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?’”
That interest, carnal desires aside, comes from one of Insecure’s greatest strengths: relatability. Love or hate its characters, there are, at the very least, traces of people you know in them. Lawrence’s struggles—in his career, in his relationship—are identifiable. That’s why he stands out as the everyman, even when he’s fucking up. Credit that to Ellis, whose charm and expressive nature bring a familiarity to Lawrence’s highs and lows in this breakout role. Lawrence left that blue Best Buy polo (a totem of he and Issa’s failed union) behind when he moved out of their apartment. And as Lawrence, Ellis has left a lasting impression as well.
As an actor, Jay Ellis is used to inhabiting different people and scenarios. Growing up a military brat, he’s also used to inhabiting different places. “My dad was in the service, so I went to 12 schools in 13 years,” the South Carolina-born Ellis explains. “I bounced around a ton—like, literally every two years we were on the move and I was in a new school.” Because he was an only child and never stayed anywhere for too long, Ellis was always in search of a way to fit in. His attempts to penetrate new environments became his earliest performances.
“I found myself recreating who I was every time I went to a different school to see if the character worked,” he says. “I fell in love with these characters [I created] and telling their stories, and over time, I started to learn about acting.”
Ellis’ family eventually settled in Tulsa, Okla. before he started high school, and he found more success assimilating through sports—primarily basketball: “I was tall, so it was an easy way to melt right into a group of kids who had been together for years.” The 6’4” Ellis was good enough to play small forward for Portland, Oregon’s Concordia University, where he also took some voice and movement classes, building on what he learned during high school theater class. Still, the demands of being a student athlete didn’t allow Ellis the time to fully invest in acting.
By his senior year in 2003, Ellis, well-aware that he wasn’t NBA bound (“I wasn’t delusional,” he says), realized he needed to pivot. One of his teammates was dating a Portland Trail Blazers dancer, so he asked if she could direct him to someone in corporate on the team side. She had a friend in marketing and public relations, which led to an internship. Ellis was completely unaware of what he was getting himself into. At that point during the early aughts, the Trail Blazers had been christened the “Jail Blazers” due to their reputation as the league’s most unruly team. Ellis also notes that their “Weed Blazers” nickname was extremely difficult to shake.
“There was all kinds of trouble,” he recalls with a smile. “Damon Stoudamire's house got broken into and somebody left weed on his front doorstep. Bonzi Wells got into a fight with somebody. [Stoudamire], Rasheed Wallace, and somebody else drove to go play the [Seattle] SuperSonics, then drove home from Seattle and got pulled over with weed in the car. I felt so bad for Maurice Cheeks—such a great coach, and he literally had the Bad News Bears.”
For someone who had never written a press release before, the constant threat of damage control was understandably intimidating. One of Ellis’ PR responsibilities was setting up the room where postgame interviews were held. He says entering it induced regular panic attacks from the PR staff because no one knew what a reporter would ask on any given day. Internships are supposed to provide “real world” experience; Ellis’ experience with the Trail Blazers taught him how to stay out of trouble. It spawned a plethora of great stories to tell at parties, but sports marketing couldn’t override his passion for acting.
After completing his internship, Ellis switched his focus to modeling, which he randomly fell into during college. He figured working for clientele including Portland-based sportswear companies like Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear would be an easy segue into acting. He’s amused at remembering how wrong he was, referencing a casting where he was among 50 models asked to try on the same pair of underwear. “I looked down at the underwear and realized there were 20 or 30 dudes in front of me,” he says with disgust. “I was like, ‘I’m not doing this. You don’t value me as a person.’”
A motivated Ellis moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and began doing everything under the California sun to make it as an actor. Acting classes. Headshots. Casting workshops. Reading every script he could get his hands on. Coaching friends, then having them coach him. Eventually, it paid off: from one-liners to two, here and there. In 2013 he landed his first major role as Bryce Westbrook on The Game. But in an ironic turn, Ellis found his greatest success to date in Lawrence's failures on Insecure.
“I think we’ve all had low points in our relationships, and I think that’s the thing that’s so relatable,” Ellis says. “We’ve all had moments of frustration or moments where two people are just banging their heads and seem like ships passing in the night, or roommates, or two people who just occupy the same space.”
The ugly truth about Insecure’s first season is that the relationship at its core needed to end. Issa and Lawrence were well past their expiration date as a couple, and they’re equally culpable for their demise. Was Issa a good girlfriend? Absolutely not, but Lawrence was just as deficient—a fact Ellis is quick to point out. “I don’t think Lawrence is a good boyfriend at all when we meet him,” he says. “There’s no way around that. He had to have started out as one, but I think somewhere along the way he became a bad version of himself. I definitely think Lawrence got lazy. I think he got complacent and far too comfortable: he didn’t support, he didn’t provide, he didn’t do all of the things he was supposed to do.”
And still, Lawrence stands out as a somewhat divisive avatar for “good guys” everywhere. Being a “good guy” doesn’t absolve him of his mistakes, and Insecure is genuine in its portrayal of “good” people as flawed. According to Ellis, that’s what makes the show’s title so apt. “Issa, Lawrence, and even [Yvonne Orji’s] Molly are ridiculously insecure,” he says. “And they’re not dealing with their insecurities, they’re hiding from them or projecting them onto other people.”
Inertia, triggered by self-doubt, kept Lawrence and Issa together—and it’s ultimately why they split. This sets up a second season where both find themselves floating face-down in unfamiliar waters: single life. An untethered serial monogamist is a person without a country, even when indulging in their freedom. That, Ellis says, makes Lawrence the closest thing to himself and his friends that he’s seen on television thus far.
"The playboy lifestyle is not for everybody, and I think it’s really for far fewer people than we’re made to believe."
“Who does Lawrence become? Man, Lawrence doesn’t know,” he says with an exasperated sigh. “He’s at a fork in the road, but instead of two paths, there are four. This is a dude who, in his mind, was in love with this girl. And though they weren’t married, and though it took him a while to come around and get his shit together, he was in love. She was a massive part of his life. The playboy lifestyle is not for everybody, and I think it’s really for far fewer people than we’re made to believe.” Ellis’ comfort in the character of Lawrence is evident, but he prefers not to get too content in the moment. “I like to be fulfilled in telling stories and in creating, but I’m just a curious person,” he explains. “I love to study people and pick apart what makes a person or character who they are. I never want to get complacent in that.”
This curiosity has led to Ellis exploring other creative avenues, including directing and producing. This includes an eight episode web series, Hard Medicine, a comedy about an urgent care clinic in a black neighborhood, that he’ll be premiering in July on his YouTube channel.
Ellis is eager to use his platform to give the abundance of overlooked black creators a deserving spotlight. Watching Atlanta win two Golden Globes at the top of the year while Insecure and black-ish earned nominations was inspiring, but there’s certainly room for more. The bar shouldn’t stop at representation, which, at a point, begins to feel like a participation trophy to pacify black audiences. Ellis agrees that these audiences—and fellow creators—should demand more.
“We have so many amazing stories,” he says. “We all come from different places and our experiences in similar neighborhoods are completely different. You and I could’ve grown up on the same block, but our experience could’ve been insanely different. Where your family came from versus where my family came from is different even though both of our ancestors were slaves.”
Ellis’ work doesn’t only focus on the film industry—his philanthropic efforts are even more impressive. He’s partnered with HIV/AIDS research organization amFAR to raise awareness about the disease in the black community. He’s also worked with the L.A.-based non-profit InsideOUT Writers, which teaches creative writing classes inside of juvenile detention centers, which are mostly filled with black and brown boys. He says it’s an opportunity to teach them that their current situation doesn’t define their lives, it’s what they do moving forward that does. “We have an insanely high success rate,” Ellis adds. It all harks back to the work Ellis did with AmeriCorps in Oregon during his undergrad days.
Jay Ellis’ 13-year stay in L.A. is his longest stretch living anywhere, but living in Hollywood hasn’t changed him all that much. He still plays basketball at a community center in the middle of West Hollywood every Sunday that he’s home. He admittedly still gets starstruck when encountering certain celebrities. And although he’s now popular enough to elicit random praise from Uber drivers and their passengers for Lawrence’s act of savagery, he’s neither too big, nor too proud to beg for souvenirs from Insecure’s set. That’s how he procured one of Lawrence’s now-infamous Best Buy polos.
“[Ayanna James, Insecure’s Costume Designer] let me have one of the Best Buy polos because I begged her for it,” Ellis says with a radiant smile. “I have one, and I think the other two are in storage. Now I’m actually curious. I want to go find them—I might take a selfie with one.” It’s refreshing proof that finding success in Hollywood doesn’t always equate to going Hollywood.