First-generation Haitian-American actor Jéan Elie is getting a lot of love for his portrayal of Ahmal, Issa Dee’s no-holds-barred younger brother on HBO’s Insecure. Ahmal is gay, but Elie makes it his business to subvert stereotypes about Black gay men and give Ahmal the complexity he deserves.
Elie got into acting in a pretty funny way. After finding an ad for actors on Craigslist, he arrived on set thinking that he would be a background character with no lines. He was then told to improvise a scene—and he crushed it. That gave him the confidence to move forward as professional actor.
“[I] told my brother about [that] whole situation and after he passed away, I decided I wanted to fulfill the dream he and I had for myself—to come to L.A. and pursue this acting thing for real,” he says.
ESSENCE sat down with Elie to chronicle how he ended up playing Ahmal Dee, why fans love him so much whenever he pops up on-screen and how as a heterosexual man he’s ensuring his gay character isn’t playing into stereotypical tropes.
ESSENCE: Can you talk about how you got the role?
Jéan Elie: I was hip-pocketed by Fullscreen at the time and they sent me on an audition for Insecure. I read the script. I said, ‘Oh, this is cool, but they’ll never pick me. I’m a heterosexual man. They’re not going to choose me.’ I met with the casting directors…. I went in the room and I did my take; they were laughing in the room and I started reading with [creator and star] Issa [Rae]. And people were laughing in the room as well. And then I left and I didn’t hear anything back for another week and a half. And at that point, I [tried] to put it behind the back of my head and forget it, which is the only way you can cope with all the rejection that happens in Hollywood, especially as an actor.
I’m at a coffee shop with my cousin and I get the phone call from Tim, my manager at the time. Well, he worked at the management firm at the time. He gives me a call telling me that they want me. When I tell you it was such an unexpected call. I was so shocked and happy because I watched Insecure at a world film festival a year before when I was premiering one of my short films there, A Gentleman Always, and I said to an interviewer there that I could see myself on that show.
[Ahmal] represents a different type of gay Black man now. He’s not stereotypical.”
Insecure fans rave whenever you hit the screen. How does it feel to see that response to your character?
Because he’s always had his opinions no matter what. He is himself completely and he loves himself. So when we see someone who’s so quick or open to just express themselves fully, people tend to gravitate to that because they sometimes want to say everything. They want to say what’s on their chest. Ahmal gets to say what he feels and how he feels. Also, outside of that, he represents a different type of gay Black man now. He’s not stereotypical. He’s a different version of what a gay Black man can look like.
After playing this role for a few years, what can you say are some common misconceptions, or tropes, about Black gay men in television and films?
Some common misconceptions [are] that they’re all feminine and sassy, maybe more like a caricature—not the person I wanted to portray. Representation matters, and the [gay] people in my circle don’t behave [like that.]
What are some other roles you’ve played that people might not know about?
People may not know that I used to play in American Crime [during] season 3. I played the son of Gabrielle. They may not have seen me, but heard my voice in [the series] Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’ve done a horror film, The Final Wish. I’ve done a BET holiday movie, Throwback Holiday, with Trey Haley. That was fun.
What do you want people to walk away with after watching Ahmal?
Know that somebody’s out there representing them in the best possible light, and [I] also want people to walk away with just feeling like, ‘That’s someone I know.’
Insecure, also starring Jay Ellis, Yvonne Orji, Natasha Rothwell and Amanda Seales, airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.