NIECY NASH IN NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2015. PORTRAIT: VICTORIA STEVENS.
In the pilot episode of Scream Queens, Secure Enforcement Solutions officer Denise Hemphill was assigned to protect the sorority sisters of Kappa Kappa Tau from a mysterious murderer known as the “Red Devil.” Hemphill, played by actress Niecy Nash, made a promise to her charges: “If you are in danger, scream Denise Hemphill’s name real loud. I will be on the premises at all times and I will come-a-runnin’,” she told sorority president Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) and her Heathers-esque sidekicks Chanel No. 5 (Abigail Breslin) and Chanel No. 3 (Billie Lourd). “Now, let’s just say you scream Denise Hemphill’s name and I do not come-a-runnin’. That means I’m not on the premises.”
For the last two episodes of Scream Queens, the no-nonsense Hemphill has been notably absent. Conspiracy theories abound: Has she been kidnapped by the Red Devil, as sister Zayday Williams (Keke Palmer) once was? Is she in #cahoots with Gigi Caldwell and on a ruinous rampage? Or, worst of all, has she joined her friend and fellow Secure Enforcement Solutions officer Shondell in the “Best Buy in the Sky”?
“The children on social media had a fit,” laughs Nash over the phone. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I promise,” the 45-year-old California native continues. “I love my Shondell. I really want to avenge her face stabbing and help find who I believe the killer is.”
In a show full of outrageous characters, Nash’s Hemphill stands out. Hemphill is never afraid to say what every horror movie audience is thinking (examples that spring to mind include “Shondell, why you got a knife in your throat?” and “You said you think that the killer is up there and that’s where you want to go? That’s insane!”). A seasoned comedian, Nash improvises many of Hemphill’s best lines. “I have to watch to the show every week to see what lines make it in,” she says.
In addition to Scream Queens, Nash also stars in TVLand’s The Soul Man alongside Cedric the Entertainer and on HBO’s deadpan comedy Getting On with Laurie Metcalf and Alex Borstein, which had its Season Three premiere last Sunday. Like Denise Hemphill, Nash’s Getting On character Didi Ortley serves as the show’s voice of reason. That, however, is where the similarities end: where Hemphill is brash and kinetic, Ortley is calm and collected, the most sensible presence in the geriatric hospital in which the show is set. Nash’s performance as Ortley earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.
“A lot of the characters that I play are jumping off the page because they’re so over-the-top. It’s very delicious for me to play a character that’s so much more subtle, not just in the performance, but even the way she looks,” Nash explains. “I’ve rested in this place of more—I could do more in your sleep—but when I’m called to do a little less, I have to be very present to not slip back into my old tricks.”
EMMA BROWN: How did you get involved in Scream Queens? The show is so outrageous, but it plays really well—how did you feel when you read the script for the first time?
NIECY NASH: Ryan Murphy gave me a call and said, “I’m doing a project and there’s a role that you’d be great for” and I said, “Okay I’ll do it! Wait a minute…what do I have to do?” I had already said yes before I knew what it was. He explained to me that Denise Hemphill was the voice of reason—she says what people at home are thinking—and I said, “Okay, I can get into that.” Reading it on the page, I just really wanted to make sure that I was giving the delivery that he wanted because there wasn’t a lot of direction; it was, “Go forth and be funny. You know what to do.” With Denise, no matter what she’s saying, whether it’s the truth or not, she fully believes it and that’s what makes her so funny. She’s so sure she’s right, she says it in such a way that it cannot be disputed, no matter how outlandish it is.
BROWN: Did Ryan tell you who else was going to be involved?
NASH: He told me that Keke Palmer was involved, and Emma Roberts and Lea Michele. When he said that Jamie Lee Curtis was involved, I was like, “Are you kidding me? How much do I love her?” I got a text message before I started the show that said, “I am so excited to meet you and I would love to take you to lunch—JLC” That was it. I was like, “Who is JLC and how did they get my phone number? What are they talking about? Take me to lunch where?” I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and then I was like, “Oh my god! Did Jamie Lee Curtis just text me?” When I met her in Louisiana to have lunch, we were walking towards each other and I was about to stop and say hello, and she took two steps past me. I was like, “Umm…” and she was like, “Wait a minute, you’re Niecy?” Because she’s only ever known me as Didi Ortley—the hair pinned up, no makeup, scrubbed down—and here I am walking up to her with hair down to my ass, a full face of makeup, a tight dress. She was like, “I didn’t know you looked like that!” [laughs] We got such a laugh out of that.
BROWN: Can you tell what show people are a fan of when they approach you in the streets?
NASH: People recognize me from everything and as soon as I think I know where they know me from, I’m always wrong. I was in a very fancy, high-end boutique where the sales associates stand around like mannequins. I walked in and the first thing they said was, “Ooh it smells like booty in here” because they knew me from Scream Queens.
BROWN: Is that the Scream Queens line people recite to you the most?
NASH: No, I get a couple of different ones. Most of the time I get, “Shondell, why you got a knife in your throat?” If I’m in a restaurant they may say, “Wouldn’t you rather have Burger Shack?” I’m like, “Yes, I would. Even though it’s a made-up restaurant, I want Burger Shack right now.”
BROWN: How far in advance do you get scripts?
NASH: The ninth hour. The last minute. Our scripts at Scream Queens are under lock and key, so I still don’t know who the killer is, I still don’t know what’s going to happen in the season finale. I don’t know any of that. We all want to know. That’s what we talk about when the cameras aren’t rolling: “Who do you think it is?” I’m sitting in the corner with Lea Michele and Abigail [Breslin] and Emma Roberts: “Okay, let’s break this down.” Even if you ask if it’s you, you’ll get the answer, “Well, I don’t know. Do you think it’s you?”
BROWN: I also wanted to talk about Getting On. I heard that you auditioned to play Dawn before getting the role of Didi.
NASH: That’s the role they wanted to see me for. I went in and auditioned for the role of Dawn, I got a callback, and it was at the callback that I said, “Can I read this other character?” They said, “Absolutely not. We don’t see you as that character and we don’t want you to read that.” I started explaining what I loved about the character on the page. Originally her name was Martha Ortley. It’s based on a BBC series, and my character in the original series was a 60-year-old white woman. I told them how much I loved it and they were like, “Okay, do you want to come back on Friday?” and I said, “No, I’m here right now. Can we read it now?” They let me read it. I’m so happy that I put it out there, if I would’ve just said, “Oh, okay” and not brought it up, who knows what could have happened.
BROWN: Is that something you would normally do—bring up that you wanted to play another character—or are you generally quite shy about those things?
NASH: No, I’m absolutely the person that would bring it up. You’re going to have to tell me no and then I’m going to ask again because when you say “no” I hear “ask another way.”
BROWN: Did you watch a lot of films growing up?
NASH: I decided to become an actor at five. I saw the most gorgeous woman that I had ever seen in my five years of living on television. She had on a long, red dress and her eyelashes looked like butterflies and I said, “Grandmamma, who is that?” She said, “Baby, that’s Lola Falana.” I said, “That’s it right there. I want to be black, fabulous, and on TV.” In my mind, I equated being on television with drama—I equated it with a Cicely Tyson, a Viola Davis, a Kimberly Elise, very serious, very heavy, very emotional. I was always funny, but I didn’t know being funny was a gift. I started working in comedy first. It took a very long time to reintroduce myself into an industry that thought they knew me. They’re like, “Niecy Nash is a comedian. She does big, broad comedies.” I can do more than that, if you give me a chance. It took a long time, so I’m very happy that it finally manifested and doing less was what I got nominated for an Emmy for. It affirms what I always thought in my mind’s eye as my true gift: grounded work.
SEASON ONE OF SCREAM QUEENS AIRS TUESDAY NIGHTS ON FOX AND SEASON THREE OF GETTING ON AIRS SUNDAY NIGHTS ON HBO. THE SOUL MAN WILL RETURN TO TVLAND IN 2016.