Nelsan Ellis biography
Born in Harvey, Illinois, in 1978, actor Nelsan Ellis trained at the Juilliard School in New York City and spent several years as a stage actor before achieving breakout success on television in 2008, when he landed the role of Lafayette Reynolds on the hit HBO vampire series True Blood.
Born in 1978 in Harvey, Illinois, Nelsan Ellis moved to Bessemer, Alabama, when he was 6 years old, following the divorce of his parents. Ellis and his siblings—"about eight, give or take," the actor has said—were raised in poverty and became wards of the state, moving constantly from relative to relative while also dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of being black in the deep South: "It was hell," Ellis later said of the experience. "You go back to my town, it's like going back to the 1960s just not a great place to grow up."
Luckily for Ellis, his mother, aunts and grandmother were all there to support him through his difficult childhood: "They were strong women. They told me if I wanted to do something, to be something, I had to make it happen." It was also in this poor, rural town in Alabama where tragedy struck Ellis's family: His sister was murdered by her husband in a horrific episode of domestic violence in 2004. "She was pregnant, and my brother-in-law shot her point-blank with a sawed-off shotgun in front of my six-year-old nephew," he later explained of the horrible event, which rocked the family and deeply scarred Ellis, who subsequently decided to leave Alabama in pursuit of a better life.
Early Theater Career
At the age of 14, Nelsan Ellis moved back to Illinois to attend high school, living with his aunt in a neighborhood near his father's house. A good athlete with no thought of becoming an actor, Ellis was persuaded by his teachers to take the role of Junie in the play The Colored Museum. Though he had become hooked on acting by the time he graduated, Ellis joined the U.S. Marine Corps and spent some time in the military. However, his love of acting proved too strong to ignore and he eventually enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City to study drama.
While at Juilliard, Ellis penned his first stage play, Ugly, a story of "unconditional love and how it masks a multitude of sins," according to the actor. Based on the horrific murder of his sister, Ugly sheds light on the overlooked problem of domestic violence in families. For the dark and provocative work, Ellis won the Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award. He would spend the next seven years immersed in the world of the stage and drama before making his screen debut in 2005.
Following appearances in a number of small television roles, Nelsan Ellis achieved breakout success in 2008, when he took the part of Lafayette on the hit HBO vampire series True Blood. While Lafayette is a small, relatively unimportant and one-dimensional character in Charlaine Harris's book series of the same name, True Blood director Alan Ball worked with Ellis to bring complexity and intrigue to the TV version of the character.
Alternately flamboyant and hyper-masculine, the TV series' Lafayette is a gay black man (one of the show's few non-vampires) from the South who breaks nearly every stereotype thrown upon him. ''I didn't like him in the books, but I loved the Lafayette I saw in the pilot," Ellis later stated. "He lives in a place where he deals with extreme scrutiny and adversity from everybody. He has to be tough and shrewd."
Straight in real life and a self-described "boring person," Ellis nevertheless portrays a dazzling and powerful Lafayette, and has subsequently gained immense popularity among straight and gay fans alike. However, many members of Ellis's family, especially his father, aren't fond of the character: "He believes the character is supporting an ideal that Christians don't normally support," the actor has stated. A Christian himself and a strong supporter of rights for the gay community, Ellis believes that his character, as well as the show in general, is about dealing with prejudice and discrimination and ultimately overcoming these obstacles: "It's about accepting what's different. You have to learn to not hate who you have to live with," he's said.
According to Ellis, fans often mistake him as a real-life Lafayette, which he finds largely flattering, but has also caused him to worry about how the movie industry will perceive him in the future. "I think African-American men particularly are fearful of playing a big personality role because Hollywood seems to always keep us there and can't see us beyond that. But I'm hoping that because I do movies in my off time that maybe Hollywood consistently sees me as a character actor," Ellis has said.
Two years after his True Blood debut, in 2010, Ellis starred opposite Diane Lane and John Malkovich in the film Secretariat, playing a decidedly different kind of character, a horse caretaker whose sexuality never comes into play.
In recent years, Ellis has been working on a screenplay based on Ugly called A Bird in the House, which he hopes to someday bring to a director and studio. He has also professed interest in doing a Tyler Perry film and in expanding his acting range even further over the next several years, as offbeat roles attract him more than conventional ones. For someone who has come such a long way from his difficult childhood, Nelsan Ellis certainly has a bright future ahead.