‘Make love, skinny dip and drink expensive champagne’: Inside Niecy Nash-Betts’ second act

Niecy Nash-Betts in a white dress with feather cuffs
Niecy Nash-Betts on the set of her show “The Rookie: Feds” last month.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
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Niecy Nash-Betts is about to answer a question about the arc of her career when something across the table distracts her.

“Hold on one sec,” she says, as wife Jessica Betts cuts off a lamb chop that‘s pink on the inside, despite ordering hers medium well. “Do you need that cooked a little more?”

Nash-Betts beckons to the waiter and politely sends the meat back to the kitchen, just one of several occasions on which the actor-producer, glammed up in a bright coral dress for a talk show appearance earlier in the day, checks in on Betts, who sits next to her, exuding quiet charisma. (At one point, Betts pulls up a picture of Michael Jae Betts, the maltipoo Nash-Betts gave her for their recent anniversary — and who, like Betts, was born on Juneteenth.)

Two years after their surprise wedding, the couple are still as giddy as newlyweds. They even enjoy working together: Betts, a musician, has a guest role in “The Rookie: Feds,” premiering Tuesday on ABC, as a love interest for Nash-Betts’ protagonist, Simone Clark, a former high school guidance counselor forging a new path in the FBI.

“Claws” star Niecy Nash announced Monday that she married singer-songwriter Jessica Betts, a few months after Nash’s divorce from husband Jay Tucker.

For her part, Nash-Betts is both a consummate nurturer and a skilled multitasker, shifting throughout our conversation from her upbringing in South-Central and Compton — “along with Venus, Serena and Anthony Anderson” — to the challenges of breaking into the industry without connections, to the host of projects currently keeping her busy. In addition to “The Rookie: Feds,” she also appears as Glenda Cleveland, whose calls about her suspicious neighbor go ignored by police in Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” and has hosting duties on the Fox game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.”

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It’s the kind of career Nash-Betts once dreamed of: When she was 5 years old, she recalls, she was watching TV with her grandmother and discovered the actress Lola Falana. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up: Black, fabulous and on TV.’

“This is why representation matters in so many ways. Because I saw someone that glamorous and beautiful. I was like, ‘I can do that.’ Which is why I’m happy to play Simone, because some little girl might watch this program and be like, I wanna be a badass FBI agent.”

Niecy Nash-Betts poses for a portrait on the set of her show The Rookie: Fed on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.
“I do feel like I’m the poster girl for being comfortable in your skin,” says Niecy Nash-Betts.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

In the decades since that pivotal moment, Nash-Betts has brilliantly embodied characters as varied as a compassionate nurse in a geriatric ward (in HBO’s dark comedy “Getting On”); the mother of a wrongfully imprisoned teenager (in Netflix’s “When They See Us”); and a brash Florida nail salon owner turned crime boss (in TNT’s “Claws,” which concluded this year). “You laugh like crazy watching ‘Reno 911!’ And she breaks your heart in something like ‘When They See Us.’ She can do anything,” says Terence Paul Winter, co-creator of “The Rookie: Feds.”

Her ambitions don’t begin or end with acting, either. She’s also written a book about relationships (“It’s Hard to Fight Naked”), hosted TV shows (including the home makeover series “Clean House”) and branched out into directing and producing — the latter of which she describes as a passion that “burns in my soul.”

“I always like to taste new things,” says Nash-Betts. “They feed me in different ways.”

This week you are in two new shows that take a look at law enforcement from different perspectives. Let’s start with “The Rookie: Feds,” which is an unusual procedural.

They take advantage of the fact that I’m funny. So we are able to find the light moments in it. Simone does things her own way, which gets her in a lot of trouble. But she is leaning in very hard and wanting to do well, because this is her second act. And I feel like that is where the lines are blurred between us, because that’s where I’m at.

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You feel like you’re in your second act?

In love, in art, in so many ways. I was like a deer in headlights when the producers came to set, and they said, “What do you think about Jessica?” I said, “What do you mean, what do you think about it? I love her. I married her.” “What do you think about her playing your first lover on the series?” And I said, “Gulp. Wow.”

How is that going so far?

Man, I love it. I love working with my spouse. Being able to spend time together is always preferred. So if we can find places where our art intersects, even better. We fell in love in a pandemic. So we’re used to being with each other all day, every day.

The claws in TNT’s “Claws” may be out, but that’s not all. They’re spangled, glittered and polished.

Do you feel like your relationship feeds you creatively?

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My relationship is my soft place to land. She knows me so well. Her perspective on a project, on a character, on a scene is always going to be something that I need to hear.

[The drinks arrive and Nash-Betts and Betts clink their glasses, simultaneously saying “Manuia” — “cheers” in Tahitian] We just got back from Bora Bora.

How was that?

Bora Bora is the kind of place where you want to take your sunglasses off and see it with your naked eyes. Before we got married, I said, “Listen, when we get married, here’s my goal. I want us to make love all around the world.” We took Bora Bora off the list. We’re working our way around.

We went to Cancun, Antigua, Aruba, Puerto Vallarta. I have to look back in the passport. Was it Anguilla too?

You are working with a consultant, a Black woman who was in the FBI. What insight has she shared that’s been valuable to you?

Black women are less than 1% of people in the FBI. She keeps us honest, on procedure, on tone, on order. I love her so much. She is with us every day. I’m grateful for her standing in those shoes, being in the minority. It’s just like me, standing at No. 1 on the call sheet. There is an automatic sisterhood with regards to being in a place that few have traveled. I love that we can kind of turn the tables on what you think an FBI agent should look like.

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Simone has an interesting relationship with her father, who was wrongly incarcerated, in the series.

We don’t shy away from real life, things that are happening right now. My father, played by Frankie Faison, is the head of the Defund the Police movement in our community. And his daughter is a fed. So the tension and the stress that that brings is real. A lot of families have different political views or even religious views. You still love that person, but you disagree on certain things. I’m glad that’s not the case with the person I married, but it makes for a good TV show.

Ann Guilbert, left, with Niecy Nash in "Getting On."
(Dale Robinette/HBO)

Did you know much about Glenda Cleveland before you made “Dahmer”? When she died 12 years ago, it barely made the news.

I don’t know anyone who knew about Glenda Cleveland, and she called the police over 30 times. As far as I’m concerned, she was one of Dahmer’s victims as well. Not all of his victims met their demise. Some of them died a slow death on the vine, of just not being heard.

I was talking to Ava DuVernay, my dear friend. I said, “I hope she feels heard now. Wherever her soul has found rest, I hope she knows that I am her voice.” [Holds back tears.] She just tried so hard and nobody was listening. You had officers who walked a baby [14-year-old victim Konerak Sinthasomphone] back into Dahmer’s home and they ended up with, basically, the keys to the city and all of these awards. She got some little measly award in a rec center somewhere.

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I’m really curious how you managed auditions when you were a young mom with three little kids.

It was really, really tough. In the beginning, the only way was to take my children to castings. I would come in a little bit early, and set up the corner like a little preschool. Give the baby a baba. You take this coloring book. Here’s some graham crackers. If the director comes out here, you smile pretty.

One time, I had an audition during the day. A girl was there. And she was going over her material. I said, “Hey, girl, how you doing?” “Fine.” She went back to her reading. “Where are you from?” She’s just like, why is this girl asking me all these questions? And then they called me in: “Niecy Nash.”

And I took my baby off my hip and handed it to her. I said, “Could you hold this for me? I’ll be right back.” In the audition, I’m freaking out because what if this woman steals my baby? But what could I do? I couldn’t take her in the room.

That’s why I always try to help other actors. I’m a firm believer that you show your kids what chasing your dream looks like. I try to pay it forward as much as I can, because I didn’t have a lot of people helping me when I started. Nobody in my family knew anybody in entertainment.

Ava DuVernay, writer-director of ‘When They See Us,’ wanted to honor the five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a woman

What do you remember about auditioning for “Reno 911!”?

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I go and the audition is taking forever. I knock on the door. And it’s about 15 people. I said, “Excuse me, when is this dog and pony show gonna get started?” Somebody in the room said, “What is the problem? Are you in a hurry?” And I said, “As a matter of fact, I am. I gotta get my kids to Chuck E. Cheese by 7 o'clock. ‘Cause the last time I got there late, they jumped on the mouse, the man’s head fell off. He ran in the back and never came back out.”

I was so shocked when they called me back. Like, really? So I got myself together. I had my mom watch my kids. Before I can say anything, this lady said, “Tell ‘em what happened at Chuck E. Cheese.” So I did five more minutes on Chuck E. Cheese. And I didn’t know enough to know that you should do characters that you prepared. But I found a handkerchief in my car and I made up this character called Carol the Slave. I went home, and my mother said, “How did it go?” I said, “There was a white lady that fell out the chair and was beating her fists on the ground, so I guess they liked it.” That white lady was Kerri Kenney, one of the creators of “Reno 911!” and now my dear friend.

Can you tell me more about Carol?

Her family was trapped in the Underground Railroad since slavery. They stayed down there. And finally, 9/11 happened. And they were doing construction and they found her family down there. I played Carol and her best friend, Barb. Barb says [Valley girl voice] “Where do you go to school? “And Carol says [thick Southern accent], “School?” And Barb said, “I go to Thomas Jefferson.” And Carol said, “Thomas Jefferson? He’s the father of most of my friends.” And they were like, “Could you please come be in this TV show?” I do feel like I’m the poster girl for being comfortable in your skin.

A woman reassures a male colleague in an office.
Niecy Nash-Betts, right, with Felix Solis in “The Rookie: Feds.”
(Temma Hankin/ABC)

Meaning, you weren’t hiding what you were going through during the audition?

I’m OK saying who I am: “I don’t know this improv world y'all are in, but I’ve been arguing with my husband for a thousand years, so if I gotta make up something on my feet, I can do that.” It didn’t feel like I was showing my bullet holes and my stab wounds. It just felt like my truth:I gotta get my kids at at Chuck E. Cheese at 7.” Being comfortable in my skin has been a gift. I liken it to my marriage because I’ve never been a person who lives my life in a closeted type of way.

I remember crying to Jessica: “I want to walk through Home Depot holding your hand.” [Early on,] our relationship wasn’t a secret, but it was private. I couldn’t wait to just be like, “This is me.” I didn’t know if people were gonna turn their backs on me. But I don’t do secrets. It’s not in my DNA.

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You have worked together as a couple a few times now. Have you thought about a reality show?

Absolutely not. Nobody is lucky enough to get that. But there is some format that could work for us in game, in talk. I like unscripted because we’re vibes. We’re gonna figure it out. I really want to find something that’s curated specifically for us. After we got married, so many networks asked us to do a reality show. I said, we don’t do nothing but make love, skinny dip and drink expensive champagne. Who’d want to see that?

I think a lot of people would. Were you always funny?

Yes, but I didn’t know it was a gift, because I got pinched in church for cutting up. I got punished because my report card said, “Talks too much.” I didn’t know it was a gift until my brother was murdered in ’93, the day before my 23rd birthday. [Nash’s younger brother, Michael Ensley, was killed in a shooting at Reseda High School.] My mother went into this depression. And she said, “I’m getting in the bed, and I’m never getting back out.” I didn’t know what to do. But I knew I could make my mama laugh. And I started performing at the foot of her bed every day. Eventually, she went from laying down to sitting up, and one day, she wasn’t in the bed. She was in the living room, and she called the neighbors from across the street. “Oh, this girl is funny, get my karaoke microphone and tell these people some jokes.”

Not every role leaves an actor with the kind of skill set that could be used in a state of emergency.

What impact did “Getting On” have on your career?

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I have had so many roles that I can really lean into, but the one that really set me on a trajectory of [being more than funny] was “Getting On.” Playing Didi Ortley changed my life. I went in originally to play Dawn, and that ended up going to Alex Borstein. But I kept looking at Didi on the page going, “Wow, this girl is something.”

When I went to my callback, I said, “Would you guys mind if I read this other thing?” And they said, “Yes, we would, because we don’t see you as that character.” In the BBC version, she’s a 60-year-old white woman. And they were like, “If you love it that much, OK. You want to come back on Friday?” I said, “No, I don’t. I’m here right now.” I was scared they would give it to somebody else. I found out later that [co-creators] Mark [V. Olsen] and Will [Scheffer] and [director] Miguel Arteta looked at each other and said, “That’s our girl.”

It changed my life. That was how Ava saw me and put me in “Selma.” On the first day of filming, [Scheffer], said, “If you do this the way I tell you, you will be on the E list.” In my mind, I was going, “What the hell is the E list? If Kathy Griffin is on the D list, this is below that.” And then I realized he meant the Emmy list. And he wasn’t lying. I was nominated for an Emmy two years in a row because of “Getting On.”

Niecy Nash-Betts poses for a portrait on the set of her show The Rookie: Fed on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Why did you feel so strongly that you should play her?

I read the script through her lens. I saw her see everything. And sometimes it was just the look on her face that said, “Oh my God, white people are crazy.” [Laughs] I said, “That’s my girl.” I felt like my mom was a Didi — at PacBell, before it was AT&T, she ended up being a supervisor. I just watched her do the work. I see so many women I know [in Didi]. My aunties, my cousins. Head down, do the work.

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There’s nothing more grueling for a TV actor than an hour-long network drama. How are you finding “The Rookie: Feds” so far?

I’m telling you, if it was not for my better half, I don’t know what I would do. I really don’t even know. She encourages me. She motivates me. She massages me. She makes sure I eat. She does everything. [To Betts] And I couldn’t do it without you. Bring your face over here. [They kiss.]