This Women’s History Month, Women in Film (WIF) is giving 12 trailblazing Black women their flowers for their contributions in Hollywood as directors, producers, leaders, and overall content creators. Deemed WIF Pathmakers, the organization, in partnership with Stella Artois, is not only highlighting these women who have forged their own way in the industry but also paying it forward by pairing them mentees who are building a name for themselves as well.
Each veteran pathmaker’s hand-selected rising star awardee will receive a $5,000 grant which can be used to cover expenses for projects or life necessities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this collaboration, ESSENCE spoke with four of the phenomenal pathmakers about their passions, career highlights, and the importance of mentorship for Black women in Hollywood. This is our conversation with actress and director Niecy Nash.
When did you first know that entertainment was your calling?
NIECY NASH: When I was five years old, I was watching TV with my grandmother and I saw the most gorgeous Black woman I had ever seen on television in my little five years of watching TV. She had on a long red dress and her eyelashes looked like butterflies. I said, “Grandmama, who is that?,” and she said, “Baby, that’s Lola Falana.” In that moment, I feel like God stamped on the canvas of my imagination. I looked at my grandmother and said, “That’s what I wanna be – Black, fabulous, and on TV.” I stopped answering to my name and I would only come if you called me Lola so I knew then. You spend your time, then what happens after you claim a thing is what you call the meantime, and sometimes it really is a mean time because it is all the things that come to distract you or to take you off your path. But I stayed on it and I am living that mantra.
Your characters from shows like Reno 911 and Claws to movies such as Selma and When They See Us demonstrate your versatility on camera. Has it been difficult switching from comedic to dramatic roles?
NASH: Now I can turn it off and on. In the beginning, I had done comedies so long that it was secondhand to me. I remember doing The Soul Man with Cedric The Entertainer playing his wife. I could look at that script in the car on my way to work, find funny beats in different things that the writers didn’t even see when they wrote it because I used that muscle all the time. It was a little more difficult to find my way in drama because I didn’t get the opportunity to do it much. Our industry is kind but they still lovingly told me, “Here, you have a lane. You do comedy,” and I was like, “No, I can do anything.” It took a while to get them to see me like I saw myself. We in there now! They can call me for anything now! They’re like, “What do you need? A host? A comedian? A dramatic star? We got it.” Now they know but it did take a while.
Do you believe Black women are intentionally pigeonholed or typecasted? And, if so, how can it be addressed?
NASH: I remember being asked a similar question at one of the academy roundtables and I just know that, especially at the beginning of my career, I was asked to be the sassy Black everything. “Can you be the sassy Black mother? The sassy Black neighbor? The sassy Black girlfriend? Can you be a little more sassy?,” and I was like, “Is this the only note?” Black women are so complex. We are more than just this one idea that the industry was touting around at the time. I do think it is very easy but you always have to have an idea of what you want to do and how you see your art in the industry.
What was your experience transitioning from in front of the camera to behind the camera and putting on your director and producer hat?
NASH: I’m gonna say that in my experience – delicious! Once you’re part of the creative process, once you are really dialed into a project, you then start worrying about other aspects of it. I know that’s how it was specifically with Claws. I was already moving like a producer. I was already having writers’ meetings, being on conference calls, and calling around saying, “Here’s a better person for this,” or “Here’s somebody for that.” I was already moving like it without the title, which was the reason why the title for me with that particular show was not a vanity title. It was actual and factual and really came a little too late if you ask me because I was present in that way from the beginning.
When it came to directing, forget about it. I was born to tell people what to do but what I love about it is being able to change the energy of an entire crew of people. I played R&B music between setups, I put things on the call sheet like “Fridays are mandatory Wear Your Pajamas To Work Day,” and just fun things to keep people inspired and remember that there’s a joy in being able to get up and go to work when you have a job. Find it and bring a good attitude on over here.
What’s something you learned as an actress that transferred over to producing, and something you learned as a producer that helped you as an actress?
NASH: I’ve been an actress so long that I know the different ways people can speak into my listening — and by people, I mean directors and producers — so you know how you want to be treated. You know the things that didn’t work for a cast or an actor so you see it from the inside out. It’s like having a sweater that’s reversible. You don’t want to be in a situation where now that you are producing and directing, you fly too close to the sun and the power has gone to your head. You don’t want to live in that space. You want to trust your gift on both sides of that line. When they use the term “leading lady,” for me that doesn’t just mean the person who’s number one on the call sheet; it means someone who leads in such a way that you want to follow them.
When you do sit in the director or producer’s chair, how do you make it your job to diversify opportunities for women, specifically Black women, on and off camera?
NASH: I don’t have to be in that position in order to do that. I could literally be a third or fourth banana and still call casting to say, “Hey, I know somebody,” or call the music department and say, “I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of this artist.” You’re in a better position when you’re leading the charge but even if I wasn’t, my do is to be an actor but my who is to be of service in the world. It wouldn’t matter if I was working at the hospital or at the bank, you live in service to the thing and you do that by inviting people to think differently about other positions and other people who they may not have thought of.
When you shared your marriage pictures on Instagram, you commented to someone: “Who/how I love has nothing to do with my art. I’m still a skilled, Emmy-nominated, award-winning actress.” Why was that an important statement to make?
Nash: You know why? Because those things don’t matter to the job. Do you know how to do this? That’s the only thing that should matter – can you do it and can you do it well? That’s it. The rest of it – where you lay your head when you get home, who you lay your head down with when you go home, wherever you get up and worship – and whatever you decide to do in your personal life that does not harm anyone else has nothing to do with whether or not you can do the job.
I think that’s the focus and I think a lot of the time, what happens is that people want you to see the world through their lens and if you see it their way then you can act accordingly. Do you understand how many people would be running around looking like a chicken with their head cut off trying to make sure you’re satisfied to do that? No, but guess what I’m gonna do – me. I’m gonna always do me and when it comes to my work ethic, I’m gonna make sure that it’s impeccable. So you can not like how I live my life, but baby you’re gonna say one thing – put a script in her hand and see what it gives. Everything!
How important is mentorship to you?
NASH: I remember when I started in this business and I didn’t know anyone. My mother said, “This is a tough thing for little Black girls. You need to go into nursing because you’re kind-hearted.” She wasn’t being mean, but what she was saying was, “I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know anybody in this business.” When I was starting off, it was very difficult for me and the first person who pulled me under their wing didn’t look like me. He was a casting assistant at the time, like probably an assistant to the assistant named Jason Wood and now he’s a big deal at Lifetime and still one of my dearest friends.
He pulled me to the side and said, “Girlfriend, let me tell you what’s wrong with your resume. Let me help you.” No one had ever said that to me before. I thought it my responsibility to be in the world for someone what was hard to find myself. That’s why it’s necessary because there’s so many things that you don’t know but when you water a thing, it begets another thing. Oprah waters Ava, Ava waters me, I water Bria, she waters this one – it’s a trickle down affair then we’re all nourished where we stand. I don’t have to stand where you stand in order to be a thing. That’s why you gotta learn to take the meat and leave the bone, even in mentorship.
Each journey is so unique and so specific. I am absolutely my sister’s keeper and I was just on the phone with my mentee before I met you talking about the job that she’s on now. My point being, I feel like it’s necessary to stand in the gap for those who are doing the same thing. It’s selfish to do anything else.
What inspired you to be part of the Women in Film Pathmakers Program and how do you see it amplifying the work of future Black female filmmakers?
NASH: I met [Bria] on her very first day at her very first job which was Mrs. America, a series with so many heavy hitters – Cate Blanchett, Uzo [Aduba], Margo Martindale. The who’s who and everybody you could think of was in that series. I met her there and it was something about her spirit and her energy. I said, “Come here, baby. What’s going on?,” and at the end of it, we began to foster communication with each other. She said, “I can’t believe you’re being so nice to me,” and I said, “That’s a shame. You should expect that. You should expect to be well-received and you should expect people to be nice.” Throughout that course, I remember seeing myself in her.
You’re starting out, you’re wide-eyed, you might go to Instagram to see these women that people say, “This is the standard of beauty.” You’re sitting over here cute as a damn button but you have all this extra junk in the trunk and you’re like, “What’re y’all gonna do with this because this is the package it’s coming in?” Finding your esteem, learning your way and learning how to trust your gift is what I wanted to make sure was the positive into her. With this particular program, what I love about it is highlighting and bringing people to the attention of people who may not have seen them. It’s very important to me and I said this to Bria just this morning, I see you. I see you and you are seen. That was my whole reason for wanting to be part of it because I was like, “Yes! Here we go!” Let me introduce you to someone who may not have been on your radar.
What qualities do you see in Bria Samone Henderson that will help her throughout her career?
NASH: First of all, she has a relationship with the Most High — that’ll take you to spaces and places where people can’t even make sense of you being there. Second of all, she’s so genuine, she’s kind and she’s talented. She is really talented. Those are the things that I think are going to serve her on this journey.
What do you hope to impart to her that you wish you would’ve known earlier in your career?
NASH: Trust your gift. Sometimes we second guess ourselves, we second guess our choices but you are experiencing what you’re experiencing right now because you have all the tools. The second thing I would want her to know is to be of service in your skillset, in your job, in the spaces and places you go. Do not ever be so narrow-minded to only see it as something that is about you. The third thing I would probably want to make sure of is when you take paths on your journey to becoming your greatest self, all hell is gonna break loose because that’s just the way it’s designed to see if you really have to stick-to-it-iveness in order to stay on the path.
I would want to pardon her to find joy in all that. Every job may not be the greatest or you might work with people who are really challenging but find joy. It’s there but sometimes there could be some foolishness standing in front of it and you have to look around you and say, “There we go.” A lot of times I feel like people believe that happiness is something that happens to you and they don’t realize that just like love, it’s a choice. You choose who you want to give your heart to. You choose who you want to walk down the path with and when you get up in the morning, it’s just like choosing what jacket you want to put on or, for me, what wig I want to wear. It’s always gonna come with some happiness. I’m gonna make that a choice every day and I’m gonna get up every single day and choose me above all else. I’ll live in service to others but not to the detriment of me. That’s what I want her to get.