When he's not playing Issa Rae's adorable (if flawed) ex, Jay Ellis mentors kids in creative writing.
When he's not playing Issa Rae's adorable (if flawed) ex, Jay Ellis mentors kids in creative writing.
Danny Liao

Insecure's Jay Ellis Is a Dream Guy in Real Life

On Sunday night, season two of HBO’s Insecure started off with a bang, and it was Lawrence — Issa’s hella handsome, hella heartbroken ex, played by Jay Ellis — who got the episode’s first and last words and did all the banging.

Fans of the show have been not-so-patiently waiting to see what happens next between Issa and Lawrence, and for a few sweet, satisfying opening moments, the show gave them exactly what they wanted.

“I’m glad we’re finally getting the chance to talk,” a calm, well-dressed Lawrence begins at a post-breakup date.

“You know I get why you did what you did now,” he continues slowly, addressing her infidelity with compassion and sincerity. “And it hurts, but ...” — he pauses as his lips curl upward into an optimistic smile — “... hopefully we can move past it.”

Swoon. The guy that HBO’s most endearing heroine loves is taking her back! He is forgiving her. He is accepting her, flaws and all. And OMG that smile.

Of course, this scenario is too good to be true. And before members of the #LawrenceHive could hit send on their tweets of joy, Issa snaps out of her daydream and lands on yet another bad first date. Cue this season’s version of the first season's lipstick montage — a brilliant inner monologue rap set to the beat of a fork and knife in response to a revolving cast of mediocre men who are probably fine but all have the same flaw: They aren't Lawrence.

“It’s so messy, but it’s so real,” Ellis says about his character’s relationship with his ex this season, noting, “Everybody has sex, and everybody has good sex, bad sex and mediocre sex.”

Unlike Lawrence, Ellis, 35, is energetic, animated and communicative. The week before season two premiered, he relished the chance to talk about the show, analyzing various characters’ emotions and unapologetically gushing about his co-star.

“I just love this show, and if I wasn’t on it I would binge the shit out of it,” he says. “Issa’s character is so messy, but it’s awesome because we can all relate. We all have [messiness]. I think there’s a trait in every single character that you can identify either in yourself or someone you know.”

Ellis says he is drawn to the same characteristics that so many Insecure fans find attractive about the show: smart, witty writing, stellar acting and, above all, authenticity. He also loves the show’s distinctly feminine perspective. “It opens my mind to like, ‘Oh, that’s how you see it.'

“Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus — I put Issa Rae in that category of comic genius," he continues. "Look at that jury duty montage in episode one of this season. The work that she is doing is groundbreaking, memorable and the best of the best. And I’ve learned so much from her from different angles. She is an entrepreneur who runs multiple businesses, and the way she leads is so gracious. As an actress she fearlessly dives into the work. And one of the biggest things that she talks about as a writer is just telling a story that’s true to you, with characters you know and worlds you know.”

Ellis is watching Rae navigate an exploding career and taking notes. He has a few stories of his own to tell, and he is eager to seize the momentum from his stint on Insecure and continue to snag his own piece of the Hollywood dream. He just finished writing a pilot based on his childhood imaginary friend, and he is reading an increasingly high volume of quality movie scripts.

Ellis played basketball in college, but was jealous of the drama kids.
Ellis played basketball in college, but was jealous of the drama kids.
Danny Liao

In college at Concordia University in Oregon, Ellis played basketball and majored in finance and international business. But he says the desire to act was deeply ingrained in him and has always been his passion. Of the basketball scholarship and finance degree, he says: “I think I just wanted to make my parents proud.”

“I would be in the locker room and the guys are talking about, ‘Man, are we gonna beat Portland State?’ and in my head I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, but do you guys want to come to my play? I’m doing Pippin.’ I was too much of a coward to actually say that. I was actually always kind of jealous of the theater kids.”

An only child who grew up in a military family, Ellis entertained himself as a kid by creating new personas every time he landed in a new town. He picked up some Spanish at a bilingual school in Austin, Texas, so at a new school the next year he went by his middle name (Ramone) and spoke only in Spanish.

A good actor even in elementary school, Ellis found that the ruse worked for a few days — until a girl in his class made an astute observation. “You ain’t Spanish. You black,” she said. “Stop tryin’ to act like you can speak Mexican.” Ellis quickly jumped to correct her, informing her that he was speaking Spanish, and Mexican is a nationality, not a language. But he broke character and explained that to her in English, so the jig was up.

At another school in yet another new town, Ellis took a cue from his beloved Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and told all his classmates he had been adopted by a wealthy family. When a kid named Austin met Ellis’ real parents — a hard-working airplane mechanic father and a mother who was working overtime to put herself through college — he pointed out that they didn’t look that rich.

This time Ellis stayed in character. “I was just like, ‘They are rich! They are!'”

In a sense, he was telling the truth this time. Regardless of their bank account balance, his parents had ample intangible assets. Their commitment and love (they have been together since their teens) and their tireless work ethic made Ellis the confident, hard-working man he is today. They provided stability despite the constant moves military life required of their family. In every new house in each new town, Ellis remembers the consistency of his family of three gathering around the television. With his dad, he watched comedies — Sanford and Son, The Golden Girls and any movie starring John Candy, Steve Martin or Eddie Murphy. When his mom chose the movie, they watched dramas starring John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Sidney Poitier. “Guys with gravitas,” Ellis says. 

He fell in love with TV and movies in those living rooms, watching with his parents. “It made me want to be a part of it.”

At 21, when he moved to L.A. after college with $283 in his bank account, Ellis was cocky and over-confident. He worked a bunch of odd jobs, including a stint at a Beverly Hills gym where he was convinced he would hand a towel and locker key to the right guy and get discovered. He worked in retail and as a bartender, and his acting career floundered. Finally, he decided it was time to conquer his fears and take acting seriously. He quit his job, moved deep into the Valley and dedicated himself to studying the craft of acting. He paid his dues, driving across town for auditions he didn’t land, then slowly getting better at auditioning. He started meeting agents and managers. He booked guest appearances on numerous TV shows and a role on a pilot that didn’t get picked up. And then finally, in 2013, he landed a recurring role on BET’s The Game.

As Lawrence on Insecure, Ellis has found a role that connects profoundly with fans. People stop him in the street to talk with him about his relationship with the fictional Issa. They cuss him out for sleeping with Tasha the bank teller, and they champion him for being the nice guy and good boyfriend both Issa and Tasha want. To them, he is Lawrence. Although no doubt they would also crush on the real Jay, who is thinking about getting a dog with his longtime girlfriend and spends his free time volunteering on the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and mentoring kids in creative writing.

Ellis says he's glad it took a little longer than he'd hoped to find his groove in Hollywood. All those odd jobs gave him life experience to draw from. He knows what it feels like to don a blue polo shirt and khakis and punch the clock at a shitty job, and he has experience navigating L.A. as a single guy in his 20s.

“I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, which is both settling and terrifying," he says with a flash of that movie-star smile. "The roller coaster is going, and there is no jumping off at this point unless I just go nuclear. It’s a really interesting part of the whole journey.”

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