This is CENTER STAGE, where I interview individuals working in arts and entertainment. From actors to production assistants, from writers to camera operators, from makeup artists to assistant directors, this is where we tap into the mindsets of all artists.
NICOLE ALYSE NELSON
Nicole Alyse Nelson is a young, fresh face in the world of acting. She and I were both co-stars of the NewForm Digital’s web series Mr. Student Body President. Currently, Nicole is a main cast member of the hit Nickelodeon series I Am Frankie, a remake of a Colombian telenovela called Yo Soy Franky. The show is returning in September for its second season. Here, Nicole talks about her time shooting I Am Frankie show in Miami among other amazing experiences in Hollywood, as well as having aspirations in comedy and directing.
PZ: Where are you from and what originally sparked your interest in acting?
NAN: I’m originally from Galveston Island, Texas. Around seven years old, I moved inland closer to Houston by NASA. I started doing theater in middle school. Around that time, I had some friends who said theater was for nerds and considered it “social suicide,” so I started doing choir and band. I wasn’t truly happy then.
So in the eighth grade, I had a free period and said screw it, I wanna do theater. And it was everything I thought it would be. I learned so much from my teachers, from diving into scripts and learning the movements, and I continued throughout high school. I knew I wanted to act professionally, and it wasn’t really a possibility in Texas. My parents were big on college and tradition, especially seeing how my mom was an educator. We didn’t have finances to do out of state in California, so I went to the University of North Texas in the Dallas area and I studied radio, television, and film. That was my way to learn more about the business and sparked me wanting to come out to Los Angeles.
PZ: How were your teenage theater experiences altogether?
NAN: At my high school, I didn’t get many acting opportunities. A lot of the same people were getting roles over and over. Also, I looked so young, about a foot shorter, and I would get roles like “child” or one sentence here and there. In school, I learned a lot in class, but I didn’t get to execute it until I went to theater camp put on by the amazing Steven F. Austin State University in the summer. You’d have two weeks to arrive at the audition and get cast in a one-act play, a ten-minute period piece, and a ten-minute fun piece. In less than ten days, you had to memorize all of this content, and at the end, you’d get awards.
I did that for two years, and in the amount I learned in two weeks in two summers, those were some of the best weeks of my life. I finally got lead roles, it wasn’t the same people, and there were so many shows put on that there was a spot for everyone. In school though, I built sets and even did sound and lights. I tried acting, but never got cast in anything in high school.
PZ: When did you first get to LA and how did you initially learn to navigate your way into the business?
NAN: I first came to LA when I was 19 for a summer internship for a production company called Level One Entertainment. It was for a trial run, and I was doing script coverage, answering phones, just being an assistant. I learned very quickly that I did not wanna work in an office, but it was great learning about scripts and writing. I quickly got on set as a production assistant, and it was probably two hours into my first experience that I realized I wanted to be talent; not because of the way they were treated, it’s just that I watched what they were doing and identified with it so much. I did everything as a PA from picking up trash to even holding a boom pole at one point. I learned a lot, but I wanted to be the one delivering the lines, even though it is a completely ridiculous lifestyle and career. So I dropped out of college and made the serious move to LA when I was 20.
PZ: You’ve told me once you were a PA on The Goldbergs. How was that?
NAN: It was so much fun. I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t the best PA (laughs). I say that because I went into The Goldbergs with the mindset that I really wanted to be the talent. While there, I was more focused on what the actors were doing and watching how they prep, and what they do with the director. With that, I did let my duties slack. I worked only one day on location for 15 hours, but it was such an amazing experience to see how all these professionals work.
There’s one moment in particular when I realized I was not a good PA: I was locking up the street for these exterior scenes. I was so mesmerized by the actors’ performances that I let these two teen girls walk past me and into the shot. People on the walkie were saying “Nicole, behind you!”, and I didn’t think they were talking to me because I was so insignificant. Then I realized it when another PA had to run to my corner to stop the pedestrians. I let my guard down and I wasn’t too proud of that. Maybe I would like to go back and redeem myself as a PA one of these days. But everybody there were all really cool.
PZ: After that, what was your next step to get in front of the camera?
NAN: I met a lovely actress named Tate Hanyok, who became a great friend of mine. She had been out here for a while and knew so much about the business. We met weekly; I would help her prep for scenes and auditions and she would teach me about the business. She introduced me to websites like IMDb Pro, LA Casting, Actors’ Access, the basic tools to see what opportunities there are and how to associate casting directors with projects. She has pointed me in every right direction and is one of the best things to ever happen in my life. She then told me about acting classes taught by Margie Haber and Lesly Kahn.
I ended up taking monthly classes and met a lot of great friends; it’s just been an amazing experience being surrounded by people who are driven and wanting to better themselves and their craft. I like to think I’m always learning, because there’s always something new to discover. I’ve never had too much luck in the past with having like a big well-know agency or anything pushing me forward, and I ended up booking my role on I Am Frankie myself, which I’m very proud of.
PZ: So what is I Am Frankie about?
NAN: It’s about a teenage android named Frankie, played by Alex Hook, who we find out early on that a secret government agency is trying to steal her and turn her into a weapon. So Frankie’s mother, who created her, steals her from a lab and disguises her as a teenage girl to blend in and not be used for evil. I play Frankie’s best friend Dayton Reyes, and I also find out about her secret very early on. So from season 1, it’s pretty much me realizing “I don’t care if you’re different, you’re an amazing friend and I like hanging out with you.” So chaos ensues with her being a very literal person and still hunted by this agency while also trying to blend in at high school.
PZ: What do you like about playing Dayton?
NAN: Dayton Reyes is just the best character! I may be a little biased, but she’s so much fun to play. She’s truly spontaneous and is pretty much down for anything; you never know what’ll come out of her mouth, but she’s very supportive, always plotting things, and she’s kind of the driver of every scene. I love that as an actor because it gives me so much freedom to play and move around. I would say 90% of the scenes, I get to drive the scene. I never know what they’re gonna give me. I can’t even tell you how many days we’d go around running the streets of Miami doing scenes where you never know what could happen.
PZ: How was shooting in Miami?
NAN: Miami is a great city. I didn’t have an idea of what it was like, and to be honest, I never would’ve gone if it weren’t for the show. The city has so much culture, the food is totally different; there’s a lot of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Colombian influences in culture that I hadn’t been familiar with myself. I personally have never left the country, so that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten (laughs). There’s so much art and it’s beautiful. I didn’t have many days off from shooting, but when I did, I would love exploring the city with my castmates.
PZ: Tell me about the dynamic working with the cast of I Am Frankie.
NAN: The way we work is really unique. All of us were flown in to be there and we all lived in the same condo/hotel, which provided for almost like a summer camp experience by being a few doors down from each other. It was nice and it could even be a nightmare, but it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes I’ll get knocks at midnight and it could be one of twelve people. We always go out to eat together, and it was so easy to make plans. We have a group text, so after a day of shooting, someone would say “Meet in the lobby”, and then we’d get together and decide what we wanted to do. (Laughs) You’d think we’d wanna kill each other after spending so many hours together, but that never happened. We’re all so close. Despite the different ages, from our youngest cast member being seven to our adults, everybody stays in the hotel and hang out and it was a pleasant experience.
PZ: What was your favorite moment from season 1?
NAN: I like this episode where Frankie gets controlled by WARPA (Weaponized Android Research Project Agency), who wants to turn her into a weapon of mass destruction. They tap into her system, find out where she is on a map, and control her to robotically move towards them. Half of the episode is me running around town frantically, chasing her down and trying to get her to stop, because I don’t know what’s going on. That was memorable to film because everything was exterior, we had roads blocked off in Miami, and people were watching trying to see what we were shooting.
There’s a scene where Frankie’s about to walk into oncoming traffic, so I jump into the air and grab her foot, but because she’s so strong, I get dragged along the concrete. In order to film that, they attached a harness on my chest and tied it to a rope to me, and there was a strong guy pulling me. It put a hole in my pants, but I got to do a fun stunt!
PZ: Would you also say that was your best day ever on set or do you already have one?
NAN: That is really hard. There have been so many days on set. I’ve got one: It was on season 1, and I wouldn’t have said this the time, but looking back now, it was the busiest day I’ve ever had. By the time I finished, I was so mentally and physically exhausted, but now I’m like “Wow, I killed it.” We were on location in the Reyes home, and it was a hard house to shoot in because it was an actual home. We block shot everything and it was seventeen pages facing one way, then turning around and doing it again the other way. It was trying to get the same performance in after ten hours and remembering every I had done.
After that, I had to hop to another set, which was a smaller unit that had split off from our main unit to an exterior location with a different director. And there was so much more dialogue. At one point, I was FaceTiming Frankie in a scene and had to look into the lens of the camera. It was 3-page phone scene at the very end of the day and we had to get it done in four minutes for the turnaround. I remember turning to the director seconds before rolling, nearly in tears, saying “I don’t know this. I’m not prepared.” SO she put the script under the lens, and for a moment I was just reading the words, but still acting. It was like reading off of a cue card. She was so lovely. At the time, I wouldn’t have told you it was the best day after, but thinking back to it now, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten it all done.
PZ: Season 2 is coming. What are you looking forward to the most?
NAN: I’m looking forward to hearing how people have enjoyed this season, because I believe it was so much better than season 1. I love season 1, but this time everything got amped up; bigger budget, better lighting and sets, the storylines are crazier, like there are two Frankies running around. There are a lot more special effects and fight scenes, a lot of choreography; it takes everything to a different level. I also feel it’s gonna hit a lot harder with the boys’ demographic this season. We also have three new cast members. I also love reading fan theories and looking at fan art on social media, so I’m looking forward to those responses. It just makes my day.
PZ: Have you had a lot of stunt work on the show in general?
NAN: Oh, yeah. There were even more stunts in season 2. For me, it was a lot of getting hit, which is ten times harder to learn. Punching is easier, but falling over is harder because you really have to sell it. We had these amazing stunt guys to come in and show us how to kick, punch, and deflect. In the one-hour special that came out earlier this month, I get pushed hard by Eliza and I fly backwards. Although it was two seconds on camera, it took a week of preparation to not hurt myself. And without giving too much away, we had to learn how to dodge and deflect, which was a fun little exercise.
PZ: Did you have to watch the original Colombian series to prepare for the Nickelodeon version?
NAN: I tried to watch it, but I don’t speak Spanish and I could never find a translated version. But the producers didn’t want us to watch it. When they were testing for the roles, there was one girl who tested for Frankie and didn’t get the part because she mimicked the performance of the original and even spoke Spanish. Because this is a different version of the original show, a slightly different genre with a different feel. To my understanding, Dayton was not a big character in the original, she was more recurring and just sort of a friend instead of a best friend.
PZ: Do you ever get fans online constantly comparing the two versions of the show?
NAN: The comparisons happened a lot more before season 1 aired. There were saying things like “This is just a ripoff of Yo Soy Franky” or “You’re doing exactly what Yo Soy Franky did!” But once they started watching, even though there were scenes that translated over, they did see that it was also drastically different and could be something else. So I haven’t seen any kind of comments for probably a year. It’s nice to not be in the shadows of another show anymore and we can be our own. There wasn’t that much negative feedback once the show aired, and that’s the beauty of having the audience we have. Everyone is really positive, and that is so amazing and rare to have that audience really like everything you do. Because at that age, not everyone is a critic and what you see is what you get.
PZ: Now you also had a role on Mr. Student Body President. Would you mind telling our readers about the show?
NAN: The show has been described as a high school version of House of Cards, showing the corruption of the leaders within the student body, starting with the president and other roles under it. It centers around why they do what they wanna do, clashing with the principal, the school board, the popular kids, and just showing different levels what they can get away with. They’re always finding ways to outsmart the teachers and students. There are four seasons with a total of forty episodes so ten in each one. We shot seasons 2 to 4 all at once, so the days on set run together, but it was still a fun experience. It was still a high school setting, but this was targeting a slightly older demographic, so there were certain elements that pushed the envelope.
PZ: Describe your character on the show.
NAN: Her name is Kaylee Cozzalino and she’s the freshman class treasurer. In season 1, she’s seen as “buddy-buddy” with Addison Pierce (played by Haley Pullos), who’s running for student body president. But Kaylee’s loyalty quickly changes when Addison loses. From that point on, she kind of does this massive 180 trying to classify herself as a “cool kid”. In reality, she’s just young and desperate to be seen, whether that means hanging around the popular crowd or climbing up a pile of human bodies to prove her importance.
PZ: How was that, by the way?
NAN: You missed an amazing day on set! They basically had this structure which looked like a life-sized wedding cake with these tiers. They would mix extras with some of the principal characters but with a lot of dummies with random legs sticking out, they stacked it all looked realistic. There was a little tiny pathway of this giant hollow wedding cake, and I had to crawl up these three tiers and dig my limbs into some people to make it look real, so I can’t guarantee I didn’t hurt anybody that day (laughs). When I got to the top, it had to look like I stuck a flag into people. It was pretty unstable on there, but it was a crazy experience.
PZ: How was the vibe on Mr. Student Body President?
NAN: The cast was fun. Because everybody was older playing younger, it was a completely different vibe. There were a lot of social media influencers and more well-established actors with fanbases, and it was really easy to interact with people. And as an actor, it was fun because I got to say a couple swear words, which Dayton Reyes would never say! And climbing up the pile of human bodies, I don’t think I’ll ever do something that ridiculous again.
PZ: Do you always find yourself playing a lot of high school roles or just younger roles in general?
NAN: Yeah. So the oldest role I’ve ever booked was on an episode of season 2 of GLOW on Netflix. I played an eighteen-year-old freshman at Stanford. So I was like “Ooh college!” I had never played college-aged before, and high school has always been my sweet spot. Which is okay because I prefer to watch that kind of content. It really resonates with me and I love watching young people navigate around the world and find out who they’d like to become. It’s a good age range to watch and portray and so much happens in the high school years that define people.
PZ: Aside from acting, do you have anything you’re working towards on the side?
NAN: I would love to be a director one day. It’s not anything I’m currently making projects for and working towards, but more of an observation I’ve had. Any opportunities I’ve had on set where I’m not doing anything, I like to watch from video village and observe crew members and how they work. And I love watching our directors and how they’re able to juggle so much at once with relaying to the crew what they want and talking to the actors about their choices.
There’s so much collaboration and so many different parts of filmmaking that I love that being a director is just a great way to combine them all. I do believe the best directors are also actors, so I think making the transition one day would be easy for me, because being able to talk to the actors about their characters would be so much easier to understand unless you hadn’t done it before.
PZ: What would you be interested in directing?
NAN: I would love to direct comedy, any kind. There’s so much that fits into that genre, like multi-cam television or even something in the style of Modern Family. I really love comedy, I feel it’s where I really shine. Whenever I get a script, I get the jokes in the script and I get the timing, and there’s so much more to play with and more fun to be had with the physicality, so I’d love to stick with comedy.
PZ: Who have been some of your favorite people to work within the industry by far?
NAN: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. There have been so many people every day who have blown my mind with their creativity. I really loved working with our directors on I Am Frankie, Steve Wright and Melanie “Mel” Orr. I liked working with them because Frankie is the longest time I’ve had working with a character, and there’s a lot of time given to how you work and how you navigate through a set, so nothing compares to being with them 15 weeks over and over and creating a bond with them, they’re incredible. I also really liked Mark A. Burley, who directed my episode of GLOW; he’s also an executive producer for the show and for Orange Is The New Black, which I’m a big fan of. We got talking a little bit about that and it was really cool, as a fan. Now this next person, I wouldn’t necessarily say I “worked” with her, but I had a cool experience on American Horror Story, where I was a photo-doubling and standing in for Lady Gaga for a day. And I’ve been a massive fan of hers since 2008. That was the most starstruck I’ve ever been. She was so kind in between takes, and for someone of that status and that big of a worldwide icon, you never know what to expect. She treated everyone so nicely, made jokes with the crew members, and included me in conversation even though I would just stare in awe and was so awkward, but she was kind to me. That was one of the best days I’ve ever had here in LA, it was a massive turning point for me.
PZ: Since you’re working for a major network, do you feel limited or even restricted to go out for any roles on other networks?
NAN: It hasn’t been too limiting in my experience. The main thing is no Disney Channel, which is pretty much a given seeing how I am a face of Nickelodeon. Because we’re pretty much their only competitor. Anything you do gets approval as long as it’s not inappropriate, and I don’t personally wanna do anything inappropriate anyway. And as long as I’m still playing this age range I’m in, there aren’t many limitations. The biggest thing would be not doing something that doesn’t shoot the same time I Am Frankie shoots. But luckily we shoot so fast and there’s a lot of downtime within the year, which has been great as well. You have the rest of the year to relax and figure out what else you’d like to dive into.
PZ: How’s living in LA been?
NAN: I love LA. It’s such a great city. It’s beautiful, and there’s every kind of geographic feature, like the mountains, ocean, desert, ocean, and everything’s like a ten-minute drive away (without traffic). I feel like I’ve gotten spoiled living here with the nice weather, but there’s so much going on and I love the vibe.
PZ: When you’re not on set, what are your interests or hobbies?
NAN: (Sighs) I really love ripsticking; it’s like a skateboard but with two wheels, and better than a skateboard because it’s easier to control, you don’t have to pedal and you get the momentum by swaying your hips. I do it every day, it clears my head, and now my neighbors know me too well. I also love popup shops and diners, like Candytopia here in LA. I love watching movies and binging shows. I’m still catching up with The Handmaid’s Tale, started Mad Men a little late, and Orange Is The New Black. I don’t like to limit myself to one show.
PZ: What were some of your favorite shows or movies you liked watching growing up? Any influences on your own career?
NAN: I loved watching Drake and Josh, Zoey 101, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Phil of the Future, and That’s So Raven. My favorite overall character was Maddie from The Suite Life, played by Ashley Tisdale. She was a big idol for me growing up, and she reminds me a lot of Dayton now; she was always the smart blonde, and there aren’t enough of those in Hollywood. I just loved Ashley and loved her in High School Musical as well, and thought it’d be cool to be on a kids’ network doing what she was doing. And she was a little older playing younger, which I identify with.
As far as movies, I liked The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan. When I was young, it was so cool finding out Lindsay Lohan was really just one girl playing two. And we got to do something similar this season on I Am Frankie, where Frankie finds out she has a duplicate called Eliza. So I got the experience of being put in a place where we were working with a split-screen, and alongside acting with Alex Hook, we had a double come in for us to act with too. And I was like “Wow, this is how they shot The Parent Trap! This is what I had wondered as a kid!”
PZ: Would you ever consider returning to theater?
NAN: You know, I wouldn’t say I’ve thought about it at all since being in LA. But I wouldn’t say never, because you don’t know where life is gonna take you. For this city and right now, it’s not on my radar. TV and film seems more permanent in LA. The feeling of a live performance is incredible, but I wanna shift my efforts into what this city is known for.
PZ: Did any of those “friends” or haters or doubters in school ever reach out to you now with the success you’d had?
NAN: (Laughs) Totally. Only every single person in the theater department. They’re in awe that I pursued this. Because everybody stayed in Texas and got practical jobs. People would message me and say “Wow, you’re acting on a show in LA”. I think it’s great to stay in touch with people and show that anything is possible and you can put yourself in a position to have the opportunity.
PZ: How are your fans?
NAN: Amazing! It’s a really cool age we live in, being able to connect with fans and people across the word because of social media. I think back to when I was obsessed with certain shows like Drake and Josh or Zoey 101, and how social media wasn’t a thing back then and we were unable to connect to them. So it’s so amazing now that we can get messages and tweet people back and reply to comments.
PZ: Nowadays when it comes to the power of celebrity and social media, how important is it to you to connect with fans and showing a positive influence?
NAN:It’s so important. The thing with younger people is that they’re at a point where everything is still new and they’re trying to find their way in the world. With so much uncertainty and hatred out there, especially with cyberbullying and stereotyping, it’s so important to remind kids that they’re amazing just the way that they are. The support for I Am Frankie especially is so important because what I hope fans get out of watching it is that they can be themselves. That’s sort of the underlying tone in because even she (Frankie) is different and not a human, and that’s okay. And if you keep being true to yourself, you’ll be able to find people like Dayton Reyes who will accept you for that and love you for that and it’s the best type of relationship you can have. Because it’s better than pretending to like something or be something else and having people like you for what you’re not.
PZ: Any advice to anybody who wants to get into the industry?
NAN: I would say take every opportunity you can because you never know what you’re gonna learn and who you’re gonna meet. I feel that so many people are afraid to take jobs that don’t pay very well or don’t pay at all. But if you have time, go to that set or meeting, meet as many people as you can, and just be a good person. Not just for the sake of getting a good job in the future, but for acknowledging that it’s a tough industry and we can all help each other and be the best person you can be for others.
PZ: And now we end with some self-promotion. Anything to plug in?
NAN: Tune into Season 2 of I Am Frankie coming September 10th on Nickelodeon!
Check out Paul’s CENTER STAGE interview with Tyler Patrick Jones here!
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