Interview with Nelson Ellis: Actor Says Goodbye to True Blood & Lafayette

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Since being introduced as Merlotte's wisecracking, flamboyant short-order cook, viewers of HBO's True Blood, have fallen for Lafayette. Played by Southern-raised actor Nelsan Ellis, who just so happens to be straight, the character quickly became a fan favorite and remains one to root for as the death count rises during the show's bloody final season. No matter Lafayette's fate, this is far from a curtain call for Ellis himself, who can be seen as Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic Get On Up, produced by Mick Jagger. We caught up with Ellis to talk about becoming Byrd, his musical background, and saying goodbye to True Blood

How did you first get attached to Get On Up?
I got the script from Tate [Taylor]. I originally was supposed to audition for James Brown, but it's funny because I called Tate and I was like "I don't know which character I like more, James Brown or Bobby Byrd." In my heart of hearts I knew I liked Bobby Byrd more. For some reason I had a connection to him. I auditioned for James Brown. It went alright but he came back to me and said "You're not right for James Brown, but we all agree that you look like Bobby Byrd." They offered me Bobby. It was meant to be.

How did you go about learning who he was?
I did a lot of research. I came to really respect what he did and learned that he was not only that but he was the man behind the man. He was devoted to James Brown. He was his best friend and he co-wrote the songs. Bobby Byrd was a constant anchor and just a marvelous individual. On top of that I spoke to Jason Brown, who is James Brown's grandson, who worked on the film. I saw him every day. I spoke to James Brown's nephew who worked on the film. His bandleader for the past fifteen years worked on the film so I had three really great resources.

What was it like on the set?
It was an incredibly fun set to work on. During breaks we were singing and dancing. Craig plays the piano and all the band members are real musicians. On top of that Chad can really sing so we were literally singing every time we took a break. We were singing non-stop. In fact, when we did rehearsals, it would go overtime because we wanted to just keep singing and dancing.

What is your favorite James Brown song?
My favorite song to perform was "Sexmachine" but my favorite song changes daily. The one I constantly go back to is [sings] "Say it Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud."

Do you feel especially drawn to movies about the music scene?
It's funny because I've just been cast in movie now about Buddy Bolden, a jazz musician. The ultimate part that I want to play in my life is Jimi Hendrix, so I guess I'm drawn to music even though I can't sing or dance very well.

True Blood ending has been a bitter pill for many to swallow, but I imagine it's exceptionally hard for you and the rest of the cast. How have you been dealing with it?
It's unbelievably bittersweet because we've all got to move on but I truly feel like I'm losing a family. We've all had children and dogs during the show. We've seen babies being born. My God, Stephen Moyer, his kids were so young and they're teenagers now. I've watched his babies grow. We've all developed families during the show that we bring to set. It's not so much that I'm going to miss the character, even though I will, but I'm going to miss the families that I enjoy coming to set and seeing. I'm going to miss the families a lot.

Your relationship with Tara played by Rutina Wesley was one of my favorite onscreen friendships. Was it hard saying goodbye to her?
[Laughs] Don't be presumptuous. It's True Blood. People can always come back!

How do you feel about how Lafayette's resolution in the series? Do you find it satisfying?
I think he has a happy ending. Whether he has much time in the series this season as I'd like, let's not get into that, but he ends up happy. He takes command of his happiness. It's a season of redemption for him, which is something that he needed. He needed redemption, he needed happiness and I think the season gives him that.

There have been so many shocking and culturally discussed moments, were you ever wary or concerned about the direction that the show was going in?
In the first season there was a learning curve. But after that, let's be honest, we know what True Blood is. We knew that with each script. We signed up for the job so we were in it for the long haul. Whatever y'all need us to do. It's a job. We can't say 'No,' so we might as well just do it.

You're not able to do that kind of work unless there is a great director [Howard Deutch] behind the camera.
First of all, let's talk about how Howie is one of the best directors in all the world. He is my god. He is probably one of the best directors I've ever worked with and I've worked with a few. Howie just lets you do what you do. He'll point you in a direction if you've gotten off the beaten path, but he's not going to tell you how to do what you do. He's a storyteller. That's what he does that's wonderful. Where did you come from? Where are you going? Where are you now?

Lafayette's intimate scene with James, who was tremendously done by Nathan Parsons, was a jaw-dropper.
There's no better person in the world than Nathan Parsons would I have wanted to do the scene with. When you act with phenomenal actors, it makes your job much easier because all you have to do is react. All I had to do in that scene was react. Sometimes actors will dial it in when the camera is not on them, but when he was off camera he was giving me the same performance that he did when it was pointed at him. We were giving each other so much when we were doing that scene.

Is it surprising to you the kind of attention those kind of scenes get? Do you feel like there's still a stigma in Hollywood when two men are having a love scene?
It does surprise me. If the material calls for it, I am prepared to do it. It's about whether or not it's true the character. I'd do it again if it felt true.

On that note, and falling into the musical roles topic, apparently they're planning a True Blood musical?
I would love to do it if it happens. It would be great to get the gang back together. I've got a voice. I've got a little somethin' somethin'.

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