Part of True Blood’s appeal is that the cast portrays their characters so well that it’s hard to believe they aren’t real. Enter Lafayette, played by Nelsan Ellis. Lafayette is a gay man who is flamboyant and egregious but at the same time isn’t stereotypical. He’s masculine but also feminine and will knock any man out if he’s pushed that far.
However, the man behind the character is the opposite. Ellis is a Julliard trained, perfectly straight Alabama native who initially struggled with bringing Lafayette to life but now that he has it down, he’s hoping that other industry insiders will remember that the character he plays is fictional. In addition to True Blood, he recently wrapped a feature film, has his own screenplay in the works and wouldn’t mind appearing in a Tyler Perry project. Here, he tells VIBE how he brought Lafayette to life, what the gay community thinks about the character and how he plans to transition beyond his True Blood role. ⎯Starrene Rhett
VIBE: Lafayette is dead in the book so how did you make the TV character your own?
Nelsan Ellis: I think by the second or third audition I got some bad notes from the casting director. They figured I was playing a stereotype or something like that so I got a friend of mine to come and work the audition with me and somehow I found the character inside of me versus putting on something that wasn’t real. Alan Ball wanted the character to be a myriad of things and at first I was skeptical but I somehow found it, maybe it was God helping me out.
So that stereotype you were playing must have been a Queenie type of gay guy, huh?
Yeah, at first because in the break down he was supposed to be almost drag queenish but I didn’t really play that right coming in, even when I got the job. I didn’t really find Lafayette until the third or fourth episode because I certainly didn’t have him in the pilot. There were takes where I was playing with who he was and takes that I was—they just happened to pick takes that were consistent with who Alan Ball thought the character should be.
What do you find most intriguing about the character?
That people like that character [Laughs]. There’s something about the dude that’s likeable. Even I was watching myself and criticizing myself—I go, “I like that dude.” The most intriguing thing about him is his strength and his stillness. If you watch Lafayette he doesn’t do very much. He’s not quick on his toes unless he gets heated. He’s just in that Southern way—sort of sauntering along, being who he is which is something I never intended. It just happened.
What’s been the feedback from the gay community?
Only in that they haven’t seen a dude like that before. And he’s not a stereotype. I think somewhere along the line they didn’t like that he was a prostitute. But I did [Laughs]. It’s who he is. I don’t think it’s a reflection of the gay community that's just Lafayette. But this is just from what I hear, I haven’t really spoken to the gay community outside him [Laughs].
So no men trying to get with you in real life, thinking that you’re Lafayette?
I get that but I don’t sit down with folks like, tell me what y’all think. But I get the hitting on me and stuff. But then again, I do play a gay character.
How annoyed do you get when people can’t differentiate between Nelsan and Lafayette?
It annoys me when the industry people are like that but I can’t just get upset with regular folk because all they see is the character. But when the industry can’t tell the difference, I’m like, “Damn that’s a little closed minded,” because when white people play a character people expect it to be a character. But black people—we can’t just be character actors, we have to [really] be the things we’re hired for, which is what offends me. I don’t answer that question, “Are you gay or not,” when it comes down to industry people. But if it’s a regular person asking me, that just says that maybe I’m doing a good job. But when a casting director or an agent asks me that question it takes on a deeper thing that says, “I can’t believe you’re doing this unless you are that.”
Speaking of characters being played very well, Snoop Dogg has a crush on Sookie.
I didn’t see the video [for “Oh Sookie"]. They sent it to all of us but I’m in the process of moving and my Internet is down [Laughs].
True Blood has clearly become a cult phenomenon. What is it about the show that’s so captivating in a culture that’s flooded with vampires ad nauseam?
It’s because it’s edgy and sexy. Everything else is kinda chained and pussy. With True Blood, you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how wild it’s gonna get. It’s like the Jerry Springer of TV shows but at the same time you got legitimate actors. Everybody on there is a legitimate actor who’s trying to get to the place that the writers are trying to send us to. I don’t think there’s a show as edgy, innovative and quite frankly, they’re shot well. Each episode looks like a movie, so I just think that True Blood has more edge and it has more spontaneous stuff that goes on.
Lafayette has been a lot softer lately as he’s being manipulated by vampires and reconnecting with his dysfunctional mother. What new developments can we look forward to with his character?