Actor Nelsan Ellis has kept audiences entertained for five seasons on the hit HBO show True Blood. Playing the flamboyant Lafayette Reynolds has paid off, as his character was killed early on in the book series but continues to thrive alive on the series.
He moved into the big screen in several films like The Help and Secretariat, and has more coming down the pike.
Originally from Harvey, Ill., and an alumnus of a high school in Dolton, Ellis has now returned to his roots to begin a new project. Gathering a group of local friends together to form The Collective Theatre, the company has now created its first production, HooDoo Love, which Ellis directs.
After watching an early rehearsal, Nunn sat down to talk to the man behind the voodoo.
Windy City Times: Hi, Nelsan. Thanks for allowing me to watch you rehearse. What have you directed before this production?
Nelsan Ellis: I directed a play called Ugly that I wrote. My sister was murdered and as a way to sublimate, I wrote that play and directed it. I have directed a few short films but this is only my second time directing.
WCT: How did The Collective Theatre Company come together?
Nelsan Ellis: We all went to high school together and were thespians. We were the theater kids. We all were in plays together and have been friends ever since. Two years ago we went out to dinner and found ourselves in Chicago and just started a theater company. Now it is being realized.
WCT: This is your first production so the pressure is on!
Nelsan Ellis: [Laughs] I am directing our inaugural play so, of course, I am a maniac. I'm trying to get it right.
WCT: Did you want to be an actor in the show?
Nelsan Ellis: I couldn't be in the show because I didn't know what my schedule would be. I wanted to direct it once we pared down three directors. Being our first production I thought one of us should direct it. I put my name in a bag and was picked.
WCT: It looks like you are doing a great job. I saw improvements after your suggestions just now.
Nelsan Ellis: I try. I am an actor, too, so it is natural for me to talk the same language.
WCT: You attended Julliard, so you must have picked up some tips there.
Nelsan Ellis: I learned a whole lot. We had classes with directors. All of our teachers were directors, so Julliard might as well be a theater education in directing. The acting teachers spoke from a standpoint of directors. We would spend all day on script analysis and bringing out what is really going on in the moment. As an actor, I follow my passion; as a director, I figure out what I am doing, what I am saying, why I have those passions and where it is directed.
WCT: You are not one of those directors who likes to get up and act out the scene to show an example, right?
Nelsan Ellis: No. I don't agree with that method. Part of the beauty of being an actor is discovering all of that in yourself. I will get up and try to find the words to say it but I would never get up and act it out. That would be my point of view. My Ace would be completely different from other people's versions because we have different life experiences and takes on things.
WCT: The story takes place in Tennessee. Are you working on accents?
Nelsan Ellis: We aren't going to deal with accents. We are dealing with so many other things that are more importantlike this bikini budget!
WCT: What is the overall show about?
Nelsan Ellis: In a nutshell, it is about trying to have what doesn't belong to you. Most of the characters in the play want to have something that is not meant for them. It is meant for somebody else. The big story is [that] Toulou has a relationship with Ace. Ace gave his heart to his dead wife, Abby. Toulou wants him to be in love with her and possess him. He just comes in, has sex with her and goes. She wants to be married and have him forever. She schemes to Candy Lady to put a spell on him. He finds the bag for the spell and everything falls apart.
There is also a sub-story with her brother, Jib, who had been molesting her. That story is to show the way she is because of trauma by men. She is just looking for love and has never had it.
WCT: Is there content for gay audiences?
Nelsan Ellis: It is about how complex humanity is. If that is not for a gay audience, then I don't know what is. Absolutely it is for a gay audience, a white audience, a Black audience, because you are dealing with someone that just wants to be loved and people who love the wrong individual. I think that is universal.
WCT: What is your long-term goal for this theater company?
Nelsan Ellis: Like anybody, we want it to be successful. Success for us would be owning our own theater and producing work that is wildly respected by the public. We are just great friends who love theater and spend all of our money on it! We hope for the best and would like it to be like Lookingglass Theatre.
WCT: That space is breathtaking, so it's a good goal to have. You have some great projects coming out. Tell me about playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels' film The Butler.
Nelsan Ellis: It is a small part but there is a lot of pressure that I did it right! [Laughs] It was amazing working with Liev Schreiber.
WCT: You wrapped Gods Behaving Badly, with Edie Falco and Sharon Stone.
Nelsan Ellis: That was a fun project. It's a comedy.
WCT: It doesn't seem you are sitting around between seasons of True Blood.
Nelsan Ellis: It can make you lazy. It would be easy to wait until the show starts taping but I am literally taking a two-month break after this play just to take my kid to school and back. If I didn't have this True Blood thing, then I would be on the grind and on the hustle. I have been fortunate and God has been good. I have gotten some great projects.
WCT: Your character on True Blood was killed off in the books a long time ago so it must be a huge compliment that they have kept you on.
Nelsan Ellis: Alan Ball has really taken care of me.
WCT: Did you know someone that you modeled Lafayette after?
Nelsan Ellis: I modeled him after my mother. I had never even seen people like that until years later of playing Lafayette. My mother did the head thing and the hand movements. I can mix my mother's femininity with me and it comes off as real. I have been watching her move all of my life.
WCT: I read you were friends with Rutina Wesley, who plays Tara, before True Blood started.
Nelsan Ellis: Yes, we went to Julliard together. I got the part first. The part was between Rutina and another woman. Rutina was in a play in New York and couldn't fly for the audition to meet Alan Ball so the part went to the other woman. When she was able to come to meet him she then got the part; this was after the pilot was shot. She called me and said, "We are going to be working together, motherfucker!"
WCT: Her character has changed a lot.
Nelsan Ellis: Absolutelyshe's a vampire now.
WCT: They put you in the craziest costumes. Has there ever been one you refused to wear?
Nelsan Ellis: Yesonly once, when they tried to put me in a dress. Lafayatte is not doing full drag!
WCT: When do you start shooting again?
Nelsan Ellis: We start after Anna Paquin drops her babies. We are at the mercy of her womb. [Note: Paquin had twins the day after this interview.]
WCT: Would you ever move back here?
Nelsan Ellis: I would move back. My family is from Alabama and Chicago. My roots are so deep here. All of my friends that I have known for 15-plus years live here. I would live in L.A. for the winters, though!
Come see Ellis and friends' first creation, HooDoo Love, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., running Sept. 27-Oct. 25. For exact show times and ticket prices, visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org or call 773-935-6875.