Interview with Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood”

When Alan Ball’s pulpy, sexy vampire mystery series True Blood premiered on HBO, viewers found themselves in the company of a gay character the likes of which they hadn’t seen before: Lafayette Reynolds, a gender-bender Jack-of-all-trades just as likely to win a barfight as he is to borrow your lip gloss.

As the show became increasingly complicated, so did Lafayette, who revealed himself to be an entrepreneur, a drug dealer, an Internet pornographer, and a fierce ally to his friends. He was certainly not a character you can sum up in a few words.

So when the opportunity arose to interview Nelsan Ellis, the young actor who brought this fascinating character to life, we jumped at it. Nelsan was accommodating enough to visit with me near Times Square, so we’re pleased to offer a few video clips to accompany the written interview. In it, Nelsan discusses playing a gay character for the first time, his Southern roots, working with Alan Ball, and what might be in store for Lafayette in the future.

Note: The discussion covers recent events on the show and also the source material, so there are possible minor spoilers ahead, although nothing major is revealed about the remaining episodes.

AfterElton: Congratulations on Season Two being renewed. Are you finished filming Season One at this point?
NE:
Yeah, we’re done. One is all wrapped.

AE: The last time we saw Lafayette, he was comforting Sookie after her grandmother was brutally murdered. Can you give us any taste of what’s coming up?
NE:
A lot of murder. A lot more blood. And it could be any one of us, actually. Certainly if they are willing to take out grandma, they are willing to take out anybody. So, yeah there’s some more murder.

AE: So there’s more nasty murders going on?
NE:
Well, this will probably be the most nasty one and we’ll find out later why this particular murder was so nasty.

AE: I spoke to Alan Ball a couple months ago. He said that your characterization of Lafayette was “like something from another planet.” But you’re not from another planet, right?
NE:
No, I’m from Alabama.

AE: And you came up here to Juilliard for acting?
NE:
Yes.

Nelsan discusses his Southern roots and how they informed his character

AE: Have you played gay characters before?
NE:
No. And for Juilliard I did a monologue from The Colored Museum, Miss Roz. It was just risky, edgy and people were like, God forbid! And it’s funny because after I did it, people thought that’s how I was. They thought that I was very [effeminate] and I was like, “It’s a monologue.”

AE: You sold it.
NE:
Enough to Adam and Emily, my managers. But yeah, I haven’t really played a character what I have today.

AE: What were your concerns in playing your first gay character on screen? Were you afraid of reactions from gay people or straight people or Southerners?
NE:
I didn’t care what straight people thought. I cared what gay people thought, to be quite honest. Because Alan didn’t want a caricature. He said that quite early on, because I was a caricature the first audition. My concern was if I was going to offend anybody. I don’t want to offend nobody. So I had great concerns with black people and gay people. Black people are going to say this, gay people are going to say this …. My career is going to be over. People are going to hate my guts if I don’t do this right.

But then I was like, forget it. Now I don’t care, to be quite honest. I’m going to do the work and if people either like it or hate it, I can’t be concerned. I actually took on Alan’s – his thing. He’s goes, I can’t be concerned with what everybody wants or what they like or dislike. I can only be concerned with what I think is good and if I like it and if I’ll see it, so I’m like, okay, I’ll just do the work and hope for the best. Be true to the story and to the work. And I have him there to rein me in or let me loose, which he is good at doing.

AE: Is he on the set at all times?
NE:
Pretty much. His office is right upstairs. He quite frequently comes down and just sits there and watches. As a matter of fact, he sees all the dailies. He’s good at going, “Okay Nelsan, this isn’t the theater. Now I want you to just do your thing.” Which means be bigger and bolder. I like to pull Lafayette back and he likes to let Lafayette loose.

AE: Have you gotten any feedback from either gay people or southerners?
NE:
Well, my sister – I get feedback from my sister.

Below, Nelsan discusses his sister’s reaction to seeing him in a gay role and his gay fans.

AE: So what did you know about this project going into it? Had you heard of the books?
NE:
No, I didn’t know nothing about it. When Adam called me, he told me to – he actually said, “I saw you do a monologue. It looks like you would be able to do something like this.” I said, “Sure. I’ll go to the audition.” And he told me to go read the books.

So I went and I read the fist book and I read the other seven because they’re a little addicting. And Lafayette is only in one. In the one that he’s in, he doesn’t appear that much. I think he has six words. And the next time you see him, he’s dead. You see his foot hanging out the window.

[Note: Nelsan later elaborated that this is strictly the book and not the series, at this point, and that much has been changed from the source material.]

So there was really nothing to base him off of, because he just said he had lipstick, he’s extremely effeminate and he has on red fingernail polish. That was it.

AE: When I interviewed Alan, he said that you brought a lot to this character. He really does credit a lot of Lafayette’s otherworldly presence to you.
NE:
Oh, really? He just sort of – you come to the audition and he tells you what he wants and you go, okay, and he didn’t find what he wanted for the first three auditions. It was a long process. He was just like, I don’t want him to be feminine. I don’t want him to be masculine. I want him to be kind of both and then in the middle and then up sometimes and down sometimes – that’s what I want. I don’t want to see a caricature. This is basically he told me what to do.

I mean, him having directed the first episode was quite marvelous because then he’s coaching me through the development of the character. There was a partnership between us and him because he’s saying, he’s coaching us through what he wants to see or what he envisions the character to be. At the same time he’s giving us room to bring our stuff to the table.

Below, Nelsan discusses his inspiration for some of Lafayette’s quirks.

 

AE: I hope you didn’t get the “smacking someone in the face with a hamburger bun” thing from anyone in your family.
NE:
No, that was scripted. That was my favorite episode. I don’t mind hitting people from time to time so that was my favorite episode because I got to, I got to throw some blows.

AE: Lafayette’s morality is a bit complex. He deals drugs, is a prostitute, etc. letting Jason dance in underwear, etc. How did you approach bringing him to life? Did you consider him a villain, a heroic character?
NE:
I actually considered him neither. My backstory is that there are some unfortunate things that happened in his past that have forced him to live a certain way. I think he’s like a starving person stealing food. I think he’s basically a good dude who’s doing what he has to do to live the lifestyle he wants to live.

AE: In terms of the other characters in the show, there’s a lot of gray area. Where do you think he falls in terms of that spectrum? You’re not the worst guy on the show.
NE:
No, but he will take advantage of you if you let him. I think he’s shady. I definitely think he’s shady, but I also think he won’t break you, either, you know what I mean? He’ll take what he needs and he may kiss you on the cheek before you go.

AE: Like when he gave Jason more vampire blood. Was that just a business decision on his part or did he have some kind of special . . .
NE:
Jason is his friend so I genuinely think that he was trying to show Jason this is a marvelous thing. If you really learn how to use it right, it’ll be a good thing. Because he takes it a lot. My character takes it, especially to have sex, I think he takes it a lot to have sex, so I think he was sharing it with Jason because Jason is quite the horndog. I think he thought he was doing a favor. Letting him in on the secret.

AE: Lafayette is a character that you hear about him having an active sex life, but we don’t see him doing it.
NE:
You will! He gets busy. I mean you don’t see a lot of it because we don’t really need to.

AE: We see enough of Ryan Kwanten to cover everybody else on the show!
NE:
I know, he’s a hero to my brothers. No, you’ll see [Lafayette] sucking face with somebody.

AE: Often there’s a double standard with the way gay characters are created on screen compared with straight couples. Alan did a great job with Six Feet Under in putting gay and straight intimacy on a level playing field. But for the first half of True Blood we hadn’t really seen that.
NE:
I don’t know if they are going to give him a relationship with somebody in terms of this is – they’re swapping love. He’s probably too much of a businessman right now that he holds himself hostage to a relationship or if he shares himself to make money from it. But people love him. People do love him.

AE: It’s not that gay physicality isn’t something that needs to be off-screen.
NE:
Oh, no. There is action. There is some. And I dare say that the moment that I do have is . . . well, you’ll all have to see. I ain’t going to say nothing.

AE: Can we play a fun character word association game? Would you rather answer as Lafayette or as Nelsan?
NE:
Nelsan.

AE: Sookie.
NE:
Sexy.

AE: Anna Paquin.
NE:
Smart. She is very, very, very smart.

AE: She started in the business at such a young age, it is difficult to make the transition to an adult actor. She must be smart.
NE:
She is very, very smart.

AE: Tara [Sookie’s friend].
NE:
Fiery.

AE: Rutina Wesley.
NE:
Rutina? Meek. She is nothing like her character [Tara]. You yell at her, and she’s gonna start crying. She is nothing like her character. I went to school with her. She is nothing like Tara.

AE: How does she do that, how does she turn that on?
NE:
She’s a good actress. She is nothing like her character. She doesn’t yell. If you yell at her, she’ll get teary-eyed. She hides behind her husband.

AE: She gets powerful!
NE:
She does.

AE: So you were friends before the show?
NE:
Yes.

Rutina Wesley, Nelsan Ellis and Anna Paquin

AE: Alan Ball.
NE:
Laid back.

AE: Really?
NE:
Yes, the man is laid back. He always acts like he has had two shots of vodka. He just chill all the time. It makes for a very, very, very chill set. There’s no yelling. There’s no shouting. Everything’s just chill, all the time.

AE: What about Jason?
NE:
Jason, uh – sexaholic. Is that a word? Nympho.

AE: Ryan Kwanten.
NE:
Cool.

AE: You guys have a lot of scenes together.
NE:
We love working together. We both like ad-libbing and when we get together, it just works out.

AE: Do you get a lot of freedom to do that?
NE:
Yeah. I mean, Alan can chose not to use it, but in four episodes, two of them we can just sort of, he always goes, “Okay, just do what you want on this take.” And all of the directors do that so we’ll have at least two takes where we just sort of say whatever the hell we want to say and do whatever we want to do. It’s a good time. Ryan is – we have a good time.

AE: Arlene.
NE:
Racist.

AE: Really?
NE:
Arlene is so biased, yeah. I think she’s racist, too. That’s just – I think Arlene is like backwater. I think Carrie [Preston]makes a choice to make it that way which is why her accent is so like ridiculously backwater. She sounds like the person my grandmother worked for way deep in Alabama. Yeah, that’s how Carrie chose her accent.

AE: She has that line about the good doilies . . . And what about Rene [played by Michael Raymond-James]?
NE:
Rene is shady.

AE: Shady?
NE:
That actor makes marvelous choices and you put it together mid-season. In rehearsals while we were shooting, there was a point in the seventh episode where I looked back and I went, “That dude is brilliant.” Because he is very, very shady. Very, very, very shady.

AE: As an actor, what kind of projects are you drawn to? Are you more a theater guy? Movies?
NE:
Movies. Yeah, I went to school for seven years straight so theater … I was like, if I don’t see another theater again . . . It was just seven years straight of just theater. I love movies and I’m drawn to stuff that’s weird. I get to be weird. I like to play characters that are offbeat, because I’m offbeat. I like to – the straight dude, you know the straight guy, I’m not really interested in that. I want the crackhead, junkie, you know what I mean? Insane person. Something that’s a little off-kilter. Everything that my parents are completely against because they’re Southern Baptist.

AE: Have you done anything yet?
NE:
Yeah, I did a couple movies.

AE: Anything specific that you really enjoyed?
NE:
Yes, I did The Soloist with Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx and Catherine Keener. And Robert Downey, Jr. is a god among men. All my scenes are with him and he’s marvelous. He’s marvelous. We had one scene where the man was so good that, said, “Damn, he’s so good,” in the middle of the scene, and they’re like, “Cut. You have to not say that.” He’s good.

AE: Thank you so much for stopping by, it was a pleasure to meet you.
NE:
Thank you sir.

AE: I think we’re all enjoying the show and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes up for you and for him.
NE:
All right. Keep watching. It gets better and better and better.