You may know Nelsan Ellis from his character, Lafayette, on HBO‘s hit fantasy series, True Blood. However, did you also know that he’s an acclaimed short film director and screenwriter? This year Nelsan has stepped into the filmmaker’s seat again, co-penning and directing the dramatic short, Page 36.
After exhaustively reaching out to his publicist to request an interview, I was able to speak to his long time filmmaking partner J David Shanks; he passed along a message to Nelsan that S&A was very interested in speaking with him about the film and voila…a day later, I received a reply! Nelsan was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to speak to S&A about his upcoming film as well as some exclusive tidbits on his preparation for the role of Lafayette in True Blood. Below are some highlights from our chat…
Monique: Hi Nelsan, so great to talk with you today! I would like to start off with this question…as an actor which do you prefer, film or television?
Nelsan: I personally prefer film over tv. My ultimate love is film. I’ve always loved film ever since I was a kid.
Monique:For black actors in general, which category needs more representation?
Nelsan: I think there could be more black faces in film, tv and theater…actually. I think we’re underrepresented in all three mediums.
Monique: You’ve written a few stageplays, am I correct?
Nelsan: Yes, I have.
Monique: What types of stories are you interested in creating and do you think that there’s been certain stories featuring black people that have been covered over and over again?
Nelsan: Yes. I think we’ve been known for sort of “mom on the couch” dramas. It almost limits us in a way. In this big, vast, human experience…all we know how to do is the “momma on the couch” drama. When you see other cultures films, you see a myriad of different aspects of the human experience that they deal with. For some reason, we’re not worthy to explore all the different human experiences. It’s like we’re being looked at as either being limited or not being able to do the full human experience. I don’t know what it is. It’s not that we don’t have those stories, we’re just not included in them and we don’t do them.
Monique: I want to talk about your new film Page 36 screening next month at the ABFF but this is not your first foray into producing and directing…you also
directed wrote a film called Trespass?
Nelsan: Yes. you’re right.
Monique: Seeing as that film [Trespass] was a finalist in the HBO short film competition in 2006, did you feel any pressure when beginning the process of Page 36?
Nelsan: I never feel any pressure to achieve or do anything. I only feel pressure to do my very best, to be on my own back to do my very best. I never put pressure on myself beyond that because I can’t control beyond that. But yeah, I’m a better filmmaker the second go around with Page 36.
Monique: In what ways was the process [of directing] different this time?
Nelsan: I knew more. I’ve grown…I’ve become a better filmmaker, a better collaborator. I’ve become a better artist, I think, and just a wiser man. It was a way easier process in many ways and a more difficult process because I knew more technical aspects of film this time around.
Monique: Like your previous film[ Trepass], Page 36 deals with family strife–particularly with the father and son. What draws you to this subject matter?
Nelsan: Well this film deals heavily with the relationship of black men actually. There is a strong father and son thing. I grew up without a father. My father was around but I didn’t grow up with him. I’m very close with my father now. I think father and son relationships are deeply complicated and that’s why I like dealing with that. In this, because I have three brothers, I wanted to deal with how black men deal with each other. Also, just on a human level experience, what a man can result to if he’s desperate enough.
Monique: This marks your second collaboration with writer, producer and actor J David Shanks. You guys seem to make magic together. How did you meet and what led to your decision to team up on these particular projects?
Nelsan: I actually saw [J David] Shanks in a play and I thought he was the best actor in the play. He just had this urbanism that’s rare with men, in general, in California. It seems like when men move to California they become androgynous. Shanks had this urbanism…and I knew he was from Chicago. We hooked up and he was in a play that I wrote. I really fell in love with the dude, his wife and his family. Our first collaboration was Trespass.
Monique: What do you think it is about the two of you that clicks?
Nelsan: I’m a quirky, kind of different artist. I like tackling subject matter that frightens people. Shanks is not afraid to do that either, so it was a good fit. We’re very honest with each other. We both value production value, good actors, good storytelling…We both think we know absolutely nothing so we’re always trying to improve, trying to get better. We’ll probably be working together forever.
Monique: I must ask you about Trueblood, although I know [by now] you’re worn out from answering so many questions about it. Your character is so fascinating and, personally, one of my favorite characters along with Rutina’s. It has been written that in your preparation for the role of Lafayette, you listened to Rhianna and your mother and sister inspired the character. What other avenues of preparation have you/do you travel in order to make the character yours?
Nelsan: Well, the first season Lafayette was a drug dealer, he ran a gay porn website and he was a prostitute. So, I went to a lot of gay clubs between New York and California. And I also frequented the prostitute spots…the spots where gay men are known to frequent. I would pop up there and I would watch them a couple of nights, then I would go out and try to prostitute myself. I was like ‘if somebody tries to pick me up, maybe I’m doing it right.’ I never quite did it right…everybody thought I was a police officer.
Monique: Are you serious? Did you really do that? (laughing)
Nelsan: (laughing) I didn’t really tell anyone this before but I did do that. I get a character that I’ve never played before in territory that I’ve never traversed before so I was like ‘I got to get in and figure out how to do this.’ At Julliard, you learn to research as much as you can about a character, and the life of the character, then the more you can bring to the humanity of the character. Yeah I did that and it informed me.
Monique: What do they call that…method acting?
Nelsan: They call it method acting, yes. No, I didn’t actually go and get in the car with somebody and do the “do” with somebody. No, I didn’t do that. If somebody asked me would you do this character, playing a prostitute? I’d have to say, I know where the prostitute spots are. How else are you going to approach the character not knowing pieces of the character which informs you on who he is?
Monique: You have chemistry with, what seems to be, the whole cast. I wonder if that’s something natural or from doing research like you said?
Nelsan: It’s, natural.
Monique: Was it ever a consideration or desire of yours to play a gay character? Or do you not aspire to portray an archetype like soldiers, murderers, gangsters, etc…Is it more about the character and level of depth?
Nelsan: It’s the character. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s interesting to me. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do in terms of the character. As long as it’s interesting, I’ll play it.
Monique: Do you think Lafayette is a diverse character?
Nelsan: I do, yes.
Monique: Are there any directors or actors you’d like to work with in the future?
Nelsan: (pauses) Many. If I can say one, it would have to be Paul Thomas Anderson.
Monique: Okay, interesting choice…what about actors, anyone in particular you‘d like to work with?
Monique: (laughs) We talk a lot about him on S&A. He’s a very blunt man.
Nelsan: Well good, so am I.
Monique: Do you have plans to do a full feature length film because, so far, you‘ve done short films? Are you approaching that time when you’re going to step into a full feature?
Nelsan: Yes, I am.
Monique: Really? Do you already know what it’s [the film] going to be about?
Nelsan: Hopefully it’ll be the film I wrote about my sister who was murdered or it’ll be a full length feature of Page 36.
Monique: Page 36 is premiering at the ABFF. Do you know if it’s going to get any type of distribution so a wider audience can see it, I know it’s a short film?
Nelsan: Well HBO buys all five of them and they show it on their showcase. Can’t be that.
Monique: So we’ll get to see it. That’s awesome!
I would like to thank Nelsan Ellis for taking the time to talk with S&A. I wish him all the best with his new film and continued success in his acting career! I would also like to thank J David Shanks for reaching out to his friend and collaborator on our behalf…and last but not least, Cynthia and long time S&A reader, Tamara who were my research bees on this interview. Without them I would have never gotten it done! Gosh, this is coming off like an Oscar’s speech…(laughs)
Until next time, folks!