“I give myself permission to feel what I feel but what I will not do is stay there. I get up over and over and over again.”

By Jessica Castillo with reporting by Shalayne Pulia.
Updated May 26, 2020 @ 12:00 pm
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“How you see yourself,” Niecy Nash tells InStyle, “is the most important thing, not how other people see you.”

And it’s likely that you’ve seen Nash everywhere lately, given her résumé currently boasts some of the buzziest Hollywood projects. Between portraying lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy in Mrs. America, providing sage advice and a much-needed dose of reality as a therapist in Never Have I Ever, and reviving the beloved Deputy Raineesha Williams in the Reno 911! Reboot, the actor has more than showcased her range. But those opportunities didn’t happen overnight for the 50-year-old, who has never let obstacles or other people’s opinions of her stop her from achieving her dreams.

Born in Palmdale, California, and raised in nearby South Central Los Angeles, Nash “always had a way with words,” she remembers. She always wanted to be an actor, but she wasn’t aware that the traits for which she often received punishment would one day be reason for celebration. “I didn’t know comedy was a gift because I got pinched in church for telling jokes, I got in trouble because my report card said ‘talks too much,’” she said. “I didn’t know comedy was a thing until my mother was suffering.”

Nash’s a-ha moment came after a series of major tragedies for her family: Seven years after her mother was shot by her boyfriend, Niecy’s younger brother Michael was killed when he was 17 years old. “When my mother was in a depression after my brother’s murder, after having been shot herself some years prior, she got into bed and said, ‘I’m never getting back out,’” Nash said. “And I said, ‘What can I do?’ What do I do?’ I began to perform at the foot of her bed every day because if I didn’t know anything else, I knew I could make my mother laugh.” Those performances sparked a revelation: “As I was performing for her one day, I heard a voice as audible as my own, say, ‘Niecy, there are a lot of people suffering. Go outside and spread it around.’”

Credit: Getty Images

At the time, the actor was struggling to book parts, which may have been exacerbated by Hollywood’s dismal representation problem. “I couldn’t get hired for any dramatic roles and I went outside and I said, ‘My name is Niecy Nash and I’m funny,’ and the industry said, ‘Yes, you are, little girl. Come here,’” Nash said.

She didn’t have an agent or a manager to show her the ropes when she went in for her first audition for the 1995 film Boys on the Side, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore — and landed the part anyway. That tenacity served her well when the people behind Reno 911! came calling and asked if she did sketch comedy; she said yes and then immediately phoned a friend for insight.

“I was like, I got this!,” she says now. “I wasn’t the most seasoned, I wasn’t the most prepared. But I was the most comfortable in my skin, and I trusted my gift.”

She didn’t want to let that success keep her stuck on a single path — she wanted to do everything. “How I saw myself in the canvas of my own imagination was as a dramatic actress,” she says. So she orchestrated an intervention with her team, and tasked them with expanding the kinds of auditions she was going out for. As Nash remembers it, the conversation included her telling them, “I called you all here to reintroduce myself to you, because I know you thought you knew me but I didn’t change.”

That reset helped her book projects like HBO’s Getting On, but Nash also put in the work to land a part in Ava DuVernay’s limited series, When They See Us, which tells the story of five Black and Latinx teens who were wrongfully imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. Nash ultimately played Deloris Wise, whose son Korey was the only one of the five boys to be tried and sentenced as an adult.

“I was familiar with this story well before,” she says. “I was just obsessed with the injustice.” When she learned that DuVernay was set to direct the series, she used every tool in her arsenal to get in touch. “I sent her a text message, I sent her a tweet, and then I slid in her DMs on Instagram, and I said, ‘Hey girl, hey,’” she says. “I didn’t care if I was just the court stenographer in the corner typing up the transcript. I have to be in this project because I have held space in my heart for these boys who I never knew.” The project, she adds, left her “forever changed.”

Nash is now finding ways to expand her own skill set, by joining the growing ranks of Black female directors who are making Hollywood take notice and listen to what they have to say. She’s also doing her best to stay positive in the era of social distancing, and is currently quarantining at home with her family.

“We are experiencing tough times,” she says, adding that she lives by a series of questions that prioritize optimism. “Do you decide to find the silver lining? Do you decide to make the best out of a bad situation? Do you decide to seek joy in places that you know it exists?” she asks. “I’m not a person who doesn’t feel what I feel, and sometimes those are hard moments. I give myself permission to feel what I feel but what I will not do is stay there. I get up over and over and over again.”

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