Niecy Nash is full of surprises. Last summer the former host of the HGTV reality show Clean House helped change the TV landscape as star of the wacky TNT dramedy Claws. Nash’s character, Desna, owner of the fictional nail salon Nail Artisan of Manatee County in Palmetto, Fla., found herself wrapped up in a very complicated battle to escape various mafia crews when her salon is used for money laundering in an illegal prescription-drug ring.
Standing by her side are the four very different women she employs: Best friend Jennifer (Jenn Lyon) is a onetime party girl married to one of the sons of the local drug kingpin. Quirky and likable redhead Polly (Carrie Preston) is fresh off a prison bid for identity theft and prone to embellishments of grandeur. The loyal Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) is a bodyguard of very few words who loves women. And finally, there is Virginia, the very misguided youngest member of the crew, played by Karrueche Tran.
“I’ve never worked on a show with five women as leads,” said Claws’ black female showrunner, Janine Sherman Barrois, during a set visit to New Orleans. Barrois’ credits include Third Watch, E.R. and Criminal Minds. (Rashida Jones also serves as one of the show’s executive producers.)
“Just the idea that we can write for women that are diverse and cool and problematic. That’s change. It shows you that things are changing. It wasn’t like that before,” Sherman Barrois says.
Perhaps no one knows that as well as Nash. For a 48-year-old black actress, opportunities to lead shows are far from plentiful. During an interview, Nash, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, was very candid about the obstacles that made her great success with Claws very unlikely.
Prior to Desna, Nash’s roles were largely offbeat comedic ones, like Deputy Raineesha Williams on Comedy Central’s Reno 911! and Lolli, wife of Cedric the Entertainer’s onetime singer-turned-reverend, Boyce “the Voice” Ballentine, on TV Land’s The Soul Man.
“The industry was very kind, but they definitely told me that I had a lane. You do broad comedy. We know what you do. And I was like, ‘I can do something else,’” shared Nash. “Their answer was, ‘We got other girls for that. There’s the Violas of the world or the Kerry Washingtons of the world. We’re good.’
“So it took a very long time for somebody to give me a chance to play anything other than a broad comedy because, sometimes when you enter in, people think that’s just how they know you,” she continued.
That chance came through the character Denise “Didi” Ortley, a return-to-work nurse on the adapted British comedy Getting On for HBO back in 2014. As Nash explained: “It was the creators of Getting On that gave me an opportunity to play another note, and that’s when I ended up getting nominated for an Emmy. And then I got nominated for it again, a second time in a row, and then people were like, ‘Wait a minute; we didn’t know you could do that.’”
Nash finds it odd that she caught the eye of Claws showrunner Sherman Barrois and creator Eliot Laurence for Desna while playing Louise Bell on Masters of Sex. “I look like I was going to take the trash out on that TV show,” she explained. “No glamorous hair. No makeup. No spanx. No nothing.”
When she came to meet the Claws team in person, it was a different story, as she slayed in black cutoff shorts and a signature kimono. (During our set visit, Nash rocked a white polka-dot kimono with a black tank top and ripped jeans underneath, set off by a pair of fresh, classic white Adidas shoes with black stripes.) Before she could even drive off the lot, her manager informed her that she’d gotten the role.
On the show, Desna’s style intentionally models that of Nash. That has allowed Nash to bring black women who work in beauty and fashion behind the scenes into the Claws fold. Desna’s big and long, unpressed tresses come courtesy of the Detroit-area-based Wignificent Collection, whose owner goes by Infamous Pocahontas on Instagram. The first-season jumpsuits that were Desna’s trademark can be attributed to House of Cyndarella in Long Beach, Calif., which is owned by Big Chan, formerly of Snoop Dogg’s female rap trio Doggy’s Angels.
Supporting other women is just how Nash rolls. “Niecy put in my name to audition,” shared Tran, whose role as Virginia has helped legitimize the former stylist in Hollywood. “It wasn’t until I booked Claws that people really took me seriously as an actor.”
Both Jenn Lyon and Carrie Preston, who play Jennifer and Polly respectively, say that Nash and Desna are very much alike. “Niecy being our No. 1, being like a strong black woman, she looks out for us and takes care of us,” Lyon shared.
“Desna is very much the bond between these women,” Preston said.
Judy Reyes, who plays Quiet Ann on the show, thinks that Claws works because “it’s women being women, acting like women, in these circumstances, in these fantastic, original characters that everybody can relate to in some way or the other.”
“I love that the majority of this cast are women of a certain age,” Nash exclaimed. “I love the fact that I play a woman that represents so many of the women that I know, on the south side of 40, not married, no kids, and are still out here trying to live their best life.”
Part of that best life, Nash happily noted, is also “playing a woman who is unapologetic about her sexual appetite and how she wants to move.” In the first season, Desna’s main love interest is the much younger and very white hip-hop-esque Roller, a point man in the “Dixie Mafia.” This season, she’s being romanced by Dr. Gregory Ruval (played by black Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis). All of this happens as Desna cares for her autistic brother, Dean (Harold Perrineau). while dealing with both the Dixie Mafia and the Russian mafia, which entered the picture at the tail end of last season.
And Nash isn’t complaining: “I’m proud of myself that I’ve taken on this role at this time,” she said. “Being No. 1 on the call sheet as a black woman and being successful enough for the show to garner a season 2, it’s living the dream.”
Claws returns on Sunday, June 10, at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.