Interview with Nelsan Ellis on Chicago Sun-Times
When actor Nelsan Ellis is on the set of HBO’s vampire saga “True Blood,” show producer Alan Ball says, “We all just stand back and point the camera in his direction.”
Ellis, Ball has said, “channels from his own planet.”
Ellis is, of course, from this planet. He grew up in the south suburbs — metamorphosing from troublemaker to an artist commanding critical acclaim and expanding parts.
For that, he credits two of his teachers at Thornridge High School in Dolton. Without their support, he figures, he would have ended up just another statistic.
Ellis isn’t the star of “True Blood,” which wraps up its first season Sunday night. The leads are Anna Paquin as Sookie, a waitress in Bon Temps, La., who’s cursed with the ability to read people’s thoughts, and Stephen Moyer, as a vampire named Bill trying to live among mortals. But Ellis owns most of the scenes he is in. Ball calls him “a genius.”
Ellis’ Lafayette Reynolds is a short-order cook and peddler of vampire blood (which, on the show, carries LSD-like effects). Oozing sexual energy, Ellis plays a flamboyant gay man whose feminine wardrobe and makeup are a stark contrast to his menacing, boxer-like body. Ellis presents Lafayette as a simmering force with a quiet but unmistakable inner anger, a bomb with a fuse sizzling faintly before the inevitable explosion.
In real life, Ellis might have indeed exploded if not for Thornridge High, especially teachers Tim Sweeney and Bill Kirksey. Without them, “I’d probably have five kids and a rap sheet,” says Ellis.
Born at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, Ellis moved to Alabama at age 6 with his mother after his parents divorced. Bessemer, Ala., a largely poor and black suburb of Birmingham, was a violent place. His mother was shot once and, as Ellis puts it, “I had to knuckle up there.”
At 14, he was sent back north to live with an aunt, Pat Thompson, in Dolton, not far from his father, Tommy Thompson, who works for a grocery distributor. Thornridge, with its emphasis on arts education, proved to be an oasis.
“I had no intention of being an actor,” Ellis recalls. His girlfriend asked him to audition for the speech team with her. Sweeney and Kirksey “reached out to me.”
Sweeney, now retired, was the chair of Thornridge’s fine arts department.
“Nelsan had such an unusual voice, an unusual manner and a kind of a cragginess about him that made him a little different from every other kid,” Sweeney said.
He cast Ellis, as a freshman, in the play “The Colored Museum” as Junie, a major part, “much to the chagrin of some of the older kids.”
“They said, ‘Why are you putting this young kid in there?’” Sweeney remembers. But Ellis “could internalize, and I could see the wheels turning and clicking. Once he got hooked, he just decided that was the world he wanted to be in.”
For Ellis, Thornridge was more than just acting.
“It was my first experience being at a school where you had teenage black men who were serious about stuff, and you had these teachers who cared about the students and paid attention,” Ellis said. “I was, like: I’ll do this because people seem to be serious. My years at Thornridge probably changed the course of my life.”
Kirksey said he knew Ellis would succeed “from the get-go” and would pick up Ellis from home to make sure he got to competitions on time. After Ellis graduated from Thornridge in 1997, Kirksey would send him money at college. “He calls me his child,” said Ellis.
Referring to Kirksey, a legendary drama coach at Thornridge, and himself, Sweeney said, “Sometimes we see in kids more than they see in themselves.”
Ellis ended up at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where past students include Oscar winners Robin Williams and William Hurt, Tony winner Mandy Patinkin and two-time Emmy honoree Andre Braugher.
But Ellis’ old life wasn’t far behind. While he was at Juilliard, his sister Alice was killed by her husband back in Alabama. Ellis channeled his pain into writing a play, “Ugly,” which was first staged with his classmates, then off-Broadway. Sweeney and Kirksey flew to New York for the premiere.
“[My sister] was in an abusive relationship for about five years,” said Ellis. “She was pregnant, and my brother-in-law shot her point-blank with a sawed-off shotgun in front of my 6-year-old nephew.”
Writing the play helped him to try to understand domestic violence and the reactions to it.
“You can’t ostracize the victims for staying,” said Ellis. “My sister stayed with him not because she was scared to leave but because she loved him and had a family with him. I call it the ugly side of love — you love a person so much you stay with them no matter what.”
“True Blood” is violent, too — someone is murdered just about every episode, some graphically so. But, said Ellis, “Violence, in reality, is strikingly different than from what you do on the set.”
Still, he said, “I can walk down the street and see someone with that energy. They don’t have to be physical at that moment, but if I see that same look I saw in people when I was growing up, that will shake me a little bit.”
Ellis, now 30, is excited about his featured role in an upcoming movie, “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. But he’s aware of the ephemeral nature of Hollywood fame.
“If this moment never happens again, I hope that it will be enough to show Mr. Kirksey and Mr. Sweeney that their investment in me wasn’t in vain,” he said.
source: Chicago Sun-Times