‘Claws’ Showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois on Creating ‘Florida Noir’

The showrunner and EP talks casting Niecy Nash and what it means to focus on an overlooked American population

‘Claws’ TNT
Courtesy of Turner

TNT’s new show “Claws,” which debuted June 11, is striking for just how different it is. The show follows four women in Manatee County, Fla., who launder money for a criminal outfit through their slightly run-down but very on-point nail salon. The show is led by Niecy Nash, who plays Desna, an ambitious woman who discovers that trying to make things better for herself and her girls is going to require a lot more criminal activity than she thought. It’s rare to situate a show in a particularly unglamorous corner of Florida, and it’s especially rare to head it up with a crew of mature women. But that’s “Claws” — a show full of such idiosyncratic characters that their quirks alone drive the show’s slightly bloody, slightly silly plot.

Showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, who was an executive producer on “Criminal Minds” and “ER,” had to learn the basics of nail salons, “pill mills,” and strip clubs in order to adapt to the world of “Claws.” Variety sat down with Barrois to talk about creating the distinctive world of the new show, from Palmetto Plaza to Sarasota — and how casting Nash was the lynchpin that brought the show together.

I grew up about an hour away from where the show is set, in Manatee County. There are so many things that are distinctly Floridian about the show. How did you go about creating that?

Janine Sherman Barrois: I was over at Warner’s and I wound up getting the script. And I was blown away by Eliot Laurence’s writing. I thought it was amazing. We sat down. He told me he used to read the Florida Man [Twitter account], and he’s seen all these cases of women who bit off their spouse or partner’s d— in Florida. And it inspired him to write about that area in that sort of Florida-noir, Elmore Leonard kind of quirky, dark humorous way. And that’s sort of where it all sort of evolved from.

Once we got set up at TNT and it was going, we went to Florida and started scouting that area, and in Sarasota. It’s a weird place. You’d be sitting there, or walking to get something to eat, and there’ll just be a naked, over-fried man who has been in the sun too long, just dancing to hip-hop, with, like, a bandana on. You see the craziness of life under the bright sun.

It’s different, because normally you think of noir, you think of the California noir, which is very dark. But in Florida, that is the oddity of it — bizarre things happen during the day. We really wanted to capture that in the show. There’s a crazy mix of tone. There’s a crazy mix of the darkness and the light. As we sort of uncover this female empowerment piece, about these five dang amazing women.

The pill mills in Florida were a very huge thing. So the pill mills mixed with the nails — you know what I mean? — mixed with the Dixie Mafia. That was the three different engines — and money laundering for different engines — that together was, sort of, lighting in a bottle.

Tell me about the development process.

You know, it’s funny. I’m gonna be really honest with you: When I first heard of nails in a nail salon, I was like, I don’t know. [Laughs.] But I read the script. And I was blown away. I really felt like there would be a sort of Tennessee Williams voice there, but twisted. It had an absurdity to it, but it also had a darkness that you can see. [Laurence] is really very passionate about making it. I think the ability to create such amazing, dynamic characters is just so hard to find and I think he mastered that with every single one of them.

So at TNT, there was a long sort of development. It was a quick decision to make it into a pilot. But there was a digging out of the material that happened, but I think everyone just knew this was so special — this is so special. The script had been a half-hour version somewhere else, and TNT made it into an hour. So, it had been around for a bit, yeah.

When we hired Nicole Kassell, we just thought … This is magical. It’s fresh. It’s has surrealism and the tone is complicated. But if we do it right, we could really put something fresh on TV.

How familiar are you with nail salons, or strip clubs, or pill mills? I imagine at least some of that is new territory.

Yeah. I think the first things we needed to do was go to Florida, and scout, and look at people and feel it. And that’s what we did almost a year ago. Then we dug into nail salons — what are the backstories of nail salons? And who are the people that work in them? What is the underbelly of it? When we got our actors and cast everyone, we took them to a nail school. We had a nail school that we set up for actors and for us, as writers, to understand how to do nails — but also to understand what it feels like to be in a nail salon.

In terms of the pill mills, there was a lot of discussion about these pain clinics that were popping up all over the South. And about the people that were relying on them as a way to “relieve their pain,” and the laws around it. The laws have significantly changed, but it has definitely been a fascinating deep dive into addiction and culture.

And then, these people that are overlooked in cinema and in television. I think that when you look at the women, and you look at the diversity, the women and their ages — some of them are in their 40s — and that’s, sort of, emblematic of the show. The people think that they’re wallpaper and they’re forgotten. But these women are not. They’re aspirational. And they still want a piece of the pie. And every day as they go and do nails, and they go to do a little money laundering, they’re fighting to get ahead, and get a little bit more of the American dream and I think that is so in the conversation right now. Not necessarily in the New York, L.A. crowd — in Cleveland, in blue-collar America. These are women that, yeah, they might shop at Target. They might get their lipstick at CVS. They’re going to have sex. They’re going to get men. They’re going to get women. They’re sexually complicated. They’re going to get power. And they’re not going to be forgotten.

How did you come around to casting Niecy Nash?

When we started the casting process, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond was our casting director and we had a million names of people. For the initial pilot, Niecy wasn’t available. She had a pilot. So we were talking about all different names, all different races. And in the midst of the casting process for Desna, we got a call saying, basically, Niecy’s pilot wasn’t going. “She’s available. Would you take a meeting with her?” Niecy came up to my office and it was myself, I think, Eliot, and Will McCormack. And we sat down with her and she seduced the room. She seduced the room. I mean, we were literally laughing, crying. We were moved by her stories. She told us her life, her family, and in that little 45-minute meeting, it was clear to everyone in it she was Desna. It was like — all the other conversations about other actors, actresses we had had — the moment she walked out the door and that door shut, we were like, Holy s—t. We have found Desna.

It was just undeniable. I think Desna could’ve gone a million different ways, but she is her. Once that, kind of, key lynched in, it was done. It was easier now to start filling out a crew. She lives and breathes this part, 24/7. She will call you at 2:30 in the morning with ideas. She wakes up thinking about what her character would do, say, walk. How her nails would be. How she’d hold a gun.

This is the dream part. We’ve never seen a woman like this. And we definitely have not seen an African-American woman in such a, sort of, female Walter White-ish part.

Something about “Claws” reminded me of “Orange Is the New Black” — the tonal shifts between comedy and drama that sometimes have a kind of surreal quality. How are you balancing those two opposites?

Yeah. I mean, I think all the writers — we all want it to have a dramatic spine where you believe and you understand that there are life and death stakes in “Claws.” So I think the aspect of her laundering money for the Dixie Mafia and the danger in the, sort of, rabbit hole she falls in after the pilot — that’s really real. And so our challenge in the room was to make sure that was real. The humor and the darkness and the skew — which we call it, like the skew of the show — is to find the humor in some of that. And there’s a lot of funny writers and they also all have that balance of writing on dramas, writing on comedies.

So we were able to find that twisted skew. It’s more of an adjustment to the audience to go on this path and this ride with us — because for us, as writers, we’re very clear that it has got to have a skew. It is drama, but it also has humor to it. And if you’re going to kill someone in one scene, we’re going to lighten it in another scene — but we’re also going to find, sort of, the absurdities. And I think the more people see — because there’s so much television, I think now writers and creators can take chances on tone. That’s going to be what shakes things up. We’re not all mimicking the same tone of other shows, but finding our own tone. And I think “Claws” does a great job doing that.

You’re hooked in a different kind of way.

Right. And I also think it’s the characters: If the characters hook you in, you might be more prone to go down a tonal shift with them. If they grab your hand and say, It’s going to be okay. Just come down this road with us.

Tell me about casting the rest of the ensemble — Carrie Preston, Judy Reyes, Jenn Lyon.

Carrie Preston. She, again, like Niecy — the no-brainer. She really, really responded to Polly. She knew that she could bring layers to this rich con-artist who is changing every second. What she does with this character is amazing, and we were just grateful to have this Emmy-winner respond so hard to this script. And what she’s brought to the character is amazing. We will see all these different colors through the whole season.

In terms of Jenn Lyon, we tested her with Niecy, and they just lit up the screen as BFFs. And you got it. It didn’t feel contrived. It didn’t feel forced. You just felt like Jenn Lyon was ride or die for Desna. And as embodying Jen on the show, she would literally feel like they were sisters. She has that Southern thing. She has that maternal thing, but she has a best-friend quality. And it’s funny, because normally it’s like — the black girl is the best friend. The roles are reversed.

The hardest part with Judy Reyes is an actor of that caliber committing to being Quiet Ann, you know what I mean? She thought that was an amazing challenge — this was a really rich character that she had never been offered. You know, you see in the pilot she has that huge moment at the end, with the song. And you go: This is a character I have not seen on television.

How did you create the distinctive aesthetic of the show?

You know, Jennifer Eaves was the costume designer on the pilot and she brought that, sort of, hip-hop, ’90s look. In-your-face — the ripped jeans, the tight clothes, the bright colors. That’s one thing when you go to Florida — it is not all black, just a T-shirt. People are wearing color. You know what I mean? People are wearing colors and they are unapologetic about wearing colors.

And also, we’re so used to women starving themselves on television and projecting an image of — very, very petite. And here you have these women with bodies, showing off their stuff. In one episode they’re eating a Lean Cuisine, the next time they’re having shrimp. But they are wearing skin-tight leopard, skin-tight crinkle tops. All of that. Even in the pilot when you see the final scene, you know, with Virginia (Karrueche Tran) in the pink fur and the pink bathing suit. That is all an homage to the Florida noir, the brightness.

And I think it sets a tone. It gives you that Tarantino kind of feeling. Because it’s bold, and it gives you a David LaChapelle palate. And that’s really real.

So, Jennifer Eaves brought that look to the pilot. Stephen Carter, our production designer, worked with Nicole Kassell who directed the pilot to make sure that everything was right. You have the pinks, the turquoises, you saw the greens, the yellows. We weren’t going to have a palette that was pastel. And then our DP, David Hennings, he made sure that although we had the brightness, we still at times could light it so that you felt a little bit of edge in it — even though it was bright.

You take a character like Virginia — who’s this millennial, who’s in your face, who’s like I’m not afraid of my body, my sexuality, any of it. She’s wearing little shorts with her butt hanging out, and she’s wearing see-through boots. And then she’s got — I think hair has become a character as well. Because these women, they’re not afraid. They’re not trying to fit in. They are who they are, and they can make a look work — from a drugstore, from Target, to the swap meet. These women know how to put together a look and bring you that hip, hip-hop vibe.

“Claws” also explores a lot of elements of sexuality that can be challenging: Plotlines follow both strippers and sex workers. How do you approach those topics?

There’s conversations about it, but we’re just trying to be a real perspective. I mean, like: Virginia is a former stripper, and as the series goes on you learn more about everyone’s background and their dealing with sexuality. The important thing is that this is through, really, a female’s perspective. So you’re going to see women who are sexually layered. And so often we are relegated to being the sidekicks and relegated to being seen when it’s time for a man to have sex. You know what I mean? But I think what you’re going to see is these women, as they have their jobs and as they have their lives, they still have a sexual need and a sexual desire. And it looks a million different ways, and it’s complicated. We’re not necessarily trying to say, oh, we’re pushing the envelope. We’re just trying to be real, and the realness is that people are complicated and sexuality is real — and women, in this day and age, are allowed to want to have sex, have power, have money, and get a better apartment. [Laughs.]

We’re allowed to want that, you know what I mean? And not wait for a man to say, Hey. We need to get a better place. We can have all of those things. And wear a sexy top, and be the boss.