AE: Which is interesting because when I talked to Mindy at TCA, she basically said that same thing — that she grew up watching shows with non-Indian people and could still enjoy them, so you would think straight people could still enjoy a show led by a queer character.
JN: With all the fan fiction that exists out there, you have an entire queer community that are watching heterosexual love stories and coming up with their own stories between characters of the same sex. Give them something to feed off of and get excited about. There’s so much of that out there you would think there could be a real show dedicated to showing some different types of relationships and it doesn’t have to be marketed to the queer community, the gay community, the lesbian community, the trans community, obviously. Everybody would be able to find something in it if it was a well-written show. That’s entirely possible but it takes people to step into positions of power to bring that stuff about.
AE: Does it make you want to write something?
JN: It does make me want to write. And the thing is that I can’t imagine I would be a good writer for television or film, so maybe I’d have to step into a producing role. I was just talking to Claire the other night and we were talking about what project, if I could have a dream project I would be excited about. It would just be a story about a minority, whether she’s black, Asian, Native whatever! Who is living her life and it’s funny and she’s being funny and there aren’t terrible awful scary things happening to her and she’s just living a regular life, like everybody I know who is a member of a minority community. And she can date girls. It doesn’t seem like it’s asking too much. It’s a very normal story to have. But the television world makes it seem like it’s such a big deal and there’s so much baggage that comes with it. So maybe I’m just gonna have to pitch a show or something and then produce it. Like Mindy Kaling! She’s the showrunner, writer and star of the show and she had to come up with the idea herself so maybe that’s the way we get in to show our stories that aren’t getting air time.
AE: I thought of you when that whole Newsweek debacle happened where someone wrote gay actors couldn’t play straight, because you have played straight characters. What did you think about that?
JN: It’s just ridiculous. I can barely even come up with a retort because it’s such an antiquated idea and it’s also what has kept so many actors from coming out. That voice is in their head thinking nobody believes that you can be a gay person and play a straight role. Every time we’ve had a gay role in television or film for the last however many years, it’s most often played by a straight person and nobody says “Well that’s not believable. You’re straight!” We’re actors, that’s what we do!
I don’t think it’s appropriate for actors to be playing other ethnicities – I don’t think that’s cool, but I do think that everything else is totally game. That’s somebody’s notion. I remember reading some stuff about – it must have been on IMDB before I stopped reading my IMDB page. It wasn’t benefitting me in any way and it was kind of like a trainwreck you couldn’t stop reading. It was like “Oh, I love this actor and she’s really great.” And then somebody said “Well did you know that she’s gay?” And then the conversation turns to “I thought I could tell she was gay.” All these things like “There was something about her that I knew!” Which it’s fine, I’m happy to be recognized as a member of the LGBTQ community anyway, but I just don’t believe that. I don’t buy it. The character doesn’t have enough lines for you to have a hint of what her sexuality is. So that’s their own stereotypes or projections that are coming into play. And it’s completely ludicrous. Anybody can play any role that they want to if they’re a good enough actor.
AE: Have you ever been approached to play a lesbian character?
JN: I wish! Never! And then I’m like “Am I not out enough?” I thought it was supposed to be a big deal if you’re an actress and you’re out and you’re proud! Aren’t you supposed to be invited to guest star on Will & Grace and The L Word and stuff? [Laughs] I never got anything! And part of me thinks it’s fine, nobody is trying to make the fact that I’m gay a bigger deal than another actress is not gay, that she’s straight or something. So part of me appreciates that. But there’s another part of me that’s like “You guys, I’m here!” I want to be visible and be a voice that people can appreciate for any reason.
AE: Why aren’t there more women of color who are out?
JN: Girl, I do not know! And I know all the rumors and I don’t want to out anybody or anything. I want to respect people’s privacy but I also know how big a deal it is to have people that look like you be out and proud and vocal about stuff. It just makes me think about when I was growing up and for a very brief period of time actually questioned my sexuality when I was in my teens, it was literally as simple as “I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what it looks like to be a female of color that’s gay.” It made me feel like I would have been the first person in the entire world. Granted this was before the internet. But I think that things like the Tumblr community, all that stuff is really great for people who feel they’re alone in whatever city they’re in and that they’re absolutely not and they have a community. I just didn’t have anybody that was in the public eye that I could relate to. So you know what you do when that happens is you just squash it down and act like it’s not there and that ends up being really damaging later in your life when you’re at a point where you want to be honest about who you are and it could just be a very lonely thing and I think it’s the smartest decision I made was to move to New York because if I stayed in Alabama. I can’t say that I would be an out woman living in Birmingham, Alabama at this point!
AE: I remember we talked about this the first time I met you, but you initially came out in a New York Times article about your relationship. Why did you decide to do that?
JN: There’s this assumption I think that until people have a press release or they talk to a journalist about it or something that they’ve been closeted the whole time. And you and I know that’s so not true but I don’t know if the rest of the world, people who aren’t part of the community, if they really get that. Just because there’s a headline saying “So and so is out,” doesn’t mean they weren’t out to their family or friends for years and years and years.
So for me, I kind of was like — I met this girl and I was like “Oh I want to go on a date with this girl” so I called my mom and said “Mom, I’m going on a date with a girl. I don’t know how it’s going to go but I just want you to know it’s happening so just be prepared.” And my mom was like “Oh my god, tell me how it goes!” My mom was awesome. And so after that very first date I was like well I’m definitely not straight. I don’t know what other label I’ll be able to use but straight is not a label I can honestly use for myself anymore and that was like, really exciting. It wasn’t scary at all. And this was years before I got Fringe and years before I was getting any sort of solid work in television or film so I was just living my life. I dated girls and I’d had some, ugh, some rough relationships and then I met Claire and then I got Fringe, so in my head, that’s practically my whole adult life, really, is being an out woman. To the rest of the world, its’ like “Oh, oh what’s going on? Let’s talk about this! It’s so weird.”
Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
AE: But even if we know, as journalists, that someone is a lesbian or gay, we can’t write it unless they say they are, publicly. It’s a legality thing.
JN: The connotation of the word gay, it’s just so big and overwhelming and our society and it’s not easy. There’s nothing that’s assumed along those lines. It makes it weird for the journalist, it makes it weird for the people that are out and trying to have a conversation about it. So my manager that I’ve been with for years and years and years is a gay man and I’d probably been with him for three or four years by the time I got Fringe and so I don’t even really know how they knew about it honestly. Maybe they’d seen me and Claire at a party or something. Maybe I’d said “My partner Claire” because I’d mention her a lot in interviews. So somebody got wind of that at the New York Times and they’d called John and asked him if I was interested in being part of it and John called and asked me and he was like “Alright, if the New York Times wants to do an interview with you, then that must mean you’re on people’s radar, where as you weren’t necessarily before. How comfortable are you in this place? Like what does this mean to me?” And I appreciate he did that. He wasn’t making any assumptions and he wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and prepared for whatever may happen next. But for me, it was like, there’s not really an option here.
It’s so weird. It was just so weird! I couldn’t walk down the street and hold my partner’s hand and not… it felt like it would negate the relationship we were building together. We’d only been together for a couple years at that point. It felt like it would knock down everything I’d built with her. We’re two women in an interracial relationship trying to find our way in this world, trying to strip away all the baggage we have in this world, of the homophobic environments we grew up in and sort of meet each other in the middle and be happy and proud of each other. And so that’s why there was no question for it. It was like “of course I’ll do it!” She’s so important to me, she’s such a priority. And my relationship is a priority and this is the first relationship I’ve had with any human in the entire world that is healthy and exciting. That’s a reason to celebrate. And so the article comes out and I wasn’t even in it that much. I think I talked the guy’s ear off. I must have talked for two hours! And I was like “This is all the quote you got from me?!” I can’t believe they used our photo and there’s like one line about my manager was questioning me on if I wanted to be an out actress. Because I felt like I’d said so much more important stuff about the coming out process. I just wish they’d give me a little more of a voice in the article because most of the stuff in the article was speculating about if this person was gay and if they’d come out. And I was like “Why don’t you talk to people that actually are out?” But I was still happy to be a part of it and if my face is in that story, that’s a huge deal. Because like you said, there’s not a lot of brown female faces that you see. So if it’s mine out there I’m happy with it.
AE: Are you guys planning on getting married?
JN: We talk about it all the time. I was against marriage for such a long time, and she was too. It was very political. But in terms of having a family that’s recognized and being protected, I think it’s very important to have as much protection as a lesbian couple as we possibly can. I’m very frustrated right now still because I don’t think our options — it’s not marriage. It’s a gay marriage. It’s not the same as a regular marriage and I think couples deserves to have all the rights and protections that other couples have and it doesn’t need to have a qualifier in front of it. So a part of me really wants to wait until we are fully recognized but that could be me being stubborn and who knows how long it’s going to take for that to happen.
Fringe airs Friday nights on Fox.