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The TVSA Interview: Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) (Reloaded)

Written by Tashi from the blog Interviews on 19 Aug 2010
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nelsan_2
Nelsan Ellis, HBO

Updated on 10 July 2017

Life is too short and tragic sweet reader and TV delivers a constant reminder of this.

True Blood star Nelsan Ellis died suddenly on Saturday (8 July). The cause: heart failure.

He was one of the most fascinating and sincere people I've had the pleasure of interviewing so I'm reloading our interview as a tribute to him.

RIP Nelsan.

----

The 2010 Emmy Awards arrive on the scene next week: on Sunday, 29 August in the US - Monday, the 30th here. When I heard that True Blood had been nominated for Oustanding Drama Series I thought it would be a perfect time for us to catch up with someone I've always wanted to chat to: Lafayette a.k.a Nelsan Ellis.

Also, the show will be back on our screens for Season 3 in the next two months: it premieres on M-Net Action on Friday, 22 October at 21h00.

One moment of news led to another and next thing I found myself thrilled:

Tashi: First, I have to gush - it's so cool to chat to you. When they asked if I wanted to interview you or George Clooney, I was like "George who??"
I'm a huge fan. I'm sure you must get that a lot?
Nelsan: Surprisingly to me, people respond well to the show and they seem to like Lafayette a lot, which is really surprising to me. *laughs*

Tashi: Why surprising? Because the show's so hectic?
Nelsan: Well in America you never know what to expect when you play a gay character so it was a little disconcerting to see how many people responded to this character - who's gay.
 
nelsan_6
Pic by John P.Johnson, HBO
 
Tashi: Lafayette's such a master of words and phrases - it's one of my all-time favourite things about him. What's your all-time best line of his across time?
Nelsan: *laughs* I've acted it but I can never remember the line. He says something to effect of: "Just because me and Jesus don't talk don't mean we don't date from time to time," ... something to that effect ...how can it be my favourite line when I can't remember it? *laughs*

The essence of the line is: just because me and Jesus don't talk, don't mean we don't ... what is it? ... basically he's saying that he don't talk to Jesus every day but he prays every now and again. In his Lafayette way - I'll have to go back and memorise it.

Tashi: What question do you get asked most about the show?
Nelsan: What's gonna happen next?

Tashi: Obviously you're not gonna say?
Nelsan: I'm not gonna say but everybody wants to know what's gonna happen in the next episode - and it's never anything specific: "What's gonna happen next week? What's gonna happen next week?" By every other fan.

I go, "I'm gonna spoil it for you if I tell you, you'll have to wait and see," and they're like "But we can't wait that long."

Tashi: Do you know what's going to happen in advance?
Nelsan: Yeah we know what's gonna happen before the episodes are on but the studio gets really upset if they find in the media that we've let the cat out of the bag.

Tashi: When you start filming the first episode of a new season, do you know exactly how it's going to unfold and end?
Nelsan: No, Alan Ball (series creator, writer and director) will tell us big important things - things that we have to add into the mix early on in our characterisation.

He'll say: "You're 'this' next season", so you know that you can start adding that from the beginning but we don't have any particulars until a week before we shoot.

We all brace ourselves every week before we shoot and get our scripts to see what we're gonna be made to do *laughs*. It's fun because you don't know what you're gonna be doing next but it can be disconcerting because you don't know what you're doing next - or if you're going to be naked *laughs*.
 
nelsan_4
Pic by John P.Johnson, HBO
 
Tashi: Yes, what's gonna be expected of you, especially in terms of blood and gore. I mean the show's so dirty - when you're covered in blood and gore does it make it easier to act a scene?
Nelsan: Yeah because you don't have to really expand your imagination so much when you're dealing with the elements. You just have to go: "This is real blood." It looks just like real blood.

I mean the dungeon scene in the second season really sort of flipped my wig because the body parts looked so real and the blood seemed so real, it put me in a panic so I didn't have to really act too much - I was in a panic because everything looked so real already.

Tashi: Like in a real-real panic?
Nelsan: Yeah I was in a real-real panic because I've seen blood in my real life so I'm like, "This is so real." But there's gonna be more blood in the next season. *laughs*

Tashi: *laughs* I'm sure. When Lafayette got captured by the vampires as he did in Season 2, it was such a radical change in his status - do you feel it compromised his character?
Nelsan: Oh absolutely not, absolutely not. When I saw the script I went to one of the writers, "What are y'all doing to me??" and they were like: "You're human."

Human beings can be put in a lot of situations and react and turn into completely different people. It's not because they're different people, it's just you're seeing sides of humanity from the specific person that you've not seen before - which makes people so unpredictable.

No matter how long you're married to them, no matter how well you think you know them, a human being will always do something that will surprise people because they're showing different sides of their humanity.

We just explored different sides of Lafayette so no, I don't think they compromised the character, they just showed different sides - which is a good thing that Alan Ball does. He keeps flipping his characters, completely on-side to find new colours to highlight.

Tashi: What would you like to see happen to Lafayette in the future - one of those flipsides?
Nelsan: I'd like Lafayette in the future to get married to a man, *laughs* to show America that they should let men and women who want to get married, get married.

I don't know, I don't know ... I'd like to see Lafayette get into his car and drive away from Bon Temps. Leave it all behind and start new in a big city somewhere because Bon Temps seems so small for him. I'd like him to drive away to New York or California and see a whole new world.

Tashi: He could do that, he's such a strong character he could carry a whole new series on his own and get in adventures. All the characters could but they're all so trapped aren't they?
Nelsan: Yeah, the American South is a strange, strange place because most people, stay. I'm from the South and most of my family, they quite love our little 500 ... 5000 people town - they don't want to leave. The South has a strange hold on people.

Tashi: Weird ... it's similar here with small towns actually. There's something about small towns, it's like everyone says they want to get out but they never do.
Nelsan: One thing a small town gives people, is safety.

Tashi: True, you know what you're gonna get when you wake up in the morning.
Nelsan: You know what you're gonna get and you know everybody, when you go into something big and unpredictable it's scary - at least that's how my mamma feels, my mother came to New York. I graduated from University in New York and my mother came and she was just a fish out water because everything was too big.

Tashi: I've seen numerous interviews with you where you've mentioned your mom and your parents and said that they don't like the show at all - they don't watch. Is this still the case?
Nelsan: With my mother - my father is starting - he's read the interview so ... I think it shamed him to attempt to stomach the show *laughs*, he tries, he tries bless his heart, but it's too much for him *laughs*.

He's trying because he's getting upset that I keep saying publicly that he's too Christian to watch the show but my mother, absolutely not, she's never gonna attempt to watch the show.
 
nelsan_5
Sneak peak into Season 3.
Pic by John P. Johnson.
 
Tashi: In terms of playing a gay character and you've mentioned all the controversy in America as well - what role does your own sexuality play in your portrayal of his homosexuality?
Nelsan: That's an interesting question *laughs* - I have to use substitution a lot, meaning I have to substitute what Lafayette likes with what I like.

It's almost like I - for example, I have to fall in love in the third season with somebody, with my love interest - when I look at him I don't see him - I see somebody else.

I see somebody that I'm in love with, that I wanna touch, that I wanna do things with so when the cameras in my face, then hopefully it'll pick up his falling in love so I have to use substitution a lot in certain places to make me not seem acty or phoney.

Tashi: Playing a gay character authentically as well and not being a stereotype, which you manage to do so brilliantly, it's very - complicated *laughs*.
Nelsan: Not really, I mean you study how people have done it wrong and then figure out ways to make it authentic through direction, like Alan Ball, who really cut me off at the root in my second audition. I almost didn't make it to the third 'cos they flat-out didn't like the caricature that I had brought in.

I went back to the drawing board and I had to build something real from my own fabric and using the substitution technique, which I got from school, was the biggest thing because the only thing that separates me and Lafayette is a penis *laughs* - once I take that out of the equation nothing separates us.

I can imagine it's there and imagine something else is there and just do what people do. When they're lustful - they're the same, when they want - they're the same, when they love - they're same, the only difference is the type of human being we want or the gender we want - it's the only thing that's different.

Tashi: My next question was gonna be: so, what's the most notable difference between yourself and Lafayette? "The penis," would be the answer to that then.
Nelsan: Yes he likes the penis, I don't. *laughs*.

Tashi: The show's been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series - in my opinion it should have been nominated in every category. Which series in the category do you see as True Blood's biggest competition for the win?
Nelsan: Mad Men,

Tashi: Really? No!
Nelsan: It's a slow show, but it's magnificently written, it's magnificently acted. But I think we're gonna kick their butts this year *laughs*.

Tashi: I hope so, I really do - when the nominations came out and I saw True Blood was only nominated in one category I was like "No." Do you have any opinion on it? Why do you think it is?
Nelsan: I don't know enough to say what I think, I don't know. The Emmy people may be right, I don't really know enough to say they're wrong. I love the show because I work on it, of course I think our actors are the best on TV because I'm supposed to.

I certainly think Anna should be nominated and Steve and Eric and Rutina but I don't know - we're a new show and I think sometimes we have to wait in line and they have to give the awards to the people who've been standing in line much longer than we have.

I don't know, but I'm always accused of not caring about awards. If we get a nomination then I get excited but if we don't it doesn't really bother me because our product I think is good and it speaks for itself and it doesn't need an award to - you know what I mean.
 
nelsan_3
 Nelsan Ellis, HBO
 
Tashi: I do. You mentioned that you've created Lafayette from the ground, up. Have you drawn on any of your own real life experiences with him?
Nelsan: Of course, absolutely. Lafayette is a concoction, just straight from my mother and my sisters as I relate to them through the years.

Certainly I've grown-up in rough areas - Lafayette has a tremendous amount of street smarts, he lives in the shady world and deals with a lot of shady people - I certainly have to draw from a lot of personal experiences having dealt with shady people.

I come from criminals *laughs* - I have a lot of not good people in my family and I've experienced them all my life. My parents were gangsters when they were teenagers, they started having kids, my parents started at 14 - I came along when my parents were 17 so I grew up a lot watching my parents, before my father found God, watched them be who they was.

My mother's father was a gangster and my father used to be the gun dude at my grandfather's gambling house.

Tashi: Don't, here I am laughing at you saying criminals but it's true.
Nelsan: Yeah so playing a character in this shady world, I sometimes will inform the writers: "Well no, in this situation he would do this if this is happening," or this is how he would say this," so I show them a little savvy about drug dealing and prostitution *laughs*.

Tashi: It's not a life you've chosen for yourself - it's like you're stepping out of it and commenting on it.
Nelsan: I'm glad because those experiences have certainly helped and informed my acting, yeah, all of my experiences growing up have informed every single character I've played thus far.

I'm glad I grew up where I did, and I'm glad my parents are who they are and how they are because all that stuff and those experiences have informed me and helped me as an actor. The actor has to believe who he is.

Tashi: In between scenes, when you're not filming, do you stay Lafayette or are you you?
Nelsan: I am me ... sometimes if I'm filming an 18-hour day or longer, sometimes the next day, Lafayette comes out a little bit in my mannerisms, or my walk. If I work long hours, I go home, go to bed, sleep with Lafayette, then get up and there's this thing ... which I never used to believe in.

I always used to go: "I don't understand why these crazy actors say they can't get out of a character - that's BS," but then I found that because I've played him for so long people will say: "You need to stop walking like that."

Especially with the eye-liner - it can stay on for like three days, I can't get it off, sometimes I stay Lafayette for as long as I have the eyeliner on, which is weird, very weird.

Ends

The Emmy Awards will be on M-Net Movies 1 on Monday, 30 August (early morning) at 03h00; with a delayed broadcast on M-Net and M-Net HD at 21h30.

Actors in this post: Nelsan Ellis

Shows in this post: True Blood

Channels in this post: HBO, M-Net Action



5 Comments

carino
19 Aug 2010 07:53

Lovely conversation, Tash... :-)

ReneC
19 Aug 2010 08:03

Great interview

sibuuu
19 Aug 2010 11:46

who is this guy?

Mag G
19 Aug 2010 17:47

ubani ke lo,uvumbukaphi??*confused*

wonderlad
10 Jul 2017 16:20

Aww Rest in Peace! What a great character!


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