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From ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘Claws,’ a Look at the Strides Women Have Made on the Small Screen
July 28, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Niecy Nash and Michelle Dockery come from vastly different worlds. 

Nash (left), 46, was born and raised in Compton, Los Angeles, one of the more hardscrabble neighborhoods in a city known for its divisive racial enclaves. Among her other hats — comedian, actor, model, producer — Nash is the spokeswoman for MAVIS (Mothers Against Violence in Schools), founded by her mother after the 1993 shooting death of Nash’s younger brother, Michael. Nash is best known for playing brassy, outspoken, over-the-top characters like Det. Raineesha Williams in Reno 911! and driven nail-salon proprietor and would-be money launderer Desna Simms in TNT’s Claws, which was just renewed for a second season. Nash caught the acting bug while studying at California State University-Dominguez Hills, but basically, her background is the school of hard knocks.

Dockery (right), 35, was born 10 days before Christmas, 1981 in Rush Green, London in the UK, and is best known for playing Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey. Her new role is a world apart: drug-addicted, alcoholic con artist Letty Raines in TNT’s Good Behavior, renewed earlier this year for a second season, starting Oct. 15.

Dockery earned a UK Olivier Award nomination in 2009 for her performance in the play Burnt in the Sun and landed a film role in director Joe Wright’s period epic Anna Karenina in 2012. While still a teenager, she studied acting at London’s august Guildhall School of Music and Drama — est 1880 — and earned a gold medal for drama on graduation. She made her bones in the UK’s National Youth Theatre and made her professional debut at the Royal National Theatre. 

The Royal National Theatre is adjacent to both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, and it’s a long way from Compton.

They may be from vastly different worlds, and yet Nash and Dockery formed a common bond earlier this week during the summer meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif. when they appeared together on a Turner Television panel dubbed “TBS-TNT Leading Women of Comedy and Drama.” 

There was little comedy or drama in a wide-ranging discussion that also featured Search Party’s Alia Shawkat, Will’s Olivia DeJonge, People of Earth’s Nasim Pedrad, Claws showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, Animal Kingdom writer-producer Megan Martin and TNT programming chief Sarah Aubrey.

Instead, there was much thoughtful give-and-take about shared experiences being women in an industry still dominated by men, the road traveled and the road that lies ahead.

For all the talk of opportunities for women and visible minorities being more viable on the small screen than in feature films — and they are — there is still much work to do. Thanks to seminal, groundbreaking dramas like The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake, or even rat-pack comedies like Search Party and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this is the platinum age of television, but to many women, it still feels like a boys’ club.

Actors are playing a role — obviously — and it should come as no surprise that they’re often very different in person from the characters they play on TV. On this day, Nash was less over-the-top and in-your-face her security guard and would-be-murder-detective character in Scream Queens, and Dockery smiled easily and often — something Lady Crawley (right) wouldn’t be caught dead doing in Downton Abbey, unless it was to belittle and demean her younger sister Edith and make her feel even more miserable than she already was.

After Downton Abbey, and now with Good Behavior, Dockery sees herself making more of a mark in an industry that once seemed closed-off to women, especially behind the scenes. That’s key because it’s behind the scenes — at the studio level and in the writers’ room — where the important casting and tonal decisions are made. If women don’t seem to be getting a fair shake on screen, more often than not it’s because there are too few women writing and, especially directing and producing.

“It’s about breaking out of those boxes that, through time, we’ve been put in,” Dockery said. “I think, for me as an actress in this industry, I find myself being more aware of apologizing for an opinion that I have. Or I catch myself going, ‘I’m sorry, but can I just say,’ or, ‘I'm sorry. I just need to point out.’ And I think, ‘What am I apologizing for?  I have a voice and a brain.’ There's no reason to be afraid to speak out. It’s inspiring to see young actresses like Olivia (DeJonge, left) who have far more confidence than I did at your age.”

DeJonge, born in Australia and masking a strong Aussie accent to play Alice Burbage to Laurie Davidson’s William Shakespeare in the TNT drama Will, which focuses on the Bard during his early 20s, is just 19 — and barely 19 at that. She turned 19 in April.

“It’s inspiring to see that it is changing,” Dockery said. “We do have a long way to go, though. I feel that it's about finding that balance where we’re not talking about it anymore as if it’s two opposing sides.”

Good storytelling is just that, Dockery said. It’s not about gender or race, but good drama  — and comedy — has to reflect the world as it is.

“It’s about telling stories about people and individuals and allowing individuals to be individuals. I think that’s essentially what Good Behavior is about. It’s liberating to see a woman, this multifaceted woman, who isn’t just strong, badass, you know, all these terms that we use for strong women. She’s vulnerable, and she’s flawed, and she represents real women. And that’s what we aspire to do, isn’t it — represent society, in all its truths.”

Nash, despite her vastly different life experience and acting background, concurred. As an African-American woman, she found it doubly challenging not be typecast as a one-note performer who could play one type of person, and that’s it.

“When I entered the business,” Nash said, “the entertainment industry was very polite, but they said, ‘Dear, you have a lane. You do broad comedy. That's it. That's all.’ You know what I mean? ‘Need not apply anywhere else.’

“So, to now have the opportunity to thread that needle and have all the tricks that I have in my bag on display is wonderful. I mean,  I'm on the phone with Janine (Claws-showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois) sometimes in the middle of the night, like, ‘Where’s the funny? Help me find it!’ Because I want to stay true to my core fan base. But we have a gift in these shows that are able to be both dramatic and comedic.”

For her part, Barrois said the balance is for the viewer not to know whether they’re supposed to be laughing or crying.

“We have a murder happen,” Barrois said, “and then we have everybody cracking up at a crazy funeral. I think that’s where the coolness lies. There’s so much TV on, now. In order to break through, you have to do something original. And I think that’s what you’re seeing with these shows. They’re fresh, but it’s the storytelling that's fresh.”

“Yeah,” Nash said. “Ten years ago, you could have taken any of these stories and it would’ve been men leading the charge. And no one would have looked around. It would have been completely successful.

“The gift I have on Claws is that I am allowed to go into a back room or a bedroom with an actor that I have an intimate scene with and shut the door with him and say, ‘Let’s work through this, you and me, and figure this out,’ and then have our directors and our showrunner and everybody else come in to then see it. It has been lovely for me not to have to find that in front of a room full of people.

“You know, I started in this business 20 years ago, and what I see when I come on the set now doesn’t look today like it looked then.  We were all on the set of Claws the other day: myself, Janine, our showrunner. We had Victoria Mahoney, who is an African-American woman. We had Rashida Jones. We have all these amazing, beautiful, talented, well equipped black women leading the charge on this project, and for me, it was absolutely delicious. Because I've come in many times and been the only woman of color, and not seeing myself represented in the kinds of roles that I'm playing now. So it's definitely a gift. So — thank you.”

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