Jay Ellis

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Verge Magazine

Jay 11.08.2016
Verge Magazine

I usually start by asking people where they are from, but weren’t you an army brat?

I am. The Air Force. My dad was in the Air Force, my dad’s dad was in the Air Force, my mom’s dad was in the Air Force, my mom’s step dad was in the Air Force. Yeah, I’m like the one who broke tradition.

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Your parents didn’t pressure you to join?

My parents were super-chill. Growing up, I didn’t feel that need to be in the service. My parents weren’t so much about the service as: Go get an education. Go be a banker or a lawyer. Go be this consistent, stable job that you can raise a family on.

Wasn’t it hard for you to focus on acting?

Oh, yeah. I lied to parents for two years when I started acting. I told them I was going to work every single day at this PR firm. But I was working retail for a while and when that ended, I kind of looked up and was like: What the hell am I doing with my life? Why did I move to Los Angeles to do something that I am not in love with? I moved here to chase my passion, to chase my dreams. But in college, I majored in finance.

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Is that really what you wanted to do with your life? Or did you do it to please your parents?

A little bit of both. At the time, I thought being an investment banker would be cool. It felt like what I should do. I always wanted to act, but acting seemed so far away. My mom was a banker and my dad was a mechanic, so they had stable jobs. I don’t think I realized that I didn’t have to do that — I can go live my life and chase my own dreams — until years after college. And by that time, I already had my degree. I have a BA in finance. Never once used it.

At least now you don’t have to worry about getting screwed over by your manager or agent.

That’s the one thing everybody says to me: “Oh, you’re an actor who is good with his money.” I mean, I guess. I still have fun like everybody else, too. It took me time to come around and realize that finance isn’t the world for me. I lived in New York and modeled for a little bit.

You were actually a successful model, as I recall.

I did OK. I was a bigger guy because I played basketball in college. And it was the time when androgynous models were kind of ending and more physical models were starting to come in.

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Did you ever come out to your dad as a male model?

What happened is that when I was in college, I appeared in an ad for a Jordan campaign that was huge. It went all over the world, including Foot Action stores. My 13-year-old cousin was in the mall on a Saturday and saw me in the Foot Action ad. And the next day my cousin told my parents: “I saw Jay. He is hanging up in a poster in a store at the mall.” So the next weekend my parents went to the store they saw my ad and my mom called me from the store: She was like: “Do you work for Foot Action? Or are you in college? Where are you right now?” I was like: “I’m in Portland. I literally just left class, mom.” She’s like: “You’re wearing some basketball shorts and a jersey in Foot Action and you didn’t tell me? I don’t understand what’s going on!” It turned into this whole thing.

Why didn’t you tell your parents? Did you think they wouldn’t approve of you modeling?

I don’t know. I had the mentality that my parents worked so hard to provide for me. Now that they did all of that, I must go to college and be a doctor or a lawyer or an architect. That is what I was supposed to do — I felt like I was supposed to carry that torch. I guess there was some embarrassment; maybe I did think they wouldn’t approve. But my mom still has that Jordan poster to this day. I got a chance to travel a bunch while modeling and I worked for GAP, Abercrombie, Diesel. I also did a bunch of super-commercial clients like Old Spice. I got to do a lot cool stuff, meet lots of people — it was really amazing, but it never fulfilled me. I thought that modeling would be a natural segue into acting, but it depends on where you are. New York is pure fashion. I wanted to act and being in New York wasn’t going to get me there.

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Do you recall where you were when you had that career epiphany?

The moment when I recognized I was definitely doing the wrong thing? I was at a casting in Milan for this underwear client. There was this long line of guys and at the end of the hallway, this open room. Down the hall were probably about 28 guys standing in front of me. I get to the doorway and see the guy who’s next. Everyone was stripping down, so there was a table with this chair and the brand of underwear on it. So you walk up, take a headshot, and then you strip down and put the client underwear on and then they take a couple pictures of you. Everyone put on the same pair of underwear, by the way. And I stood there in that line of people. Then I get to the doorway and I see the guy in front of me strip down, which was such a normal thing because you get so used to being naked in front of people when you’re changing for a show. I walk up, I say my name, they take my polaroid and I turn around and look at the underwear on the chair. Of course in the background is the doorway where there are now guys standing in line looking at me as I change. What I realized is that there were at least 30 guys in front of me who had already put on this underwear. And there were probably another 20 guys behind me who still had about to put on this underwear. And that’s when I realized: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with my life, but this is not it. I am not supposed to be here doing this.

Did you put on the underwear?

No, I turned around and said: “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m so sorry.” They looked at me like I was crazy. I went back to my hotel, called my agent and said: “I’m ready to come home.”

You constantly moved around as a kid — in fact, you attended 12 schools in 13 years. What place resonates the most for you and why?

I lived in Oklahoma for four years and that was the longest I have lived in any one place before I moved to LA. My closest friends are all in Oklahoma. Tulsa is where I go always back to. It’s special, beautiful city that is rich with history. There’s just enough trouble you can get into and not be in any real danger. It was a great place to grow up because of that. I could go out and toilet paper people’s houses and race down the street and all kinds of random stuff that kids do. So that’s what I identify as home for sure. And my closest friends on the planet still live in Tulsa.

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Is there any part of you that feels quintessentially Midwestern?

I love a walking neighborhood. Where I went to high school, I knew every bagger at the grocery store, the barber, the mailman. That was a normal thing and something that I have carried with me along the way. People are really warm, they look you in the eye and shake your hand. I hope that is still with me. But I feel like in LA when you look somebody in the eye and shake their hand, you’re hardcore flirting. In their mind, you’re trying to take them home and get in bed — tonight. As opposed to where I’m from, it’s just how you greet somebody. Whether you know them or not, everyone says hi to you on the street when they pass.

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What was your first job?

I can’t remember if it was Old Navy or Smoothie King. I can make a hell of a smoothie. And fold jeans. I never left the denim wall at Old Navy. I hate denim to this day. I folded so much denim on a ladder it was absolutely ridiculous. That was all I did. I found myself spending an eight hour shift folding jeans all day long. My fingers were blue and smelled like denim and they got dry and chapped.

What was your first acting experience?

I was in the musical Oklahoma in fifth grade and it was a tap production as well. So I tapped and I sang. I don’t know if I will l ever forget this song: “Oklahoma where the wind comes right behind the rain and the waving wheat it sure smells wheat.” I played Will Parker, a good-natured cowboy with a knack for roping a cow. I was definitely a cowboy. Oh, for sure, for sure. Oh, for sure! That is embarrassing.

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Do you recall the moment you fell in love with acting?

Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X. Spike Lee directed and there is this moment when Malcolm is standing in front of a police station with a couple lines of guys behind him — kind of an army, if you will — and across form them is a police force. Denzel puts his hand up in the air and makes a fist. Something about that scene was so powerful. I knew it was Denzel, but I could only see Malcolm X.

“And that’s when I realized: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with my life, but this is not it.”

What do you consider to be your big break?

I have no idea. My last show The Game was a pretty popular show but I was only on it for a few years. It was an amazing ride to be a part of that because it was on for nine years, but I always felt like I was a guest in somebody else’s house. It’s different when you pop in and join a cast.

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Does Insecure feel like your long overdue big break?

Absolutely. First of all, the writing is phenomenal — we can go on and on about how amazing [creator and star] Issa Rae is. This character I play is really special. I get to do so much with this guy. He starts out in this shitty place: He has no self esteem and feels like the world is stepping on him. As an actor, for the one job that you hear yes, you probably hear no another 200 times. So in some ways, I could empathize with where he is at. The audition process is brutal — there is a lot of rejection, but I have accepted that it is a part of this journey. I look at it as just part of the walk.

From Girls to Game of Thrones, HBO is not renowned for shows with diverse casts.

Insecure is definitely making a big statement for HBO: A.) Everyone there recognizes that they need more diversity on the network. B.) They are in love with Issa and this project and it’s something they have championed. HBO is saying, “Yo, we’re in the game. This is inclusive. We’re going to make sure that everyone is represented at the table.” This isn’t necessarily about saying: “Hey, we finally got a black show.” It is about saying: “Black lives matter. And so we are going to tell these stories in our same creative, artistic way that we’ve told all of our other stories.”

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What’s the buzz about this series?

Issa’s voice. She has a very strong, specific point of view: Life as a black female, life as a woman, life as someone dating a black man. A best friend. A professional with a job. She has this quirk about her, this knowledge and this youthful spirit. Issa is breaking the stereotype that just because you are black you’re cool. Issa is a bit of a nerd but she can also be sexy and goofy and unsure of herself. As she would say: “I’m a regular-ass bitch.” Seriously, she goes around saying that.

Meanwhile, you have said that your character is a lovable loser. That’s a real stretch for a former male model. How did you get into character?

I loved the challenge of creating this character, Lawrence — it was so gratifying. I sat at home for two months. I didn’t work out. I didn’t go out. I did not shave and I did not cut my hair. Lawrence is a tech guy who wants to be in that space, so I found myself being more curious about what’s going on in Silicon Valley from Tech Crunch to Tech Crawl—blogs and websites about startups. I found myself researching all of that technology because that was his world. Another thing, because he has this entrepreneurial spirit, I found myself watching Shark Tank. Lawrence wants to start a business; he’s just too afraid, too crippled with insecurity, to start it himself. I wanted to know: What makes a dude sit on the couch for two months? What could I possibly do all damn day just sitting around watching TV? But nothing was judging me in that space — nobody was telling me no.

What would be your dream role?

Thurgood Marshall comes to mind immediately. Booker T. Washington. Frederick Douglass. I would like to play someone in history who has made an impact on the world.

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