It’s a bit late in the morning on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, and Jay Ellis is still in bed. Although he’d gotten up earlier to brush his teeth, a shower is still on the agenda. Right now he’s luxuriating in his comfy pillowed bed amid sky blue sheets, looking out of his window. A random stack of books by Tim Ferriss, Steven D. Katz, Jennine Capó Crucet and his friend Conor Knighton have made a home on his nightstand. He’s officially beard gang, but that happened before self-isolation.
“When everything kind of hit,” he tells ESSENCE, referencing the state-mandated lockdown in California due to the novel coronavirus, “it was the first week this year that I had not been on a plane.”
Being homebound is new for Ellis. After filming season four of the hit HBO series Insecure, the model turned actor officially got his wings, starring alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, which was just pushed from its original June premiere date to one in December. Then came a turn in Mrs. America, the FX on Hulu miniseries that dropped Wednesday, in which he portrays philanthropist Franklin A. Thomas, the real-life former Ford Foundation president and CEO, before going behind the scenes to help his mother produce her very first show, Behind Her Faith, on the Urban Movie Channel.
“Then I was directing and then becoming a father,” Ellis says, noting that quickly after welcoming his daughter, he refocused to produce Amazon Prime’s forthcoming feature film collaboration with Blumhouse, Black Box. It stars Black Hollywood royalty Phylicia Rashad and Uncorked’s Mamoudou Athie. “I was back and forth to New Orleans every week, and I was just so exhausted that God was like, You need to sit down, and this is the week to do it.”
Ellis spent the first week of self-isolation with his fiancée Nina Senicar and their 5-month-old daughter Nora, worried he “might have been exposed” thanks to all of those flights. And a new father can never be too sure. As the second week of self-isolation sunk in, and the actor realized he’d have more time on his hands, he indulged in the medium that helped secure his seat at Hollywood’s cool Black kids table. He binged Love Is Blind, The Outsider and Black Twitter’s reigning favorite, Tiger King. The docuseries about battling zoo owners hit differently for him since Ellis went to high school in Oklahoma and remembered his cousins actually going to Joe Exotic’s big cat zoo back in the day. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s who they would talk about ten years ago,'” he says. “The whole thing was crazy, man.”
But the series everyone can’t wait to watch, especially now that we’re all in the house, is Insecure. In an HBO show that centers on four Black women living out different realities in Los Angeles, Ellis’s character, Lawrence, has managed to swarm its own hive of men, who see him as the patron saint of respectable f—boys. After his on-screen girlfriend of five years, Issa Dee, played by the show’s creator Issa Rae, cheated on him, Lawrence got the ultimate payback in a revenge sex scene that no one can seem to forget.
Showrunner Prentice Penny, who also recently made his directorial debut with Uncorked, knows why men have connected with the character Ellis portrays, especially after that season one finale. “The Hive speaks to lots of men who identify with Lawrence. Black men who are trying to find their way in the world. Black men who feel like they’re doing the ‘right’ thing in relationships and that goes unnoticed,” he says.
This season Lawrence seems far away from the depressed, couch-tied, struggling app creator, and has moved on to Condola (Christina Elmore), a powerhouse he met at Tiffany’s (Amanda Seales) baby shower…and who just so happens to be working with Issa as she plans her passion project, the inaugural Block Party. Plot meet twist.
Ellis finally got a chance to go behind the lens on his series, directing episode seven, “Lowkey Trippin’,” which takes the crew to Mexico. The actor was offered the opportunity last season after he shadowed director Melina Matsoukas during season two’s finale. Rae also noticed he was “always behind the cameras, always at the monitors,” Ellis recalls. “She’s like, ‘Clearly you have a point of view, so I am open to it, if you are open to it.'” He rose to the challenge. And it was challenging. “I had stunts in my episode. I had sex scenes in my episode. It was a lot, especially for a first-time director,” he says, noting he couldn’t have done it without his director of photography, Michelle Lawler (Twenties, Boomerang). “I felt so comfortable. I just felt I was where I was supposed to be.”
It’s not like he wasn’t prepared. After closely observing Matsoukas, Ellis tagged along with Silicon Valley‘s Alec Berg, Black Monday‘s Nzingha Stewart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Michael McDonald and even bounced ideas off Tom Cruise, whom he calls “an encyclopedia when it comes to film.” And then there was the time he bumped into Jordan Peele at dinner on a random night. “He was sitting at a table next to mine. And I was like, ‘Bro, can I just sit down and talk to you?’ His eyes were literally like silver dollars because I am sure he thought I was about to ask him for a job,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Rae tells ESSENCE it came as no surprise that Ellis was ready since he brings that energy to the set as an actor. “Jay has always been such a smart, overprepared and passionate actor. His questions are always insightful and he’s very detail-oriented,” she says. “His transition to directing was seamless, like he’d been doing it forever.”
So you know his name isn’t actually Jay Ellis, right? It’s really Wendell Ellis, Jr., and he was born to teenaged parents during a Sumter, South Carolina, winter. The nickname came after being teased mercilessly by his “girl cousins,” who dubbed him Little Wendell. But the kid who would grow up to be 6 feet 4 inches tall wasn’t anybody’s “little,” and refused to be referred to as such—and he let them all know during a family reunion in Stockton, California. “I am not little! Stop calling me little! I am a man. You’re going to call me a man,” a laughing Ellis recalls saying. “I just lost it.” From then on, it was Jay. “Even my mom called me Jay by that point,” he says. “My dad still calls me Wendell though.”
After a brief stint in modeling early in his career, Ellis eventually moved to Los Angeles, landing small roles in The Bold and the Beautiful, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS. His breakout came when he was cast in The Game, after six seasons and eight auditions. After that first season playing new recruit Blue on the series about a fictional football team, Ellis had paid off all his debts, bought a jeep (which he still has) and even took his parents on a trip. But he admits it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes.
“I remember people laughing at Keira (Lauren London). They did not want to see Blue and Keira at all. They were like, ‘Where is Derwin and Melanie?’,” he remembers, noting the show’s stars Pooch Hall and Tia Mowry-Hardrict, who had exited the series. “I was like, Oh, my God, this is the worst decision I ever made.”
“I started that show on episode 100. That cast…had already had time to bond, time to fall out, and time to re-bond again,” Ellis continues. “So I was the new kid on the block. I was like, ‘Hey, I want to be friends with y’all. You guys want to rehearse? You guys want to throw lines? What y’all want to do?’ They were like ‘no.'”
Ellis says he’s “obviously” grateful for his experience on The Game, “but I always felt I was a guest in their house. With Insecure, we built that house together. Issa was the architect.”
It’s clear the cast of Insecure is a family. Whether it’s leaving “gas me up” comments on fire Instagram photos, or dancing and snapping selfies at Rae’s annual Yacht Shit party, they feel tight off camera too. But families unravel sometimes and a string seemed to snag when Seales pointed the finger at Rae’s publicist, Vanessa Anderson, for being the reason she was kicked out of an Emmy party last year. Ellis says the incident was blown “way out of proportion.”
“We all have to realize, especially in this industry, we are all artists,” Ellis says, “we all view ourselves in a certain way. If you don’t, you wouldn’t be an actor. You wouldn’t be in front of a camera….We all have different personality types, and we’re all triggered by different things.”
For Ellis, one of his triggers is allowing his personal life to bleed into his craft. He’d much rather practice what he calls “separation of church and state.” It’s why many fans didn’t even know he was engaged until his daughter was born five months ago. Mystery is a quality he learned from his mother, Paula Bryant-Ellis, whom he watched quickly rise in the ranks of corporate banking, becoming the highest Black officer there, he says. “She was very protective over me and my dad,” Ellis explains.
“I have always been like, ‘Yo, my family is the one thing on this planet, when it’s all said and done, if it goes away today or tomorrow, it’s the only thing that I have that’s mine,’” Ellis continues. “I never want my family to ever feel they had to sacrifice. …I never want that dynamic to change because at the end of the day, as we’re watching right now in this moment, stuff comes and goes fast.”
For the 38-year-old new dad, it’s why he’s chosen to embrace the forced slow down as an opportunity to return home to himself. It comes after Senicar spent 31 hours in labor, with four painful hours of pushing, to bring his daughter into the world. When the glorious moment came, so did the tears. “You can’t pay me to cry like this. I just lost it,” he says. It also comes after Ellis was jetting off on “24-hour trips because of the baby.”
“When you’re pushed to the limits, whether it’s personally…with a baby, and you’re up all night, or whether it’s with work, you start to realize your limits aren’t what you thought they were,” the actor reflects on how fatherhood has affected his artistry.
“You get tired and you break down. You need a nap, you might cry, want to be held, whatever it is. But mentally and physically, you’re probably stronger than what you actually thought you were,” he adds. “That’s one of the biggest things that I took away from it: I can do this. This is going to hurt. My eyes are going to burn because I’m tired, but I can actually do it, and nothing has to suffer. I didn’t want to not be there for my baby. I wanted as much chest-to-chest time as I could get. I wanted all the bottles. I wanted all the diapers.”
“I wanted all of that, and I wanted to make my episode the best it could possibly be,” the new dad continues.
But right now, he’s just in bed. “I’m just trying constantly, in these quieter moments by myself, to create ways to make space for myself every single day.”
Joi-Marie McKenzie is ESSENCE’s senior entertainment editor. She’s also the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, The Engagement Game.
Photographer: Jasmine Jasseiuo Durhal
Stylist: Avon Dorsey
Groomer: Jhizet Panosian/Forward Artists
Manicurist: Nettie Davis/kenbarboza.com
Set Designer: John Geary/Celestine Agency