Jay Ellis On Producing ‘Black Box’ And Convincing Phylicia Rashad To Be In A Horror Movie
Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in Amazon Video’s Black Box

Insecure star Jay Ellis is a sucker for a good story. The actor turned director and producer was combing through film executive Franklin Leonard’s database, The Black List, when he happened upon a script about a single dad who undergoes an experimental treatment to restore his memory after a car accident. And he was hooked.

“I remember flying through it, thinking, ‘This is kind of dope,'” Ellis tells ESSENCE. “I fell in love with each of the character’s journey’s and what they were going through. I really loved it.”

Ellis and his producing partner, Aaron Bergman, procured the script for their company, Black Bar Mitzvah, and began shopping it around Hollywood. “Sahar Vahed, this amazing executive from Blumhouse, read it and she loved it. And from there we went to Amazon and they loved it,” he recalls.

Though he admits he still can’t watch Nightmare on Elm Street—”I just can’t do Freddy Krueger,” he says—Ellis was also drawn to the project because Black folks are rarely at the center of horror/sci-fi flicks.

“I always feel like we get scrubbed from five years into the future, or 30 years into the future, so I loved this idea that this young Black dude from Brooklyn named Stephen Herman wrote this script, then we were able to bring in a Nigerian-American director from Houston to direct, and it was a cast that was full of Black people,” he says. “So seeing that whole thing come together and how we could be a part of this genre and tell stories in this space was why I wanted to see this film.”

The script would eventually turn into the newly released film, Black Box, which stars Mamoudou Athie (from Uncorked), Tosin Morohunfola, Amanda Christine, and the legendary Phylicia Rashad, who ended up signing on to work with first-time director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour after Ellis encourage the filmmaker to write her a letter.

“This dude wrote that letter and two days later he was on a Zoom with Ms. Rashad,” Ellis recalls. “She loved it and she said, ‘I’m in 100 percent.'”

In this psychological thriller, Rashad plays Dr. Lilian Brooks, the doctor who tries to help Nolan (played by Athie) unlock his missing memories. While she first appears to be just doing her job, viewers quickly learn Dr. Brooks harbors a few startling secrets of her own. This role may catch some fans of Rashad’s previous work by surprise, but that’s exactly why Ellis loves it.

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“This isn’t what you’d expect from her,” he says. “Ms. Rashad came through with a performance—she brought it every single day. She’s giving us a range of stuff, but nobody has ever seen her in this kind of role.”

He adds, “You love her and you’re terrified of her at the same time.”

Fans may not be used to seeing this less-than-noble side of Rashad on screen, but behind the scenes, Ellis says she was the delightful woman we’ve come to know and love.

“It was such a gift for Emmanuel, as a first time director, to get to work with someone like her, who was so gracious and kind and a leader on set, in her own way,” he says.

While Ellis has several producing projects in the works, acting is still his first love. In addition to starring in Insecure‘s highly anticipated fifth season, he’ll also appear in Top Gun: Maverick alongside Tom Cruise next year.

“To have the opportunity to work with Tom Cruise, Jerry Bruckheimer, Joe Kosinski, and Chris McQuarrie was a bucket list thing,” he says. “To be a part of that franchise was amazing.”

Though Ellis loves playing Lawrence (“His journey is so much closer to so many Black dudes that I know, and we don’t get to see a lot of depictions of the layered complicated dudes that often,” he says), he’s ready to try his hand at something completely different.

“I want to do something that nobody would ever expect,” Ellis says. “I don’t want to play a love interest, I want to get completely away from that and just really dive into a character in a film.”