If you watched The Good Fight (a really good show btw) on CBS’s Paramount+, then you may have seen Nikki James playing opposite DelRoy Lindo (Adrian Boseman), Christine Baranski (Diane Lockhart), or Cush Jumbo (formerly Lucca Quinn) as attorney Monica Simmons.
A lot has happened in four seasons, and one of those is that in the fifth season James is directing her first TV episode, titled: “And the firm had two partners…”
Although she hasn’t been seen on TV as often as some of her illustrious Good Fight costars, James is a Tony Award-winning actor (originated the role of Nabalungi in Book of Mormon on Broadway) with strong theater chops and a passionate love for her work. From New York, James hopped on a call with BGN to talk about directing, The Good Fight cast, and even Twitter.
You’ve obviously been pretty busy lately, with lots of tweets pre-Biden (not so much now).
I know! What’s so funny about Twitter and me is that it’s tricky for me to be engaged in conversations that I don’t feel like I have time to actually allow to be a two-way conversation.
I felt like I needed to do my part, but I am a very, you know, wishy-washy social media user.
I think I’m just a little bit too old and also not quite witty enough in text. But yeah, I really did a lot of work. I tried to do as much as I could for this most recent election; phone banking and letter writing, but yeah, Twitter can be both a good and a bad place.
This is not your first directing gig. I went to IMDb. You have one more?
One other, yeah. Directing television is my pandemic hobby. I directed an episode of The Bite, which was [creators] Robert and Michelle Kings’s remote [show]. We did this limited series, this tongue-in-cheek zombie show where a lot of it was done on Zoom. And a lot was done with static cameras, with very little crew on set, just actors and a director.
When they reached out to me, it was because I’d been directing a little bit of theater here and there when I’d had time or when the Spirit or the project moved me.
And I’m a member of the [The Good Fight] family. They said, “We really want to put some theater actors back to work.” They asked me, “We see you’ve been doing a lot of theater directing. Is directing that something you’d be interested in?” I said, “Absolutely, yes!”
Brooke Kennedy, who’s the executive producer on the show, and one of the great champions of young artists and young theater/filmmakers, mentored me, and I shadowed her. I called every director I’ve ever worked with and asked for advice. I put myself into film school boot camp. I directed an episode of The Bite and lost five pounds. I have never worked so hard in my life. I’ve never been more stressed out, never been less hungry. I mean, it was so incredible!
And after I delivered that up, they asked me if I wanted to come to the big leagues to play in the deep side of the pool. I was terrified and said yes. I worked with Brooke and Robert, and I trusted this incredible crew. They let me lead them, and I’m deeply grateful.
I just realized how many theater people, actors who have spent a great deal of time in theater that are on that show, and I’m wondering what it’s like for the cast?
Yeah, for theater actors in New York, it’s kind of that this franchise, this group, is family, The Good Wife brain dead, Good Fight evil family. It’s a kind of a running joke that all the very best theater actors get to work on this incredible show, which I think is the best show on television. And I would say that even if I weren’t working on it. I think it’s really brave.
I’m always so excited about how much Robert and Michelle are willing to push the envelope and challenge themselves and their storytelling, and tell complicated, difficult stories with great care and thought.
My episode is one of the more careful and thoughtful ones, and I hope there’s a little bit of comedy as well. But yeah, it is the thing. You know, it’s all the theater actors. You’re walking down the halls of the stages in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and you’re running into co- stars. This is a producing team that loves theater and sees a lot of theater. If you’re shooting a television show in New York City, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t tap the well of resources of the incredible theater artists.
Also, the style of the show really lends itself to theater performers. The Good Fight is always walking this line of, “We need incredible actors who also have a bit of a sense of humor about themselves.” Who if not theater actors? What kind of actor doesn’t have a real sense of humor about this? The thing that theater actors do is the least glamorous of all the options. Put on your own makeup, walk to work, the dressing rooms, you know, the air. They haven’t changed out the asbestos in years. You know, it’s not that glamorous.
Going back to your episode, what was it like with the actors now that you were directing them?
Well, I’m smart. I’m smart enough of a director to know that most actors don’t need that much help. So I’m there as a guide to make sure that every person on this boat is rowing in the same direction. That’s really my only job. I have a bit of a vision. I’m the person calling out, like, “Row, row,” but the heavy lift is by all the other artists and technicians; my grips and light, my lighting designer, my sound designer, my camera operators. All of these people are exceptionally good at their jobs. So to trust them and then be the person to say, “I think it’s a little more of this way and a little less.”
There’s not a lot [to do] when it comes to actors like Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski. I’m basically there to say, “Action” and “Cut.” And then, “Oh, by the way, you know, you’re not on your line,” because these are incredible artists that I can learn a lot from. But, and I hope this is true and it felt true, from my perspective, I think they valued working with another actor. I think we all had a lot of fun.
My one lesson is when Audra McDonald says, “Can I get another take?” you should always say yes because she has an idea that’s percolating and it’s almost always better than you could have ever expected.
Episode 505: “And the firm had two partners…” is available to stream Thursday, July 22nd on Paramount+.
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Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based former staff writer covering entertainment whose work has appeared in Variety, The New York Daily News, TV Guide.com, The Crisis, Vogue Japan and Italia, and Harper’s Bazaar China, among others