Nikki M. James: Political Fashion

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Winning a Tony Award is a crowning achievement that finally validates an actor’s career choice to their parents, but Nikki M.James jokes that her mother wasn’t quite convinced.

“I think my mom would still prefer it if I had gone to medical school in addition to becoming a Tony Award winner!” James says with a laugh. She won the Tony in 2011 for best supporting actress in a musical for The Book of Mormon. “Like any child of an immigrant, I was supposed to become a doctor or a lawyer.”

So James has done the next best thing: She plays them on TV. Fresh off a recurring role as a young law associate on The Good Wife, James traded in her business suits for scrubs to star as a medical resident on BrainDead. Robert and Michelle King created both series, and their newest one is set in Washington D.C. as the minds of the nation’s political leaders are quite literally eaten by alien insects.

“I think the bugs are as good as an explanation as any to what’s going on in this world,” James says, adding that she was intrigued by the political subject matter of the show. She plays Rochelle, the daughter of a Smithsonian scientist who mysteriously died, and she investigates what’s going on with the insect invasion.

“There are a lot of shows tackling the scariness of what’s happening in the world, and I like that BrainDead tackles things that are scary—like our government’s inability to function normally—but makes it fun and allows us to laugh at it.”

The series airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on CBS, and Broadway Style Guide caught up with James to talk about playing strong women, her summer style must-haves, and what’s next for her onstage.

You just played a lawyer on The Good Wife and now a doctor on BrainDead, who are the powerful women in your life who inspire you?
I’m surrounded by powerful women—those are the only kind of women I like! My mom’s an immigrant—she’s from Haiti—and when I was 17, my father passed away and on her own, my mother sent her youngest child, me, to college—and to private university no less. And I graduated with almost no student loans. I continue to be in awe of the way in which the everyday woman—the woman who’s not running for president, the woman who isn’t curing cancer—is a hero. I just think those are the kind of people that we forget to look up to. So I like to say my mom is the strongest woman I know.

You mentioned that your mom is a nurse. Do you ask your mom about medical terms for your role on BrainDead?
I did ask my mom how to use an autoscope [the instrument a doctor uses to look in the ear canal]. I had to use an autoscope on a cat and I wanted to know how you hold one. So I called my mom and she said you just hold it the way you would hold chopsticks.

The political climate in America and the world is tumultuous right now, and BrainDead definitely comments on that. Were you attracted to that aspect of the series?
I’m totally a consumer of political news. I’m an NPR junkie, I have it on 24 hours a day; I listen to every single podcast. I fall asleep listening to podcasts since I suffer from insane insomnia. So I follow a lot. As much as we’re connected to everyone outside in the world, we also live in a world where you can choose what kind of information you’re getting. I choose to listen to NPR 24 hours a day, and I’m sure there are things I’m missing and they’re biased even in their reporting as well. So I think that we can live in echo chambers and that’s one of the problems. We know what’s happening in the world, but we’re receiving information from people who already agree with us.

Daniel Lawson designed the costumes for both The Good Wife and BrainDead. Can you talk a little about your character Rochelle’s style on the show?
Rochelle, not unlike me, is really into silk shirts. So I wear a lot of button ups, not throwaway clothes but they’re also practical for what she’s doing, which is being at work. She’s someone who wants to be taken seriously and doesn’t want her clothes to be getting in her way, but she’s also not a schlubby person who doesn’t care about her appearance either.

I will say, I wear pretty much the same pair of Rag & Bone ankle boots with every single outfit I wear. I really really like them and I went online to see if I can find them to buy them for my own personal use, but they’re super expensive! Rochelle is more highly paid than I am. But I guess she wears them a lot.

Are you practical in your fashion choices like Rochelle?
I like to feel confident and comfortable. I’m not someone who wants to be looked at while I’m walking down the street, but I also don’t want to fade into the crowd either. I read a lot of these fashion blogs, and I wish I was someone who had that eye. People who can put together a fabulous outfit are like artists. I would love to think I have that ability, but I also think I’m limited by both money and time.

What fashion blogs do you read?
There’s this girl Jacey Duprie and her blog is called Damsel in Dior and she’s also very monochrome in her fashion. She’s very into black and white, and she has the most beautiful photos. I think she has impeccable taste, and I would love to spend the amount of money she spends on clothes. There’s another girl who does one called This Time Tomorrow who I also follow tangentially. But I’ve been a little too into my podcasts so I’ve been neglecting my blogger girls lately.

Do you have any go-to pieces this summer?
I just bought this one-piece jumper from Club Monaco. It’s a really nice brushed denim, and it has a wide leg but it’s really tailored. It almost has a ’70s feel to it. It hits right at the ankle, and if I wear it with flats, I can wear it during the day and putz around and feel comfortable, and if I put on a pair of a great wedge heels and a statement necklace, all of a sudden, I can go out at night. I think that’s been my outfit of the summer.

You’re very busy this summer! It was just announced that you’ll play Viola in the Public Theater’s Public Works musical adaptation of Twelfth Night over Labor Day weekend. The show incorporates new music as well as many members of the community performing at the Delacorte in Central Park.
I’m excited to get to do Shakespeare in New York! I did some classical theater up in Canada, and so I’m thrilled about it. The actress who’s playing Olivia will be a member of the community. Look, you’re a professional if someone hires you to do it—the cost of admission into the world of professional acting is just getting a job. So I’m excited to work with someone who is maybe inexperienced or is maybe the best actress I’ve ever met in my life who just hasn’t been discovered yet. This is my virgin birth into Shakespeare in the Park. Singing and doing the work of the Bard—you can’t lose.

Styling by James Brown III
Additional Styling by Allegra Levy
Hair and Make-Up by Geo Brian Hennings
Clothing by Vivenne Hu
Shoes and bag by Delman Shoes and Nina Shoes