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Nelsan Ellis, RIP: The Director of ‘Little Boxes’ Salutes One of the Actor’s Final Film Roles

In one of his final film roles, Ellis left a big impression on his director.

nelsan ellis little boxes

Nelsan Ellis on the set of “Little Boxes”

Mark Doyle

On Saturday, news broke that 39-year-old actor Nelsan Ellis had passed away from complications of heart failure. While Ellis was best known for his role on “True Blood,” he also appeared in a number of films, most recently 2016’s “Little Boxes.” Here, the film’s director, Rob Meyer, recalls his experience with the actor.

I’ve never met anyone like Nelsan. I had the great honor of directing him in “Little Boxes,” a feature film written by Annie Howell. It’s a quiet story based loosely on Annie’s life and it addresses a number of sensitive themes — race, class, gender, and regionalism — as explored through the lens of one family. Our hope was to make a personal, gentle and honest film about issues that often polarize audiences. We knew the only way we could hope to pull that off was to find outstanding actors for the leads, which we did: Melanie Lynskey, Armani Jackson and Nelsan Ellis.

Nelsan was always personal, vulnerable, and honest, even in his most explosive moments. His emotions were never far from the surface and he could channel them in indelible ways. He often seemed as if he were improvising — it was at times hard to keep up with him. But in the edit suite, we’d discover the countless subtle gifts that he had generously offered, and it was only then that we could fully appreciate the discipline of his craft, which he made look so effortless.

When I first spoke with Nelsan about the project, we clicked. I floated the idea of him growing a beard for the role, and he gleefully exclaimed that this had been his first thought, too, waxing poetically about what a beard for could do for his character. He went on to suggest that he put on weight for the part, to telegraph a struggling writer stuck in his chair, unable to work, losing his strength. He savored his costumes and worked closely and with great love with our designer, Charlesse Antoinette Jones.

Clothes meant a lot to him on and off the screen, but it was never a superficial interest. He wore a beaded bracelet that was a source of strength for the entire film, only to shatter it during a heartbreaking moment in which his character tears at the walls of his house. For that particular scene, it felt as if my role as director was to make sure Nelsan didn’t hurt himself — consumed with emotion, he pounding and kicked the walls of a moldy basement. During one take, he nearly fell down a flight of stairs. I rushed over to ask him to please take it slower on the next one. He replied, with a glint in his eye, “Rob, I’m a Julliard-trained actor.” His craft was so good that at times we’d forget that he was applying it.

He brought books that inspired him to be included in his scenes. His character, Mack, was often wearing headphones, listening to the jazz brilliance of Butch Morris or 90’s hip hop. On set, it was actually always the same song: a soulful a cappella performance by one of our drivers, Okema, whose singing voice he instantly fell in love with.

Nelsan had depth and wisdom. At our Q&As, we would get challenging questions about race and class that I would struggle to adequately address, unwittingly mirroring the film’s focus on the awkwardness of confronting these issues directly. But it was never awkward for Nelsan. He’d grab the mic with a smile: “We’re all human beings. We’re members of the human race.” When Nelsan said it, it felt so obvious and meaningful. I have a feeling these words came from his mother, whom he loved dearly.

Watch “True Blood,” or “Get On Up,” or “The Butler”: you won’t be able to take your eyes off Nelsan. His beauty, his strength, his charisma, and his grace shone through effortlessly. But he grounded his performances with the vulnerability and pathos of an inner struggle. His life was hard. He suffered personal tragedies and painful losses. Heroically, he channeled these into his work as a writer and as an actor. That he bore this burden and turned it into such beautiful art for the rest of us is what gave his performances power, and why he connected so deeply with so many people. I’m devastated that he is gone. But I know that his bravery and compassion will continue to inspire through his work and that gives me some solace, at least.

“Little Boxes” is now available on Netflix and iTunes.

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