What Nicholas L. Ashe has accomplished at age 21 is rare and amazing. Few actors have steady work. Nicholas has been working since age 10. Even fewer actors are lucky enough to be distinguished in both theater and film. Well, Nicholas is. Since his start, Nicholas has consistently been pushing himself as an artist, working with some of today’s greatest creative minds and learning a lot from them in the process. His hit show Queen Sugar airs its season finale tonight and is already picked up for season two. In this interview, Nicholas talks about his success, his Queen Sugar character Micah West, and why Ava DuVernay and Oprah should run for office in 2020.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
NA: When I was 10, my mom heard about auditions for The Lion King on the radio. Because the auditions were in Harlem, we assumed it was some local student production. It wasn’t until the third, or fourth callback that we realized it was an audition for the Broadway production of the show. That was the first Broadway musical I ever saw, and my first job. It was pretty neat! I learned a lot about crafting Theater, and maintaining work ethic. Shout-out to Mom. Thanks, Mom.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
Well, obviously. I could fill the rest of this interview with the Washingtons and Smiths and Bassets and Davis that inspired me to pursue acting.
What’s important is that inspiration be continual, and evolving. I find people, places and stories that continue to inspire me. I’m lucky. As an artist, my homework, my job, my fun and my studying are all the same thing. There’s always something pulling at my heart to write or see or sing or do. Sometimes you’re between jobs for two weeks and sometimes you’re between jobs for twelve months. In those times, I find myself asking “How am I preparing myself?” and “What am I preparing myself for?” “What’s inspiring me?” “And what is it inspiring me to do?” “What can I do about all of this RIGHT NOW?” It usually results in a half-finished script, or some chords on the piano… but inspiration is everywhere/everything.
Did you do any formal acting training or learn more on the job? In either case, what were some valuable things you learned that you think helped set you up for success?
When I graduated high school, I spent a long time contemplating if I would go to college or if I would start auditioning. The decision boiled down to a four-year conservatory, or a play at the Manhattan Theater Club written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I went with the play. I think in any field you learn more on the job, and Acting is no exception. I found myself in the company of people who encouraged me by example— whose support allowed me to completely fail, which allowed me to learn the most.
And don’t get me wrong, I think college is incredible. Most of my friends come from, or are currently attending some incredible programs. I’d love to experience a four-year university someday. It’s just that… while college is fundamental, and sometimes necessary… it isn’t always an immediate step for an artist. You can learn a skill, but you can develop one too. Sometimes the stars align, and arrows and signs point you in the right direction.
In the absence of school, God strategically placed a bunch of leaders, and artists and friends and family and work in my life to encourage my passion. I am so grateful to those who serviced my growth in a way that was neither intrusive or condescending.
You did a lot of plays after that, too. How has the discipline that theater demands influenced your approach to the work you do on screen today?
Theater laid the foundation. I love Theater so much I use a capital-T every time I mention it. Because I didn’t receive formal training, I owe everything I know to Theater (scripts, soundtracks, and seeing shows). It made me a more conscious artist. It made me aspire to be proud of anything I was in. And it also made me ensure that any project I accept celebrates my blackness. I always talk about how I wouldn’t be ready for Queen Sugar if I hadn’t done Choir Boy, or Kill Floor.
Now, you play Micah West on OWN’s Queen Sugar. You’ve said that as the season progressed a lot more improv happened on set. How, if at all, did that help you connect to your character even more? Did you find it easy or challenging?
We filmed all thirteen episodes of Queen Sugar between February and June of this year. That’s a long time to live in a character. So, naturally, you begin to understand them more and explore different aspects of their backstory. Of course you find that you share many similarities to the character. Every character is you, in a different set of circumstances. If my father were a professional basketball player. If I had family in New Orleans. If I were still in high school. And the writers and directors fill in the blanks with words and images that serve the story. And when everyone’s intention is to serve the story, the work is good. When the work is good, the work is challenging. And when the work is challenging, the work is fun for me. Luckily, the project was helmed by Ava DuVernay who prides herself in casting for good energy, and people who work hard. She’s assembled balanced and seasoned actors that love to explore together. And a team of filmmakers that promote that exploration.
You’ve also talked about how Micah finds his voice more as the season progresses. What did you enjoy about playing that character arc?
I think everyone can agree that who you are today is different from who you were in 2015, and that person is different from who you will be in 2017. What’s mirrored in Micah is that very evolution. It was nice to revisit high school with the objectivity of being a few years removed. It’s interesting, I found myself more sensitive to Micah and the plight of entering adulthood. There’s a point in life when your parents put you down, and never pick you back up again. And he’s coping with newfound responsibility: for himself, his presentation, his celebrity, his feelings, his interests, his sex, his race. I can’t say at twenty-one that I’m not dealing with those very things. And struggling to articulate those very things. I just love that Queen Sugar is so patient in her storytelling. We don’t plant a seed and give you a flower… we plant a seed and water it with you every week.
The incredible Ava DuVernay and Oprah are at the helm of the show. What are key aspects of the way each of them works/runs the set that has made your experience on Queen Sugar not only enjoyable, but also creatively fulfilling?
Everything these two women touch, becomes magic. And the fact that they’ve been putting their sorcery together… it’s insane. We get things like Selma and Queen Sugar when that happens. They are pioneers. They are heroes. They are living legends who continue to be so responsible, and conscious with their platforms. Search ‘leader vs. boss’ on Google. On the Winfrey-DuVernay team, you hear “We.” “Us.” “Thank you.” “Great job.” They should be running mates in 2020.
I’m certain their leadership has lessened my fear of judgment or failure.
Here’s a first look of tonight’s finale of Queen Sugar
What area of film and/or theater would you like to try that you haven’t already?
I love to write. And I can’t wait to get stories about people who look and love like me, off of the page.
This summer, I wrote a short-film called Lipstick (dir. by Cierra Glaude). It’s currently in post-production and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Find something to read or write or watch or listen or learn. Everyday. And say yes to any opportunity that comes your way. It’s not always going to be the Broadway musical, or the blockbuster movie, so make sure you love what you do and not the attention you get. And put yourself, your pride, your thoughts, your ideas, your goals, your feelings, and your family first. ♦