From a distance, it’s easy to mistake the series “Claws” for a modern-day version of an early 2000s beauty shop comedy. Yes, similar to the likes of “Beauty Shop” and “Hair Show,” the show drops a remarkably funny cast of sassy women in front of the brightly-colored backdrop of a beauty parlor. But make no mistake, not unlike the glittery objets d’art that Desna and her offbeat team of manicurists craft at Nail Artisans of Manatee County, TNT’s “Claws” is on a completely different level.
Eliot Laurence, the fabulously talented writer of the series, does a remarkable job of throwing a sparkly, well-manicured middle finger up to conventional portrayals of female characters on television. And in doing so, he serves up a deliciously refreshing take on sisterhood and female empowerment. The women of “Claws” are strong, fully fleshed-out characters with compelling backstories and zero room for filler (nail jokes 💅).
But, why Florida? Why these women? And why a nail salon? The inspiration for the Florida Noir tale that is “Claws” came from the conglomeration of several obsessions, according to Eliot. “I was always drawn to anything female kick-assery and empowerment,” he says. “I also find the whole [nail] industry—the fierce, savage beauty of it all—really fascinating. So, that was sort of sitting in my head, and then I became obsessed with Florida and the crazy news stories that come out of that state, and I thought it would be a great place to put a story about female empowerment, that was also darkly funny.”
As it turns out, the ability to craft diverse and relatable female characters is a complex art form—one that benefits from a lifetime of surrounding yourself with real women. Speaking from personal experience, it isn’t enough to incessantly re-watch back episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Spice World” to make you an expert on what constitutes “girl power.”
“My whole life has been about seeking out female involvement,” Eliot says. “I’m a momma’s boy to the bone. I had a very strong aunt, who was sort of a second mother to me. Most of my close friends have been women … it’s been a lifetime of watching women, but also from a little bit of a distance, as I’m not attracted to women. There is room for creativity and inspiration in that distance.”
As a gay male, I gravitate toward strong women. Grace Jones, Madonna and Cher are basically the famous aunties I never had. It comes with the gay gig, right? That adoration of female fierceness is part of what make “Claws” so appealing. “I think everybody is drawn to strong female characters, but certainly gay men,” claims Eliot. “My experience of being a gay man, I think there has always been a certain part of male power that I was disqualified from participating in, or owning, or feeling the pleasure of. So, watching female power always felt like an answer to that problem for me. Just seeing those moments when the status quo of patriarchy and male dominance is upended has always been such a thrill for me, both in life and in art.”
“It’s inevitable to be attracted to the female strength,” says actress Judy Reyes (“Devious Maids” and “Scrubs”), who plays Desna’s right-hand gal pal, Quiet Ann. “[They] create life. At the beginning of time, it started with women. It’s inevitable that the patriarchy has come to try and co-opt its power, to emulate its power and pretend that that power is irrelevant. Especially now in this political era that we are experiencing right now. It’s natural that gay men, with their natural power and natural strength, aren’t afraid of female strength. They are drawn to it. That’s why women are so in-tune with gay men.”
Ann is a butch lesbian who handles security for the salon (as well as the occasional pedicure) and is often seen with a baseball bat in her hand, despite a distinct lack of baseball fields in the area. Her character is enigmatic and, as her name suggests, has an obvious lack of dialogue compared to some of the other girls in the posse. However, the absence of verbal discourse doesn’t stop Reyes from crafting a wildly captivating character, who can be jarringly explosive at times and is fiercely loyal to her best friend.
“As an actor of my age and a woman of color, it’s a dream come true, to be honest. To have the opportunity to play something so completely different than I’ve played in my entire career, again, is a dream come true,” Judy explains when asked about her role. “I’m super grateful to work with Niecy Nash, Jenn Lyon, Carrie Preston and Karrueche Tran. And to be able to speak Eliot’s words … it’s a lot of fun. It’s exactly where I want to be in my career; it really puts you in a place of inspiration and challenge at the same time.”
While Reyes herself is not a lesbian, the inspiration for Quiet Ann’s character is pulled from numerous personal experiences and her close friends in the community. “All I can do is refer to my experiences as a woman, and one who knows many and has many lesbian friends. “
“There was something [about playing Ann] that was much easier than other parts where there is a preoccupation with the aesthetic, the femaleness, the pretty, the sitting in Spanx and worrying about what you eat, and making sure that your makeup is all tight,” she continues. “Just sitting in that male privilege-ness, I embraced that part of playing Quiet Ann, because there are so many different types of lesbians.”
But make no mistake, there is more to Quiet Ann’s character than just her sexuality. “Do I go out and act like a lesbian? No. I play her authentically in terms of a person.” And to the handful of critics who are complaining that Ann isn’t played by a real-life masculine-of-center lesbian actress, Judy has this to say: “I can’t say ‘That’s f***ed up you’re upset that Quiet Ann isn’t played by an actual lesbian,’ because I can relate to that as well.” Judy’s commitment to remaining true to her authentic self makes me want to jump through the phone and hug her.
Interestingly, in playing her character, Reyes realized she has more in common with Ann than it had appeared at first. “There was something specific in the way she was written that I didn’t embody, that intimidated me when the audition came to me. I was like, ‘I’m not this,’” she says. “What I found [through filming] is we have so much in common in terms of her emotional vulnerability and not being able to express herself, or not choosing to express herself. And the times she does choose to express herself verbally, it being rather explosive.”
Explosions and empowerment aside, “Claws” is also bitingly funny. And with a cast this chockablock with funny women, you can be sure there are plenty of on-set antics. Judy discloses that the girls have developed a language all their own from Disney musical songs. However, she refrained from going into too much detail in fear of sharing too much. “We just entertain each other in the throes of 14- to 18-hour shoot days, cracking each other up. And these women are very, very funny, and extremely supportive,” she says. “Casting is everything, and this show has been brilliantly cast, I have to say. Everyone is just a little bit like their characters. Niecy is extremely supportive and maternal and makes sure everyone is doing well, and takes good care of everyone. Jenn is so funny, and Carrie is just brilliant. Karrueche is a true ingénue and gets better every single day.”
“They truly are the posse that they are on screen,” Eliot chimes in. “I love each of them dearly and trust them and feel close to all of them. But I’m also a little scared of them, especially when they’re all together. It’s a force.”
Reyes did share one behind-the-scenes tidbit about her co-star, Carrie Preston, that I hope finds its way into the extras somehow. “Over the last few days, things were really quite chaotic. We had to do a few reshoots and stuff. So, Carrie has developed her own show called ‘Polly Talk,’ and she interviews us as her character, Polly. I have video!”
With the exciting news of “Claws” being renewed for a second season, I asked Eliot what to expect from the remainder of season one. “I’m not going to say too much, but I will say that there is a significant power shift at the end of season one that propels us into some very interesting territory in season two. That’s very vague, I apologize. But it’s going to be really, really fun. And just getting a chance to get deeper and deeper into these incredible characters and just find out more about what makes them tick and their histories—it’s going to be so fun.”
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