More than Hollywood’s funny ‘it’ girl, a title she quickly earned with Style Network’s home-makeover show Clean House and Comedy Central’s Reno 911! (both 2003), Niecy Nash is a self-proclaimed old-soul and mom who channels her own life experience to make her characters—like her role in the AIDS-themed Boys on the Side, her very first film gig—even more relatable. The Emmy Award-winning and recently nominated Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for the Critics’ Choice awards is garnering praise for her serious turns on and off the big screen while using her effervescent, maternal voice to urge youngsters to stay vigilant against HIV.
by Sean Black
Photos by Robert Ector
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f late, everything’s coming up roses for Niecy Nash; a happy home life, solid faith, and a booming acting career with three stellar, hit television roles (Fox Network’s Scream Queens, TV Land’s The Soul Man, in its fifth season, and HBO’s Getting On with the 2015 Primetime Emmy nom for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series). She’s just guest-starred on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, too. To say that the actress known early on for her popping, behind-the-ear flowers is busy is an understatement of immense proportions.
All of this on the heels of her notable 2014 role in director Ava DuVernay’s epic film Selma about Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Alabama march to secure equal voting rights, the glam in-demand triple threat opens up about life, the invincibility of youth, and why she finds comfort in her consummate role as Momma Denise.
Carving out some time for this phone interview on the airdate of the season finale of Scream Queens Nash succinctly weighs in when we begin and I ask her about the recent, disturbing San Bernardino shootings just 100 miles east of her L.A. hometown.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power that is when we will know peace,” she opens up and wisely shares. Through all the glitz and giggles of her comedic assent, life hasn’t been forever rosy for Niecy, born Carol Denise Ensley on February 23, 1970, in Palmdale, California. There have been thorns along the way for this actor, author and producer who spent her earliest childhood years in St. Louis. After returning to Los Angeles, growing up and chasing the dreams that TV sensation Lola Falana had planted in her head when she was just a child, she tragically lost her younger brother, Michael, to gun violence on his high school campus before his eighteenth birthday. Realizing then her gift for making people laugh and smile she slowly lifted herself, her mother and the loved ones around her out of the despair and sadness over the loss of their beloved family member.
“Well, I think that for me how we treat one another goes back to our relationship with God. And I feel if there is anything askew in our hearts and our minds then we should go back to our manufacturer. I think the thing that we are all created for is love, and that’s the bottom-line. It’s the one thing too that I feel as a whole that humanity struggles with the most.”
The heartbreaking event subsequently led Niecy and her mother to their ambassadorial roles with M.A.V.I.S (Mothers Against Violence in Schools) shortly after Michael’s death.Founded in 1993 by their mother, Margaret Ensley, an earlier victim to gun violence herself, M.A.V.I.S. teaches and advocates nonviolence as well as lending support to parents and schools in violence prevention.
[pull_quote_center]I think the thing that we are all created for is love, and that’s the bottom-line. It’s the one thing too that I feel as a whole that humanity struggles with the most.[/pull_quote_center]Nash has never steered away from calls to action and used her growth from personal pain as a source of strength. As part of her current philanthropy bound in her own natural, maternal concerns, Nash has stepped up when original Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph has simply asked.
“As you should. That is what you do when she calls,” declares Nash. “Sheryl Lee has been a champion for the prevention of HIV for a very long time and so many of the DIVAS have supported her events because we know how passionate she is about this cause.”
In 1990, Sheryl Lee Ralph [A&U, 2008; 2015] founded The DIVA Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and in particular its impact on women and children. It’s signature event, DIVAS Simply Singing!, has brought together top-notch singers and performers for a one-night-only extravaganza which has continued now for twenty-five years, making it the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country. Over the years DIVAS who have responded to her call have included The Supreme Mary Wilson, Chaka Khan, Faith Evans, Jennifer Holliday, the late Natalie Cole and Teena Marie, Kelly Price [A&U, April 2011], Brenda Russell, Loretta Devine [A&U, January 2008], Jenifer Lewis [A&U, May 2005], Patti LaBelle [A&U, June 2005], Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg [A&U, June 2000] and Nash to name only a few.
Nash continues, “First of all, you believe in what she’s doing and she puts it together in such a way that is classy, fun and entertaining and at the same time you get a message. I call it edutainment because its education and entertainment at the same time. She’s been a tireless champion and I love to support her every chance I get.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph tells A&U, “My friend, my sister, the divinely inspired victoriously audacious DIVA Niecy Nash has never shied away from using her voice or from getting involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Ralph, Nash’s close friend and matron of honor at her 2011 wedding, adds, “Not only has she raised her voice in solidarity in several DIVAS Simply Singing! Galas, but she has even tried to sing a song too.”
Like Sheryl, Niecy was inspired to join the fight against AIDS because the disease hit her circle of friends. “We had a family friend who was infected back in the eighties. So that is when I first heard about it. That was back at a time when everyone was still really unsure of how it was actually contracted and how you could be affected if you were just even around someone who had it. So I learned about it and came to the awareness about it at a time when there was a lot of fear. And now there’s so much knowledge and so much information and so many ways to educate yourself—I just feel that this is the part that is absolutely necessary—the knowledge and the information is out there for everybody – for anybody who is sleeping with anybody,” as she uses dramatic inflection of her voice to punctuate her point.
But individuals, especially youth, often have a hard time hearing the message. “I think the thing about being young is you feel very invincible. Young people feel that because youth is on their side it automatically means they can do anything, and nothing will harm them. It’s just not wise, not to be safe. I just think that when you are young and in love you throw caution to the wind and expect that bad things that happen in the world will happen to everybody else except you. And that’s just not true.
“The thing of it is—it’s a gift to yourself to protect yourself because the things that come along with having unprotected sex are not necessary. You can still achieve the same level of intimacy and be safe, that’s the thing. It is a gift you give to yourself.”
As a mother of three, ages sixteen, twenty, and twenty-four, plus one stepson from her marriage now to Jay Tucker, Niecy’s maternal sense of protection always kicks in, knowing, as any good parent does, that the message needs to be tailored to young ears.
“Every child is different,” urges Nash. “So you know when the conversations come up and you feel like there is a certain thing on that particular child’s radar—then it’s something [at that time] to be discussed. Once they come into the awareness of what sex is then you have to address it and talk about it in ways that are healthy.”
Unsurprisingly, her compassion and her caring heart allowed her to inhabit her first film role—in Boys on the Side—in a movie that touched on living with HIV. “At that time I think I was just so overwhelmed and grateful with the opportunity to have a scene with Ms. Whoopie Goldberg. I was so young I was just a baby back then I had never been on a first-class flight. So there were so many firsts in that whole process for me. While I was grateful to be telling that story there was another wave of gratitude that was just to be living my dream and that’s what I was the most present to at that time.”
[pull_quote_center]I also think HBO and Ryan Murphy, who’s my boss on Scream Queens, did an amazing job doing the HBO film The Normal Heart from the screenplay by Larry Kramer. [For Murphy] to tell that story with grace and dignity and compassion was just a beautiful thing.[/pull_quote_center]Asked about what Hollywood could do to bring more sensitive films like Boys on the Side to audiences, she responds: “Well, that goes back to the writers because for scripted television you would have to have a storyline based around AIDS and HIV prevention and/or awareness, or you’d have to have a character in a situation where that subject matter is discussed. If you were going to incorporate it into scripted television, that’s the way that that would have that play out. I also think HBO and Ryan Murphy, who’s my boss on Scream Queens, did an amazing job doing the HBO film The Normal Heart from the screenplay by Larry Kramer. [For Murphy] to tell that story with grace and dignity and compassion was just a beautiful thing.”
Ever since that “first-class flight” in Boys on the Side, Niecy has brought a clear sense of self to her
acting role choices. “I would say that I always try to find something in my real life that I can use to make a character relatable. I play Cedric the Entertainer’s wife on The Soul Man and I remember when Cedric first asked me to play his wife, the very first thing I said is: ‘Are we happily married? Because if we aren’t I don’t want to do it. I am not interested in being a smart-talking wife. If I am going to be somebody’s wife on TV then I want to be in love. I want children to be able to turn on the television and to see a [good] example of what love looks like and people who are trying to co-labor.’ So to that degree I do bring a lot of who I am as a real wife even in terms of pet names and how I talk to my husband—I do bring that to my character.”
Even with her role on Scream Queens, playing security guard Denise Hemphill who fancies herself a Columbo when clearly she’s not, Niecy was able to tap into her mother-on-a-mission sensibility. “I feel like I have been a mother for a very long time. I started having children when I was twenty-one so I have been like an old soul and a mom for a very long time. More than Officer Denise I consider that particular character Momma Denise, and her goal is to mother these sorority girls in the Kappa House. So that is a part of my real life that I would say that I bring to that.
“And then with respect to Didi Ortley [her character on Getting On] I really am a lover of people, and I want them to be well and better. I want them to be a little better after I leave than they were before I came. So, I am a natural caregiver and in that respect I find that I am in a very comfortable place with very comfortable footing when playing Denise ‘Didi’ Ortley.”
While anyone who has seen Niecy on-screen knows she has the acting chops that can swing audiences from heartbreak to hilarity, her identity is clearly a through-line. “When it comes to my job off screen I feel that my role, my ‘who’ is to show up whether it is on a set, or on the red carpet, or behind the scenes at some event and to be of service—that’s my goal—that’s my ‘who.’”
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.