Nicholas Ashe on the new OWN series “Queen Sugar,” being a New Yorker, his passion for music and more

Nicholas Ashe

Nicholas Ashe
Nicholas Ashe

Nicholas Ashe first came to my attention as one of the stars of Queen Sugar on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN. Yet this is not Nicholas’ only prominent credit of 2016, as the New York native played Viola Davis’ son in Custody, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Prior to finding his way onto film and television projects, Nicholas had lot of theater credits, having appeared as Young Simba in the national touring company of The Lion King, as Junior in the Alliance Theatre’s production of Choir Boy, and as Tom Collins in Rent; the role in Rent earned him a National Youth Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Downtown caught up with Nicholas, who has studied under renowned playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. He can be followed on Twitter via @nckash.

Having grown up in Freeport, did you spend a lot of time in Manhattan growing up?

Nicholas Ashe: Yes! Freeport is a 40-minute train ride from Manhattan, so growing up, I was the kid outside of the candy store. I always wanted to go to New York City to see a show or walk around Times Square. As I began acting, I would head into the city for auditions — I made and met a lot friends out there. Manhattan is definitely in my childhood tapestry.

A lot of notable people grew up in Freeport. Was there a particular person from your town that inspired you to pursue a career as an entertainer? Or someone that modeled that it would be possible to earn a living with entertainment?

NA: I went to Freeport High School, which is a public school with a huge emphasis on the arts. They do a really good job of curating every facet of performance, be it instrumental, or vocal, or theatrical. They encourage their young artists to create solid work every year. With a strong African-American/Hispanic community, Freeport’s productions are unlike any other town on Long Island.

Whenever I was in math or science, I would look forward to my music classes. And not because it gave me a break, but because it challenged me creatively as opposed to logistics or numbers. Music and theater classes were so important because they allowed each of my classmates to be expressive — there wasn’t a right or wrong answer, we were working towards connection, and character and community.

I think teachers get a lot less credit than they deserve. I’d like to acknowledge my teachers for allowing me an outlet to express myself. For seeing potential, and fostering my growth.

Do you remember the first play you ever saw on Broadway?

NA: The first play I ever saw on Broadway was The Lion King. And it’s funny, I didn’t see the musical until after I booked Young Simba. So The Lion King was both my first audition and my first theatrical experience.

Nicholas Ashe
Nicholas Ashe

Who is your favorite actor with an “initial” name? John C. Reilly? Vivica A. Fox?

NA: Have you heard about that new kid, Nicholas L. Ashe? I hear he’s pretty rad. (laughs)

How did the opportunity to be part of Queen Sugar come to you? Did you audition?

NA: Queen Sugar came to me back in February. Like most other auditions, they sent me the script to the first episode. I found myself so interested in the characters, and enthused by Ava DuVernay’s narrative. She has the incredible ability to paint her characters with and without language. As I was reading her words, the story was so vivid and trancendent — nothing about the family’s circumstances felt phony. I was like “oh, Auntie Violet is just like my Auntie Cheryl.” I just remember really wanting to be a part of Oprah and Ava’s vision. If they asked me to be a Production Assistant picking up coffee, I would’ve done that.

How would you describe Queen Sugar to someone that hasn’t yet seen the trailer?

NA: There are no words. I would direct them to the nearest television. Turn on OWN. Pour them a glass of wine. And put their phone on airplane mode.

Had you worked with any of the Queen Sugar cast members or crew prior to landing this role?

NA: I had not, but we’ve definitely been in each other’s orbit for some time. After I got to know each cast member, it was like, “Oh, you know this person? We worked on so-and-so together.”

Did you have an interaction with Oprah Winfrey while making the show?

NA: Our interaction was one of encouragement. She wanted our working space to be one of trust, so that we were able to make the most honest art we could. She green-lit everything Ava bought to the table. She green-lit everything we bought to the table as actors. Ms. Winfrey has been supportive in the best way you can be supportive, and that’s without being intrusive. She genuinely respected the nuanced-process that became Queen Sugar.

Is there a role of yours that you are most proud of?

NA: Micah West has been the most fulfilling on and off the screen. Ava is very adamant about casting for energy and not for talent. As a result, Micah and I are in sync.

In the very first episode of the series he’s being faced with a lot of conflict. He’s being faced with real-world politics and scandal. He’s entering adulthood, and finding his voice. I can definitely say at my age I’m grappling with the same type of things. I learn something every day that informs the type of man that I want to be. The clothes I want to wear. The adjectives and nouns I want to use to describe myself.

Do you have any aspirations to do comedy? Or is drama your preference as an actor?

NA: To categorize Queen Sugar as a drama feels unfair. It’s just real life. Real life has tragedy, heartbreak, disappointment, and laughter, and happiness, and fun and love. It’s all of that.

I understand that you are a singer, pianist and composer besides acting. What’s coming up for you as a musician?

NA: I spent the rest of my summer directing a show for my scholarship! It’s called the Steam Train Scholarship. I get about 20 local artists — poets, rappers, vocalists, dancers — to perform in a cabaret together. ALL of the money from the performance is then donated to a senior student pursuing the arts in college. The goal is to encourage other young artists that their dreams are absolutely valid. And possible. Hopefully, 2017 will allow me to perform and release some music of my own.

When you’re not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time?

NA: Reading and writing and reading and writing and reading and writing. And listening to really good music.

Finally, Nicholas, any last words for the kids?

NA: Love yourself. Unapologetically. Read and write. And listen. Compliment a stranger. Be weird. Be proud. Be honest. Opinions don’t matter. Truth is, everyone’s going to find something to say about you, so why not just be yourself?