Jay Ellis: Not All That ‘Insecure’

Since HBO’s premiere of Issa Rae’s network series Insecure hit the airwaves, the breakout hit has catapulted the show’s stars to another level. Co-star Jay Ellis, who plays the character Lawrence, the clingy boyfriend who procrastinates at times on Insecure, has become one of Hollywood’s rising actors.

Growing up as an army brat, Ellis traveled around the country with his military family — where his father spent several years of service in the Air Force. Having graduated from Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, summa cum laude, there he also played basketball, soon after joining the Portland Trail Blazers as an intern.

His love and passion for acting encouraged him to relocate to Los Angeles where he began auditioning and landing roles in television series — The Game, Grace and Frankie, Masters of Sex, and others, becoming a familiar face.

On his recent visit to Chicago for Macy’s Black History Month program, the 29-year-old actor had an opportunity to connect with fans on discussing his work as an actor and celebrating African-American history and culture. The Chicago Defender shared an candid conversation on his professional and personal journey.

Q:How did you land the role of Lawrence on Insecure?


A: A buddy of mine, Clarence, who’s in development, sent me the script. He emailed me and asked if I had read the script and I said, “No what is it?” He said, it’s Issa’s new pilot, HBO just bought it. I asked him to send it to me and I read it literally that night. The next day, I sent an email out to my agent, attorney and manager and asked if we could get on the phone. I told them I read this script called Insecure and I needed to be a part of this — how can we do it?It was super early at the time and they ended up not casting for another six months. I went through pilot season for a bunch of stuff that wasn’t “me.” It was around this time where “Empire” was this massive hit and

“HTGWF” was a hit and they were all in their freshman year. So, some of these shows that were coming out that year, networks were just throwing Black people wherever they could just to make it possibly seen. They were reactionary — and following whatever worked.

Q:Were you auditioning for other work while you waited on the call from Insecure producers?


A: I was reading a lot of stuff I couldn’t connect with and I knew what I wanted. I knew that the character that I wanted to be would have some authenticity to it, but would cover something that was real to me and to people I knew — whether it was friends or family. That was the Insecure script that I read. A few months later, I went in for the audition, a month after that they tested me. I booked it that day and then we went into a pilot.


Q:With this production, it started out as a webisode and worked its way into a network series — what is your take on the role that you mastered, being the lead character’s “on-and-off” again boyfriend.


A: I think all of us have that kind of vulnerability. Issa talks about it all the time. To say that we are all strong 100 percent of the time is not reality. Some of us may lead to 80 percent, or 95 percent of the time. There is a range of into which all of us have our moments of weakness, self-doubt, fear and strength, conviction and pride.We’re human at the end of the day and we all run on that. What Issa and our writers, Prentice Penny who’s our show runner, and Melina Matsoukas, our director, captures the visibility. They’ve found a way to tell those stories and visually capture it as well by the type of camera or type of shot — sometimes things are a little off for all of us. We need to recognize that because it makes us stronger.


Q:You’re been involved in Macy’s Black History Month program. Why is it so important for people to know about our history, not only from an academic standpoint but from a social standpoint?


A:The little things you find out along the way, for example I didn’t know that a Black man invented the internet. Are we making sure that our younger generations are hearing these stories? We need to make sure that we hear them ourselves because sometimes we get downtrodden and we get beat up. We don’t necessarily see what we’ve done or how proud we should be of ourselves and of our brothers and sisters who are standing next to us or before us — those who have paved the way. If you’re not familiar with Black history and you don’t know who these people are and you only know Black pop culture — hip hop for example — that’s not enough.

We’re not just one or the other — we are everything in between. It’s an education for ourselves, but for other people.

Actor, Jay Ellis speaks on Macy’s Black History Month panel in Chicago.Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

Q:Who influenced you coming up as an actor? What are the steps that you take to influence those who are coming up behind you?


A:My influences range from Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte to Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Jamie Foxx, whose career paths have been amazing.

I also feel the work that Viola Davis has been doing in the last 10 years is breathtaking — it’s amazing and inspirational. She can crush it, doesn’t matter what size the screen is, she is giving it her all, and the same thing for Kerry Washington. They give their all — ALL THE TIME. I’m also insanely inspired by Issa Rae. I look at what she does, still running her business on the digital side and creating opportunity in television with this show. Showing up as an actress, producer, director, an editor and picking music. I’m insanely inspired.

I’m like “oh, s—.” I don’t think I could do that!  That is what helps me to continue to move forward. Anytime I get to talk to people who are interested in pursuing a career or whatever it is, to do it with a sense of integrity and passion for what you do, I think is what I’ve learned from these people.

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