Actress Niecy Nash Is 'Getting On' Just Fine
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our guest, Niecy Nash, Comedy Central series that spoofed Nevada police officers. She now co-stars on the HBO series, "Getting On." Niecy Nash plays a nurse at an extended care facility for elderly women. Her character, Didi Ortley, is attentive and principled in a workplace full of hapless co-workers, incompetent bosses and slowly dying patients. The role earned in Niecy Nash an Emmy nomination last year. The third and final season of "Getting On" ends on December 13. Niecy Nash spoke to guest contributor Anna Sale, host of the WNYC podcast Death, Sex and Money. Let's start with a scene from "Getting On." Nash's character Didi is admitting her elderly mother-in-law as a patient in the extended care unit. The mother-in-law is surrounded by Didi's whole family - her husband, her brother and her sister-in-law. There's been some family disagreement about the way Didi has managed the care of the mother-in-law, so she's feeling a little defensive. That's when Dr. Jenna James, the unit's director of medicine, played by Laurie Metcalf, greets the family.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GETTING ON")
LAURIE METCALF: (As Jenna James) The Ortleys have landed. Hello, welcome. There she is.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Thank you.
METCALF: So tell me how you good people came to be here.
MARSHA STEPHANIEBLAKE: (As Yvette Ortley) Well, she was moved.
NIECY NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Yvette. What happened, Dr. James, was she severed an unavoidable, unforeseeable freak accident. She fell out of the bed, but she was fine. But I said, just to be sure, let's get her to the hospital for some x-rays.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Very smart, Didi, very wise.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Thank you. And it turns out the hospital was the best place for her. I mean, we didn't know she had gallstones. Right, so they removed her gallbladder.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) OK.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Then she had a stroke, then an IV fell over and hit her on top of the head and...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Oh, well.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Here we all are.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) When it rains, it pours.
ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Niecy Nash, welcome to FRESH AIR.
NASH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SALE: "Getting On" is one of my favorite shows on television right now. And your character, Didi Ortley, thank goodness she is there in that extended care facility for old patients.
SALE: They need her there. I read that you were not initially called in to audition for Didi. You were called in for Dawn, who is a well-meaning but bumbling RN who is totally un-self-aware and physically clumsy. And you asked to read for the part of Didi instead. And Didi is much more restrained. She's always the adult in the room. What drew you to that character?
NASH: Well, it was interesting. When I read the script, especially in the first two episodes, Nurse Didi didn't have a lot to say. But I loved wondering what the expression was on her face. I thought it was so delicious to try to convey exactly what a person is thinking with simply a look, a glance. And that's why I really wanted to read for that part. Now, we get into a whole other scenario when we look at the fact that HBO said no glamorous hair, no makeup, no spank - yeah, no Spanx.
SALE: So you were wearing scrubs with no Spanx.
NASH: Oh, my God.
NASH: And then they make you stand underneath the worst lighting that God ever created and yell action. And I mean - you know, it's so funny because after the first time we saw each other - myself, Alex Borstein and Laurie Metcalf - standing underneath this horrible light with no makeup and our bare faces you know, you know, we looked at each other and said, we're going to all be on the cover of a magazine and the caption is going to read, "These Brave Actresses" (laughter). Because you're so conditioned to hit the set and go straight into hair and makeup and you come out looking like angels are dancing on your face. What we're doing is the exact opposite of that.
SALE: "Getting On" is about aging and death, but it's also about the absurdities of the modern workplace. I want to play a clip from the last episode in season one. And here, your character is talking to Dr. Jenna James, again, she's played by Laurie Metcalf. And Dr. Jenna James owes your husband money for work that he did on her driveway. And you have asked Dr. James to pay for it once. And in this scene, you're stopping Dr. James in the hallway again to ask. Your character, Didi, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GETTING ON")
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Dr. James.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Yes.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) Did you have a chance...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Oh, my God, I forgot the money again. Oh, darn it. I'm so - I just - I can get it to you next week. Is that OK? I just (laughter).
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) OK.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) You know, time just flew. And I'm so sorry. I just - I went to lunch late. The clock is all wrong so we can settle it next week.
NASH: (As Didi Ortlely) All right. Dr. James, I'm sorry. You know, it's not OK. Darnell did a great job for you at a really great price. And the least you could do is give us the money you owe.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) I mean, of course that's my intention. And I told you - didn't I say that he did a good job in front of witnesses?
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) I mean, I'm feeling like a beggar...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) No.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) ...With my hand out...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Oh, no, I certainly didn't...
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) ...And I just - I want him to be paid for the work that he did.
METCALF: (As Jenna James) And that's fair.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) And I need that money, Dr. James. We don't have money like that. And I've got six kids that I'm trying to take care of. And I don't know about you, but...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) OK.
NASH: (As Didi Ortley) And I...
METCALF: (As Jenna James) Don't do this to me. I'm truly sorry, Didi. I'm going to throw in $100, all right? I'm going to add in...
SALE: I love that scene so much. She told me they had you...
NASH: She said, didn't I say it in front of witnesses?
NASH: Laurie Metcalf is brilliant.
SALE: (Laughter) She bragged about how good the driveway work was but she hasn't paid for it yet.
SALE: Can you tell me about how you approached that scene?
NASH: Well, I knew that Nurse Didi was very, very troubled by the fact that this had been going on so long. And, I mean, so it was kind of like, you know, I really wanted to work with our writers and director to say, what's the tone? You know, where do we want to land with this? Because this could be a big mess, you know what I mean? We - I could've played this very big and, you know, and really got in her face. But the decision was made that it was better to bridle the anger and the hurt and just let it seep out but so much and have Didi stand on her pride. And that was the lane we decided to go in. And for a lot of people, that is one of their favorite scenes.
SALE: When did you know you wanted to be a performer?
NASH: When I was 5 years old, I was watching television with my grandmother. And I saw the most gorgeous black woman I had ever seen in my little five years of living. She had a long red dress on and her eyelashes looked like butterflies. I said Grandmama (ph), who is that? She said, baby, that's Lola Falana. I said, oh, that's what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be black, fabulous and on TV.
SALE: (Laughter) You were a teenager in South Central in Compton during a time of rising violent crime rates. Did that affect your family when you were growing up?
NASH: Not so much so in South Central or Compton because of the sign of the times there per se. My mother always wanted us to go to school outside of where we lived. So we were bused to other schools. And in that particular way, my brother was bused to a school in Los Angeles or Southern California that's considered to be the Valley. So he was bused to a school where the schools were safer, where the kids were better, where the quality of education was supposed to be higher. And it was in that place that he was caught in a love triangle and someone brought a gun to school and he was murdered on his high school campus. So it wasn't the violence of the inner city, per se, you know what I mean? It was violent, nonetheless, but it landed in our laps, not because of, you know, gang activity around corner.
SALE: You were 22 when your little brother was shot and killed. I'm sorry for your loss.
NASH: Thank you. But I will tell you this. Oftentimes what happens is that the thing in your life that causes you the most pain is also the same thing that ends up bringing you so many blessings on the other side of it. And I will say that when my brother was murdered in '93, my mother went into a very severe depression. And she said, I'm getting in the bed and I'm never getting back out. And all I knew was that I could make my mother laugh. I never realized that comedy was a gift because I always got in trouble because I got talks too much on my report card or I got pinched for cracking jokes in church. And so when my mother went into this depression, what I started to do was I would go to the foot of her bed every day and I would perform. And I would do characters, I would do voices, I would do a comedy routine, I would dance, I would sing. My mother went from laying down in the bed to sitting up in the bed. And she said, I got my peanuts and my water. Go on and do your rendition of things. So I just kept performing. Then one day I come and my mother's not in the bed. And I'm like, Mama, where are you? She's like, we're in here. And I'm like, who is we? Well, I went across the street and got the neighbors. I told them you was funny. Get that karaoke microphone and tell these people some jokes. And I'm like, what? So I get the microphone, I'm standing on top of the fireplace. I'm, like, tapping the mic, is this thing on? How's everybody doing in the living room was my first bit in front of an audience. And I realized, as I was standing on that fireplace, that comedy was a gift. I did not know that before. And I'm not going to tell you that it healed my mother, but what I am going to say is that it kind of served as a spackle or a salve when it comes to piecemealing something back together. And so I had been going out auditioning because in my mind, I wanted to do only dramatic work. I never saw myself being a comedian. I wanted to be Cicely Tyson. If you equate it to someone of this day, it would be a Viola Davis. And but I couldn't book any work. And after I stood on that fireplace, I heard a voice as audible as my own speak to me and say, Niecy, don't be selfish. It's other people outside who are suffering. You need to go outside and spread this around.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview guest contributor Anna Sale recorded with Niecy Nash, who co-stars in the HBO series "Getting On." They'll talk about her role on the Comedy Central series "Reno 911" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview guest contributor Anna Sale recorded with Niecy Nash, who costars in the HBO series "Getting On."
SALE: Your real breakout role was Deputy Raineesha Williams on the Comedy Central show "Reno 911!" And it was a spoof of cops and every character in the Reno County Sheriff's Department - gay, straight, man, woman, black, white - get skewered and mocked for jokes. And six years after that series ended in 2009, I just wonder, how do you look back on your performance and the experience of working on that show?
NASH: You know, (laughter) the performance is one thing. But the experience was absolutely amazing. The funny thing is, being from Los Angeles and the circles that I grew up in, I had never heard of The Groundlings. I had never heard of Second City. I had never heard of improv - I didn't even know what it was. I lied my way into the audition. I said I knew how to do something before I got there, and then I called somebody and said, what do I have to do? You know, I told these people I knew how to do this - what is it? You know, and then I showed up just comfortable in my skin and I just always figured, if I don't know how to do something, what I do know is that I can fake it 'til I make it.
SALE: Speaking of faking it, what about that notorious prosthetic backside that you wore for that character. Would you wear that again?
NASH: In a heartbeat. Why not? When we decided that we were going to do Reno - because at first it was just going to be a sketch show. But when it shifted into "Reno 911!" they went around the room and asked each person, what does your character need? Who do you want to be and what do we - what can we give you to bring that character to life? And I said, baby hair and a big booty? And the only reason I said that was because I wanted her body type to look like the women who raised me. I wanted them to be able to turn on TV and see themselves. And so many times - you know what I mean - you have to be super thin. You have to be - you know, there's a certain look you have to have in television. And when the industry found out that the booty was a prosthetic and they said, oh my God, it's horrible that they made you wear that. And I was like, no, I asked if I could wear it; I asked if I could put this thing on. And they were like, wait, what? Why would you want to look bigger? And I was like, why not? That's the bigger question. Because the question really for me, I interpreted it as, why would you want to look like people you love? What are you even talking about? I was like, yes, I'm representing for my family right now.
SALE: Did other people think you were mocking African-American women?
NASH: No one ever said anything to me about mocking. A lot of people were not that familiar with me, and they just thought, oh look at this thick girl on this TV show. Because I would see people after they realized who I was, and they would be like, wow, you lost a lot of weight. And I'm like, huh? I was like, oh, right, because, you know, you think that's what it is. And then I had a lot of guys who got really disappointed because they'd walk right up to me and the first thing they'd do is look down. And then they'd look back up in my face and they'd go, ugh, what happened to you? I'm like, I took my booty off, calm down.
SALE: Just one more question. How has earning the kind of money that you earn in show business - how has that affected your family?
NASH: I had one of my children ask me when they were younger, mommy, are we rich? I said, who is we?
NASH: So, you know, to that regard, you know, I teach my children that I have what I have 'cause I work. And when you work, you will have what you have. Which is not saying I'm not going to help you, but I'm not going to give you the world. But I'm going to teach you how to get it for yourself because when I'm dead and gone - you know what I mean? - if you don't understand the value of a dollar, if you don't understand debt-to-income ratio, if you don't understand that by hard work you're able to account for so many things, then I would just be giving spoiled, entitled children to the world. And we've got enough of that. I'm like, not these. Not - you won't be that. I want them to appreciate things. There'll be a little bit more pause and hopefully some concern for humanity, care for others, you know, saving, that sort of thing. At least, that's what I'm trying to do.
SALE: Niecy Nash, thank you so much.
NASH: You're welcome.
GROSS: Niecy Nash stars in the HBO series "Getting On." The series finale is Sunday, December 13. She spoke with guest contributor Anna Sale, who hosts the WNYC podcast "Death, Sex And Money." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) How often, on average, did you dream about the missing person prior to their disappearance?
GROSS: I'll talk with the creators of the HBO series, "The Leftovers" - Damon Lindelof, who also co-created "Lost," and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel "The Leftovers" is based on and the novels "Election" and "Little Children." "The Leftovers" is about the people left on Earth, grieving, after 2 percent of the world's population instantaneously disappears. Was it the rapture? A supernatural event? No one knows. I hope you'll join us.