Reality TV fans need no introduction to NeNe Leakes: The statuesque Georgia native has been tossing off pithy catchphrases ("Close your legs to married men!") and calling out bad weaves on Bravo's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" for four seasons now. But now NeNe's expanding her empire by getting into the acting game, first as Coach Roz Washington on "Glee" last season, and now on NBC's "The New Normal" as Rocky, the self-described "half-giraffe, half-drag queen" assistant to one half of the show's gay parents-to-be.
Those who assume that NeNe's acting career sprung directly from her reality TV notoriety might be surprised to learn how long she's been working as an actress. We discovered all kinds of things about Ms. Leakes when we spoke with her last week, including which leading men she'd love to have as an on-screen love interest, the great advice she got from Ryan Seacrest, and why she's relishing her new role as a "glam-mother." (Yes, you read that right.)
How did you first find out about this project? Did creator Ryan Murphy approach you directly?
Yes, I was working on 'Glee,' one of Ryan Murphy's projects. And then he just sent me a text and told me 'You're playing Rocky on 'The New Normal.'' [Laughs] We didn't even really talk about it. And I didn't know for weeks what kind of character Rocky was. I didn't really ask any questions.
And then when I saw the script, I didn't think that the character was written for an African-American woman. I kept reading her dialogue and being like, 'This is not a black woman.' So I was trying to figure out, how can I tell Ryan this? Because you hear all these things about how you're not supposed to tell the creators they're not writing something correctly. But I was like, I have to keep it real and tell him. So I told him and he was like, 'I know. We're changing it.' Then they came back with dialogue that was more for a six-feet-tall African-American woman… so here I am as Rocky. And I couldn't be more honored that Ryan Murphy took me and said, 'You can do it. I believe in you.' He's a very creative guy. He looks for new talent, different talent. Ryan has a great eye. So I hope to work with him forever.
What's your acting background? Do you have any formal training?
Yes, before I was a reality star, I was coming out here to L.A. like everybody else for pilot season. I was living in the Oakwood apartments over in Burbank, trying to make it. I bumped into Robi Reed-Humes, who at the time was doing a lot of casting for Spike Lee's movies. She was doing a movie called 'The Fighting Temptations' with Cuba Gooding Jr., and she cast me and helped me get my SAG card. And from there, she gave me a lot of little parts on 'Girlfriends' and 'The Parkers.' And recently, she's gotten me on as a day-player on 'The Game' and 'Let's Stay Together.'
Oh, okay. So this acting thing isn't completely out of the blue for you.
Yeah, I took acting classes and all of those things. But I left that because I wasn't getting the gigs that I wanted. I felt like girls who were known were getting bigger and better parts, and I wouldn't get anything. So I decided I was gonna go back to Atlanta and just be a housewife, Greg's wife, and a mother to my kids. And then I ran into the producers of 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' and that launched me over here.
This is your first time being a regular cast member on a TV show. Are you getting used to the hours that come with being a working actor?
The hours are already crazy. [Laughs] Definitely tough. Because I'm shooting 'The New Normal' and 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' at the same time, so my schedule is double. I leave one show and go and shoot the other. The cameras are with me for, like, every day of my life. So I'm extremely tired. But I'm trying to be taken seriously as an actress, so when I'm on set, I'm an actress. I'm totally Rocky.
Watch the most recent episode of "The New Normal" in full right here:
Your character, Rocky, is Bryan's assistant. Will we get to see a little of Rocky's life outside of the office?
Oh yeah, you guys will see me in scenes without Bryan this season. We haven't gotten to her personal life yet, but it's coming up. The creators have been asking me, 'Who would you like to have on as your love interest?' And I was like, 'Oooh well, let me think of who out here in Hollywood can come and be my loooove interest…' [Laughs]
Any names you care to share with us?
Well, I love Bradley Cooper, and I love Idris Elba, so I'd love to see those guys come over and play with us. But Rocky will definitely have a life. She's gonna have girlfriends and things like that.
We noticed you got to show off some nice shoes in the pilot. Did you put that into your contract?
No! [Laughs] One of the things about Rocky, she's very outspoken. She's fashion-forward. She loves her gays. And all that is part of who I am. So I think when they were creating the character of Rocky, they were thinking, 'NeNe loves shoes,' so they threw that in there. And I'm in those really high-heeled shoes a lot in these episodes, so yeah, the shoes are definitely there.
Do you get to keep any of them?
I wish I did. You know, so many people have asked about the shoes and the wardrobe, so at the beginning of Season 2, I'm gonna have this written in my contract. I'm gonna need some shoes.
What do you think about all the controversy this show is stirring up already?
Well, I think that Ryan and the creators of 'The New Normal' are very talented. And Ryan has created 'Glee,' 'American Horror Story,' 'Nip/Tuck,' 'Popular'… he's really great at that stuff, and they walk a fine line. But I think as far as people who say, 'I'm not gonna tune in,' they should tune in. Because this is not a gay show. It's about love. It's about life, it's about family, it's funny, it has drama, you'll see tears, you'll see all kinds of things. And I hope that people tune in and be open-minded.
It's so shocking how many people are close-minded in this world. Are you kidding me? It's so easy for me to walk outside my house and go down to the coffee shop and see two gay guys sitting there together holding hands, or hugging, or kissing or whatever. I don't even notice that kind of stuff anymore because I see it everywhere I go. I don't understand how people can be so close-minded about it. I understand that [a] Utah [affiliate] is saying they're not going to show the show, but I'm sure there are some gays in Utah. They'll figure out how to see it.
[Related: We Chat With 'The New Normal's' Ellen Barkin]
You mentioned you're shooting the new season of 'Real Housewives of Atlanta' right now. So are you flying back and forth from L.A. to Atlanta?
I do fly back and forth, but I also shoot ['Real Housewives'] here in L.A. I have a camera crew here. But I do fly a lot; my SkyMiles are looking pretty good. [Laughs] It's definitely tiring. I have to be back in Atlanta on Saturday, and that's a whole different time zone, so I'm just all over the place. But I'm making it happen. I met with Ryan Seacrest, and he asked me, 'Are you gonna continue to do 'Real Housewives'?' And I said, 'I don't know. I want to create reality shows and produce reality shows and things like that.' And Ryan gave me great advice. He said, 'Say yes to everything. Or at least do as much as you can until you literally can't do it.' And I said, 'You're right!' So I will continue to juggle 'Glee,' 'New Normal,' 'Housewives'… because you just never know when things are gonna go away. So I will continue to do it as long as I can.
Can you tell us anything about the new season of 'Real Housewives of Atlanta'? Is it still the Talls vs. the Smalls over there?
[Laughs] I love that, honey. The Talls versus the Smalls. Well… there's definitely division. But you might see some of the Smalls come play with some of the Talls. You'll just have to tune in to find out. We're gonna air later in the fall; we don't have a date yet. They don't allow us to talk too much about it. But yes, we are currently filming.
See NeNe in action in this "Real Housewives of Atlanta" reunion clip:
Any chance you'll get your own Bravo spinoff like your 'RHOA' castmate Kim Zolciak did?
Well, before Bravo even gave Kim a spinoff or Kandi or anybody, they offered me a spinoff. I just never took it. They've been offering me a spinoff since Season 2. I can't say that I won't do it down the line. But I don't jump on everything. It has to work for me, and it has to make sense. When I feel it, it'll happen. But it may be a good time for us to do it, because we have a little 'glam-baby.' [NeNe's son Bryson and his girlfriend welcomed a baby girl, Bri'asia, back in June.] I'm a 'glam-ma.' I refuse to be a grandmother, so I'm a 'glam-mother.' I'm too young and too fabulous to be a grandmother. So you never know.
It's been reported that you turned down a slot on 'Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars.' [NeNe was a contestant on the show in 2011.] You don't want to deposit any more Trump checks?
No, they never offered me any; I don't know where people got that from. I was doing an interview, and they asked me if I would come back to do it, and I said no. I wouldn't come back. I don't have a way to fit it into my schedule right now. But it's tough, because I love Mr. Trump. I would love to go over there and make an appearance.
We know your fellow 'Real Housewife' Sheree Whitfield has been trying to be an actress for years now. How does it feel knowing that you've been able to land a big role on a network sitcom and she hasn't?
Well, I was acting before any of these girls were acting, so I have more experience than they have. And I also think that good things happen to good people.
"The New Normal" airs Tuesdays at 9:30 PM on NBC.