‘I Think We Can Do More:’ Jasika Nicole On How Hollywood Needs To Truly Embrace Diversity

Claire J. Savage

“I will say that this is the very first role on television that I played a queer person and I have been doing this for almost 20 years. The fact that this is the first time, that is so telling to me — and the funny thing is, I don’t know what it’s telling me, but it’s telling me something that I don’t really like.”

By her own admission, Jasika Nicole has “a lot to say.” Her outspokenness is important; she is one of only a handful of openly queer, Black, biracial actors working in film and television — an industry known to favor cisgender white men and to perpetuate certain ideas of “femininity” and womanhood. Nicole has worked steadily in the industry since landing her first gig on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” back in 2005. She played Astrid Farnsworth on the hit show “Fringe,” Dr. Carly Lever on “The Good Doctor,” and Georgia in the series “Underground.” She’s also appeared in “Major Crimes,” “Scandal,” and is the Audio Book Award-winning narrator of the fiction podcast, “Alice Isn’t Dead.” 

Most recently, Nicole’s been cast in the reboot of “Punky Brewster” as Lauren, the girlfriend of Punky’s best friend, Cherie (played by series original Cherie Johnson). The reboot, which premiered on Peacock on February 25th, features the protagonist (series original Soleil Moon Frye) all grown up and a divorced mother who co-parents with her ex (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) The updated version continues with the show’s original theme, emphasizing the importance of “found” family while incorporating the same-sex relationship between Cherie and Lauren.   

Recently, Nicole spoke candidly with GO about her new show, the enduring power of nostalgia, her quest for sustainable fashion, and her vision for a TV and film industry that subverts the power structures of Hollywood. 

The interview has been excerpted for content and clarity. 

GO Magazine: In the reboot of “Punky Brewster,” you play Lauren, who’s the girlfriend of Brewster’s best friend, Cherie. What can you tell us about the role and about the decision in the show to portray a same sex couple?

Jasika Nicole: There is no episode in the show where Punky explains to her kids what gayness is and that Cherie is gay, which I certainly appreciate, because it’s not a conversation that everybody has to have. That means to me that Punky explained to her kids very early on what different love looks like between different people. So it was never an ‘Alright, so now we have to be nice to Lauren, she’s one of us.’ I think there was a time in television where they did have to have episodes, like “a very special episode” where somebody comes out. And I would hope that we have moved past that in most communities and know that we all work with and live with and love and have family members who are members of the LGBTQIA community. 

I never talked to the writers about it, but I would imagine that one of the reasons that they did decide to include a same sex romantic relationship on the show is because the original “Punky” was so rooted in the concept of chosen and found family. Punky’s character is a foster kid because her mom suffers from addiction and is unable to take care of her. And then she meets Cherie and Cherie’s being raised by her grandma. So the whole show was kind of rooted in this idea that non-traditional families exist but they aren’t any less than what a traditional nuclear family looks like. 

GO: What about the reboot is relevant for us today in 2021?

JN: You know, I really didn’t think that it was initially. I think it was because [in] the past few years, there have been so many reboots of old shows. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a huge watcher of the other shows but I was like, ‘They’re doing this one again, what’s the big deal? Why can’t we come up with new stuff?’ It wasn’t until Punky was rebooted that I realized you get to grow up with this family and with these characters, and you get to learn things through the show that they share with you as a kid, and now you get to be an adult and see that they are also adults. It’s almost like a reunion. I told somebody it was like a high school reunion but one that you actually want to show up to. And it does feel really significant to be like, ‘Oh, look, it’s 30 years later. Where’s everybody now? Where am I now?’ 

When I was a kid and I watched the show, I definitely was a Cherie because I was such a rule follower. But I wanted to be a Punky because I thought she was really cool and I appreciated how outstanding she was. She kind of just danced to the beat of her own drum, and she didn’t care what other people thought of her. And I admired that when I was a kid. That was not me at all, because I was a biracial Black kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. So everything about me was already marching to the beat of its own drum, and I just wanted to assimilate. Now, as an adult, I can look back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I am so much more of a Punky now.’ I think that there are lots of parts of me that are still Cherie and are still kind of by the book because I, for better or worse, am a people pleaser and a rule follower. But that’s what happens when you grow; hopefully, you keep the best parts of you [from] when you’re a kid. And you also learn more things about yourself. 

There’s some sort of disconnect when you are working on a show, especially if it’s new. 

There’s a bit of a disconnect when you’re doing it, because you’re just going to work. It’s hard to explain that to people who aren’t in the entertainment business, but it is a job. There are moments that are really fun and exciting. But for the most part, it feels like a job. We filmed the show and had a good time, hung out and kind of made this little family for ourselves. But it wasn’t until last week, I was doing an interview and I saw a clip of the show that they showed beforehand. I hadn’t seen any clips before and my heart really melted. All the feelings that I had as a kid when I would hear that theme song, they kind of came rushing back. I felt so proud of Punky. It was funny to have had that experience so long after we finished shooting the show.  There’s something about nostalgia; nothing can ever quite compare to the way that your skin feels, and you get chills when you see something that you remember. It just kind of shoots you back to being six or seven years old. 

GO: That’s probably the experience a lot of people in the audience would feel, too. On a show like this, that has nostalgic appeal and can get people emotionally invested, why is it important that they do portray characters who are biracial or have different races and are in same sex relationships? 

JN: I think that it is because in the 80s it would have been unfathomable to have a queer character, or queer characters, who are out and loving each other and it’s not a big deal. That just wouldn’t have flown in the 80s. Even talking about interracial relationships felt really uncomfortable and weird, and it was only done every once in a while on TV. And when they did it, I was always like, ‘This is terrible. Just abandon the storyline.’ I’d rather not do it at all than do it poorly. But I think that it’s very telling that it has taken 30 years for television networks to feel comfortable getting to this point. Obviously, it was a slow climb to this point, it didn’t happen overnight. But it feels exciting. And I will also say that I still think that we can do more. I still think that having queer characters is really fantastic. But I don’t think that it has the same kind of power if you’re not really digging into the stories. TV, especially sitcoms, has a tendency to paint the world so that it feels like everything is easy all the time. Everything kind of gets wrapped up at the end of the episode. And we obviously know that that isn’t what real life is. So a part of me really applauds the idea of having these queer characters on the show. I think it’s very important. And I also want to continue to push the envelope and talk about what it means to be two black women who are in love with each other, and how does that affect their work environments? How does their family feel about it? I think that there’s a way to do that that feels realistic, and still has the energy of a sitcom because people watch sitcoms to escape from the deep, dark places of the world. I think that there is a balance that can be found there. I hope that they continue to reach for it.

GO: Before “Punky” you played Dr. Lever on “The Good Doctor.” How did you respond to that character?

JN: I loved Dr. Carly Lever so much. She’s one of my favorite characters that I’ve played. She’s really smart and opinionated and strong. I think that non-black people don’t recognize this that often, but those roles are so difficult to come by. I was on a show called “Fringe” for five years. Essentially, my job title was an FBI agent, but I basically was a babysitter for this doctor who had a lot of stuff going on with him and needed to be taken care of. People loved that character so much — her name was Astrid Farnsworth, she was the fan favorite of the show at Comic Cons all the time. I’ve never, ever, ever, ever heard a bad word about this character. People loved her. Then years later I came to “The Good Doctor,” where I’m playing what I think is a really brilliant character who was, again, really smart and opinionated. She works in STEM, which you don’t get to see in television that often, Black women working in STEM. And people hated her. I was astonished at first because I was like, ‘How could you possibly hate this character?’ She might make mistakes, but she tries to grow. She’s a really good communicator.  So the fact that people had such a visceral negative reaction to this character, it absolutely confounded me. I just couldn’t get it. And then I realized: It’s because she’s not playing a subservient character. People loved Astrid because she was essentially taking care of all the white people on the show. Anytime somebody needed help she would always come through, figuring out the thing that needed to be done to help them. She was a nanny-type character. She was a Magical Negro-type character. And then on “The Good Doctor,” she wasn’t that at all, and people could not handle it. It was really disappointing for me to have gotten a role where I’m finally playing the romantic lead on a network TV show — that’s such a big deal, not only for a Black woman that’s on a show with a white protagonist, but also for a queer woman of color. This was huge for me. And the experience was so tainted by the reaction of the audience members. It’s tough. You try and tell yourself, this is your job, and you just do your job, and who cares how they feel about it. But of course, television doesn’t exist without the audience watching it.

GO: What has your favorite role been of your stage, film, or television productions? What has been your favorite character to play?

JN: I really, really liked playing Georgia in the show “Underground.” Georgia was an abolitionist, she was a white-passing woman who had inherited money from her slave-owning father, and decided to assimilate into white society, but only under the condition that she would use the power that she had to try and free as many people as possible. So her home was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. And I would say, in general, that show was really tremendous. But I really liked that character because it’s one of the first times that I’ve seen a network television show try and deal with colorism, try and deal with the nuances of what it means to be Black. And obviously, that was a special story, because it was taking place in the past. But so many of those issues, I think are still relevant today.

GO: You have the blog, “Try Curious,” on which you showcase clothing that you’ve made yourself. What made you interested in making your own clothes and putting that out into the world?

JN: Well, I have always loved fashion. I would say [I] probably felt some guilt about it because the patriarchy tells us that to be so invested in how you look means that you’re shallow and you don’t have anything more important going on in your life, even though they’re the ones that tell us that our value is in how you look. Once I started working a lot, and going to events, and having to wear a new thing each time and being introduced to this lifestyle that was so different from how I grew up — because I grew up pretty poor. I grew up shopping in secondhand stores and sharing clothes with my mom and getting hand-me-downs — I was like, ‘How is this a thing that’s okay?’ It’s so not sustainable. And so I started thinking about sustainability and what does fashion mean to me, and how do you participate in fashion, if it’s something that you love, but not have such a negative imprint on the world? It was making clothes, basically. I started with the indie patterns and fell in love with them and started an Instagram account where I would get to meet other sewists and we would talk about things. It’s a community where everybody wants everybody else to be successful. 

GO: As a Black woman, as a biracial woman, and as a queer woman, how have those different identities impacted or influenced the roles you’ve gotten? Or haven’t gotten?

JN: I really don’t know, because I’ve been out pretty much my whole career. So I don’t really have anything to compare it to. I certainly have ideas. But the thing is, nobody ever says, ‘We’re not going to give you this role because you’re this or you’re this.’ You kind of end up having to look at context clues and figure things out for yourself. There are times when I know I didn’t get that role because I’m queer. I don’t know for sure. It’s just a feeling that you have. It’s like a sense that you develop, I think, if you are a part of any marginalized community; you are super sensitive to coded language and certain things that happen. There were a few years where I just wasn’t getting a lot of work, and I was tracking who was booking the auditions that I was getting because I thought it might give me some insight into, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ I had to stop doing it at one point because they were either always white or always straight, every single time, and it was so disheartening. I couldn’t look at my career through that lens, because it would make me not want to do it anymore. It was just really depressing, honestly. I will say that this is the very first role on television that I played a queer person and I have been doing this for almost 20 years. The fact that this is the first time, that is so telling to me — and the funny thing is, I don’t know what it’s telling me, but it’s telling me something that I don’t really like. 

GO: If you do start tracking the roles and you realize, wait a minute, they’re all going to white women and straight women, that does tell you something.

JN: It totally does. 

GO: And that needs to change. If there’s anything about the industry that you could change, if you had the ability, what would it be?

JN: The main thing I would want to change would be to have actual queer, disabled, fat, neurodivergent, and people of color in positions of power. I think that you can write as many roles and put as many relationships in your television shows as you want to, but if these people from marginalized communities aren’t actually making the decisions, nothing is going to change. Those characters can get written off, as we have seen, those relations can disintegrate. It’s so easy for you to get the big pat on the back and the applause for writing a queer character in there. But nobody follows up and says, ‘How is that queer character treated? Do they end up dead?’ because obviously, that is a huge trope in the gay community. I feel like if there were people in positions of power that it means more to them to make sure that you are telling a realistic story that isn’t harmful to these communities. 

And then the other thing that I wish would change would be for– I don’t even know how to say this. The Me, Too movement was a big deal. But it’s still happening. You have to have a really big name and have a lot of power, I think, and have a contact at a big news publication for people to take you seriously and for it to get the attention that it deserves. 

GO: You have spoken about using your own platform as an actor and as a performer to give voice to people who don’t have a voice or whose voices aren’t valued. How do you do that as a performer?

JN: You know, I don’t know how good I am at it. But one thing that I have learned is that it’s really important to highlight issues and experiences that might be outside of what I have experienced, because I can talk all day about racism and homophobia and the experience that I have had in my life. But there’s so much beyond that is just as significant, and I’ve learned that it’s important to amplify those other voices, not speak over them. Sometimes when you learn about something, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so angry on behalf of this community of people.’ If anything, I just want to be a segue to introduce people to new concepts that they’re not familiar with. A lot of people that follow me aren’t super up to date on colorism or are only just now understanding the effects of fat phobia in our culture [or] that ableism is certainly not a new thing. And so all I can hope to do is just educate people and say, ‘Look, you can learn more about it, go listen to this person, go check out this person.’ I understand why some people say, ‘I don’t want the responsibility of educating all these people.’ And I don’t think that anybody should automatically have that responsibility. I think that responsibility should be something that feels very purposeful. Not everybody needs to be a social justice warrior. But I do think that it’s important to know, what are you on social media for? What impact do you want to have with people? If it’s just to highlight what your next project is, then that’s totally fine. But be very clear and upfront about that with your followers. If you’re going to have that power, you should be fully aware of it and understand how to or how not to use it.

GO: Can you tell us a little about your work with Project Q?

JN: Project Q is awesome. I love them so much. It’s helmed by Madden Lopez, who is a non-binary hairstylist, and they have always had this dream to have a community space. It started out where they souped up this van, and they would go out to the streets — because the majority of unhoused people in most metropolitan cities are LGBTQ youth — so they would go out and they would give them free haircuts, people who were living on the streets. A haircut can obviously change not just your whole day and how you feel about yourself, but it makes you look presentable, so that you are able to try and find housing, try and find a job. Then they started doing tours around the country; they would go into the south, and stop in neighborhoods where they knew there were a lot of unhoused queer youth, and they would give them free haircuts. Now they’ve been able to open up their actual own salon, here in Chinatown. It is also, on the weekends, a community space for anybody who wants to come. They try and target unhoused youth of color, but they don’t shut their door to anybody who comes by. I’ve done workshops for them. I brought a bunch of leather and taught them how to make some accessories, like earrings or little bracelets. We’ve done sewing classes together, we’ve done embroidery together. And we’re literally 30 people in the salon and we’re all on the floor, there’s fabric everywhere and hammers and we’re just having a good time. They do a lot of events about self care, how to have safe sex events, how to cook for yourself. All this stuff that I think a lot of people take for granted, people who have not been forced to live on the streets, people who have had their families be a part of their lives. It shouldn’t be a privilege, but it’s a privilege. And so Madden is just trying to show up for their community in a way that feels sustainable and lasting. I started getting my hair cut with them when I moved to LA, which was like six or seven years ago, and I’ve seen [Madden] grow in each new stage. They really just want to take care of the people in the community who don’t get taken care of. 

GO: What else can you tell us about the new “Punky Brewster?” 

JN: Punky and her husband, who’s played by Freddie Prinze Jr, are divorced but they’re still really good friends, and they still co-parent together. And I think that that is a really significant thing to see in television, too. I remember when I was a kid, because my parents were not together, I was going to see my dad every other weekend. You just feel like you’re the only person in the world that has to deal with it. And obviously now I know that I wasn’t, it’s pretty common. But we don’t often get to see what co-parenting looks like in two different households in a positive way. And so that’s a really big part of the season is seeing how Punky and Travis navigate having these kids and making them feel special and seen but also taking care of themselves as adults, because that’s a part of being a parent: Figuring where you end and where your child ends and where your parenthood starts and where your self care starts. So I think that that is something that audiences will really connect to as well.

The new “Punky Brewster” is available to stream on Peacock

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