BETTING ON NELSAN ELLIS
photos by YONI GOLDBERG
It’s not hard to imagine what Bon Temp’s own Lafayette Reynolds might have to say about the impending end of HBO’s addictive vampire drama, True Blood, this summer, after its 7th season. Surely he’d shake his head, body akimbo, and utter something along the lines of Oh well, sh*t was bound to end sometime… But then again, the colorful cook has always had a habit of doing the opposite of what’s expected, keeping everyone – from his diehard fans, to the versatile actor who’s played him all of these years – on their toes. So perhaps it’s wise not to hedge one’s bets. “(I’m) playing a character that is completely wild. You don’t know what is going to come out of his mouth or what he’s going to do at any given moment.”
Nelsan Ellis has sunk his teeth into quite a few meaty roles since his time at NYC’s famous Julliard School, but admittedly, none quite like Lafayette… “He’s tender sometimes. He’s tough sometimes. He’s hard sometimes. He’s feminine sometimes. He’s masculine sometimes. He’s a fighter sometimes. He speaks to the dead… I mean I’m playing such a multi-faceted individual and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to play a character like this again.”
It’s a reasonable doubt, even when you have the type of resume that Ellis does. After all, how often does an actor get to play someone so comfortable in his own skin, so unabashedly himself, that trifling things like external opinion or constructed norms mean little to nothing? Fortunately, much like his character, the actor isn’t one to ruin a moment by worrying too much about the future… “I take it as it goes. I mean, it’s bittersweet in the end, having worked with these wonderful people for 7 years, but I’m taking (the show’s end) as it goes.”
You don’t get to where Mr. Ellis has – surviving severe parental dysfunction, time spent as a ward of the state, and even a short-lived stint in The Marines – by sweating the small stuff. But you also don’t get there without a healthy dose of talent, passion, and gratitude either; qualities the Illinois-born actor possesses in spades.
Want proof? Just listen to him reflect on his years as Lafayette: “The most fulfilling part of playing Lafayette is actually playing Lafayette. It’s been a privilege to play him.” Or talk acting… “Being able to live in a character, transform all the stuff that I have inside of me, and all the stuff from my life –all the junk – and transform it into a character, to rebuild myself into a whole something anew and then start over and get lost in that world and forget about mine.”
And Ellis recently got to do just that, disappearing into the role of James Brown’s “bestie”, Bobby Byrd, in the much-anticipated Tate Taylor-directed biopic of the iconic soul man, “Get On Up” (due out later this year). It’s a part that required that he not only act his butt off, but also sing, play piano, and dance as well as the legendary Byrd, and as you can imagine for a chameleon like Nelsan, it was heaven. “I was in piano lessons, band rehearsal, song rehearsal… Everything was music on that set. Even when we were shooting, we would wrap and then go and rehearse. It was grueling. I have never worked so hard in my life, and I loved every minute of it.”
It helps that the cast – especially his good buddy, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown – was there every step of the way, and all equipped with their A-games. “Every single day on set I got to watch a brilliant actor act. I’m watching Chadwick act and the dude is brilliant… I’m watching Viola Davis act… Octavia Spencer… It was like I was going back to school.”
Having already worked on star-studded, A-list projects like Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (opposite Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which he played Martin Luther King Jr. (“I was a bit surprised that Lee offered (the part) to me, but right away of course I said yes. I would work with him all day long and twice on Sunday.”), it might sound like he’s being falsely modest, but the guy really is an actor’s actor, content to learn from and more importantly play with anyone who’s serious about the work.
Like Kevin Alejandro, who memorably played Lafayette’s sexy, sweet and ultimately doomed soul mate, Jesus, on seasons 3 and 4 of True Blood: “They asked me to come in an audition with Kevin, and immediately we had good chemistry. It was so easy to work with him…” Clearly the fans noticed it. In fact, many are still holding out for some sort of supernatural-spurned reconciliation – seriously, stranger things have happened… but Ellis knows better than to give any real deets on this last season. However he does hint that there might still be love in Lafayette’s future. And more importantly, he doesn’t flinch when proclaiming himself “happy with the character’s resolution.”
Not bad considering that Lafayette didn’t even survive the first book of Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse series (upon which Allen Ball’s show is based). But then again, when you have an actor as skilled, versatile, and fearless as Nelsan Ellis, you have a bet worth taking… hedging be damned!
photographer YONI GOLDBERG www.yonigoldbergstudio.com
stylist RICHARD PADEN
groomer MELISSA DEZARATE for ORIBE HAIR CARE and THE ORGANIC PHARMACY SKINCARE
photographer assistant ZACH BENGE
art department CARRIE KRAVETZ
Production Bello media Group | words by BRAD LIBERTI