It’s an overcast morning in late May and Jay Ellis has spent the past 24 hours in New York City. Perched atop a couch in the Complex offices, the 35-year-old Los Angeles transplant springs into performance mode when recalling his reaction to the exclamation point that capped the first season of Issa Rae’s critically-acclaimed HBO comedy, Insecure. The show returns for a second season on July 23 with Rae playing another Issa (a far more messy Issa, at that) and Ellis as Lawrence—her now ex-boyfriend. 

Ellis’ appearance in Insecure’s first season finale was a stunning entry into the pantheons of unforgettable parting shots and backshots. His character, Lawrence—motivated by Issa’s infidelity—finally acts on the signals Tasha, the not-so-secretly-invested bank teller, spent the entire season throwing at him. It was shocking, in part, because Lawrence and Issa damn sure weren’t having that type of sex. 

With a heel turn and a long stroke, Ellis made Lawrence part hero, part villain. In that moment, Ellis had everyone’s full attention. The scene proved rich in shock value for the audience, and for Ellis himself. “I remember being in my trailer and just dropping my script,” the actor says, mimicking his surprise. “Issa’s trailer is to the right of mine, so I turned to the right and yelled, ‘ISSA! She said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘NOOOOOOOO!’ Then I went into her trailer and was like, ‘You wrote this?! Why would you write something like this?!’”

Despite Ellis’ horror, he still believes Lawrence (who covertly moves out of he and Issa’s apartment before turning to Tasha for comfort) handled the situation better than he would have. “That apartment would’ve been empty,” he says with a laugh, clapping his hands for emphasis. “She would’ve walked in there and thought Thug Yoda just stole everything. That apartment would’ve been emp-ty.

The dissolution of Lawrence and Issa’s relationship was inevitable. The guillotine had been falling in slow motion since the pilot episode: Lawrence’s sweatpants and lack of a haircut were as symbolic of their relationship’s stagnation as Issa’s complacency panties. The closer we get to Issa and Lawrence as characters, and the more we uncover about their relationship, the further apart they drift from each other. Regardless of how you feel about Lawrence literally finding solace in Tasha, it was a sign of life from a guy who had risen from the dark trenches of unemployment to finally getting his shit together in the tech world—with a humbling stint at Best Buy in between. Unsurprisingly, Ellis cannot escape the polarity of Lawrence’s actions. 

“There is a gender divide,” he says emphatically. “On one side you have Lawrence, the People’s Champ. On the other, you have Public Enemy No.1. I had an Uber driver follow me down my street with a dude in the backseat of his car. As I pull into my garage, they roll their windows down and yell, ‘YOU THE G.O.A.T., LAWRENCE! YOU THE GREATEST!’” And while Ellis says the response from women has been more critical (even chilly, at times), there’s still a hint of intrigue: “I feel like I’m almost about to get slapped every single time. ‘Why would you do [Issa] like that?’ they ask. But then they always turn and ask, ‘...But do you really be doing it like that?’”

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