CreditAaron Richter for The New York Times
With a high-wattage smile and style, Niecy Nash steals the spotlight in whatever show she’s on — a list that includes “The Soul Man,” “Masters of Sex” and “Scream Queens” in the last year or so alone. But until “Claws,” a new TNT series starting Sunday, June 11, with Rashida Jones as an executive producer, Ms. Nash had never officially snared a lead.
Now she’s center stage as Desna, a Central Florida nail salon owner trying to go upscale by laundering money for the Dixie Mafia while clutching her makeshift family — her emotionally challenged brother and fellow manicurists — for dear life.
“Normally when you see a lot of women on a TV show, it’s cat-fighting and yelling and people being angry, but these women genuinely love each other,” Ms. Nash said. “And I’m pulling these air quotes from heaven when I say that they’re all of ‘a certain age’ and still viable and vibrant and sexy and full and complicated. It’s good in that way.”
When Ms. Nash, a mother of three grown children, married her second husband, Jay Tucker, in 2011, TLC turned the preparations into a reality show. In a phone interview from New Orleans, she talked about the power of laughter and the three words she lives by. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Did you start out wanting to be a comedian?
When I first started auditioning, I did not book jobs because in my mind I was Cicely Tyson. I wanted to do what Viola Davis is doing, I wanted to do what Kerry Washington is doing, but I couldn’t get a job. People would be like, “God, you’re hilarious,” and I would get offended because being funny was not a good thing in my house.
Then in ’93 my only brother was murdered, and my mother went into a very dark depression, and the only thing that I knew was that I could make my mama laugh. I would dance and sing and do all my little characters, and my mother goes from lying down in the bed to sitting up. I saw comedy serve as a salve, and I went outside to share that gift, and then it turned into a career — and then I got stuck there.
Why do you think they wanted you as Desna on “Claws”?
They were fans of mine from [HBO’s] “Getting On,” which turned the tide in how the industry saw me. The industry was like, “You do raw comedy, that’s what you do.” Then Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, who created and produced “Getting On,” met me and said, “Welcome.” And they said, “Not only will you do well, but you will be nominated for an Emmy for this.” And they did not lie.
When did the acting bug bite you?
When I was 5 years old, I saw the most gorgeous black woman I had ever seen. She had on a long red dress, and her eyelashes looked like butterflies, and I said, “Grandma, who is that?” My grandmother was smoking a cigarette on a filter, and she blew the smoke out of her mouth and said, “Baby, that’s Lola Falana.” I felt like my destiny was stamped on the canvas of my imagination. I looked at my grandmother, and I said, “That’s what I want to be — black, fabulous and on TV.”
How did you go from that 5-year-old to becoming an actress?
The three words that I began to live my life by were “no matter what.” I got married very early, I had children very early, and my “no matter what” was to pack up three babies and take them to callbacks. So I put them in the corner, I get one a graham cracker, one a bottle and one a crayon and a coloring book. “Sit here, don’t move, pray for me when I go in there, if the director comes out and looks this way you smile pretty. Got it?” I would have these horrible fights with my [first] husband every time I had to go on an audition. But I’d push through.
You wear some fierce talons on “Claws.”
They took us to nail school, and we have skills. So if the world came to an end with regards to nail salons and we were the only girls left, we could really take over.
You’re 47. How do you feel about putting that out there?
With all that sex and hotness that you see on that TV, honey, I am living my good life, so you go right ahead and say it.
So you’ve hit your prime?
They never asked me to be naked before this, so I guess so!