Nelsan Ellis could have been one of Hollywood’s truly great character actors, if Hollywood had let him. On Saturday, the 39-year-old actor died, taking with him not only the kind and generous spirit all his co-stars have lamented, but an immense talent that we only ever got to see a fraction of.
Whenever a great actor dies, we think about their legacy, what made them truly iconic. With Ellis, it’s easy to pinpoint the role that solidified his greatness: his beautifully human portrayal of Lafeyette Reynolds on “True Blood.”
Lafayette, the cousin of Tara Thornton (played by Rutina Weasley) and a cook at the local watering hole Merlotte’s, blazed onto television screens in 2008. He was captivating from the very beginning, a character who on paper might have been nothing but a wise-cracking gay stereotype, but through Ellis became one of the most layered and beloved portrayals of a gay black man in television history.
From 2008 to 2014, we watched Lafayette deftly push notions of what it means to be a black gay man. He was unapologetically femme, engaged in sex work without a shroud of guilt or shame, and in season three, he was given a storyline in which audiences had a chance to see him love and be fully loved by a devoted and supportive partner.
And in one of his most memorable scene (below), Lafayette confronts a group of racist and homophobic bigots at Merlotte’s who sent back burgers because “They might have AIDS.” Ellis’ brilliantly-delivered monologue in the scene was one of the things that ultimately convinced producers not to kill off his character in season one as intended, but to extend his storyline for the entire duration of the series.
There is definitely a need for more gay black actors in Hollywood, but in a television landscape so lacking in diverse and positive portrayals of gay black men on screen (especially back in 2008), Ellis’ performance was incredibly vital. As a straight actor, he seemed to understand the importance and responsibility that came with playing Lafayette ― not as a a jumble of gay cliches, but as a fully-realized human being with his own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
In a 2014 interview with Vulture, the actor even called out his “True Blood” co-star Luke Grimes, who quit the series because he didn’t want his character to have a romantic relationship with Lafayette.
“I’m over him. You quit your job because you don’t want to play a gay part? As if it’s … You know what? I’m going to stop talking,” Ellis said.
But he continued, adding, “I can’t approach a character with judgment. I certainly can’t tell my boss, ‘I can act what I want to act, but not what you tell me to act,’ especially on a show where you come in, knowing what it is.”
In an industry landscape where straight black actors like Nate Parker continue to espouse the idea that taking gay roles is “emasculating” to the black man, the importance of what Ellis did with Lafayette cannot be understated. Years before Black Twitter was debating about Young Thug and Lil Uzi wearing “women’s” clothes, years before Titus Andromedon stole every scene on “Kimmy Schmidt,” there was Lafayette.
And yet, while Ellis gave us such a rich and entertaining performance, Hollywood gave him so little in return. There was no denying his immense talent, but after finishing up his run as Lafayette in 2014, Ellis found himself not only struggling to find equally substantial, meaty roles, but also struggling to convince executives that he was not Lafayette.
It’s hard to believe that after his stint on “True Blood,” Nelsan only had a handful of more recent acting credits, including a pretty stellar recurring supporting role on the CBS procedural “Elementary.” Co-stars like Sam Trammell, Stephen Moyer and Ryan Kwanten have had dozens more.
“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,” Ellis told Vibe in 2010.
“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.”
At only 39-years-old, Ellis had so much more to offer, and we’ll never really know if he would have ever gotten the chance to display the full breadth of his range and talent. But Lafayette, good-hearted, brave, loyal, and fly as hell, will always stand as a testament to Nelsan Ellis’ excellence.