It wasn’t until Niecy Nash was 45 that she became a leading lady and was asked to be naked on-screen.
“I said, ‘Well, what’s going on? Y’all couldn’t have called me for this when I was in my twenties and everything was sitting where it was supposed to be?’ “ she quips over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. That role, of course, was Desna Simms, the South Florida nail salon owner turned money-laundering queenpin on the TNT dramedy “Claws.”
Currently perched in her closet (“maybe it’s a boudoir”), Nash is taking a moment for herself ahead of the show’s fourth and final season, which premieres Sunday. “It’s like a little store inside my house with a couch, so I can relax in here and try on clothes,” she laughs.
Like Desna, Nash is rocking some high-quality talons: gold- and silver-glitter stiletto nails. The actress, 51, has learned that being on a show like “Claws” means people “come up to you instantly and want to look at your hands ... so you have to keep something fabulous on your nails at all times.”
Nash, who has been working in Hollywood for more than 25 years, says starring in the series has felt like a hard-won career renaissance. It was the first time she was ever No. 1 on the call sheet, something she didn’t take lightly. “There’s a responsibility that you hold to get your show over the finish line every season,” she says. “And I welcomed it.”
Born Carol Denise Ensley, Nash landed her first professional acting gig in the 1995 film “Boys on the Side.” Since then, she’s become a multifaceted entertainer — an actress, comedian and host — who has earned praise for her roles in projects such as “Reno 911!,” “Scream Queens,” “When They See Us” and “Selma.”
But playing a role like Desna is what Nash worked toward her entire career. That dedication is evident in how she approached the series: Despite early call times, the California-born actress would stay up all night on the phone working through script ideas and dialogue, ensuring she was being as thorough as possible. Because Desna was like so many of the women Nash knew who were over 40, the commitment to accuracy came from a personal place.
“(They) were not married, didn’t have children, were having sex for their own pleasure (and) bossing up in their respective careers,” she says. “I wanted them to see themselves represented on television in a real way.”
And she’s added her own flourishes throughout the show. Nash was very hands-on when it came to who Desna was dating, and she brought the idea for Sheryl Lee Ralph to play Desna’s evil mother-in-law to the show’s creators and producers. She also had extensive conversations with the team about ending Season 2 with Virginia (Karrueche Tran) being shot.
The wait for Desna and her tightknit crew of manicurists to return has been a long one; the last season of “Claws” aired in summer 2019. Like the rest of Hollywood, making the final season was affected by the pandemic. “It pushed us a quite a while,” Nash says. But the delay ended up being a “blessing” in other ways.
Last August, Nash revealed a surprise in what became a viral Instagram post: She had wed her longtime friend, singer Jessica Betts. She and Betts spent the duration of the pandemic together — Nash was able to enjoy a home she had purchased but had yet to stay in for a consecutive month.
Without a forced quarantine, she’s not sure if they would have gotten married as quickly. “If you spend quarantine with someone, that’s like dating in dog years,” she laughs. And while her wedding announcement was also perceived as a “coming out” post, Nash doesn’t care for the term.
“The connotation that it comes with is that you were hiding a part of your life,” she says. “For me, it was less of a coming out and more of a turning inward — to say you can open up your heart to love however it could.”
Nash has, however, seen firsthand how the love of two queer Black women has impacted others — on social media, at local restaurants, on vacation. “We get a lot of things from people saying that they can identify with our journey,” she says. But she’s careful to note that while she is with a woman now, she was with men in earlier relationships because she wanted to be. “I dated men my whole life, and I loved it when I was with them,” she says, having been married twice before. “I loved them until I didn’t.”
Though she was warned that her career could be affected negatively by her relationship with Betts, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Emmy-nominated actress is booked and busy. “If anything, I’m turning down jobs,” she says.
At this point in her career, Nash knows what she wants in a role. “I like things that make me feel something,” she says. “Joy, pain, fear.” She’s spent the last six months feeling just that, filming her part as Glenda Cleveland, the real-life neighbor of Jeffrey Dahmer, in the forthcoming Netflix series “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
“The police just thought she was just a nosy Black woman who was antagonizing her neighbor and using 911 inappropriately, so they did not believe her,” she says. “It was many, many men that Dahmer killed later before they found out that this woman was telling the truth.”
She’ll also tackle the thin line between love and jealousy in the Netflix film “Beauty,” out next year, portraying a mother whose dreams of becoming a singing sensation are eclipsed by her daughter achieving that same dream.
Despite Nash’s abundance of projects, it doesn’t make saying goodbye to “Claws” any easier. While Desna’s style wasn’t exactly Nash’s, she loved how “over the top” it was. “I enjoyed standing in her stilettos,” she says. But what she’ll miss the most is actually a “who”: Morgan Dixon, the head of the nail department. “It would just be such a pleasure to come to work and see what the story was we were telling through our nails every day,” Nash says.
While she can’t say too much about what to expect in Season 4, Nash reveals that Desna’s long-festering addiction to power will come to a head. “You will see what it cost her to have it all” — all with nails that are nothing less than pristine.