Before he graces the silver screen in Top Gun: Maverick, Jay Ellis is set to dazzle on-and-off screen in the new season of HBO’s Insecure.
Jay Ellis stars as Lawrence, the on-and-off-again flame of Issa Rae on the infectious dramedy. If you’re a fan of the show then you’re familiar with Ellis’ ability to steal a scene, but viewers can also witness his ability to direct a scene in the highly anticipated new season. Putting on his director’s hat for an upcoming episode, Ellis is taking the first steps to pursue another passion in the world of film and television.
Equally exciting is his forthcoming appearance in Mrs. America, where he joins an all-star group of actors to create one of the most compelling shows in recent memory. With a generous heart and a commitment to storytelling, Ellis has become one of the brightest stars in Hollywood.
1883 spoke with Jay Ellis about his experience filming Top Gun: Maverick, his directorial debut on Insecure, and why volunteering is such a big part of who he is as a human being.
You’re currently starring on HBO’s Insecure where you play Lawrence. What drew you to this character the most when you initially received a script for the series?
It was a bunch of different things. I think, one, I really wanted to work with Issa. I had obviously known about the web series Awkward Black Girl, and I had met her once before so I think it was that. And obviously, having the opportunity to work with HBO I think for every actor is like, you know, a checklist; a bucket list kind of thing. And then I think even more specific to the character, I felt like Lawrence was a part of me or I had been that version of Lawrence that I read in the pilot at some point in my life. And it just felt, kind of like an everyman, kind of like a guy who felt like he wanted more out of life and he had goals and ambitions. But he was just kind of crippled with fear because he had been told ‘no’ before or maybe been told a couple times, and so that kind of makes him shut down and stop going for those things that he wanted. Because he didn’t think he was either good enough or smart enough or creative enough, or whatever it may be, and so I just feel like we’ve all kind of walked some version of that before where we’re free to go after whatever it is we want and that kind of forces us down a path sometimes that we don’t want. I just fell in love with unpacking who that guy was and his vulnerabilities and what that means for manhood and masculinity and relationships, and how you get back on track and all of that stuff.
Yeah, it’s a very honest character. I think that’s what draws a lot of people to the show, in general, is that it’s a real reflection of life and I feel like sometimes that’s not always how shows are. So, it’s nice when you can kind of identify with the characters and say, ‘I’ve been there, I’m going through something similar’. I definitely think that makes it more authentic, which is nice as a viewer.
Of course. I was wondering if you could tell us what the audition process was like for Insecure? Was it kind of lengthy or did they tell you right away that you were the person they wanted for the role and you just moved forward with it?
I was super lucky. Actually, I auditioned twice for this. I read once for our producers which were, you know, Issa obviously, Melina Matsoukas who’s a producer, director and participating showrunner, and a couple other people. And then after that, they called that day and said they wanted to test me for it which is basically where they put a couple different actors up in front of the network, HBO executives, and they decide and so that happened. That process from the first audition to that second audition in front of HBO happened about a month later. Then HBO actually auditioned me against Y’lan Noel, who plays Daniel on seasons one, two, and three, and then I auditioned against Neil Brown Jr. who plays my best friend on the show Chad. We, the three of us, actually auditioned against each other for Lawrence. And I would say within 20 minutes of me leaving the HBO building, they called me and told me that I booked the show. Yeah, it was great. It was nice too because usually, you know, you wait for a really long time; sometimes I think contractually they have up to seven days to tell you if it’s you or not, and I have been in situations where they have you wait the entire seven days. It’s miserable. You know, all you can think about, every time the phone rings you hope it’s the job. But this was the opposite, this was 20 minutes later so it was pretty amazing.
So, you’re going to try your hand at directing in the new season of Insecure. Congratulations on that, that’s very exciting! What sparked your interest in directing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to try, or did you get into it recently?
I think it’s something I’ve wanted to try once I started working a little bit more. I just, I love storytelling; I eat it, breathe it, live it speak it, like all day long. And for me, I think finding different ways to tell stories or telling stories from different perspectives, you know, I can’t be every character but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a perspective on the storytelling and that I could potentially help tell the story as a director. So, I think for me it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. And luckily, fortunately for me, we were at the premiere actually of season two and Issa brought it up and she said, ‘Would you ever direct an episode?’ And I was like, ‘Me? Are you… talkin… Are you sure you want… Yeah, of course, I will direct an episode any time!’ You know, true to who Issa is, she came back around and she was like, ‘Hey, we want to give you an episode if you’re still interested,’ so I was like, ‘Hell yeah, girl!’ and so, you know, here we are, I got to direct this season.
That’s awesome. That’s really great too that she had you in mind for it already and approached you with it which kind of takes some of the pressure off of you being like, ‘So I want to try this, stick with me for a second.’
Yeah, I mean, I was super fortunate. I’ve had a bunch of people put their arms around me. I got to shadow Melina Matsoukas for the finale of season two. I shadowed Alec Berg [a writer] on Silicon Valley, I shadowed director Nzingha Stewart on Black Monday, I shadowed on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I went and sat down with Jordan Peele for like an hour, an hour and a half, two hours, like bouncing questions off of him about his path as a director. Yeah, Jordan was, he was amazing. Jordan was great because he gave me all this advice — I mean, amazing advice, super inspiring stuff. I was like, ‘Oh this is great’, like little tips for preparation and kind of how to break down how he broke down shots and scripts and stuff like that. And then literally at the very end of all that he goes, ‘But you know, I mean that all goes out the window when you’re directing your cast, you know I’ve never had to do that before so that’s a whole new world.’ Okay, cool. Like I literally… If I had walked out from sitting with him like 20 seconds earlier, I would have gone out on the biggest high ever.
But it was amazing. Yeah, Jordan’s got a big heart, I’m super grateful for that. Don’t you think that I was begging for a job the whole time which I should have and I probably will at some point, but he was really gracious to let me sit with him and pick his brain.
Would you be interested in directing more in the future? Or do you think you’re just going to primarily focus on acting for now and see what transpires organically?
No, I mean, I’m a big believer in journey and process so I’m not necessarily like running to change careers by any means; I love acting. And you know until I get to the age where I’m dying every time I’m a different character because of old age, you know, I’ll keep acting but that’s when I’ll stop. But, you know, I think if you know Prentice and Issa will be happy to have me back next season which they better or, or else Lawrence is gonna walk off the show [laughs]. I would definitely love to do another episode of Insecure and I think for me, ultimately, I would love to do features at some point. But again, I want to find the right story and kind of want to just keep honing my craft and, and also just keep telling stories as an actor because I love that first and foremost.
That’s great. I think it’d be nice, obviously if you can kind of incorporate both, that would be even better.
Yeah, that’s the dream!
You’re also slated to star in Mrs. America. What can you tell us about your experience filming the show? You obviously worked with quite an impressive group of actors — who you were most excited to work with?
Yeah, I had, I had never really heard of any of these actors before the show; they’re really lucky they got to work with me, to be honest with you. That Cate Blanchett, she’s a star, let me tell you. And that Rose Byrne, I don’t know where she came from but let me tell you she’s gonna be, she’s gonna be an actor, she’s going to work. [laughs]
It was amazing. I remember flying to Toronto and the first thing was I sat with Dahvi Waller, who created Mrs. America, on set with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck whose last project was Captain Marvel, which was absolutely amazing. Their first film [Half Nelson] got nominated for an Oscar, like they’re just amazing human beings on top of that. And Rose Byrne who I’ve adored and loved in every single role she’s ever played. Even when you want to hate her in Bridesmaids, you still love her, do you know what I mean? Everything she does is amazing.
Yeah! You sympathize with her.
You sympathize with her and you still love her. So, getting to work with her was absolutely amazing. She was a joy, she has a massive heart, she is hilarious. She will keep your ass laughing take after take after take. She’s so fun to work with, and also, she could tap into the character of Gloria so well. She did so much research, and she took so much time to just be really, I think, honest and truthful about the portrayal of Gloria Steinem, and what she was doing at this time fighting for the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]. You know I’m just grateful to have been a part of the project and all those actors are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with me obviously, so [laughs]. No, I’m joking. I was just playing; I wasn’t being serious. You know that cast is… Elizabeth Banks and Tracey Ullman and Sarah Paulson and Margo Martindale, and Uzo Aduba, John Slattery, I mean. You would watch any of those people on their own show any day of the week and here they are all on one show. I felt like I was in an acting troupe, I felt like I was just learning every single day from really amazingly talented people who I have loved for so long. Yeah, it’s a good one. It’s really, really special.
Speaking of being around some really great people, you’re also going to be in Top Gun: Maverick. I wanted to talk to you about that because I know you come from an aviation background. What did it mean to you to be cast in this role? How did your dad react when he found out?
Yeah, I mean being cast in it was everything. I remember being a kid, my dad was in the Air Force, my grandfather was in the Air Force, and we lived on tons of Air Force bases, and they have theatres on some of the bases. And you go and they bring in new movies but they also bring back classics every once in a while, and I remember being a kid and like my first memory of seeing Top Gun is in a theater on an Air Force base. And it’s packed. I mean it’s like 300-400 people, like the movie just came out last week, and at this point the movie is probably four or five years old, and it was completely packed in there. You have all these Air Force guys screaming at the screen, in love with this film, even though, the Navy and Air Force have a rivalry, and it’s such an amazing thing to see. And then fast forward to now, I get to come full circle after living on Air Force bases and being around so many people in aviation my whole life, like I get to now be in this movie and to me it was just… I couldn’t believe it when they told me that I had booked it. I called my dad, I called my parents and I’m just, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in Top Gun!’ and they were excited for a second and then my dad gets really quiet and he’s like, ‘But that’s the Navy, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah…’
And he’s like, ‘Aw man, that’s too bad, I guess you can’t be perfect.’
[Laughs] But yeah, I’m super excited, he was super, super excited and my mom was crazy excited. It was, it was surreal, it truly was amazing. And getting to work with Tom Cruise is, again like a bucket list thing; it’s just… definitely a high watermark. It’s definitely one of those moments like a moment in time that I will never forget, don’t ever want to forget and I’m so grateful that it happened the way it happened.
Is there a specific moment with Tom Cruise or a favorite memory on set that really stands out to you when you think about all of that?
All of it. I think the first thing with meeting him, I think the thing that always sticks out in my head is he pulls up on this motorcycle and he pulls off his helmet and throws on his glasses, and the doors open and he walks in with this smile that literally lights up the room and he walks right up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m Tom Cruise. It’s Jay Ellis, right? And I’m like, ‘Yeaaahh… how do you know my name? I know you, why do you know me? This is crazy. You don’t have to introduce yourself, man, you’re Tom Cruise!’ And just little things like that, where you know like, the lighting was perfect. The wind was like perfectly blowing through his hair.
Like this isn’t just in the movies, this is how he shows up.
Yeah, that’s how he shows up! Like there should have been cameras, but they weren’t [around]. It is really amazing. It truly is. He’s a great… he’s a really great dude. Getting to spend all that time with him on set every day. You know, every day we were on set, he was there which is also amazing. He was a co-star and a filmmaker and a mentor, and he would cheer us on. And he would talk with us about character and about choices and about movies he had done, different films that he likes and what he likes. It was just, it was a surreal experience. It truly, truly was. It’s everything you want when you work with somebody like that.
It’s nice to hear that he is every bit what everyone describes him as being. I’ve read that he’s incredibly generous and hands-on. I always watched all his movies growing up so it’s crazy to think about the stuff he does, doing all his own stunts.
And he talks you through all of that. He talked me through his preparation and how he eats and how he sleeps and how he takes care of his body. And how, you know, the training is. Our flight training for this film, we all get 40-45 hours of flight training before we even started shooting for the movie, and like he’s just… he’s just so detailed and specific and refined when it comes down to that stuff. It is no accident… like it is all very thought out for the best of the story and what best serves the film and the characters. And it’s super inspiring to be a part of that and to witness that every day.
Would you want to stick with the flight training now that you have completed some for the film? Or you are just kind of like one and done, you’re good.
No, I actually started working on my pilot license just before all this stuff started. So hopefully, once this all ends, I’ll be back in a plane again.
I’m sure being able to fly yourself is just an elevated experience.
Yes, it is really amazing to know that you can actually do it. It is really an amazing experience. It’s one of those things you’ve never thought you could do and then you achieve it and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can fly! What else can I do?’
I wanted to get into your volunteer experience a little bit. I saw that you’ve been involved with different AIDS foundations and research initiatives to get younger generations informed and aware of this issue, so I wanted to see what prompted your involvement in this particular cause.
Oh, I’ve always done a lot of volunteering. My mom was always really big on… you know, we give back even when we don’t have anything like there’s always somebody a little bit less fortunate. There’s always somebody you can help. And so, I think, for me, being active in my community, the global community, whatever it may be, I think it’s just always been super important to me. In the early ‘90s, I had an uncle pass from AIDS and I had another family member who contracted HIV. And so, it hit my family. We didn’t really know what it was at the time, there wasn’t that much research, but there was something new every single day and I was super, super young so I didn’t… they didn’t really tell me a lot. And they didn’t really know a lot to tell me, to be honest with you, and then I think as I got older and realized what it was and learned more and with the new research coming out about people living longer, and I just realized that like, you know, as being a part of this world and being a part of a community that is hit hard with HIV and AIDS, I just wanted to, to speak to it, and to help find a cure and help find a vaccine possibly. And amfAR [The Foundation for AIDS Research] has been an organization that funds tons of research that has helped find cures for all kinds of different things, actually. And funding research for AIDS and HIV, so it’s just something that I’ve always believed in and loved the organization. I think they do really, really good work.
I can relate a lot to your experience. When I was younger, I had a cousin who had AIDS and passed away but I was so young at the time, my family didn’t really tell me what was going on. I knew he was ill but obviously, you don’t really learn anything about it when you’re that young. So, it’s amazing that you’re actually taking this initiative and talking about it. I feel like even now, it still has that weird stigma around it and I think the more people that talk about it and try to keep people informed, the better. It’ll hopefully be better for future generations.
Yeah, I mean that’s what we hope, that we can just inform people and again erase the stigma I think is one of the biggest things, right? The stigma around testing, the stigma about carrying it, like all of it. Just get people to have open dialogue and open questions because you can live a full, long, healthy life [with HIV/AIDS] if you contract. But, let’s put people in a position where they don’t have to do that, I think, is something worth talking about and finding a cure for.
What advice would you give to young people who want to start volunteering or doing something that will positively impact their neighborhood or the lives of the people around them?
Don’t, don’t make an excuse. Just do it. I don’t know, I think we all… don’t know where to go or what to do or what to care about. It’s like dating or working, like you got to try a couple different things to see what’s your thing, what you’re passionate about, right? Like just because you do one thing doesn’t mean that that has to be your thing, you could have multiple things. Then maybe that one thing wasn’t your thing and you need to try a couple of others, and I just think that even if you do one day at a shelter or one day of whatever it is. That one day helps somebody’s life, and also helps you find your journey to the cause and the thing that you believe in and you really want to put your time and effort into. So, try. Just try things and see what works for you.
You have so many amazing things going on right now and I’m excited to see Top Gun: Maverick when it finally comes out later this year.
We’re super excited. I personally am double down, triple excited because December is my birthday. So now, it’s like I feel like I’m giving a gift to the world. [laughs]
Really a group effort, but you carried the team. Let’s be honest.
[Laughs] We got a really, really good group. I think we are all kind of crazy. Like we all text with each other, probably every other day. We’re all really, really tight. Glen [Powell] and I are super, super tight. We’re actually working on something else together, then, you know, Monica Barbaro and Danny Ramirez. Lewis Pullman, Tarzan Davis, Miles Teller, all of us are like literally really, really tight. And we all text back and forth weekly, some of us are texting daily, almost every other day, but it is amazing like how much of a bond we created making this film together.
That enhances the experience as a viewer to know you guys actually got along. Because I mean, obviously watching the movies where you can tell that the actors were just not getting along makes it a little bit tough. So, I’m definitely looking forward to the camaraderie of Top Gun: Maverick and that’s awesome that you guys are still friends.
Yeah, it’s rare, it’s rare. But it makes the experience on our side. You know, it makes making the movie so much more fun. The way we support each other, you know that the bonds on screen are real because the bonds off screen are real, so it’s really cool.
I’m sure the press tour is gonna be a breeze now since you guys all get along and you have all this time to continue bonding before the movie comes out.
Hopefully! I think we will all be excited to be together. Yeah, I think that it’ll be a breeze. I think the hard part is we will be so excited to be together again, [that] we’ll be tired because none of us will want to sleep because we won’t want to stop hanging out. But we’ll have a good time, so that’s what matters.
Top Gun: Maverick in theatres from 23rd December 2020!