In 1993, Niecy Nash-Betts faced tragedy. Her 17-year-old brother, Michael Ensley, was shot and killed at his high school in California.
Nash-Betts has personally experienced the worst version of loss. That’s why when Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” was condemned by victims’ families, she had a unique perspective on the criticism.
“My brother was murdered on his high school campus. And you never forget,” Nash-Betts says through tears. “You’re reminded if you pass a cemetery, by a favorite song, a smell, memory, photo. If you have had a loved one die in a horrific way, it is going to be with you for the rest of your life, not just from a TV show, so the goal would be — how do people remember them? Hopefully, there is some solace in us introducing your loved ones to the world, and not just having them just be a faceless, nameless person connected to this case. That was what I prayed for.”
Dahmer killed 17 young men. He targeted gay men of color and preyed on his victims in an under-policed area of Milwaukee. Despite criticism around “Dahmer” — with victims’ families slamming Ryan Murphy’s limited series for putting the spotlight on the serial killer yet again — the show differed from past re-tellings of Dahmer’s crimes by showcasing the systemic racism and problematic police force that allowed Dahmer to get away with murder for so long.
All of the discourse surrounding the show made “Dahmer” one of Netflix’s most-watched shows of all time, surpassing one billion hours of viewing time in just 60 days, joining an elite club of hits like “Stranger Things” and “Squid Game.”
When asked why “Dahmer” became such a sensation, Nash-Betts isn’t quite sure. “It’s a phenomenon I didn’t see coming,” she says. But she believes the popularity has something to do with the enduring themes plaguing society today.
“This story is timeless. We are going backwards in our laws right now,” Nash-Betts says. “Today, there are people, based on just how they look, who are not believed and are abused, misused, taken advantage of and murdered, even by police. A lot of the themes of the series, you can go outside and find them right outside the front door.”
Nash-Betts draws a comparison to the police’s handling of Dahmer’s heinous crimes: “If there were Black and brown people doing all of these mass shootings today, gun reform would happen in a heartbeat. Systematic racism and differential treatment are still alive and well.”
In “Monster,” Nash-Betts is the heartbeat of the show, playing Glenda Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor who lived in the apartment next door where he killed most of his victims. After smelling an incessant foul stench and hearing unsettling noises, Cleveland called the police to alert them. Despite reporting Dahmer’s alarming behavior numerous times, the authorities turned a blind eye and refused to listen to Cleveland, a Black woman.
Nash-Betts did not take the weight of her role lightly, and knew that by portraying Cleveland, she was representing an entire community and history of Black women who have been ignored, unseen and unheard.
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about Glenda’s story or the victims,” Nash-Betts says. “There were so many nameless, faceless people that got all lumped together because Jeffrey Dahmer was at the forefront of the story. What I appreciated about Ryan Murphy was that he said this story will not be told from his point of view. He really wanted people to see the collateral damage to these victims. And even though Glenda was not killed by Jeffrey Dahmer, she was, indeed, one of his victims.”
Nash-Betts says she signed onto the series without knowing what the project was about. When Murphy called her, she said yes. Once she read the script, she asked why he chose her for the role. “He said, ‘Because I knew you were the one who could embody this character and make people feel what this woman felt.’” (In light of the writers strike, Murphy was not able to speak to Variety for this story, but he has publicly praised Nash-Betts’ performance and commitment to the role.)
Cleveland died in 2011 at the age of 56. Without being able to consult her, Nash-Betts felt immense responsibility in telling her story, so the world could see her as the hero she was.
“Her torture lasted long. I didn’t know her pain,” Nash-Betts says. “It almost brings me to tears when I think about it is because I am so grateful that I was a conduit for her voice being heard.”
Nash-Betts felt a connection to Cleveland when preparing for the role. “I’ve been in spaces in places where I was not believed. I’ve been in spaces in places where I just never felt heard,” she says. “There’s always something that you take with you from a character. I went home and I told my children, ‘You speak your truth — and you speak it loud and you speak it often, even if your voice shakes.’ ”
Best-known for her comedic roles on “Reno 911,” “Soul Man” and “Getting On,” Nash-Betts was able to flex her dramatic muscles in “Monster.” She has been applauded by critics and fans for her heartfelt performance, tapping into the strength and grief of Cleveland with a raw honesty that steals scenes — even when she shares the screen with Evan Peters, whose impressively eerie portrayal of Dahmer has made him one of the buzziest actors of award season.
“It took me a long time to even be seen for this kind of work,” Nash-Betts says. “I just kept trying to say, ‘My God, I wish people could see me like I see myself.’ I was born funny. I don’t have to work for that. But this, I’ve had to roll up my sleeves and get in the trenches to not only be seen, but then to be able to be cast.”
She quickly corrects herself. “I don’t want to minimize me being funny and dim any part of my gift,” Nash-Betts adds. “But I was seen as a one-trick pony for a long time, and I just kept saying, ‘There is more.’ I think that maybe some of the views of me were just a bit narrow. I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths, but it was just a bit narrow and I was happy to invite the industry and my peers to see me differently.”
Peters has spoken about his need to stay in character as Dahmer throughout filming “Monster,” but Nash-Betts’ process was different and she craved levity with the dark material. Her real-life daughter, Dia Nash, plays her on-screen daughter in the series. On the set, daughter helped keep mom’s spirits up.
“At maybe one o’clock in the morning, we had to do the scenes where we were in court, and it was heavy,” Nash-Betts reminisces. “And she was like, ‘Hey, Mom, you want to do a TikTok?’ I was like, ‘Girl, I’m so glad you’re here.’ I needed that lightness and that brightness to offset it all. But for Evan, because he had that burden on him to be that dark, we really had to protect him. Evan had a lot to bear in order to get it right. For him. When he went into his process, it was better for him to stay in it.”
As Nash-Betts looks forward, she is hoping to explore a range of roles. “I just want creatives to know they can trust me with their work, regardless of where it lands in the spectrum between comedy and drama,” she says.
And it’s not as if “Dahmer” is her first success in the dramatic space: in 2020, she recurred in FX’s “Mrs. America” and in 2019, she earned an Emmy nomination for her role in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” in which she played the mother to one of the wrongfully incarcerated men, Korey Wise (played by Jharrel Jerome), in Ava DuVernay’s retelling of the Central Park Five case.
The versatile performer recently hosted the second season of Fox’s renewal of the gameshow “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” and she’s crossing her fingers for a renewal of her ABC police procedural, “The Rookie: Feds,” which remains on the bubble. “I love my job so much, I love the people that I work with, and I love the fact that I get to work with my better half over there,” she says of her wife, musician Jessica Betts, who plays her love interest.
Though her “Rookie: Feds” character, Simone, couldn’t be more different than Glenda Cleveland, Nash-Betts sees a common thread: she is playing two uniquely strong women.
“What I love about that particular character is that I have not seen her in on mainstream television,” she says of “Rookie: Feds.” “I’m happy for little Black and brown girls to see something that they can aspire to be,” she adds. “Less than 1% of Black women make up the FBI, and she’s a Black woman over 40 in the FBI. She’s not married. She’s an equal-opportunity dater, if you know what I mean. Like, who is this unicorn? If she were a real person, she would definitely be my homegirl. She’s in her second act, and she is making the best of it.”
For Nash-Betts, it seems like art is imitating life.