After almost thirty years you would think you know someone. That seemed to be the case with actress Niecy Nash-Betts who has graced our screens for almost three decades. While she has consistently entertained and made us laugh on series such as Reno: 911!, The Rookie franchise and dozens of others, it is eye-opening her work on Netflix limited series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story that has people seeing her in a new light.
In the challenging limited series, Nash-Betts plays Glenda Cleveland a neighbor of the infamous serial killer (played by Evan Peters) whose pleas for help go left unanswered, even worse dismissed by the people meant to protect and serve. The limited series avoids glorifying the heinous crimes by shifting the focus on to the victims and those who affected by a system that failed them.
Before the SAG/AFTRA strike announcement, Niecy spoke with Awards Radar about her work on the series. The conversation extended into fascinating subjects ranging from the unusual way the actress became involved in the Ryan Murphy series, the challenges for her with such a heavy role, to how same flaws in the system exist today, and much more. (Listen to our conversation in its entirety at the end of this article.)
When approached about the role she took it based on the reputation of the series creator and showrunner Ryan Murphy alone. It was not until she read the script that she understood the impact it would have on her and others. Nash-Betts recalled those moments. “So when Ryan Murphy called and he goes, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing I want you to do.’ I just said, ‘Okay,’ and then later, I got the scripts. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Ryan Murphy will forever have me and ‘Hello.’ But next time, I’m gonna say, I’m gonna read I’m still gonna say yes, but let me at least read it first,” said Nash-Betts.
It was obvious to Nash-Betts that Murphy’s handling of the would be unique. “I feel like the way this series differs from others that have tackled the same story is that you really get to know the victims. This is more about their story, and you enter through the lens of the neighbor, Glenda Cleveland. And you track the story that way, it’s not so much about the sensational part in as much as it’s about the collateral damage.”
Glenda, like many of the people involved with the case were invisible before, Dahmer and Nash-Betts told their stories. “I didn’t know any of them. The victims were nameless and faceless.,” explained Nash-Betts. “And now through Ryan’s storytelling, I understand who these people are. I was able to give a voice to a woman that had gone unheard for so long.”
We can only wish that these stories of unequal treatment were rare, but as the actress expressed, “the themes that are prevalent in Dahmer are themes that are being played out today. Black and brown people being underserved, but over policed. Marginalized communities getting the worst when it comes to their communication with law enforcement. The ideas of this story are not old, they could be ripped from the headlines today.”
She continued, “Then why don’t you then for good measure, go ahead and layer in homophobia. If that wasn’t the case, if Jeff Dahmer wasn’t living his privilege, he would not have been able to commit these crimes for so long. There’s so many parts about this story that still happen in the world today. That makes it timeless, almost, which is also unfortunate.”
The role of Glenda allowed the actress to tap into different parts of herself. “I feel like Glenda kind of represents an everyman in a way, especially in black and brown communities; because you know that neighbor, you know that person who was just trying to do the right thing,” said Nash-Betts. “I get a lot of people talking to me about my performance. Because for so long, they knew me as a comedian. I was filming Dahmer and Reno 911! at the same time. People were more familiar with me doing comedic type work. So them seeing me in this light has been eye opening. It’s like, ‘Wow! We didn’t even know you could do that.’ So there’s a lot of appreciation for the depth and the level in order to bring Glenda forward.”
For Nash-Betts putting herself in the shoes and mindset of Glenda was necessary for her performance, but the affects lingered long after her time on set. “Everything that you are putting out on screen is coming through your instrument. It’s living in your body while you’re present to it so you don’t walk away from work like that and not feel changed,” she explained. “I came home and I tell my children, ‘You speak your truth, even if your voice shakes, and you don’t stop until somebody starts to listen.'” She continued, “There are things that you, when you walk away from a character, they can be like marrow to the bone. There is there something that you walked away with that will change you forever.”
Watch Niecy Nash- Betts in Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story streaming exclusively on Netflix and listen to much more of our conversation (above).