Emmys: Mandy Moore and Niecy Nash on Maternal Roles, Multiple Time Periods and Feeling Seen by the Industry

Mandy Moore an Niecy Nash photographed
Dan Doperalski for Variety

This Emmy season Mandy Moore is seeing her first-ever nomination — for her role of matriarch Rebecca of the Pearson brood on NBC’s family ensemble “This Is Us.” Meanwhile, Niecy Nash has crossed over from being previously celebrated in comedy (with two supporting actress noms in that genre in 2015 and 2016) with a nod for her work as the real-life Dolores Wise, mother to one of the falsely convicted Exonerated Five, in Ava DuVernay and Netflix’s “When They See Us.”

Both women have had to step into a special kind of power as the heads of their households in these shows, both tell stories that deal with trauma (albeit in different ways), and both admit that for a time earlier on in their respective careers they were put in very specific boxes, only to more recently be seen by the industry, the audience and, to some degree, themselves.

So naturally when they sat down at Variety, they had a lot to talk about!

When stepping into a maternal role, how much of your characters’ relationships with their kids do you want to be informed by some of your own experiences?

Niecy Nash: I definitely needed to pull from my personal experience raising a Black son. I didn’t have a choice to look into Jharrel [Jerome]’s eyes and not see my own son. They’re not that far apart in age, so the tug in my real life definitely overlapped and helped me find my way with playing Dolores Wise.

Mandy Moore: I think that was one of the things, when the show first started, I was most nervous about — and the fact that I’m not just playing a mother, I’m also playing a grandmother. I felt so nervous that I would be out of my depth, not having any of that real-life experience to bring to the table. But you use what you have in your own life, and you build it.

Mandy Moore Niecy Nash Emmy EE Variety Cover

Mandy, how do you feel like the earlier seasons aided in your frame of reference for what motherhood is?

Moore: Kids that started out as nine are now almost 12, and they’re at such a critical point in their young lives. It’s crazy seeing them on set today, a foot taller than when we started three seasons ago. But I do definitely pull from the stuff that we’ve shared together at work over that time; you can’t not.

When you look at the choices that your characters make as mothers, for their children, how important is it for you to feel like they are choices you, too, would make? Have there been moments you really had to search to find the justification for the decision?

Nash: There’s a different responsibility when you’re playing real people and those people are still alive. We got on the phone with each other and spoke for about an hour, and even after all of this time, my takeaway was that her pain is still palpable. I know when I walked out of the hospital with my first child — I have three — I kept looking back over my shoulder like, “Do they see me leaving with this little thing?” Nobody was there to tell me what to do or how to do it, and at any given moment as a mother you’re doing the best you can with the information you have at the time. Whatever you’ve experienced in your life — the good, the bad or the ugly — it’s all a part of how you parent and how you mother. So I needed to lean into that woman, not what I would do. I needed to understand her pain and how to translate that because you see her at different places in her life: At one point she’s struggling, she’s selling drugs and doing some nefarious things, and then at another point she finds the lord and has that transition. But all the while she has a son who’s in jail for something he didn’t do and is still struggling with her relationship who are on the outside. So I had to lean into what she would do.

Moore: The stakes definitely don’t feel quite as high as with your character, but Rebecca’s definitely made some choices I don’t agree with, and there’s a clear delineation between what I believe is her justification for it and what I would have done in that situation. In the first season, just dealing with the secret of having known my child’s biological parents and having kept that from him is questionable. I understood the choice she made, I just didn’t agree with it. But I think that’s our job as actors: to have compassion, to have empathy, to find our way into the choices these people make and see them through it.

How does getting the chance to portray these women during multiple years in their lives but with gaps in between the years affect the choices you make and the way you understand their motivations?

Nash: I think you get it immediately — you have a way to catch up instantly with Dolores because she tells you some things and she shows you a lot. Even when things are not necessarily said fully, you get the pain and the stress and the despair. The one through line through all of these years is that she never stopped loving her children. And even when she has this very charged conversation with her daughter, who’s transitioning into a woman, I feel like what she was saying was not “I don’t love you”; it was really, “I don’t know how to protect you if you do this.” And so her only way to combat the world was fighting, because that’s what she had been doing all along. So what I tried to do was keep that in my subconscious. “I love you but…” was the through line for me.

“I was so hungry to do something I had never done before, that scared Me and still scares me every day.”
Mandy Moore

Moore: Just the natural trajectory of the show and the way the storytelling is unfolding — it’s obviously not in chronological order — makes it a little more challenging because we do get morsels and pieces of who you would build this character on. I have a broad strokes idea, and I had to figure it out very quickly in Season 1, but there were things like having lost a child — things that fundamentally make someone who they are that they carry with them for the rest of their lives — I didn’t know right away. And I had to make these choices for who she was, and then how these things affected her changed the scenes to a certain degree because I carried that with me. But that’s why we love what we do: Getting to build all of that up, even if it never surfaces and no one is any wiser about it, we know; we’ve made certain calls and it’s nice to have answers to those questions.

Nash: Truth be told, and I don’t know if you agree with this, but when you take on the role of a mother, I don’t care where you find her in life, it is the most imperfect character you’re ever going to play. You carry your childhood, your pain, your trauma — whatever you’ve experienced — and now you have to influence someone else’s life and keep them in your care. And because they don’t come with a rule book, you could be June Cleaver, and your child could still look you in your face and tell you you blew it. I played four mothers this year, and they were all the most imperfect characters ever.

What do you feel about yourselves as actors has lent itself to finding these particular roles and seeing this kind of success at this time in television?

Nash: I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that the industry was polite but they did tell me I had a lane. “You do broad comedy, ma’am; stay over there.” And doing dramatic work was always my original vision. I didn’t know comedy was a thing; I was funny, but I didn’t know it was a gift. And once I got invited to this side of the party, I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t disappoint myself first in the original way I saw myself. But also, the people who bet on me and allowed me to live this part of my dream, I didn’t want to fail them either. So I was very intentional to make sure I got the work right. And with this particular story, I have been carrying a burden for these boys before I ever met any of them — because I heard of them many years ago and I thought, “The injustice of it all!” I held space for them and didn’t even know them, so by the time I found out about the script, I didn’t care if I was just the court reporter typing away with no lines; I needed to be a part of telling this narrative. I don’t know why they see it the way they do — the industry, I mean — but I’m grateful because now I’m at the whole party.

Moore: You can go to either side.

Nash: I’m on both sides of the party!

Moore: I rolled into work every day like, “OK, what’s it going to be today?” You never go in with your eyes closed or yawning; there is always a challenge at your feet. It’s the dreamiest job of all time. Every actor knows the ebb and flow that a career takes on, and four years ago I couldn’t get a pilot I didn’t even want; I couldn’t get cast in anything! So it is crazy to sit here and go, “This is never a dream I had for myself.” I wanted to work, and I wanted to do work that challenged me, that fulfilled me, a light that people maybe hadn’t seen me in. Because we all get put in our lane. I got told, “You’re the girl next door” or “You’re a teen star, and you had your moment.” And fabulous if that was all it was, but I knew I had more — we all contain multitudes — and I was so hungry to do something I had never done before, that scared me and still scares me every day. It’s hard to distill down “Why now?” I’m just happy I have a job and I get to do this for a couple more years.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

When do you feel like perception of you shifted so you could switch lanes, so to speak?

Nash: For me it was when I did HBO’s “Getting On.” It was like, “Who knew she knows how to do that?” Because tonally, even though it was a comedy, it was played 10 toes down to the ground. I cried like a baby when I got nominated for that because I didn’t even know people were watching it. I wasn’t campaigning; I wasn’t out there like, “Hey, look at me.” I was just really trying to master that part of my craft. People took note, and that was where Ava found me and said, “I would love for you to be my Richie Jean in ‘Selma.'” Other people found me for other projects from that. It was the gift that kept on giving.

Moore: When I went from the music world and got cast in “A Walk to Remember” that was the first time things turned a little bit for me. “Oh, you’re not Britney Spear or Christina Aguilera.” I had been sort of lumped in with them, which was wonderful, but stepping outside of that, it allowed people to let me make the transition. I guess “This Is Us” as an adult. I’m 35 now, and this was definitely a fundamental shift in my career and getting people to see, “Oh you’re not a little kid anymore.” I haven’t been for awhile, but that definitely changed everything.

Do you feel like you’re being fully seen now, or are there still changes you want to see for the future of your careers?

Moore: I think I know the answer to that. “I haven’t even started yet!”

Nash: I do have to say I do feel seen, and I’m grateful for it because with a light shining on you comes more opportunities to taste other types of roles and chase other characters and pick them apart and figure it all out, so it’s a very exciting time because you have choices. Before I was just sitting at one part of the restaurant and they had already ordered everything for me. Now I liken it to going to a buffet, and I want to taste everything on this menu except “Thank you, please come again.”

Moore: I’m going to use that! I’m stealing your line. It’s difficult to answer that because, in the best way possible, I feel like I’m locked into this job for the foreseeable future. It’s a blessing, but I am excited for, when the show inevitably comes to an end, what I’ll be able to do after. Because we have such a limited window. We have four months off, and this past hiatus I made music and climbed mountains and had personal time, but I’m excited for being a woman and comfortable in my skin and where I am in my life and how I will use that to find the next foray in my career. I have a production company and I’m excited to dig in there. But I do feel seen, and I think it’s not about the outside world is seeing; it’s how you see yourself.

Nash: Say that a little louder for the people in the back!

Moore: Truly. And there’s no substitute, and if you had told me a decade ago, it may not have mattered. We have to arrive there for ourselves.

Nash: And I had to invite my team to see me that way. It was a “Gather around, gather around.” I had a team meeting and said, “I want to reintroduce myself because I want you to see me how I see myself. Otherwise if we’re on two different pages this book is real short.” They met me in my space, but the other thing about that is you have to be ready — because when the opportunity presents itself, if you’re not ready, it’s like, “Well, that was a bust!” When you walk out that door in the morning, how you see yourself first is reflected and you get that thing back that you put out there. It’s a beautiful place to be in when they see you, but I absolutely think it starts with you. I used to say all the time that the gag is you’ve got to trust your gift, and once you get to that place, everything else

Moore: It falls in line.

Nash: It’s like when you climbed that mountain, something in you had to say, “I can do this.” Even when you were standing at the bottom, looking like an ant, you looked up there and said, “I can do this.” And it don’t matter who doubted you, you had that little grain of a mustard seed, and then when you actually realized the thing — you can be your own cheerleader. Sometimes people hype us up, and I love a hype man, but if I don’t have one

Moore: You always have one.

Nash: She pointed to her chest, people; it’s within!

Mandy, you mentioned producing, and Niecy, you directed “Claws” this season, so what inspires you to go beyond what may be expected of you as actors and become multi-hyphenates?

Nash: The thing that is expected of you is the thing that you expect of yourself, and I don’t ever like to stop growing and learning, especially not in my art. Let’s figure it out. I feel like, “What is the next rung?” I’ve been able to comedy, I’ve been able to do drama, I wrote a book, I hosted a TV show, I was a dancing star, what’s left? Directing, yes, yes! I always want to evolve to whatever the next thing is.

Moore: Yeah, and I feel like I have this platform and this position, and I’m a woman, and I want to see more women helmed projects and women led projects, and I have a point of view, so I’m so excited to dip my toe into that world if the opportunity presents itself. And why not? I agree, it’s about never stop evolving, pushing yourself, growing. This is totally uncharted waters, but I’m excited.

“The thing that is expected of you is the thing that you expect of yourself.”
Niecy Nash

Nash: And you do the thing that scares you.

Moore: Yes!

Nash: Always, always, always. Every time. You feel the fear and you jump because playing it safe and playing it small doesn’t feel like an option.

Moore: I did it for a long time. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m over that. I’m beyond that.

Nash: And that is the one thing I don’t think people give themselves enough permission to do: to simply change your mind. At one point I was vegan and people were like, “Why?” “Because I don’t want to eat meat anymore, that’s why.” You’ve always got a right to change your mind in all ways.

To bring it back to the shows, in different ways they deal with very serious issues and multiple versions of trauma. Have you been inspired by your work on the shows to do some work towards these things in real life?

Nash: I have. The day I wrapped I said, “I have to figure out a place to serve, to show up,” and I ended up becoming an ambassador for the Innocence Project. I had to.

Moore: Their work is just mind-blowing.

Nash: I had to do something to lend my platform and my time to others that have been wrongfully convicted because while a light is shining on the Exonerated Five, there are so many people that experience that same thing, so that’s what I felt led to do.

Moore: It’s hard because there’s not one issues that’s akin to that, but I think being a part of a show like this can’t help but make you a wildly sympathetic person and open to having conversations with people on the street.

Nash: I knew you were going to say that! People come up to you and want to tell you all of their stories.

Moore: Like you’re a therapist. The vulnerability that people are willing to have with a stranger, I’m sure they feel like they know us, but they’re willing to share deeply personal, private things about reconnecting with a father or abuse that they suffered. It’s staggering, and I’m so grateful to be a part of something that is on a macro level allowing people to have these conversations, not just with us necessarily on the street but with their own friends and family members. These aren’t conversations that are easy to have, but that’s what’s most gratifying. And the togetherness that it brings. I never thought that I’d be a part of something like that. And obviously it’s just a television show — it’s not real life, like yours — but there is something wholly uniting that I love in this fractured world that we live in with so much chaos and division.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Nash: Sometimes the real men were on set, and from getting to know them there and while doing press, it will never be the same, but you do feel like this process is restorative. Like you were talking about, with all of the craziness in the world and all of the craziness they experienced, people come up to them and love on them, and man, it’s something to see!

Moore: I can’t imagine.

When you’re working in those environments and doing those extra emotional scenes, is any part of it therapeutic for you, or do you need to do something to shake it off when you’re done?

Nash: I need to take it off. It was a lot. It was the only project I’ve ever been on where they provided crisis counselors for us if we needed it.

Moore: Oh wow.

Nash: If you think about sitting in a courtroom and watching these children carried off into God knows what’s going to happen — Korey [Wise] was actually taken from the courtroom into Rikers at 16. You’re doing that scene 10 to 12 hours a day. As soon as they say, “That’s a wrap on the day,” you cry your real tears. What I was doing in there were acting tears; these are my real tears. I have to take it off.

Moore: Same. It’s definitely cathartic, and that’s the great trick of our job is we’re able to infuse parts of our life into our job and make sense of things or at least bring it to the table. But I find it harder to shake it off then to get there — because you’re kind of on a simmer all day when you’re in that frame of mind in that place, and you are low-key hanging out in this suspended reality of discomfort. I need to sit with myself for a little bit, sometimes I need to talk to somebody, sometimes it’s a glass of wine, sometimes it’s music that you love, sometimes it’s the hour drive back home, but you need to do something to take it off.

Your on-screen sons are also nominated [Jerome is up for lead limited series/TV movie actor, while Sterling K. Brown is seeing his third consecutive nom in lead drama actor]. How do you feel your off and on-screen dynamics serve and elevate each other?

Nash: Jharrel and I were essential for one another, and our connection in the art was instant. I looked right in his eyes and he looked right back at me, “Let’s do this.” And then I feel like I didn’t know how to take that off – that he was mine. He was the only actor who played himself as a teenager and as an adult, and he had to gain weight, and I’m not even in my costume yet like, “Did you eat? Did you get enough? Do you need anything?” Korey’s mother was the only one who visited him in prison, so it was extremely important, and we really fed off each other.

Moore: I feel unendingly lucky that I get to share scenes with every iteration of our kids; they’re all exceptional humans and performers. But especially with the adults, because I probably spend more time with them, you can’t not bring your A-game when you’re working with those people. It’s just not possible.

Nash: I’ve got one more question: Are you planning on preparing a speech?

Moore. No. Are you?

Nash: No. The first two times I was nominated I had a great speech — at least I thought it was great — but I didn’t get to say it. But this time I’m not doing anything, just find a pretty dress and hang out.

Moore: Why don’t you take some iteration of the speeches you did before and infuse it into a new one?

Nash: This is a true story. I wrote a speech like 20 years ago, and I put it on the refrigerator with my kids’ little ABC magnets, and people would come to my house, “Can I get some juice?” “Go look in the refrigerator.” “Who’s speech is this?” “Mine.” “Well, for what award? Are you getting something?” “One day. I just want to be ready.”