also you as performers?

NN: Typically, you see this sort of behavior with men leading the charge, the Tony Sopranos of the world, the “Breaking Bads” of the world. It’s delicious to have five badass women show up to the party and say, “Invite us. Well, you don’t have to invite us ‘cause we’re coming in anyway.” That’s a good thing. I love the fact that our cast is diverse. I love the fact that we’re women of a certain age and we have shown up to make our presence felt in this sort of tone. Off-camera, these are women who are very committed to the task of making these characters seem very real and very grounded in a world where we have a lot of surreal moments. It’s definitely a sisterhood on and off-camera.

GD: That’s the key, what you say. It’s big material and it could be very ridiculous if played the wrong way. You find that right balance between the operatic and the human.

NN: You know what’s funny? In my mind, I feel like “Claws” should be in a comedy category. You’ve got strippers at a funeral, you’ve got a forced Russian wedding, you’ve got an operatic water ballet, you have moments when we break out into song and dance. I don’t know, to me, that it feels like a drama in as much as it feels like a comedy with some dark moments.

GD: It straddles that line. Those are very hard to do, just being able to find that tonal balance in a lot of these things. I wanted to ask you about the third season. You directed an episode coming up.

NN: I directed an episode! Yay!

GD: Was that the first thing you’ve ever directed on television?

NN: Besides my children and their personal lives, yes.

GD: Tell us a bit about what made you wanna step behind the camera for the first time.

NN: I like telling people what to do. I like being in charge and I always felt like it was a calling in the back of my mind. I’ve wanted to do it ever since I did “The Soul Man” with Cedric the Entertainer on TV Land. That’s when I first got the bug. I absolutely loved it.

GD: All this time you were working with these other directors, were you taking notes in the back of your head of like, “Okay, this is what you do right, this is what you do wrong?”

NN: Always. You take the meat and you leave the bones. Take the part that works for you and the other parts you gotta leave it to the wayside. I took a lot from a lot of different people because I knew I was getting ready to go down this path and right before I started I had some lovely conversations with Ava DuVernay, with Victoria Mahoney, women who were going down this path and saying, “Here’s what we can offer you. Here’s how we can help you. Here’s some advice. I really like being able to change the atmosphere on-set. We had come off of a very tough week before I started my episode but I played music between setups, a little Stevie Wonder, a little Chaka Khan, to make the workday a little more pleasurable. I had a second line band come in, beignets, coffee, things that will let my cast and crew know that I appreciate you. That was important to me. What I learned about myself as a director is that I like to direct my actors in private but praise them in public. “Circle it! Beautiful! Yes!” Out loud. But if I’m directing you, that’s just over to the side, me and you. Yeah, I loved it.

GD: Given the fact that you’re also headlining the show, you’re at the center of it as a performer as well, how did you balance those two jobs.

NN: Playback. Playback monitor was my friend!

GD: (Laughs.) Just imagine how they did it back in the day before they had playback.

NN: That was my friend. I’m not precious about my art to the degree that I can’t watch myself. I’m like, “Ooh, I could’ve did that better. Let me go run that back.”

GD: I heard a story. I was talking when “Fences” came out, Mykelti [Williamson] was working with Denzel [Washington]. He was also the star of the movie and he said he figured out everything he needed to do on-camera before he stepped behind the camera so that he could focus on the other actors and not watch himself and say, “Ooh, I gotta do that better.” It’s having to let go of that part of yourself that is critical of your own work in order to focus on the task of directing.

NN: Right. I watched everybody, myself included, because sometimes you can have a plan and you get something else from an actor and you have to adjust in the moment to meet them where they are. I had to watch all of them.

GD: Can you give us a hint of what to expect in Season 3, which I know is coming up soon?

NN: Yes, it was the late great B.I.G. who said “More money, more problems.” Because I have inherited this casino, there is so many more problems that come into my life because of it. The relationships between these women are really gonna be tested this season as well as Desna’s love life, which always seems to have some sort of a challenge in it. Somebody this season is pregnant. Not gonna tell you who. Why’d you look down at my stomach? Hey! My eyes are up here! (Laughs.) I’m not telling you if it’s me! For those who are fans of the show it’s gonna be a very exciting season.

GD: Speaking of Ava DuVernay, I wanted to ask you about the project you just did with her.

NN: “When They See Us.”

GD: Yes. We haven’t gotten access to see that yet but I did want to ask you a couple things about it. First of all, just give us some background on the actual case that this is based on.

NN: “When They See Us” is based on the story of the Central Park Five, which is five young men who were convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park back in, I think, ’89. Around that time in the ‘80s. They were convicted and all of them were innocent so while it’s been reported in different media outlets and maybe a documentary, this is really a full circle moment of them being able to contribute to the telling of their own story.

GD: For people who either weren’t around at the time or were maybe too young to remember, this was like a lightning rod and it really hit people on both sides of the aisle, people like our current president calling for them to be executed and then people on the other side, who, they were innocent, totally. Can you give us a sense of the mood at the time that this was happening?

NN: There was a lot going on at the time and I was just coming out of high school when this happened. So I leaned into the case more as an adult and this is prior to ever being cast to play one of the mothers. When I saw it, I was like, “This is such an injustice. What is happening?” So I was leaned into the case as an adult and every time if an anniversary or history of the event would come up, I would always watch it. Even if I saw this reporting before I would watch it again anyway. So the fact that I actually could participate in it was a gift. You had times on-set where you had the real men whose stories we’re portraying there, sometimes their family members there, so you wanted to make sure you handled this material with such care because it’s so delicate.

GD: You mentioned you play one of the mothers. Can you tell us a little bit about your character? Did you meet with the real-life people before you started portraying this character?

NN: I play Delores Wise whose son was Korey Wise. Korey was the oldest of the five, at 16. I had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Wise over the phone prior to filming and I had the opportunity to talk to Korey after he saw all four of the episodes. He said to me, “That’s my mom.” He was like, “That is my mother.” He was like, “Thank you.” He gave me the biggest hug, which meant the world to me because that’s what you want to say. “You got it right.” Having access to the real-life people really helped the actors with this work. I said before that I thank Ava so much because I’ve never been on a job that provided crisis counseling for you anytime you were working and got off work and was like, “Wait a minute.” She was definitely protective of our mental health which was a gift, also.

GD: This may sound like an obvious question but I think it bears asking. Why is this story important to tell right now or at any time?

NN: I think this story is so important because you would not believe how many people experience this. The one thing that I will tell you is this. You look at these children, and I’ll tell you, being a mother, looking at these boys, that could’ve been any one of my children. To be in that situation where you’re judged and demonized and vilified, not even based on facts, just based on how you look, it happens every day. It happens every single day and everybody doesn’t get to tell their side and have their stories been told and heard. Being an actress is what I do, so I showed up to do my job but then my who is to be of service in the world. How do I do that? After this project, I was like, “How do I figure this out?” As soon as this ended, I became an ambassador for the Innocence Project because I wanted to lend my time and my talent and my gifts over to other people who have experienced the same sort of injustice. They were incarcerated as children and their lives will never be the same because of it. Korey Wise being 16 left the courtroom and went straight to Rikers Island.

GD: The worst prison in the country. It’s terrible.

NN: That’s as a child. We have to be mindful.

GD: I think it’s really easy to forget, these were children. They were portrayed as wildlings, I think was the term they used.

NN: A lot of times we’ve been socialized to look at somebody and say, “What did they do,” before we say, “Did they do it?” Because of the way you look, you’re guilty of something. “What did they do?” And we’re skipping the, “Did they even do this?” I hope that that’s some of the takeaway that people get and how you can destroy a person’s life with a lie.

GD: Exactly. Well Niecy Nash, thank you so much for your time and congratulations on all your work this year.

NN: Thank you.

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