You might know Jasika Nicole from her phenomenal role as Astrid Farnsworth in the television show Fringe. But did you also know that Jasika is a renaissance woman whose talents exceed acting and touch on everything from art to writing to dancing? When she isn’t working her magic on her role of Astrid, she’s busy creating semi-autobiographical comics over at her website, as well as writing for top-notch outlets like The Advocate and Sarah Moon’s newest project, The Letter Q. A lover and a fighter, as well as an immensely talented artist, Persephone Magazine, please welcome Jasika Nicole.
Persephone Magazine: You’re an actor and illustrator by trade. Are these two identities always what you strived for, or did you start with one and come into the other? How do you think they intertwine?
Jasika Nicole: I’ve been doing theatre since I was 8 years old, but I have been drawing for even longer, since before I was in pre-school. My imagination with drawing was pretty active, and my mother always praised my artwork, so I never stopped doing it, but I only considered it a hobby. I went to college for acting, but because my school stressed the importance of all students becoming competent in every aspect of theatrical production, I ended up learning a lot about theatre design in the process, which is how I was introduced to costume design and eventually learned how to sew. I considered a career in fashion design as an illustrator because I loved clothes as art and I loved the process of building a piece of clothing from scratch. When I moved to NYC after college, I decided I would keep an open mind in regards to both of the things I loved so much, acting and drawing, and that I would fully embrace whatever found me first. Acting won, but I found ways to keep drawing. The way that the two intertwine is really special for me because as an actor on a television show, you generally end up just being the vehicle for someone else’s vision. This is not to say that acting in television can’t be creatively satisfying, but I find that my voice matters less when working in TV than it does in stage work or with writing. I am the sole creator of my comic, and I get to make all the decisions, and the end result is all my own doing, for better or worse. It is a nice balance to have when being a tiny cog in a giant piece of machinery like a TV show.
PM: How do you divide your time between all these roles? What does a day or even a week look like for you?
JN: I try to use my free time as efficiently as I possibly can. My work schedule can be rigorous, but I don’t work every day of every episode like Fringe‘s three leads do, so I have a bit more freedom to do things outside of my work. My friends always joke that I am a hermit and hate leaving the house, which is only partly true; if I have a few extra hours in a day, I would rather spend it at home creating (…something, anything!) than going out to be social all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good dance party and a good margarita, but I also love using my time wisely, so when I go out, it has to be for a really good reason. It is virtually impossible for me to sit down on the couch and watch a movie without simultaneously keeping my hands busy with either knitting or sketching. And when I am feeling completely unmotivated or I have writer’s block or I am procrastinating or I have run out of yarn, I just start baking. Creating SOMEthing, even if it goes in my belly. Living in Vancouver has made me a bit restless because there is less to do here socially than in NYC, and I have less friends here, but the good thing is that I have much more time to devote to my other projects. I have taken painting classes on my weekends, started a new comic, knit about 10 sweaters and countless scarves and hats, worked on some commissioned projects for various people and their businesses, become acquainted and slightly obsessed with Shrinky Dinks, given about 1,000 performances of Adele’s 21 album to an empty living room, and become a dedicated yogi. I also would love to start a container garden, but I am pretty sure that my success rate is going to be low. And failing sucks. It’s necessary, but it sucks.
PM: Most of your comics are autobiographical, ranging from the humorous to the frustrating. What about putting these pieces of your life into cartoon format do you think is expressed better that any other form of art won’t do?
JN: When I first met my partner 5 years ago, we spent a lot of time in our courtship recommending our favorite books and movies to each other. She handed me Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I made her watch Hollywood Shuffle. Sandman was the first graphic novel I had ever read and I was pretty blown away. I was unfamiliar with that kind of storytelling, and it took me forever to finish those books because I pored over every single page of artwork. I adored the images and the stories, but it was out of my realm of understanding in a creative sense, because I didn’t write fiction. Pretty soon afterwards I read a review in the Village Voice of Allison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home” and told my partner how awesome it sounded, and weeks later she had a signed copy for me. That book broke my heart, but it also showed me a new way to marry my artwork, which I had been keeping up with on breaks during my waitressing shifts, and my autobiographical writing, which I had been posting on my Myspace blog at the time. My introduction to comics and graphic novels completely changed my entire perspective of art and storytelling. And, in an unexpected but really awesome way, I think my experience with reading scripts and rewrites and character dialogue every week for the past three years has definitely informed my understanding of writing in a new way as well. Making comics and graphic novels is essentially storyboarding a screenplay in a much more detailed way. It’s movie making on paper.
PM: Do you find that as an artist, whether in acting or writing or illustrating, there is the possibility in being pigeonholed? Do you ever feel like there is a pressure to be this “type” of identity or portray a type of experience?
JN: I do not have much experience with being pigeonholed so far because all of the film and TV and even stage work I have ever gotten has been all across the board. Astrid is the first dramatic role I have ever been cast in– prior to Fringe, I always did comedic roles. And even Astrid’s purpose serves more as a “straight (wo)man” to Walter’s zany character than as a staunchly dramatic energy on the show. I have been lucky with Fringe to be able to play a character that has emotionally poignant moments, humorous ones, and even musical ones. And now I am having the chance to portray a character in several different ways, playing an alternate version and a version that lives in a world where a close friend of hers no longer exists. This is probably one of the only shows on television currently where an actor has a chance to do so many different things within the framework of one storyline.
PM: You are working on a project right now called The Letter Q, an anthology dedicated to people speaking to their past younger selves. Can you talk about why you started this project and what you hope for it?
JN: The Letter Q is not my own project, but rather a project that I was approached in which to participate by a woman named Sarah Moon. I was introduced to Sarah through a woman that I crossed paths with at the film studio we shot at in NYC during season 1. She worked on Ugly Betty at the time and, being two of only a handful of queer people on the lot, we always exchanged “what’s up”s when we passed each other. I got an email from her out of the blue last year asking if she could put me in touch with her friend Sarah, who was starting this great project for queer youth. I wrote Sarah, and she asked if I could create a comic that would embody the idea of a queer adult speaking to his/her/their younger self, but in my own words, and a few months later I wrote and drew “J + C.” Sarah found a publisher pretty quickly and the anthology, with contributions from lots of other super talented artists and writers, is going to come out in the summer of 2012 by Scholastic. I had such a very small part in putting this book together– Sarah is the brains behind it all- but I am beyond thrilled to have been invited to participate in it. It is probably the piece of work that I am most proud of creating so far in my life.
PM: What about your role on Fringe? Where do you see Astrid’s role going? Your character is such a badass, but I feel like she has so much history that has been left unexamined.
JN: Astrid’s lack of backstory has been a sensitive spot for me, and a lot of her fans, for a while now. I am ecstatic to have been a part of the Fringe team from the very beginning, but I have fallen in love with Astrid and I want to see so much more of her. At the same time, it is important for me as an actor to recognize that Fringe is not about Astrid’s character, and that she is on the show to support the bigger story of the three main characters. I have talked with the writers about what I could expect from Astrid in this fourth season, and while they admitted that they will not be exploring her backstory, they did say that there would be an Astrid-centric episode, and more importantly, that her relationships with the other characters was going to be different in this new Peter-less reality. I can only hope that if Astrid doesn’t get much more to do this season, her own spinoff, Farnsworth P. I. will debut on Fox in the next few years to extremely high praise. And John Noble will guest star.
PM: Do you or have you ever felt that being out as an actor has limited you to certain roles? Or is it more empowering to just say, this is who I am, deal with it and move forth from there?
JN: I think there is a big difference between coming out after you have been an established actor for a while and becoming an established actor after you have already been out. My only experience is with the latter, and there has been very little drama in regards to my personal life. To be honest, no one ever cared who I was dating before I was on a critically-acclaimed television show, and now that I am, the only people who seem to be very interested are other journalists that are a part of the LGBTQ community. I talk about my partner in interviews if the topic comes up, just like a heterosexual actor would talk about his or her wife or husband if they felt so inclined. If I don’t treat my life as anything other than normal, it is a little bit difficult for other people to treat it as such, at least in terms of doing interviews. I have had one nasty experience with a radio show that I knew little about beforehand, and the guys doing the interview were a bit homophobic and hell-bent on discussing virtually nothing about my work, and everything about my personal life; what other women I was attracted to and what my partner looked like and if we would both wear dresses if we had a wedding. Their response to everything I said was “that’s hot.” It was awful, and I was so upset about it that my publicist made them edit the interview so that their misogynistic and heterosexist questions wouldn’t air. Other than that, my experiences have been all positive, and there is NOTHING better than going to a signing and having someone come up to me and say, “Thank you for being out.” I am not out for anyone’s needs other than my own, but if it ends up meaning something positive to someone else, then it’s just a win-win.
PM: What great work from you can we look forward to?
JN: Closetalkers, my first fictional comic, has debuted on my tumblr page and will be up on my website soon, and I will be continuing to add more stories as I finish them. I am also making peanut burgers and oven fries tonight, and will be working on the “faber” sweater pattern by Norah Gaughan after that. See? SO much to look forward to!