We loved her on Fringe and Scandal, and we’ve listened to her enchanting voice as the narrator of the popular podcast “Alice Isn’t Dead.” Jasika Nicole is an actress, an artist, and a talented DIY adventurer who shares her passions for sewing and shoemaking on Instagram. But what’s been keeping her busy lately is her role on the groundbreaking WGN series Underground, which aired its season finale last night. I managed to catch up with Jasika to ask her about her character, Georgia, and she shared her thoughts on the historical significance of the show, what she’s learned about white-washing this part of American history, and how gay women of color are represented on TV.
AfterEllen.com: It’s been a while since we spoke with you here at AfterEllen. Since your time on Fringe and Scandal, you’ve taken on several projects, and now you’re starring in Underground. What do you enjoy most about this role and what drew you to it?
Jasika Nicole: I love being a part of Underground because it shares a story about slavery that is not presented through a white lens, as is typical of the genre when told through the media of film and tv. The characters are multi-dimensional and well rounded, and the writers have created incredibly complex female characters. The show presents POC and black characters with diverse histories and ways of navigating through the world, and at times, watching it feels like more of a history lesson than a simple source of entertainment.
AE: What quality in Georgia do you admire most, and do you relate to her in any way?
JN: The most obvious common trait we have is that we both sew; Georgia is the head of a “sewing circle” and I have been making all of my clothing for about 2 years now. Aside from that, Georgia stands strong in her belief systems and uses her voice and her privilege for good, but she is not incapable of compromise when it comes to tearing down white supremacy and abolishing slavery. I would like to think that I, too, am learning to be more flexible when it comes to taking action against systems of oppression- there is more than one way to do almost everything, and although we might be slow to come around, we are likely to get on board if it really will do some good.
AE: What is the atmosphere of the set like at Underground? How much interaction do you get to have with the writers?
JN: Despite the serious nature of our show, the original cast members have maintained a relatively light atmosphere for the production, so we joke around, have fun, get to know each other better in between takes. We all seem to feel the weight of the stories we are telling at different times, and everyone seems to be very respectful of each actor’s process. Our head writers and show creators, Mischa Greene and Joe Pokaski, are always on set with us, which is wonderful. I worked on a show where the writers and show runners were in another city and it made asking questions and making last minute changes to dialogue and visual details incredibly difficult. I personally think that having them on hand is one of the many things that has made the show so successful.
AE: As far as Underground’s historical significance, what do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
JN: I hope that audiences start to realize that our collective education about American history in the public school system is severely lacking. It was (and in many parts of the country continues to be) white-washed, and the narratives of women have been largely ignored. Underground is giving many of us the opportunity to challenge the rhetoric we have been taught all our lives and start to learn more about our histories outside of what the average school curriculum “taught” us.
AE: What do you think people misunderstand about this time in American history? Have you learned anything playing this character that you didn’t know before, particularly about the underground railroad?
JN: I have learned massive amounts, from what it physically feels like to wear historical replicas of the incredibly heavy and cumbersome clothing of the era, to how people communicated with each other without advanced technology and used their natural surroundings to leave messages and point to new routes. One of the most interesting things I learned was at Clexa Con when I spoke to a woman who was telling me about the research she did when examining archives of ship manifests from Europe that were bringing enslaved people to North America. She found that when there was a record of a revolt happening on one of the slave ships, it almost always had more women on it than men. Apparently this information had been around for a while but no one (presumably the white men who were documenting it) had ever made the correlation before. Black women were integral to the abolition of slavery in ways that the history books have not been teaching us, and it has made me feel incredibly empowered and inspired.
AE: Do you think there are more opportunities for women of color on TV and in film, than say, ten years ago? I’ve noticed there seem to be more roles for lesbian and bisexual women. But I want to ask, do you feel there are more opportunities both for black lesbian actors and also black lesbian characters?
JN: No, I do not. I think the 90s were a pinnacle for seeing black representation on television, but I haven’t felt that tv and film has come close to that since. Throughout my career I have felt waves where I was going on more auditions than what felt normal for me, and seeing more characters in the breakdowns that were specifically written as black or WOC, but that “wave” never lasts for long. When seeing non-white people on TV feels rote, then I will think there are more opportunities for us, but for now, I just feel like we go in and out of style in the eyes of Hollywood. They don’t think we have staying power no matter what the box office and the Nielsen numbers show. As far as sexual representation, I have never felt adequately represented as a queer woman of color on television or in film.
AE: What do you think TV gets right and wrong about lesbian/bi/queer women?
JN: I honestly haven’t seen any compelling queer women of color characters on TV. I’m not saying they don’t exist, I just haven’t watched whatever show they are on.
AE: What roles are most appealing to you? Do you feel drawn to southern characters to any extent, due to your southern roots, or is that not a factor?
JN: I don’t personally have a deep connection with growing up in the south, so no, I’m not drawn to southern characters. I don’t care where a character is from, I just want her to be written well and have other things going on in her life besides looking for/being in love.
AE: You have a significant following on the “Alice Isn’t Dead” podcast. Your voice is so lovely to listen to, by the way. Will you still continue with that?
JN: Aw, thank you. Part 2 of the show is airing now and I am still the narrator.
AE: You’re also an artist, a writer and illustrator, and owner of a handbag line. I even heard you’ve been known to make your own furniture. So you’ve really got so many projects going on! Is acting your first love? How do your other interests fit into your schedule?
JN: Acting for film and TV is definitely not my first love- I prefer performing in musicals. That’s why I moved to NYC. Acting is something that I feel very privileged to have been able to make a career out of, and I am thankful to have experienced so many amazing things because of it. But it is still a ‘job’ for me, and entails all the awesome and frustrating aspects of any other I have had. I try to fill up my free time with as many creative endeavors as possible, and right now I am very passionate about sewing and shoemaking. And yes, I made a lot of furniture and reupholstered a lot of chairs when we bought our house and started decorating it with a modest budget. I post all my makes and DIY adventures on instagram @jasikaistrycurious.
AE: Can you share a bit about your latest film, Suicide Kale?
JN: Our film Suicide Kale – we call the genre “mumblequeer” – has been on the festival circuit for over a year and has won way more awards than we ever thought possible. It’s a dark comedy starring queer women of color in the lead roles, and we are all very proud of it. The idea for the film came to my friend Brittani Nichols one day a couple of summers ago and we all thought it would be a fun project to work on together, never imagining that it would be good enough to share beyond the confines of our friends. It was filmed over a period of 5 days in my house and the final budget for the film topped out at about $4000- an indie in the truest sense of the word.