“I always wanted to act,” Jay Ellis tells The Root while reminiscing about his earliest aspirations. “I had taken a couple of random theater classes as electives when I was in college, but I [also] played college basketball. I couldn’t tell my teammates ‘Yo, y’all want to come check me out in Jesus Christ Superstar?’” he adds with a laugh.
In time, the South Carolina-born military brat put his reservations aside and has since been steadily rising in the entertainment industry. He initially got his start on the modeling scene in New York City, but after a rather unsanitary audition abroad, he completely changed his prospective path (“‘At least 25 dudes had those underwear on before me, and probably another 20 dudes are gonna put this underwear on after me. This is not what my grandma and grandpa fought for, this is not why I’m here,’” he recalls thinking). He moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, and has been grinding ever since.
Since hanging up his drawers, the 38-year-old has been seen on big and small screens in shows such as The Bold and the Beautiful, NCIS and The Game, and more recently in the 2019 horror film, Escape Room. But he’s perhaps most notable for his role on HBO’s hit series Insecure as Lawrence Walker, the polarizing ex-boyfriend of Issa Dee (portrayed by Issa Rae). The show premiered in 2016 and airs its highly-anticipated fourth season on April 12.
Throughout his time on the series, viewers have witnessed Lawrence walk the line between all-around good guy to Fuckboy Supreme and back. Ellis says Lawrence’s ability to divide audiences stands as a testament to the power of storytelling, which is one of his favorite things about this particular role. His work in Insecure has already won him an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2018.
“Whether you hate him or whether you love him, at least he evokes some kind of emotion in you,” he says before shouting out the character’s passionate internet fanbase, #LawrenceHive, for their support. “I always say that if you’re not talking about it, then I didn’t do my job, or I shouldn’t have [chosen] that project. When the whole ‘Lawrence Hive’ stands up, you know I’m proud,” he chuckles.
Ellis also sat in the director’s chair for an episode of Insecure this season, which he hopes is the start of something potentially greater.
“I’m happy with working with Insecure for a little bit, but when the time is right, making my [directing] break in a feature film,” he explains. “I want to do the things that I love [and am] passionate about… things that kind of lend themselves to my creativity and my artistry, and I think for me that, that means film.” He also dreams of directing for other series like the “brilliant” Ramy on Hulu and FX’s Emmy-winning show Atlanta.
Never a one-trick pony, Ellis is certainly on his way to manifesting that goal. He co-produced the forthcoming Blumhouse film Black Box starring Phylicia Rashad and Mamoudou Athie, which is currently in post-production. He also served as a screenwriter and co-executive producer for episodes of Cake, FXX’s live-action animated series; they showcased their work at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But if you think all of these side hustles mean he’s leaving acting, you’re dead wrong. In fact, he’s only scratched the thespian surface, and 2020 is shaping up to be a huge year for him, professionally.
Ellis will appear in the upcoming FX on Hulu miniseries Mrs. America, which tells the true story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The show, set to hit the streaming service on April 15, features an all-star cast of Cate Blanchett, Uzo Aduba, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, James Marsden and many more. Ellis will portray Franklin A. Thomas, the real-life businessman who was president and CEO of the Ford Foundation for nearly 20 years.
“I think the greatest joy [of acting] is getting to tell stories of people who look like me,” he says of the role. “Getting to see these people on-screen makes me happy to be a part of [these projects], and telling those stories and [knowing] that somebody’s going to see it and feel represented.” He believes Mrs. America’s significance lies within its ability to “dial back” to the past in order to understand the movement, and he applauds how the series celebrates the group of women who “stood up and fought” for something so integral.
The acting buck doesn’t stop there; Ellis will test his need for speed as pilot trainee “Payback” in Paramount Pictures’ Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise film. Cruise will reprise his iconic role, and Ellis gushes about the veteran actor’s humility and care on set to The Root.
“I remember the first time I met him, he walked in and he was like, ‘Hey Jay, I’m Tom Cruise,’ and I was like, ‘Why are you introducing yourself, you’re the biggest movie star on the planet!’” he laughs. “He’s insanely giving as an actor, like, he’s right there with you. It’s such an amazing quality to be a guy like that, but also still be so [genuine].”
Ellis also touts Top Gun: Maverick as a “surreal” full circle moment considering his father, grandfathers and step-grandfather were members of the U.S. Air Force. He says that the camaraderie on set reminded him of the “connection” that his father and his military friends had as officers in the military.
“I spent the first 13 years of my life going on and off Air Force bases all over the place, and now, all of a sudden here I am as an actor pretending to live that same life,” he says. “In some ways, it didn’t feel real, and in some ways, I felt like I was my dad. It was crazy.”
As if his life wasn’t jam-packed already, Jay Ellis recently added another role to his resume: first-time father. In November, his partner, actress Nina Senicar gave birth to their daughter, Nora Grace. Out of all of the ways parenthood changes people, Ellis thinks that he’s become more conscious about time and energy—which are both too precious to waste—since becoming a father.
“I’ve [noticed] what I spend my time on, and how efficient and effective I can be with that time,” he says. “I think that’s not only for my own time––I realize I don’t want to be wasting other people’s time as well. I think that also folds into like, you know, making sure that I’m providing [for my family], I think it feeds all of those other things.”
One thing is for sure: Jay Ellis is not wasting anyone’s time; and judging by how well he’s navigating the entertainment space, he’s not wasting his moment, either.