Whether she's donning a prosthetic butt and a policewoman's cap as Deputy Raineesha Williams on "Reno 911!" or a blazer and lanyard with her Quantico credentials as Simone Clark on "The Rookie: Feds," Niecy Nash-Betts has somehow found herself known for playing policewomen.
But the 53-year-old actor's versatility stretches far beyond playing law enforcement professionals in both comedies and dramas. Nash-Betts frequently collaborates with renowned directors like Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay, and recently won an Emmy for her portrayal of a guilt-ridden woman trying to stop her murderous next-door neighbor in Murphy's true-crime series "Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story."
Her latest project reunites her with DuVernay to tell a sweeping story about the roots of racial injustice. "Origin," in theaters now, follows real-life Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson (portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis in the film) as she researches the root of inequality in marginalized communities. Nash-Betts plays Marion, Wilkerson's fiercely compassionate cousin who supports Wilkerson as she endures multiple losses. As the story unfolds, audiences watch Nash-Betts transform from vibrant and opinionated to pensive and subdued as she deals with a life-threatening diagnosis of her own.
Nash-Betts' versatility across TV comedies and prestige film dramas necessitates a certain scrappiness when it comes to taking on roles — she told Business Insider that though DuVernay wrote the role of Marion with her in mind, Nash-Betts was already busy shooting "The Rookie: Feds" and was concerned she wouldn't be available for filming. So she told DuVernay, who is also a friend, that she'd help her find a suitable replacement.
"I sent her about 12 people. She said no to everybody," Nash-Betts said. "She said, 'In my mind, I can only see you doing this.'"
Ultimately, Nash-Betts decided to take on the role, even though it required her to fly from the Los Angeles set of "The Rookie: Feds" to Georgia, where "Origin" was filming, every weekend for about a month.
Nash-Betts emphasized that the film is an indie project, and praised costar Aunjanue Ellis for her equally scrappy efforts to campaign for the film outside of an AMC theater as awards season kicks into high gear.
"We are an independent film. All grassroots efforts count, and we all have skin in the game," Nash-Betts told BI. "I thought it was wonderful that she wanted to reach the people, take it back to the streets. That's old school."
It's an ethos Nash-Betts put into practice on the Emmys stage during her acceptance speech earlier this week, when she not only thanked herself but also dedicated her award to "every black and brown woman who has gone unheard yet overpoliced."
"As an artist, my job is to speak truth to power, and baby, I'm gonna do it until the day I die," she said.
In Business Insider's latest "Role Play" installment, Nash-Betts looks back at all the stages of her career, revealing her most-quoted TV line and how she makes her kids work for their success.
On her famously voluptuous (fake) butt in 'Reno 911!' and whether she'd return for a new season
You wore a prosthetic butt while playing Raineesha Williams on "Reno 911!" but you've said in past interviews that the prosthetic was based on your own body. Whose idea was it for you to wear the fake butt on the show, anyway?
Ding, ding, ding. That would be me. I was paying homage to the women in my family, who I had never seen on television. So of the women in my family, I was on the smaller side — all of them had the body that Raineesha had, and I'm like, 'We haven't seen this girl.'
I mean, now you can walk down the streets and you see 'em everywhere, you know what I mean? You can buy that body in any town. But at that time, it wasn't popular. It wasn't thought of as sexy. And I thought, I want the women in my family when they put this TV on to feel seen.
Kerri Kenney-Silver said in 2022 that she'd be open to continuing the show, mostly because of how much fun you all have when filming. Would you be interested in returning, if there were ever another season?
I mean, we're going to be doing "Reno" until they throw dirt on our face. I already know that we've been doing it, what now? 20 years?
Do you have any storylines that you'd want to see specifically on any kind of future seasons?
Oh my goodness. Raineesha has been through a lot, but I don't know that she's ever gotten married. That might be fun to have the gang put her wedding together.
And also, I want to see my character TT do anything and everything, you name it. I want to see TT on the float at the Pride Parade.
On kissing Glen Powell in front of his mom for 'Scream Queens,' and the quote from her character Denise that fans still love
I feel like I've seen a ton of people talking about "Scream Queens" again — even Brad Falchuk recently said that the show was ahead of its time. Would you want to step back into Denise's shoes if a third season was on the table?
I love Denise. Oh my God. And let me tell you something, Ryan Murphy will always have me at "Hello." I had somebody say to me just today, "Shondell, why you got a knife in your throat?" I'm like, it's a gift. It's the gift that will keep on giving if allowed. I would absolutely step right back into it.
First of all, he is so funny and he's just a good egg. He's just a really, really solid guy. And I love his family.
I remember his mom came to set, and on this day I had on all this red lipstick and we were having a breakup scene. I had to kiss him in front of his mother, and so I kissed him, and when I pulled back, oh baby, his face looked like a crime scene.
I looked at his mother, I said, "Ma'am, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry you had to see this." I love them so much, though.
Do you still keep up with Glenn at all?
We chat a little bit on socials, but if we see each other out and about, it's all love.
On working with an in-character Evan Peters and her own children on the controversial series 'Dahmer'
I heard that Evan Peters stayed in-character for "Dahmer." Did you ever have any intense or memorable on-set interactions with Evan while he was in character and you were just Niecy?
When I first got there, I had never worked with Evan, so I didn't know his process. So when he was very distant and very cold, I was like, "Wait a minute, everybody likes me. What's going on here?" And then I realized that it was part of his process.
We talked about it after, and he said, "I knew that if I talked to you, I would fall in love with you. And I couldn't do that, and put in that work that we put in, on camera." So I respect it, but now I'm like, Okay, well the series is over. I said, "You can love me now," and he said, "And I do."
Your daughter also starred with you in "Dahmer." Would you want to work with your daughter again?
Oh, I love working with my children. I've worked with all three of my children now, I have two girls and a boy. And at some point in our lives I've worked with all of them and I love it. I love bringing your family to work day.
I mean, what's not to love — you get to do what you love around the people you love, and get money. Come on!
How did their involvement in your projects come about?
Most of the time, my kids audition. And they go up against other people.
I've told everyone in anything I've ever filmed, "You don't have to do my kids a favor. Make 'em work for it, make 'em earn it — if they win the part, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine." I'm sure they're going to audition again until they get it right.
So yeah, I don't ever want them to feel like you just have something because I gave it to you. You got to work for it.
Speaking of working for roles — is there a role that you turned down but you regret turning down now?
I don't regret turning anything down, I don't think. But I did turn down, what was the one with all the girls that went to New Orleans? "Girls Trip?"
I turned down "Girls Trip," and they ended up booking Tiffany Haddish and her career completely took off. And I think it was one of the biggest blessings for her. Now everybody can have a turn.
Of all your co-stars that you've worked with, who's one person you're dying to work with again?
Dying to work with again? Ooh, lemme tell you something. Honestly, I would say anybody from the cast of "Rookie: Feds," any of 'em, the whole lot of 'em, I would want to work with them in a heartbeat.
And also from "Scream Queens," I would want to do something with Keke Palmer.
What's one project of yours that you wish more people had paid attention to?
"Getting On," on HBO, by far. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Garnered me two Emmy nominations as an actor, but I feel like the masses missed it. It was an industry darling, but I still have people coming to me about that show. Given the chance to put my scrubs back on, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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