Birmingham, Alabama native Jasika Nicole – a Southern belle turned Brooklynite after coming to New York City in pursuit of making her passion her business – is a genuine quadra-threat. The reverse carpetbagger can sing, dance, draw and act, as evidenced by her role as FBI scientist Astrid Farnsworth on Fox’s J.J. Abrams sci-fi hit, Fringe. Nicole sat down with Clutch for an in-depth peek into her world on and off the screen.
Clutch: Interesting name, Jasika Nicole. Kind of like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.
Jasika Nicole: Well, you know how in the South, double names are really popular. So when I was in college, my friend Larry and I were joking around and decided to start introducing ourselves to new people by our first and middle names only. Once I started working professionally in theatre, I registered my whole name, but Jasika Nicole Pruitt is a mouthful. So what started as a joke just kind of stuck.
C: You should drop the “Nicole” and be like Cher or Madonna.
JN: Nah, I need to become more prolific before I can be just Jasika. [laughs]
C: Your journey from small town Alabama to the big city to become an actor seems to be a popular one among entertainers. How did you get from Alabama to NY?
JN: I rented a 15-foot Penske truck with no rear view mirror – very scary – and drove from Alabama to North Carolina to pick up the friend who I moved to New York with. We just decided New York was the place to be and we just came! We lucked out because my friend’s boyfriend at the time had family with a rent stabilized apartment in Union Square that we subleased for three months until we got kicked out for subleasing illegally.
C: What was your first memory of performing?
JN: The one that sticks with me the most was as Betty Body in my fourth grade musical called Shapin’ Up Santa. This was when the Jane Fonda workout tapes were coming out and everyone was Jazzersizing. So, Santa was overweight and he couldn’t give up ice cream sandwiches and candy bars, so they sent him to Betty Body’s workout camp. [sings] “Betty Body’s where it’s at, you’ll drop 10 pounds in two weeks flat! Guaranteed to lose the weight or Betty Body pays the freight!” I had no idea what these lines meant, but I had solo a song and workout outfits with leg warmers. I wound up being the villain of the show.
C: Early on in your professional career, what kind of roadblocks were put up for you?
JN: The biggest thing that ever stood in my way was me. Honestly, I would go out to auditions and was just so excited to be going on any. The auditioning part wasn’t too bad, it helped to keep me on my toes. But I would go to the auditions and see all these beautiful girls who were taller or had cooler hair or better clothes. I would lose all the enthusiasm or spark that I had when I was on the street and coming up in the elevator.
I’d try to build it back up, but I had to get to the point where I realized that it wasn’t a comparison between me and the other women in the room. It was about whatever I could bring to the project. Instead of comparing aesthetic differences, I had to just go in there and not think about them. I don’t know what they would do, they might be better or they might suck. I had no control over that so I had to be in control over what I could bring to the table. You can’t buy into the superficiality.
C: So you sing, dance, act, and draw – tell me about your comic High Yella Magic.
JN: It’s really evolved. I started reading graphic novels and was introduced to comics outside of the Sunday papers. I had read Fun Home by Alison Bechtel, but that was it. Then a friend let me borrow Lucifer and it changed everything. I thought it was incredible. I didn’t know that there was art like this that existed with really serious stories or heartbreaking stories with humor or fantastical stories in an book format. It was like being a kid and reading picture books.
I had been looking for a way to combine what I had written about my experiences and things that I had written in my blogs on Myspace. People seemed to be interested in what I was saying and they thought it was funny. I had this dialogue and I also drew, so I was looking for a way to connect these and realized “wow, this is how you do this!”
C: When you read High Yellow Magic from the beginning, it’s interesting to see the evolution of how the artwork is framed and to see how you’ve changed as an artist.
JN: At first, it’s very elementary because I was thinking in single images rather than looking at the entire page as a piece of art, where the page can stand alone and you didn’t need to know the whole story to be interested. I think that’s important to making the work stand out.
C: What muscle does drawing allow you to flex that acting doesn’t?
JN: I have full creative control and artistic leeway when I draw. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s artistic vision. There are no limitations to what you can do, so if something isn’t working for you, you can change it. You’re in charge of that. I like being able to get a piece of paper and let whatever is in my head or heart pour itself out and not have to censor it.
C: Do you worry about what readers or the public will think, since the comic is so personal?
JN: Thus far I haven’t filtered. There are so many stories in my head, but now I have to ask myself what I’d like to put out into the world. People see the show and want to know a little more about me and then find out about the comic or they read the comic and learn about the show. So I have to be aware of what I put out there.
C: The New York Times recently featured you in an article titled “Out in Hollywood.” Was the article your official public coming out?
JN: You know… I think I was! Which is so funny… I’m really trying to come to terms with the phrase. I mean I get what “coming out” means, but I never really felt like I was coming out because I was never in. As soon as I wanted to go on a date with a woman, I told everyone. It was like “this is what I’m doing, let’s stay tuned and see how this works out!” It was a really positive thing.
I knew in the back of my mind for a while and it was just a matter of being brave enough to go out and getting some real answers about it. I think it’s possible to fantasize about it and not want to have a deeper connection, but that wasn’t the case for me. I feel like I’ve always been out, but the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily know it. It was never anything that I kept as a secret, so the New York Times article was the first time I think anyone cared or made an issue out of it.
C: Do you find it more difficult being a woman of color or being a lesbian of color?
JN: I’ve spent 28 years being a woman of color. Growing up in the South I’d be lying if I said that race didn’t matter – it absolutely mattered. When you walk down the street in Birmingham, you can tell race is important. People have ideas about who you are by the way that you look. When I got to New York it wasn’t the case… it was the furthest things from that ever. During my senior year in high school I came to New York with my drama club. Coming from the airport on the bus, I saw so many girls on the street who looked like me. In New York, I could be anonymous for the first time. Having something that people label you as suddenly no longer be a factor was enticing.
C: You’re no longer THE light skinned girl with curly hair because there are about 100,000 light skinned girls with curly hair in Brooklyn.
JN: Exactly! I wasn’t set apart and no one paid attention to me when I walked down the street. As far as identifying as queer, I’ve only been dating women for 3 1/2 years, so I have more history with being a woman of color.
I would never walk down the street in Birmingham and have someone yell at me in the street “Oh look, you black girl!” or “Hey I bet you’re biracial!” The racism and prejudice was more subtle. It wasn’t until I started dating women and walking down the street with a girl here in New York that people would feel completely free to yell and say hurtful or obscene things to me. So while I have more experience with one, the other has proven to be way more detrimental to feeling good about yourself in the world.
It’s pretty ridiculous how free people feel to try and degrade you. These are strangers who have no qualms about sharing their opinions. So I’d say right now it’s harder being a queer woman than being a Black woman.
C: Do you feel White women who come out have it easier?
JN: In my head, I feel that white queer women have it easier. But, this all depends on where you are… I mean any girl on the streets of Birmingham would probably be scoffed at and yelled at for holding another girl’s hand, but not necessarily in NYC.
Yet most every episode of being queer bashed that I can remember has been from someone in the Black community, which is incredibly unsettling. You’re a part of a community that is a minority so you feel a certain kinship when you see other people that are a racial minority. But then, when you become a minority inside a minority, it’s like you’re at the very bottom rung of this huge ladder that exists in our society – it feels very lonely and very confusing.
I’m still trying to get adjusted to it. I don’t want to see someone on the street that is Black and let go of my girlfriend’s hand because I’m afraid they are going to say something rude to me. That’s equivalent to, I don’t know, a White woman walking down the street and grabbing her purse because a Black man is walking past her. It’s so hurtful when it happens and I guess I’m not in a place yet where I am strong enough to have someone berate me and say those things and look at me the way they do. I’m just not. I am really hoping that I do become strong enough and that it happens soon because it’s not fair to me or to my girlfriend or to the people I’m assuming these things about. It’s not right. But that’s my defense right now, I let her hand go. It’s how I get through the day if I see anyone who looks like they might queer bash me.
C: What advice would you give to those currently trying to get into the industry? Two things.
JN: Number one – Don’t be ashamed of your support system job! There are very few people who are able to go out there and immediately start working or who never have to work a 2nd and 3rd job. It’s really frustrating to have to wait fucking tables! [laughs] Waiting tables is not fun, but that is going to be the thing to keep you going. It ends up serving as the impetus to keep you going on auditions and getting out there. I know so many people who you ask “So what do you do?” and they say “Well I’m an actor, but of course I’m waiting tables,” and it comes out in this Debbie Downer tone.
There is no shame in paying your rent and trying to make your dreams come true at the same time. I wish someone had told me that because I would feel so down and out working in this great city sometimes. But it’s good, because that’s what drives you to get outta there.
C: Anything else?
JN: Yes, and this is super cliché… but no one is going to believe in you if you’re not believing in yourself. If you don’t really think you’re that good or you’re that talented, then no one else so going to. It’s hard to take an honest look yourself and say “what is it that I genuinely have to give.” That’s an important conversation to have with yourself. I know I’m not the most beautiful girl in this industry, I know I’m not the smartest. There is a whole list of things that I’m not. But does anyone have the package that I have? Can anyone go to a hip hop club, do salsa and still feel good about what they’re doing on the dance floor? I CAN! It’s a combination of things that I’m gonna bring to the table that no one else can.
C: I think we all need to make a list titled “why I am awesome” and review it every day.
JN: Exactly. It can be stupid things, like “I make great scrambled eggs,” because not everyone can do that!
C: Being a woman in the industry, what is your largest pet peeve about how women are unfairly sexualized?
JN: Well, with this industry, it’s everything has to be super commercialized. They want to hit as many target markets as they possibly can so they’ll throw in a woman in a bikini just so they can cover that demographic of high school boys or girls or whoever wants to see that.
What I think is really cool about Fringe is that that’s not what our show is about at all. And yes, Anna Torv (Agent Olivia Dunham) is a very beautiful woman and I think it’s totally reasonable for someone to refer to her as “eye candy.” But it’s not the priority of the show to have women walking around in really expensive, tight, beautiful clothes, that’s not what the show is about. It’s about the work we do and one of the reasons it’s so appealing is because this is how women act and dress when they’re out there fighting crime. They generally don’t wear spandex and stuff. But there’s nothing wrong with those shows where women wear really expensive shoes and nice outfits and stuff, but it’s also cool that there’s a show that doesn’t have that as its main priority. So many shows that are out there now do.
C: So… Astrid Farnsworth? Really, that’s this sister’s name? You really don’t look like an Astrid. You should be wearing really tiny glasses or something.
JN: You know why that’s cool? It makes her name super memorable.
C: Despite the fact that Walter (John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop) can never remember her name.
JN: Actually, I just made the connection that she has such an unusual name, yet Walter STILL can’t remember it. In rehearsal the other day, Walter called my character Afro. Which was great, but he said “NO, they’ll come knocking down my door and they’ll think I’m a racist!” [laughs] I think it would be awesome, considering I kind of have an afro.
C: The first time viewers see a full episode of Fringe, is that the first time you see it put together as well?
C: Do you critique yourself?
JN: Absolutely. It kinda sucks, I wish I could watch it and see it with fresh eyes, but I can’t on so many levels because one, I’ve read the script. And two, I’ve read several versions of the script, so what we see on TV is usually 5 or 6 steps away from the original script that I got. They end up taking things out and putting other stuff in last minute, so it winds up being new to me. But you know it so well that you can’t really look at it the way that everybody else does.
C: That would drive me crazy, I’m way too critical of myself.
JN: Half the time, I’m like “How did they let my hair get like that, why didn’t someone poof it up?” There’s an episode where it looks like a chunk of my hair had been taken out. My mom called me and was like “what happened to your hair!?”
C: Have you had any paparazzi moments?
JN: No one is interested in me and Claire [her girlfriend]! If that ever happens, I will wear crazy stuff just because. Like sweatpants and high heels. Sometimes people do recognize me on the street. I was in Bethesda, Maryland and this girl recognized me. She said “I’m sorry to bother you but I wanted to say that you either are or you look just like this girl who is on a TV show right now and her name is Jasika Nicole!” She pulls out her phone and there is a picture on me as her screen saver! I couldn’t believe it.
So far it’s cool because that just means that people are watching the show and they like the work that you do. I think if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have anything to say about it.
C: Is there anyone that you would love to work with? That you’d just get your panties in a bunch over?
JN: That is the best phrased question I’ve gotten, by the way… because people ask who do you most admire, but who would I really want to work with? I’m so into 30 Rock right now and I would have to say that working with Tracy Morgan and Tina Fey would be the most awesome thing ever. They’re so smart. To be that funny you have to be really quick and to be that quick you have to be on your game at all times and you have to be able to listen and respond back. Comedy is not easy and both of them are so great. The whole cast is incredible.
C: What classic parts or characters would you like to play?
JN: Um, Dorothy in The Wiz. Not that it needs to be remade, but I’ve got the hair, I’ve got the big eyes. I’m not as skinny as Diana Ross, but I could make it work. I love that movie so much, and if they brought it to Broadway, I would like to do it.
C: Any parts that you tried out for and you’re glad you didn’t get?
JN: Let me think… NO! Wait I have one. I auditioned and was about to screen test for this one show and I wound up screen testing for something else and it conflicted. The show was called Milf & Cookies. It was on a major network and it was for the part of this rock & roll girl with tattoos and she had a kid when she was young. So, I guess I’m glad I didn’t get it, but at the time, I was like “Please let this be my big break!”
C: Anything you’re still salty about not getting?
JN: Oh yea, the untitled Sam Mendes project. It was down to me and Maya Rudolph and it was tough when I didn’t get it. But I’ma see you Maya! [laughs] But if someone was gonna beat me out for a role, Maya Rudolph is exceptional. It says a lot about how far I’ve come. I can be proud about it, even if I am salty about it.
C: So, what’s in your clutch bag when you head out for the evening?
JN: Well, it’s an extremely pared down version of my regular every day bag, because as everyone knows, the clutch bag has to be tiny and sexy, and preferably red patent leather. I usually use one of those miniscule side pockets for my ID and my Metro card and I take the two keys I need off my ring and stick them in the bag, too. I bring my Treo, my credit card, $20 in cash, and always, always, always my Rosebud Lip Salve; it’s my version of an American Express card, ‘cause I never leave home without it!