Actress fulfills her dreams

Published 12:08 am Sunday, April 18, 2010

NATCHEZ — Reading books as a child opened up a world of imagination for Nikai Clark.

The power behind the characters in these worlds inspired the Natchez High School graduate to become an actress.

Clark is portraying Louise, a waitress living in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, on the HBO television series “Treme.”

Clark said her father, the late Arnold Clark, was an avid reader and encouraged his daughters to read. Clark said during the summer he would pay her $20 for every book report she completed.

“While the rest of the kids were out playing, me and my little sister were inside reading,” Clark said. “By the time school came around, sure, the other kids had ran around all summer with their friends, but we had money in our pockets.”

The closest Clark can get to these worlds of imagination is to act them out, she said.

“These books instilled imagination in a little girl, and it helped bring out my creative side,” Clark said. “As I reached 8 or 9, I knew I wanted to act and become these different people doing different things.”

Clark said “Treme” was the first production she auditioned for since her father’s death in 2008. Before this series, Clark had not been cast in anything major.

“I was very nervous about the whole situation,” Clark said. “When I heard I had booked it, I was happy that it had happened but sad that my dad couldn’t be here to experience it with me.

“It was very bittersweet.”

Her emotions were mixed because her father, who had reared Clark after her parents divorced, had always been the first to tell her to follow her dreams.

“He would always tell (my sister and I) to not worry about what other people say,” Clark said. “‘Go for your dreams,’ he’d say. He was always our biggest fan.”

Clark, who still has her class of 1999 NHS yearbook, said she had fond memories of the school, and one teacher in particular.

“I was in drama class with Mrs. Shultze, who was my first drama teacher,” Clark said. “I’m not going to lie, I was one of her favorites, but she was one of mine as well, so the feeling was mutual.”

Being in the late Jaquelyn Shultze’s class was an exciting experience for her, she said.

“Natchez High definitely helped build my foundation for acting,” Clark said.

Working with David Simon, who was a producer for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” among many other credits, has been a wonderful experience, she said.

“David Simon said what a good job I’m doing on the television show,” Clark said. “It is very humbling.

“I have to pinch myself to make sure this is actually happening, and I’m not just lying in a ditch somewhere dreaming that this is happening.”

Louise, Clark’s character, works in Janette Desautel’s restaurant. Clark said working closely with Kim Dickens, who portrays Desautel, was another great experience for her.

“It is amazing to work with Kim — she has been in ‘Deadwood,’ has done episodes of ‘Lost,’ has been on ‘ER’ — she has been on things that are exhilarating,” Clark said. “She’s been through the ropes and is the nicest and coolest person that you could ask to work with.”

Connections like these are going to help advance her career, Clark said. She said getting this experience and networking with people of the caliber who work on “Treme” was sometimes hard to believe.

“Oh my goodness, I can’t even put it even words, which is very rare because I talk a lot,” Clark said. “I know dreams of acting don’t always come true.

“But when this came to fruition and surfaced, I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I guess I wasn’t lying to myself all this time about being able to achieve it.’”

Clark will appear in five of the 10 episodes in season one. HBO recently picked “Treme” up for a second season, which will be produced in the fall. The show premiered April 11 with approximately 1.1 million viewers.

“Treme,” which is filmed in New Orleans, airs Sundays at 9 p.m. and has a cast including John Goodman, Steve Zahn and Wendell Pierce.