Feature photo by Robin Roemer.
For five seasons, Jasika Nicole played everyone’s favorite FBI Junior Agent on Fox’s sci-fi drama Fringe. During the show’s 100-episode run, Jasika endeared herself to us in real life, too. She publicly came out as a queer woman like it was no big deal at a time when plenty of people in Hollywood still thought saying “Yep, I’m gay” was career suicide. After Fringe ended, she joined the cast of Scandal as Kim, the long-suffering the mother of Huck’s son. (Her characters always have to deal with unhinged men!) She has also guest starred on the super popular sci-fi podcast Welcome to Night Vale. In her free time, she shares DIY projects and social justice ponderings on Tumblr, posts sketches and sequential comics on her website, and probably rescues puppies from burning buildings.
Jasika chatted with us recently about her career, race in Hollywood, becoming an advocate for social justice, and about A-Camp. Yes, A-Camp! She’s going to be there!
First of all, let’s not bury the lede: You’re coming to A-Camp!
I am! I am so excited to be asked to participate!
Tell me what you’re going to do at A-Camp.
I plan on packing appropriate clothing and doing what anyone else tells me to do. I’m thinking some classes on maybe knitting or needlework or embroidery or something? But I’m not sure if people are interested in that.
You teaching an embroidery class at A-Camp will literally be the most popular embroidery class in history.
Oh my gosh, that makes me feel so good.
Let’s talk about what’s going on with you right now. You’re still on Scandal. The last time we saw you, you were threatening to burn Huck alive, which I really liked a lot.
[Laughs] Okay, I’m going to say I did go to a table read this morning so I know what happens next. Since I’m not a series regular on the show, I don’t get every script; I only get the scripts for the episodes I’m in. Shonda [Rhimes] is very tight-lipped and not interested in divulging any information to me. So when people ask me what’s happening next, I usually have no idea — but today, I do!
I never really thought about that. And you can’t keep up with the show in real-time because the filming happens several weeks ahead?
Yes! The filming is about three weeks ahead, so I’ll show up to a table read and be like, “Whaaaaat? Wait, who’s dead? Who’s sleeping with who? What is happening?” It’ll be like a whole season of stuff has happened in the last episode, and I have to be really chill about it. But sometimes I catch myself gasping or making really shocked faces.
Last season, they brought me in for the finale, but obviously the episodes on the air weren’t caught up to that, so I was reading about how Huck and Quinn were kissing, and I was freaking out at the table. Of course, for everyone else there, it was old news. It’s weird because I’m trying to be cool in front of Portia de Rossi, but I’m a huge fan of the show! I’m an audience member and an actor. It’s a funny balance.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons that show is so popular? You really can’t miss an episode.
I was thinking about that today. Obviously the show is popular for a lot of reasons. I don’t think it’s an accident that such a popular show has a woman of color as the lead, because you don’t see that in television a lot. I think another one of the reasons is that it’s so unpredictable. It can be dramatic, and it can be crazy, but it’s kind of nice to be able to watch a show and not know what’s going to happen, to sort of succumb to primetime TV and let it wash over you. I also think people love that it keeps them on their toes, and it never make any promises. This is your favorite character? Too bad, he’s dead!
Do you feel like we’re making progress with the representation of women of color on television?
I want it! I want the progress and I want to move in a forward direction! The optimist in me wants to be excited that we have Kerry Washington and now we’ve got Viola Davis, and we’ve got shows like Black-ish, and while Tracee Ellis Ross isn’t the lead, she’s co-starring as the lead. So I do get excited about that, wondering who’s going to come next. But then I remember when we had a lot of black television shows on, and we were like, “Yeah! This is it!” And then it sort of disappeared overnight.
And we’re just now slowly getting back to this position. So, I do feel excited but I also want to be realistic and acknowledge that not all trends stick around. I hope that it does! I hope that it continues to move forward! But television is a really scary world. You can never place your bets on anything. I think you can put so many people of color on TV shows, but until there are more people of color who are making those decisions to put those actors and actresses in those roles, we’re not quite at that point yet. We need more Shonda Rhimes in our lives.
You know what’s kind of weird? Obviously Alessandra Stanley’s ridiculous “angry black woman” profile of Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times was a catalyst for this conversation, but people keep saying 2014 was the Year of Shonda Rhimes — but I feel like we’ve been living in the Age of Shonda Rhimes for a long time.
Yes, you are so right. You are absolutely right.
What do you think is the zeitgeisty convergence of things is that makes people say that right now? Like that now it’s her time?
I think there’s something so special about her. It’s not just that she hires black women to star in her shows. She hires a variety of people of color. And she casts people who maybe don’t have the physical form that our culture considers beautiful. And she also has out queer people in her TV shows, and that’s a huge thing that a lot of people don’t talk about. I’m sitting at the table read today next to Guillermo Diaz. I’m sitting across the table from Portia. And then you have Cyrus’ character who is a gay man, and there’s a queerish thing happening in the episode, so that’s a whole other dynamic that goes beyond what we usually see.
Shonda is telling stories about love that takes place in so many shapes and forms. And that’s so exciting to me. I don’t think the movements for racial equality and sexual identity are necessarily the same fights, but I think they tread a lot of the same ground. You’re right that she didn’t just start doing this; she’s been doing it for years. Thank God she’s finally getting the acknowledgment from other people. But you know what? Even if she wasn’t getting the recognition, she’d still be doing it. She’s doing it because she believes in it.
You touched on this and it made my mind start whirling. There’s been this idea in Hollywood for a long time that queer people can only play queer characters and straight people can only play straight characters, and I think that’s one of the reason so many actors and actresses have been afraid of coming out. But Shonda Rhimes flips that on it’s head and it’s queer people playing straight characters and straight people playing queer characters because it’s acting.
Yes! I think that is wonderful! It’s a slap in the face to that whole ridiculous notion. It’s not the actors that created that notion; it was the people who were casting TV who created that notion. It’s the executives and producers who have these ideas. I don’t think the audience sets those bizarre standards. I think it’s the people in charge. And I think what Shonda is doing is allowing people to see how silly and wrong those assumptions are about queer actors.
I agree. I think for so long, networks have been telling us what we want, instead of asking us what we want. Do you think social media is changing that? Do you think it makes a difference now that we’re able to talk back to the culture creators about our needs and expectations?
I absolutely do. I don’t know statistically how much of a force audiences have with networks, but I hear producers and directors and writers talking all the time about Reddit conversations or going on Tumblr or reading someone’s fan fiction. There’s a direct line of conversation there now, and it does make a difference.
You’ve been out for a while. You came out in the New York Times, right?
Kind of? I had really never not been out. It was never a secret. I guess I did sort of publicly come out in The New York Times, but only because that’s the first time a major publication was interested in me!
Our senior editorial team was talking about this at the end of the year, about how maybe we’ve crossed the threshold now where if you’re a celebrity and you want to come out, you just post a picture of yourself on Instagram with your girlfriend, and that’s that.
Right? I love that. Why do we need a whole press conference for coming out? Obviously the assumption is that everyone is heterosexual. No straight woman is ever like, “Whew. Okay. I’m going to — guys, I’m going to go on Oprah and talk about… my husband.” I do feel like we’re moving into territory where if you’re assuming someone is heterosexual, that’s on you.
Let me ask you a math question. When Fringe premiered in 2008, we had 13 queer characters on TV, one of whom was a woman of color. In 2014, we added 71 new queer characters, 18 of whom were women of color. Is that something you feel? That you, as a queer woman of color, are better represented on TV now than you were when you started on Fringe?
I’m going to say no — but that isn’t to deny all the really awesome forward moves that we’ve seen in pop culture over the last several years. And also, honestly, I might not be watching the shows with queer women of color on them.
Most of them are geared toward teenagers, actually.
That is fascinating! I often wonder what my life would be like if I had grown up with access to things like Tumblr or shows like Glee or Teen Wolf. I cannot even wrap my head around what it would have felt like to come into my own person with those types of media available to me. I grew up in Alabama, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered what was on TV. I was living in an oppressive environment regardless. But I do feel like newer generations have a really unique opportunity here with these shows and with the ability to talk to them and about them on social media, and also with web series, which exist completely outside the domain of network television.
I think some of my perspective on this, on feeling underrepresented as a queer woman of color, might have something to do with the fact that I am auditioning for these roles. Sometimes it’s hard to see beyond these auditions that I go in for, or the auditions I want to get in but won’t be seen for, or the way that things are written. It’s really, really bleak sometimes, so I may have tunnel vision and just remember these casting calls that say “submit all ethnicities” when they knew they were going to hire a white person.
It seems so bizarre that we still exist in a place where a casting call says “submit all ethnicities.” I mean, of course you should submit all ethnicities. Why in the world would you not submit all ethnicities?
That’s the trip of it. I think there’s this idea that if the breakdown says “submit all ethnicities,” networks are doing their part to see all kinds of different people, and then the best person gets the part, but everyone knows 90 percent of those roles are going to a white person. The ones that say “ambiguously raced” or “African American” or “black,” those are going to a black person. I think they say “submit all ethnicities” to make themselves feel better. On paper, it seems like they’re casting a wide net. But all actors know the rules of it; it’s a really weird semantics game.
This is really a naive thing for me to say, but I’m shocked that you can’t just walk in and audition for whatever you want. You were on a very popular show on broadcast network television for over 100 episodes!
Girl, I know. I mean, I wasn’t the main character on Fringe, and I definitely understood my role. My character enlightened the audience about what was going on with the three leads. I was fine with being a supporting, secondary character, but I, too, was a little shocked that I could be a series regular on a show that ran for five seasons on a major network, and I could not get any auditions after the show was over. We finished shooting in December, and my wife, Claire, and I moved to Los Angeles in January, right in time for pilot season. I was so excited to do something new and different, so it was really disheartening, I won’t lie to you.
I spiraled into a bit of a depression when I realized that it doesn’t always matter what your credits are or what you’ve accomplished, because if there aren’t roles out there for you, you’re not going to get cast in anything. That’s the bottom line. That’s not to say that I didn’t come to the table with my own baggage; of course I did. For five years, I hadn’t had to audition for anything. It’s a very different mindset to be working on a show versus trying to get onto a show. I had a lot of stuff to work out. Trying to get my footing back was tricky. Another problem is that I didn’t look old enough for some things, but I looked too old for other things.
That exasperates me beyond anything, that women on TV either have to look young enough to play a teenager or old enough to play a teenager’s mom. I remember talking to Bianca Lawson a couple of years ago when she was in her early 30s and playing a teenager, and she said she knew she was going to go from playing a high school sophomore to someone’s grandma in a matter of months.
I know. That is so crazy. When I was auditioning for stuff after Fringe, I didn’t look young enough to play someone who is 26 but I didn’t look old enough to play someone who is 36, and I’m like, “Where are these people on television? Everyone I hang out with is 26 to 36; I know we exist!” You know, Shonda was a fan of Fringe and a fan of Astrid, so they just offered me the role on Scandal. It was the first time that had ever happened, and it came after a miserable pilot season where I didn’t book anything. It was exciting to hear someone say, “Hey, I remember that you were on show for five years and I love your work and I think you would be great on my show!”
I read on Twitter that you want to play a gay man on Looking.
You know, that show has such a sweetness and intimacy to it that you don’t alway see with gay men on TV. I love it. Actually, remember on this season’s premiere when they go to Bear Beach in the Redwoods and everybody does ecstasy? I was like, “Well, now I have to do ecstasy, I guess!” And Claire looked online to see where that party is held, and I was like, “Claire, gay men do not just have sex parties in the Redwoods!” And she was like, “Well, that’s not really how people do ecstasy!” So, I guess both of our dreams were shattered.
That’s hilarious. So, social media is also another creative outlet for you, right? You post so much of your DIY stuff there and so much stuff about social justice. Is social justice a thing you’ve always been passionate about, or did some of that come from being trapped in the Hollywood machine and seeing the way the world works in there?
That’s a great question. I think I had a great period of growth moving from Birmingham to New York. I moved to New York when I was 23, so I grew up a lot there. And then I was maybe 26 when I came out and that’s when I met Claire who is my wife now. She was in graduate school for social work and it was meeting her and learning about her life and about the work that she does that made me so much more aware of the world outside of myself.
I know that’s a pretty common thing to experience when you’re in your mid-20s, figuring out what you like and figuring out what you feel, and you don’t really always see the people around you, so it was really exciting for me to meet this woman whose job was to look beyond herself. She used to work for an organization that provides transitional housing to LGBTQIA people. I dealt with some racism and discrimination in Alabama, but I had never been privy to understanding all the different ways people live in this world and how the standards our society puts on people can affect the way they grow up. So that was kind of the start of it, just having these late night conversations with Claire about what she does and about the social injustices in the world.
And then — then! — I was introduced to Tumblr and I was like, “Oh, well it’s over now!” In the beginning I didn’t think of it as using my platform to spread the good word. It was like, “Well, this is stuff I am interested in learning about. Perhaps you are interested in learning about it too!”
I like that your Tumblr bio is like, “Just because you liked Fringe doesn’t mean you’ll like my politics!”
Sometimes I think we forget that we can like something and also be critical of it. I can like an actor and be uncomfortable or frustrated with their views. As a society, we don’t really give actors or writers or politicians the space to be their fully formed selves. I think it’s important to be able to do that, to allow people to be three-dimensional, as opposed to these flat versions of themselves because of the one thing they’re most famous for.
I’ve also learned a lot of DIY stuff from your Tumblr, but I’m too scared to try any of it on my own.
You just have to get in there and get your hands on it! It’s only intimidating to get started. Once you find your footing, you won’t be able to get enough of it!
I’ll have to take your A-Camp class. May 2014: Jasika Nicole brings her knitting prowess to the masses!
I will see you there!