True Blood's Nelsan Ellis - Standing Out Amongst Vampires
As the first season of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood heads towards its season finale on Sunday, November 23rd, there’s still a lot to resolve in the little Louisiana town of Bon Temps. Barmaid Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is in a dangerous race to uncover the identity of the local serial killer before she becomes the next victim. And when it comes to matters of the heart, she’s facing a choice between sexy Bill the vampire (Stephen Moyer) or her devoted boss Sam (Sam Trammell), a secret shape-shifter.
But that’s all par for the crazy course for Alan Ball’s True Blood which has been addictively over-the-top from day one. While it debuted to lackluster ratings of 1.44 million viewers in September, the series has since become a guilty pleasure water cooler show steadily gaining new eyes culminating in a series high 6.4 million viewers for its eleventh episode.
One of the shows breakout stars is actor Nelsan Ellis. His brazen, brash and sexy turn as Lafayette Reynolds, the openly gay fry-cook/construction worker/porn mogul/V-blood dealer, elicits equal part laughs and deep blushes from audiences. Lafayette’s trysts with everyone from local vampires to closeted State Senate candidates have placed him in the danger zone during the season finale, so Newsarama chatted with the actor about the success of the series and if Lafayette’s days are numbered.
Newsarama: Nelsan, your portrayal of Lafayette has been a highlight of the series, but was the role easily won?
Nelsan Ellis: No, it was a challenge. I had four auditions. At the second audition, the casting director called my agent and said “Yeah, he didn’t do so good.” She thought I had brought in a caricature rather than a person. She said I came off trying to be something and it looked clownish. So then I basically tried to mesh Lafayette with who I am so it comes off natural. Lafayette is a part of me versus me trying to create another thing.
NRAMA: Did you have to dig deep to find that balance?
NE: Yeah. Of course I’m creating something inside myself to fill out Lafayette but in the moment, it doesn’t look like I’m doing something because I planned it. Rather because I’ve imbedded myself and my own personality with a few added quirks so it comes off the cuff.
NRAMA: That off the cuff quality of Lafayette is one of the most endearing qualities about the character. Do you ad-lib much?
NE: For the first six episodes, I helped the writers out in finding the voice. All of the characters are collaborations in terms of Alan’s ideas, my ideas and what each of the six writer’s ideas are. There was some ad-libbing because when you have six different writers and Alan, the actor is the one who has to give the specific voice of the person. I had to figure out the way he thinks and the way he talks. We all ad-libbed to build his personality.
NRAMA: Are you as open and flirty as Lafayette or has it been an exercise in extroversion to play him?
NE: It’s been a learning experience. I’m pretty shy and a lot of times introverted. The first day of shooting, Alan said, “Nelsan…it’s a theater! Whenever the camera comes over there I want Lafayette to put on a play.” That part is Alan. His idea of who [Lafayette] is comes from Alan. [Charlaine Harris’s] books describe him in one sentence.
NRAMA: Speaking of the books, did you use “Dead Until Dark” as a character reference?
NE: There’s not much in the books. I did a lot of research in gay clubs. But the best stuff I got was from the Marquis de Sade, my mother and various other people from people in the gay clubs. (laughs)
NRAMA: Your mom? How so?
NE: My mother is growing up; she’s 50 and still is [growing up]. She is the black sheep of the family because my mother has always been such a sexual creature. She walks like it, she talks like it and looks like it. Early on Alan told me all the things that I needed to keep in mind like I would have a gay porn web site and I would be a prostitute so sex is a very important part of his life. And so that’s why I draw from my mother.
NRAMA: The vampire genre is big again. Does it have an appeal for you?
NE: Yes! At some point in my life, I wanted to be in a vampire movie. I am a vampire/werewolf and sci-fi fanatic. God is so good! I get to play in a series that has all that! We have witches and werewolves and shape-shifters.
NRAMA: What are some of your favorites in the genre?
NE: Interview with a Vampire is my all-time favorite. I also loved An American Werewolf in London.
NRAMA: You have a pretty talented ensemble cast to work against and luckily, Lafayette gets to interact with all of them. How’s the rapport on set?
NE: I tell you my favorite is Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse). We just have fun together. We play off each other well. I went to school with Rutina Wesley (Tara). We went to Julliard together so we were absolutely comfortable with each other. Because we were good friends made it even better. It’s never work with Rutina because we just do what we do. Anna Paquin is marvelous and she brings so much experience to the table. Often times we’re learning stuff from her, like camera tricks, stuff to keep us from doing ADR and dealing with the technical parts.
NRAMA: What’s your favorite episode?
NE: Well, Steven Root (Eddie) is my vampire lover. The man is extraordinary so we had a very weird, weird scene in episode six “Cold Ground.” It’s the strangest scene I’ve had to do and it’s certainly the strangest thing he’s ever had to do. The director said it was the strangest thing he had to do so we enjoyed how weird it was, but it was some work. It would be my favorite episode.
NRAMA: Lafayette is a charming guy, but he’s working some dangerous angles. Do you identify with him?
NE: I like who he is as a person. I don’t agree with how he goes about getting what he needs and wants. I think he is a nice dude. I think there have been some unfortunate incidents that happened in his childhood that put him in a place to be who he is. He was raised by a single parent and was probably the only person like himself in the whole town. He’s had to become shrewd and strong and dangerous. I think he’s a nice dude; at least I would like him to be a nice dude. (laughs)
NRAMA: Fans of the Harris books know that Lafayette doesn’t live past the first novel. Should audiences prepare for a possible bad turn for your character in the series finale?
NE: (Smiles) That is yet to be seen.