“Can I Invite You to Think Differently About Me?” A Candid Convo Between THR Trailblazers Eva Longoria and Niecy Nash-Betts

“Can I Invite You to Think Differently About Me?” A Candid Convo Between THR Trailblazers Eva Longoria and Niecy Nash-Betts
May 2023

The two stars -- who will be given the inaugural award at the THR's Raising Our Voices gala -- reflect on the challenges in changing perceptions and how to inspire the next generation: "Sometimes people have to be shown something to know that it's possible."

Roughly 20 years after breaking out on Comedy Central's Reno 911! and ABC's soapy drama Desperate Housewives, respectively, Niecy Nash-Betts and Eva Longoria are deep into second acts that, for them, were inevitable.

For Nash-Betts, it's been a slow burn to be seen as a dramatic actor because, as she says of her God-given talent, "The Most High put being funny in my DNA." But the biz has caught up: The three-time Emmy nominee for acting is a leading contender this year for playing Glenda Cleveland in Netflix's Dahmer -- Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a role for which she's already won a 2023 Critics Choice Award. Nash-Betts also recently wrapped her first season as the lead and executive producer of ABC's The Rookie: Feds.

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Longoria, who considers herself "a director-producer who fell into acting," is now a prolific creator of shows -- including CNN's travelogue series Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico -- and a helmer set to release her feature-directing debut, Flamin' Hot. The Searchlight Pictures release, about the Mexican American Frito-Lay janitor who lays claim to inventing the Latin-inspired Cheetos flavor that upended the snack business, is set to stream June 9 on Disney+ and Hulu and earned rave reviews at South by Southwest in March.

The longtime pals and 2023 Raising Our Voices Trailblazers -- to be honored for telling stories onscreen that create empathy and understanding for traditionally marginalized people -- joined THR for a chat in early May to discuss reinvention, the next phase of Hollywood's inclusion movement and never settling for "no."

When and how did you first meet?

NIECY NASH-BETTS It was about 20 years ago at an event with [comedian] Alex Thomas.

EVA LONGORIA I think for a pilot? I was still a nobody. (Laughs.)

NASH-BETTS I said, "That girl's going to be something." Then shortly thereafter, you got Housewives. You owe it all to me. (Laughs.)

LONGORIA Thank you!

NASH-BETTS And you weren't a nobody. It was a big deal to be on a soap opera back then!

LONGORIA I know. To this day, I could win an Oscar and my mom would still ask, "Are you ever going back on The Young and the Restless?" (Laughs.)

How does it feel to be in these phases of your careers?

LONGORIA When I moved to Hollywood, I worked as a PA and an AD and I produced live shows at The Improv for Latin comics. I was an extra for two years before I started acting. So while Flamin' Hot is my first feature, I've been directing pilots, shorts, dramas and multicams for 12 years. I've planted these seeds. I've had my head down and my feet moving for more than a decade, waiting for this moment.

NASH-BETTS I echo this sentiment. What I've been saying for years is, "Baby, can I invite you to think differently about me?" When I got called back for [HBO's] Getting On about 10 years ago, I wanted to read for [a more dramatic character]. They said, "We don't see you that way." I was so passionate, they said, "Come back on Friday." It was Tuesday. They said, "Do you want to come back on Friday?" I said, "No, sir, I'm here right now." I was afraid somebody else was going to come in and wow them. So they let me read [for the role of Didi] -- and I got nominated for two Emmys. So this moment for me is, "I've been trying to tell y'all about this the whole time!" (Laughs.) I'm not a one-trick pony.

Eva, you've worked for years to create opportunities for Latinx talent and yet the numbers are still woeful. Why?

LONGORIA We're even less represented now -- we've gone from being 7 percent of all onscreen characters to 5 percent. I don't think studios are saying, "Let's not cast Latin actors." They just don't understand they're unconsciously hiring the same people. For me as an actor, if a character's name doesn't have a "z" at the end, I won't be asked to read for it. I'm a ninth-generation Texan. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish. And yet in auditions I've been asked, "Can you do it like Rosie Perez? More spicy?"

NASH-BETTS Funny. They'd ask me, "Can you do it more sassy?" (Laughs.)

LONGORIA This is why I direct and produce. I don't want to play Hollywood's game. I want to play my own game: Create worlds, opportunities and the final product. For example, when I was producing and directing [the ABC drama] Grand Hotel, I asked for a list of potential DPs. They were all male. I said, "I want to hire a female DP. Do you have any?" And they go, "Oh, yeah." They had their resumes -- they just didn't give them to me.

It didn't occur to them to diversify the pile they were giving you.

LONGORIA Exactly. "Here's Bob, Tom and Hank." But I wanted a woman or person of color in that job. And so often those folks don't have the body of work to get the job -- but can't get the body of work because they don't have the job. It's even worse for directors and editors. So for me it's, "Can you do this job? Do you want to out-hustle and outwork everybody? If so, the job is yours."

Niecy, what are your biggest priorities as a producer in terms of hiring?

NASH-BETTS We're in a time when Black is shiny -- everyone wants to hitch their ride to African American stories. As a producer, I want to hire people who look like me or aren't [obvious choices]. On [TNT's] Claws, there was a character written for a white woman. I asked, "Would we entertain a Black gay man for this?" I have a very loving disposition when it comes to suggesting what I want. (Laughs.) Sometimes people have to be shown something to know it's possible. When The Cosby Show premiered, everybody's heads popped off. "A Black family where the husband is a doctor and the wife is an attorney?" Meanwhile, Black people were like, "Uh, yeah?"

What does the next phase of Hollywood's inclusion movement ideally look like for you?

LONGORIA The word "diversity" is so shiny right now. If I'm on one more "diverse" panel, I might scream. (Laughs.) To be honest, I don't know. A lot of companies now have chief diversity officers. They have fellowships for people of color. But unless those programs lead to actual jobs, then they get to check a box without really fulfilling the mandate.

NASH-BETTS For me, I never feel like my blessings are just mine. I don't care if you're a PA, you write songs, you push a broom, you're a grip. "What do you do, baby? Let me see if I can find space for you."

LONGORIA Yes. Exposing people in power to different points of view is crucial. We also need to dig more into our communities' economic power. They need to know our movies and shows are happening! Where is the studio pushing the project? If it's a streamer, how long will it be on the carousel? What is the marketing budget?

So often, our content is placed in different buckets. "Oh, that's the brown show. That's the Black show." And those budgets are generally lower. You really start to see the discrepancies in marketing, promo and ad buys. How can we become a hit if we don't have the same [support]?

When we focus-grouped Flamin' Hot, which is about a Mexican American, I knew it'd probably resonate with the Latin community. But it tested equally through the roof with Black, Asian, white and Hispanic audiences. That was eye-opening. "Oh, we have a universal story here." It's about a man facing adversity, an underdog, the American dream. And by the way, most of our stories are universal -- not just "Black" or "brown."

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?

NASH-BETTS I talked my way into the audition for Reno 911!, which was originally a sketch show. Then it changed to be mostly improv. I'm like, "What the hell is improv?" But I lied and said, "Of course I know how to do that." I called my friend Big George. "What do I do?" He said: "Just walk in there, cool as a breeze." I had to trust myself that I was going to figure it out. Also, I'd been arguing with my [then] husband for years, so I said, "I got this." (Laughs.) Thank you, Big George.

LONGORIA I was producing [Lifetime's] Devious Maids and [then-network president] Nina Lederman asked, "Do you want to direct?" I go, "Yes!" Then I was like, "Why did I say that?" I'd only done short films. She says, "Guess what? You learn by doing." I think a lot of women feel, "I'm not ready," especially actors. You're going to make mistakes. Never be afraid to ask dumb questions. So the advice is: Learn by doing and know you are ready.

NASH-BETTS When I directed Claws, we were playing '90s R&B music between takes, giving people more joy in the work. I loved the idea that a director could instantly change the atmosphere. We're not digging ditches, y'all! We're making a TV show, and guess what? We're going to have fun. Also, I love telling people what to do.

LONGORIA Me too! (Laughs.)

If we're lucky enough to see you collaborate on a project, what would it be?

LONGORIA Obviously, Sassy and Spicy. Niecy will get top billing. I'm ready.

NASH-BETTS We're on it. We got our assignment!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.