Jasika Nicole on Breaking Barriers, Playing Roles That Matter

Jasika Nicole on Breaking Barriers,

Playing Roles That Matter

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Through her newest role, actress Jasika Nicole is looking back to look forward.

“I play the coolest character ever,” says Nicole, who plays a woman named Georgia, who runs a boarding house (and stop on the Underground Railroad) in the show, Underground, which boasts an impressive viewership of 6 million each week. “She’s the head of a sewing circle that’s really a front for women to be politically active and to talk about how to abolish slavery,” says Nicole. “In that time you didn’t really see many black women who owned a house or had a business. It wasn’t a reality for people of color in that time, and I love that this dialogue is bringing the story into the picture.”

All pictures of Jasika Nicole by Robin Roemer

Nicole’s character, who is the daughter of a slave and a slave owner, teaches other women how to use guns and fight for their freedom, and serves as a personal inspiration.

“I don’t see [the African American experience] in mainstream entertainment,” says Nicole. “I have a personal relationship to it; but there are so many different black experiences. We always get dumped into one experience. We are in a diaspora and I love that this show is bringing that to light.”

Nicole, who has a black dad and white mom, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she said racial tensions were high. “It’s still so segregated and antiquated in a lot of the roles people have in that city. I left home to go to college in North Carolina, then in New York. Each time I returned, I felt more and more different. I felt I was having to squeeze myself into who I was there and I wasn’t that person anymore.”

Nicole says she had an even more nuanced racial experience due to being biracial, and thus was treated differently from her black friends and family.

“As an adult processing my childhood, I realize I am still unpacking a lot of it,” says Nicole. “I was influenced largely by my environment which was almost all white, and anti-black. I understood that my light skin and the fact that I was biracial gave me the point of view that a lot of black girls my age didn’t have, in terms of how others treated us. People would tell me I was pretty, but it was because I have lighter skin. They weren’t saying that to my black cousin.”

“Racism is so insidious that even though my mother has black children she’s not free of its entanglements.”

Eventually Nicole would move to New York with the intention of performing in musical theater. From there she booked a few off-broadway plays, a show in Philadelphia, and eventually larger television roles like playing Agent Astrid Farnsworth on the Fox series Fringe.

Jasika Nicole courtesy of WGN America

“In television and film you can completely get edited out, so I’ve learned to accept that the work I do [in the moment] is my work. Whatever happens after that, who cares? It’s not mine after I film my scene.”

When discussing the entertainment industry as a whole, Nicole says she considers herself lucky to have the ability to star in films and shows that are meaningful.

“It is a real privilege to be able to pick and choose the roles that you get,” says Nicole. “Usually that [creative freedom] is limited to a select group of super famous females with a lot of money and most of whom are white. It’s been a really hard thing to navigate. These three markers are hard to fill: Doing projects so you can pay your bills, feeling creatively inspired, and feeling proud of the work you are doing. This is the first big project that hits all of them. I’d be lucky for another show like this.”

Nicole, who describes herself as “queer,” says that being a role model for the LGBT community is something that she takes seriously, but it doesn’t come easily.

“I identify as a queer woman and it feels like a double whammy sometimes,” she says. “I don’t think the writing in mainstream media reflects what my life is like. It doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t feel the same, in terms of race, culture, religious background and the stories they are telling. A lot of TV and film have introduced a bi or lesbian woman character only to kill them off. It happens so much.”

In terms of her own acceptance of her sexuality, Nicole says it took time to come to terms with it. “I wasn’t out because all I knew was that I needed to go on a date with a girl to see what it felt like. When I finally did, I heard birds singing. It finally made sense. I had always been ambivalent about romance and for the first time [I felt something]. I came out after my first date with a woman.” Although she didn’t end up with this woman, Nicole met her now wife, Claire, shortly thereafter. “At that point I didn’t have anything to lose by coming out,” says Nicole. “For me, because my relationship with Claire was so new, and I was just so proud of it that I couldn’t imagine putting it back in the box. She was too good to keep a secret.”

It was around that time that Nicole began booking television roles, and began making a name for herself on the small screen. “I had no idea I was going to be in TV and film,” says Nicole. “I thought I was going to have a career in musical theater and no one cares who you’re sleeping with in musical theater.”

When asked what advice she has for actors in today’s complex world, Nicole says it’s all about staying true to values. “I would say that the thing that has kept me most level is to have a really strong idea about who I am outside this industry,” she says. “This industry wants to own you. You don’t have to play that game. Make sure you stay solid for who you are. Don’t make compromises for [on your beliefs]. This industry can be tricky. There are misogynists, racists, homophobes, and all these bad things but I’m still a part of it. It’s a fine balance.”

In her spare time, Nicole says you can find her sewing or knitting (she is wearing all clothing she made herself in the images in this story), and working on side projects like her indie flick – Suicide Kale – a dark comedy that tells the story of three women of color.

“My hope is that one day someone would look at me on screen and say ‘I look like her’ or ‘I’m queer like her,’” says Nicole, who is currently filming her second season of Underground. “That’s representation. That’s what I didn’t have when I was growing up. I didn’t have a mirror to see myself in the world. I’m hoping to do more good.”

Suicide Kale, which won the audience award at Outfest LA, can be viewed on Suidicekale.com and on ITunes. Underground can be viewed on WGN and on Hulu, and to follow Nicole, go to Jasikatrycurious.

The Quick 10

1. What app do you most use?

Instagram.

2. What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Drink a cup of hot water with fresh lemon and ginger.

3. Name a business mogul you admire.

Heather Lou of the indie sewing pattern company Closet Case. She isn’t a “mogul” per se, but she is an entrepreneur with a successful small business who is changing the lives of people the world over in small, meaningful ways. I appreciate how her art and craftsmanship have manifested into something she can create for and share with people.

4. What product do you wish you had invented?

The electric car.

5. What is a food you never get sick of?

Peanut butter and I eat it almost every single day.

6. What is your life motto?

“Live a trycurious life.”

7. Name your favorite work day snack.

If I’m in a healthy mood, chopped up jicama and green apples with chilli pepper, salt and lime juice sprinkled on top. If I’m being lazy, a bag of Doritos.

8. What’s something that’s always in your bag? 

Bobby pins.

9. What’s the most inspiring place you’ve traveled to?

Amsterdam.

10. Desert Island. Three things, go: 

A knife, peanut butter, and a solar powered kindle loaded up with thousands of books.

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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