A version of this story about “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
There’s a somber reason Niecy Nash-Betts is happy about her fourth Primetime Emmy nomination. “I feel like it brings more attention to Glenda Cleveland and her story (that was) going unheard, overlooked and underserved,” Nash-Betts said of her character in “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the first season of a planned Netflix anthology series, “Monster,” from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan.
Though “Dahmer” is ostensibly focused on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, it
seeks to give a face, voice and story to his victims. One of the indirect victims was
Cleveland, Dahmer’s neighbor, who repeatedly called the police after suspecting that the Milwaukee killer was harming people in his apartment. Despite her pleas, Cleveland was ignored by police. As a result, Dahmer’s cycle of luring young men to his apartment before torturing and murdering them continued for months.
“This is a dark series, but it does shed light on the victims,” Nash-Betts said. “For so many years, we’ve all known about the story of Jeff Dahmer. But did you ever hear about Glenda Cleveland? I had never. And the victims were all kind of mashed together in the retelling. The unpacking of who they were and their stories and their families and the lights that they were in the world was something I did not know.”
“Dahmer” follows the 2019 limited series “When They See Us” in showing how easily Nash-Betts toggles between comedy (“Getting On,” “Claws,” “The Soul Man”) and drama. She even filmed episodes of Roku’s “Reno 9-1-1!” at the same time as “Dahmer” — “sometimes on the same day,” she said. But she’s less interested in the nomination as a showcase for her range than she is in how it spotlights Cleveland’s work and legacy.
“Even in the end, after Dahmer was already arrested, to go back and say, ‘Where’s the monument to the victims? Where’s that?’” Nash-Betts said. “She didn’t give up. That spirit of resilience was one of my takeaways from playing her.”
Though the reaction from victims’ families has been divisive, Nash-Betts, whose brother — Michael Ensley — was fatally shot at 17, understands this story’s weight.
“What I will say is that it is one of the most painful things that has happened in [my] life,” she said. “My brother was a victim of a violent crime. I would welcome any opportunity for him to be known and understood and felt. And so I hope that, if nothing else, [the Dahmer victims’ families] feel that their family members were represented well.”
“Dahmer” was also “one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done” because her own family was on the set: Nash-Betts’ real-life daughter played her daughter in the series. Dia Nash’s presence made the sorrow of the victims’ relatives all the more painful.
“Parents are not supposed to bury their children,” she said. “It’s not the natural order of things. That’s why there’s no word for it. It was the emotional weight that came along with this job that really cost me something. I thank God for my spouse because that was my soft place to live.”