Jay Ellis Talks 'Hard Medicine' Comedy Series & Dismantling Hypermasculinity On 'Insecure'
Onscreen, people recognize him as the "f**k n***a" that thinks he's a good guy, thanks to Lawrence's surprising storyline in Season 2 of Insecure. But in real life, actor Jay Ellis is nothing more than a tireless, hardworking, good guy.
With the exception of the Lawrence Hive (vigorous in its solidarity episode after episode), many fans of HBO's hit series have turned their back on Issa's ex-boyfriend. But outside the show, there are plenty of reasons we should be turning the spotlight on Ellis. The 35-year-old star wears multiple hats, as an actor by day and an executive producer by night for Hard Medicine, a new comedy series centered around a small medical clinic.
Hard Medicine premiered on Ellis' Facebook page at the beginning of August. The show, created by Melissa Eno Effa (who also plays Clarice on screen), follows quirky yet beloved Dr. Harriet Moore (Nicole Slaughter), who is tasked with managing a team and caring for patients at a low-income clinic.
Its subject matter is timely considering Trump's mission to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, potentially leaving millions without proper healthcare. But its humor and tone add a bit of relief we so desperately need in our nation's current political climate. More importantly, its story is told through the perspective of black caregivers. Sure, we've seen African-Americans behind surgical tables in shows before, but not in a story arc that is so authentic and truthful to the community's actual experiences. "What we get to do that’s a bit different is bring an arc and a journey that’s typically not seen," Ellis tells VIBE. "Comedy-wise, I see us in the same place as a lot of those programs, but we get to do it with people of color that have the very best interest in the community they’re serving."
As EP on this rapidly growing project, Ellis says he has served as the "big brother," working through scripts, scrubbing scenes and polishing each episode. With the help of his team, the show has accumulated more than 1 million viewers in a matter of weeks. Now, it's found a home on Urban Movie Channel (UMC), and Ellis only hopes this is just the beginning.
VIBE chatted with Ellis over the phone about Hard Medicine, Lawrence's downward spiral and the challenges with masculinity in the black community.
A new episode of Hard Medicine streams on UMC every Wednesday.
VIBE: Tell us about Hard Medicine and what piqued your interest in joining the project.
Jay Ellis: Hard Medicine is Scrubs meets Parks and Recreation or The Office. It’s the same kind of mockumentary style. We as black people haven’t seen ourselves use that style of comedy yet. So I was excited to see that same filmmaking being used with people of color. And then on top of that, it’s a medical setting where we’re not seen that often. And it wasn’t in some big hospital with a multimillion-dollar budget; it was a small community clinic. They have to fight for every dollar to stay open and to take care of its patients in the neighborhood. I fell in love with the character Dr. Moore, the story and staff, and her struggle. There was something that was apropos about our healthcare system trying to be defunded by this guy who is currently running this country. And we now get to show that in some way in this series with a comedic tone but [that] still hits to the center of losing funding.
There are a number of medicine shows out there. Where do you think Hard Medicine fits in on that spectrum?
Tonally, we’re right there with The Office. But I think what we get to do that’s a bit different is bring an arc and a journey and community that’s typically not seen. We get to have an authentic story and a world that hasn’t been discovered. Comedy-wise, I see us in the same place as a lot of those programs, but we get to do it with people of color that have the very best interest in the community that they’re serving and the patients they’re serving.
We commonly see artists balancing between being on screen and behind the screen as producers and directors. What was the experience like for you, being in front of the camera on Insecure and jumping behind the scenes as EP for Hard Medicine?
It’s a balancing act, for sure. I’m very fortunate that I have some great partners to pick up the slack when I’m not able to be there. My mom produced the series with me, and I work with another producing partner as well. But I go from reading the script of Insecure to reading the script of Hard Medicine. And, once we have episodes, editing Hard Medicine to working on another script. You’re wearing a lot of hats. But the really cool thing is you’re constantly working with professionals. Whether that’s the actors or my producers, I’m working with people who are really good at what they do. They make the balancing act easy for me. I know exactly where I need to be, exactly what I’m looking for, and I can make sure a voice is being preserved and that a story is being told [properly]. But it’s a lot; I won’t lie. It’s more than I could have ever thought it would’ve been, but I love it.
What is your favorite aspect of being part of bringing this story to life?
Watching people fall in love with it. Knowing that we told a really good story, that we shot this on a shoestring budget, and knowing that we were able to put something together that’s special, and people responded to it. I put this first episode on my Facebook, and within a week we had over a million views. In that same amount of time, UMC called and said, "We want this. This is great for us." For something like that to happen for a digital series is what we all dream of. So to see it come full circle and see Angela and her team... They’ve been so great at moving really fast on this. Because I preempted by posting that first episode, the precedent was set that another episode was going to come out every Wednesday. And literally in two weeks, their team has been able to turn around assets for us for promo and for pictures and press. But also, working with a young talented voice and making sure that she gets her story told is probably my favorite part. It’s making sure we are making these unique, authentic voices come to life, and we’re not trying to water them down or change them.
That has to be exciting, whether you’re an EP or an actor, just seeing the gradual hype surrounding a project.
In my mind, I’ve never thought about fame. I’ve thought about fame in that I am so grateful for every single person who shows up for me and supports me. But I think the icing on the cake is when people relate to it and they love and feel one way or another about it, whether they’re mad at it or they’re happy. The emotional connection, the involvement with the material, that’s the win. All the other things will come because the fans are tied to it. All those things are built in when people relate to the work and it touches them in a way.
The characters in Hard Medicine aren’t your picture-perfect, clean-cut people. They’re messy and awkward. We’ve seen how TV is moving in a direction of building characters that have more flaws. How would you say HM’s particular storytelling and character development benefits its audience?
It’s more relatable. We may have aspirations of perfection, or not being messy, or being bourgeois. We all try, but we’re human and we make bad decisions. We overlook things, and I think that’s just who we are as people. There’s something about embracing that and telling it from an honest perspective that is so relatable and real that people want to be a part of that and watch. Watching the perfect person isn’t who we are every day. If we were, that would be boring as hell. I love every bad decision—I mean, not every bad decision I’ve made—but I’m grateful for some of the bad decisions I've made because they helped me be who I am today.
What are you most looking forward to in this new chapter of Hard Medicine after finding a home on UMC?
Watching [more] people find it and fall in love with it. Whether they heard it from word of mouth or just stumbled upon it, I love when people find good material and fall in love with it. [The black community] is such a good community for supporting each other and our work and the things that are for the culture. And honestly, we’re looking forward to UMC cutting a check for the second season.
Transitioning to Insecure, the Lawrence Hive is very deep this season. There’s also a lot of people who would rather see him balled up in a corner and lonely for the rest of his life. How do you see Lawrence: Is he the villain or just a heartbroken dude trying to bounce back?
The biggest thing is that he’s heartbroken. He’s lost, confused, and he’s running from dealing with what’s happening and also not taking responsibility. I think those are things we all can relate to even if we don’t want to. He’s not a bad guy; he’s not doing anything malicious. I don’t think he’s meaning to break hearts or not perform in threesomes, but I think it [shows] his loss and not willing to confront where he’s at. Men, especially black men, are beat over the head with masculinity, and I feel like no one tells us how to communicate. No one says, "You got to use your words if you want to keep the people in your life that you love. You got to find a compromise. You got to be willing to be vulnerable and to open up." I think Lawrence doesn’t know how to do those things. I hope that he finds them sooner or later.
That’s kind of a great parallel between Insecure and Hard Medicine. Both sets of characters are so vulnerable and, in a sense, “broken." But particularly speaking on fragile masculinity in the black community, that is such a frowned-upon image and often covered up onscreen. Being a black man yourself, do you find that it’s hard to break down those barriers or tradition for a role?
Hell yeah! I don’t want to be vulnerable more than any other guy out there. I’m a part of that generation, but what I love about this character is I’ve never seen a black man this vulnerable on television before. I’ve never seen a black male who’s confused and not sure which way to go. I’ve never seen a black man on TV have to go through all those layers and live through all that. But having to go through all that as an actor is what you ask for. Getting to do it for a character on television when there's never been a representation of a millennial black man or any black man like that before, is such an honor. Fortunate for me, I get to work through some stuff through my work as an actor as well.
And on top of those challenges, you have all these people against you, which can't be easy to digest at times.
I don't love when people yell "f**k you" when I walk down the street, but what I do know is that it made them feel something. And that, to me, is the most important thing. I would like a little more love, though.
Just look up the Lawrence Hive on Twitter. That's all the love you could ever need.
The Lawrence Hive has my back. They’re legit. I think a lot of that comes from [the fact that] young black men have not been represented a) very well; b) very much. This is a dude that a lot of young black men can relate to because they’ve never seen somebody that goes through all this in TV and film.
So, the condoms situation. What’s your take on the controversy?
It’s something we’ve talked about on set. Like Issa [Rae] said, we know we have to do better. A lot of our sets in our show have time jumps, so there is a thought that our characters could have made the smart choice and put on condoms. And as someone who is an ambassador for amfAR and talks about AIDS and HIV very often, it's something that’s super important to me. It’s something that we’ll make sure to do better [in the future]. But kudos and mad respect to Issa for even putting that out there, because most showrunners wouldn’t have done that. She knows that this is for the culture, and that means all those things have to be taken into consideration.