Television series involving criminal masterminds and vibrant storylines are often male-dominated. However, with their new TNT series, Claws, showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois and executive producer Rashida Jones are changing all of that. With Niecy Nash at the center as Desna Simms, we’ll watch Desna and her girls slay as nail techs at Nail Artisans of Manatee County, Fla. However, they also happen to find themselves entangled with the Dixie Mafia. Harold Perrineau, Karrueche Tran, Carrie Preston, Jenn Lyon and Judy Reyes also star in the series.
Ahead of the series premiere, EBONY.com chatted with Nash, Tran and Perrineau about Claws, their characters, and why this female-dominated series is so important in our current television climate.
EBONY: How did you learn about Claws and what drew you to the project in the first place?
Niecy Nash: You know, what I loved about Claws was the script. It’s not often that you get a script in your hands that is as delicious as this one was. And there was a Black woman leading the charge, and this was a network that was seeking me out for this part. So that even made it sweeter.
Karrueche Tran: Most shows or series, when it comes to crime and drugs, are mostly male-driven or male-based. It’s the men that are running it and the men that are doing all these things. Opposed to this show, it’s like these women are just as badass, you know? Not only are they badass, but they’re also human. Each woman is so uniquely different. They each have a story to tell, and they’re all relatable. That’s what I love the most is that they’re human, they have emotions, and the audience and the viewers will be able to relate. You know when you watch Orange Is the New Black or Sex and the City, you have the girl that’s like you and that you like. It’s kinda like the same thing; you’ll have your girl that you’ll be attached to, that you’ll want to win.
Harold Perrineau: When I first read the script for Claws, my first thought, my honest first thought, was they’re never going to do this show on TNT. That’s what I thought because it was so raw and funny and just really edgy. I just thought I hadn’t seen anything like that on TNT before. I’ve been in the situation before where I read a script that was really raw, and then you get there, and they go, “Well, we’re going to tame it down.” I thought for sure that was going to happen. That’s not what happened. Then I thought wow, the character that I’d be playing, Dean, that was challenging and really scary. I was right on both accounts, really challenging and really scary, but hopefully, we get it right.
EBONY: Niecy, what drew you to Desna as a character? She’s so vivacious and so vibrant. But she’s also about her business and her money. She’s just a very multilayered woman. How did you get into that character? What aspects of yourself or other people did you use to bring her forth on screen?
NN: I feel like Desna, while she doesn’t have any children, she’s a mother to many. She’s like a mother hen to her tribe. I feel like that’s where our lives intersect. When I was in high school, and I was a cheerleader, the other cheerleaders had to pick the name that went on your sweater, your cheerleading sweater. The name they chose for me was “Big Mama.”
EBONY: Wow. [Laughing]
NN: [Laughing] How you gonna be “Big Mama” at 16?
EBONY: In high school!
NN: In high school! Because I was everybody’s mother. I am that today on set with the girls off camera. I definitely mother this group of women and am happy to do so. And, if I might add, I do it well! I’ve been a mother in my real life for so long, I’ve got it down pat now.
EBONY: Karrueche, Virginia is so her own person, which is what I love about her. I also love that she’s so unbothered, and just boss, and bored all the time. Are you channeling anyone specifically to play Virginia? Where did you get your inspiration to play her from?
KT: I don’t know; [I] created this girl in my head. Once we started doing fittings, and I wear a blond wig. Once I had the hair on, and the nails done, and the outfit, it made me more connected to the character.
KT: And my choices, the way I talk, the way I move my hands, all of that came into place. I also, right before we started shooting, I spent about a week in Atlanta at the strip clubs.
EBONY: Oh wow.
KT: Yeah. Virginia comes from the strip clubs. I’ve been to strip clubs before to have fun. It was more the setting and just watching these girls; the way they move, the way they look and talk to guys, and their choices and all that. So I kept all that in mind.
EBONY: Harold, I know that your character Dean is autistic. Were you able to shadow an autistic person or did you make him your own character?
HP: Well, because he has autism, I thought it was important to figure out what that means to be autistic. One of the things that I found out is that it’s certainly not a disease. While there are people whose brains help them learn in a very typical way, there are people who have autism and their learning process is very atypical, I think that’s the word for it. What I wanted to do was understand the range of possibility that a person who has autism might have. We talked to a doctor. I think the writers pointed me to a doctor who helped them. I have some friends who have children with autism. I talked to them a lot.
EBONY: Oh, I see.
HP: I really trolled the internet and read books. Holly Robinson Pete has a book out because her son has autism. I had all of these different sources, and it took me like months to figure out, because [with] the range of autism, you could be anywhere on the spectrum. While it offers me the opportunity to do anything, you have to find the specifics of each person. That’s where I started looking. I just talked to people [and read] … I didn’t follow anyone; I thought that would be a little creepy.
EBONY: Niecy, you actually were one of the loudest voices advocating for Karrueche to get the role of Virginia. What was it in that role that you saw in her that you knew would be the perfect match?
NN: With the part of Virginia, it was a very hard part to cast. I tested with a lot of women. They saw so many people for the role, and they still had not landed on the right girl. So I said, “Are you all familiar with Karrueche Tran?” Some of them were. Some of them were not. I said, “I think she may be an interesting choice for this. You should bring her in.” The reason I said that was because I felt like meeting her in person; I could see some of the things in her personality that could really work for the role. You can be a public personality but still in some ways be very shy.
EBONY: For sure.
NN: You can be followed by millions and still want to fit in. You understand what I mean?
NN: I just felt like there was something about her that could serve Virginia. So she had to go through several rounds of auditions before she got the part, but she cried like a baby when I talked to her after booking it. We went out, and we celebrated. I was very, very happy for her, and she’s holding her own. It’s not stunt casting. She’s doing a really good job. She studied off her ass though.
EBONY: Karrueche what is the best advice that Niecy Nash has given you as an up and coming actress at this point?
KT: Yeah. One thing Niecy always says is to trust your gift. We’ve had conversations about me being a new actress. And you know, being nervous or getting anxiety being on set and being alongside her and Carrie Preston and Judy Reyes and Jenn Lyon, who are all seasoned, great actors. They’ve done so well, and sometimes it’s nerve-racking. It’s a lot for me because I’m rolling with the big dogs. I can’t look like the weak one. I have to stay right up there with them. So she’s always told me to trust my gift, my talent and my instruments, and whatever is within me to let my guard down, or my nerves down. And just let God do his work, and just let it come out of you.
EBONY: Was Janine Sherman Barrois attached prior to you coming on, or was her attachment as a showrunner and Rashida Jones’s attachment as an executive producer another reason why you decided “I really wanna do this female-dominated project that has never been seen before?”
NN: Yeah, Janine and Rashida were already attached to the project when I came along. I went in and took a meeting, and I just loved their energy. I loved their script, and I was like absolutely! So I was the first person to be cast, and all the other ladies came after.
EBONY: What is it like to work on a set that’s dominated by women? That’s very rare.
NN: Who runs the world? Girls! It’s a very empowering feeling to have so many women, and so many women of color, leading the charge with Claws. You know, you come to work, and it’s one thing to be grateful to be working in this business, and it’s another thing to be proud. I feel like, looking at what all the women are accomplishing on-camera and behind the camera, I feel proud.
HP: Throughout my career, I keep making these choices, I think, because I think there are so many stereotypes that happen in the field of entertainment. You know what I mean? There are so many people who get marginalized. I keep trying to make choices that keep pointing to our common humanity. Claws and all these women who were so magnificent and so messy, but still striving. I just thought it was a really good thing to get to be part of, even if I’m not … I don’t have to be the center of focus if I’m part of this group that I feel is telling a really great story and a great story with great human beings. When I got the opportunity to do it, I was like, “Oh, hell yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”
EBONY: One of the things I really loved about Dean and Desna’s relationship is how loving it is, especially when he’s drawing her those gorgeous pictures. How did you approach that sibling relationship?
HP: We didn’t have a big meeting. We did sit down and talk a bit. We sat down, and we talked a little bit about where they’d been and their struggles. I had come up with my own backstory about them, some of which I shared with [Niecy]. She’s always filled with great ideas and stuff like that. We talked about it, but basically, we just got right after it. You know what I mean? I explained a few things about autistic people often have sensory overload, things like looking in people’s eyes, it’s like a lot of information to take in. I may not make direct eye contact with her all the time, or Dean is somebody who doesn’t like to be touched. We came up with a bunch of different ideas. Some of them have changed since the season went on because the writers had really great ideas, so we’ve had to adjust. There are certain decisions we made about the way Dean wears his clothes, and how he feels protected so that he’s not too overwhelmed all the time. [Nicey’s] such a lovely person, and a really great actress. We just went for it, and just kept going for it and going for it. It’s really developed into what I think is a beautiful relationship because really these two characters, at the end of the day, really only have each other.
NN: I wanted to make sure there was a connective tissue off-camera before we ever rolled a film for the show. I got to everybody except for Judy Reyes because she was the last person hired. So I dated the women. With Harold, we spoke on the phone, but I never met him in person until the first day we shot. The first day I met him, he was already in character. So it was like, “Niecy Nash, this is Harold Perrineau,” and we shook hands. Well, I tried to shake his hand, but he was already in character. I went, “Is something wrong? Is he OK? What’s going on?” I didn’t even realize that he had already started his process.
EBONY: Why is Claws so important?
NN: I say all the time that the one thing that makes Claws so special is that you have five badass women leading the charge on this show. If you change these casts of characters to all men, you would be watching something akin to The Sopranos. If there were only one or two of us, you might say you were watching something similar to Breaking Bad. What I tell people to tune in for is because you’re watching women do what typically we’ve only seen men do in television.
Claws premieres on TNT on Sunday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET.