Nelsan Ellis

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Nelsan Ellis
Nelsan Ellis at True Blood premiere party.jpg
Ellis in June 2009
Born November 30, 1978 (1978-11-30) (age 36)
Harvey, Illinois, U.S.
Education Juilliard School (B.F.A. 2004)
Occupation Actor, playwright
Years active 2002–present

Nelsan Ellis (born November 30, 1978[1]) is an American film and television actor and playwright. He is well known for his role as Lafayette Reynolds in the HBO series True Blood, which he played from 2008 until the series' completion in 2014, and most recently for starring as Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic, Get On Up.

Early life and education[edit]

Ellis was born in Harvey, Illinois,[2] near Chicago. When Ellis and his siblings were younger, their mother, a single parent after her divorce from her children's father, broke down over the death of her brother. Ellis and his siblings became wards of the state as a result. They were then raised in Bessemer, Alabama, by their grandmother. In Alabama, Ellis attended Jess Lanier High School for a year, then transferred to McAdory High School.[3] He moved back to Illinois at age 15, where he lived with his maternal aunt, and in 1997 he graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton, Illinois.

He joined the United States Marines at the age of 17, but quit not long afterwards.[4] When Ellis was 21, he was accepted for enrollment at the Juilliard School's[4] Drama Division (Group 33: 2000–2004)[5] where he befriended True Blood-colleague Rutina Wesley[4] (Group 34: 2001–2005).[5] Ellis earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Juilliard in 2004.[6]

Prior to his transfer to Juilliard, Ellis attended Illinois State University, where he was a National Champion in Duo Interpretation, among other successes, at the National Forensic Association national tournament. [7]


In 2007, Ellis was cast as Lafayette Reynolds on the pilot for True Blood, a short order cook at Merlotte's, a drug dealer, a member of Jason Stackhouse's road crew, and Tara Thornton's cousin. The pilot was shot in the early summer of 2007 and was officially ordered to series in August.[8] Production on the series began later that fall.[9]

In casting, Alan Ball had concerns that the character's sexuality would be a dominating trait, "because you don't want to bring in someone who's going to play that in a phony way".[10] Nelsan Ellis says that it took him a few episodes to find the character.[11] Ellis says that he based many of Lafayette's mannerisms on his mother and his sister,[10] and that the costuming also helps him get into character.

I have more makeup on than any of the females in the cast. Once they get me with the fake eyelashes and the eye makeup, I listen to some Rihanna and I'm there.

— Nelsan Ellis, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The series premiered on September 7, 2008 and concluded on August 24, 2014, comprising seven seasons and 80 episodes.[12][13] In 2008, Ellis received a Satellite Award from the International Press Academy for best supporting actor in a television series for his role as Lafayette Reynolds'.[14] In 2009, he was nominated for a Scream Award for "Best Supporting Actor" for True Blood.[15]

In 2012, Ellis was cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. in a supporting performance in Lee Daniels' The Butler.[16][17] The Butler received mostly positive reviews from critics, with a 71% rating on the film critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 171 reviews.[18]

On October 21, 2013, Ellis joined the cast of Get on Up (film), a biographical drama film about the life of singer James Brown. He portrayed Bobby Byrd, Brown's long-time friend.[19] Get on Up was met with positive reviews from critics. The film currently has a rating of 80% on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 150 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10.[20]

Awards & Nominations[edit]

  • While at Juilliard, Ellis wrote a semi-autobiographical play entitled "Ugly", which was performed at the school and later won the Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award. The play centered on his pregnant sister's murder at the hands of her husband.


Year Film Role Notes
2002 Lost Hoffa Short film
2005 Warm Springs Roy Collier TV movie
Trespass Trespass
2008 The Express Will Davis, Jr.
2009 The Soloist David Carter
Talent Titus
2010 Secretariat Eddie Sweat
2011 The Help Henry the Waiter
2012 The Reluctant Fundamentalist Wainwright
2013 Page 36 Writer and Director Short Film
The Butler Martin Luther King, Jr.
2014 Get On Up Bobby Byrd
2015 The Stanford Prison Experiment Jesse Fletcher
Year Title Role Notes
2005 The Inside Carter Howard 13 Episodes
2007 Veronica Mars Apollo Bukenya Episode: "I Know What You'll Do Next Summer"
Without a Trace Deng Nimieri Episode: "Lost Boy"
2008–2014 True Blood Lafayette Reynolds Regular

Won Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film

Won Satellite Award for Best Cast – Television Series

Nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series

Won Ewwy Award for best supporting actor in a Drama series

Won NewNowNext Award for Brink of Fame: Actor

Nominated for a Scream Award for best supporting actor

2015 RuPaul's Drag Race Himself, Guest Judge Episode: "Conjoined Queens"


  1. ^ "Nelsan Ellis". Yahoo! TV. Retrieved March 14, 2012. 
  2. ^ Herrmann, Andrew (November 22, 2008). "'True Blood' actor Nelsan Ellis credits Thornridge teachers with on- and off-screen success". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on January 6, 2010. Retrieved July 9, 2009. Ellis, now 30 
  3. ^ Sharp, Dave (August 9, 2009). "'True Blood's' Lafayette a glamorously shady character". The Birmingham News. Retrieved August 9, 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c Gopala, Nisha (July 7, 2011). "Nelsan Ellis on True Blood’s Season of the Witches, Lafayette’s Mohawk, and Dodging the Marines". Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b "Alumni News". The Juilliard School. May 2008. Archived from the original on 2011-11-11. Retrieved April 6, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Juilliard School Newsletter". September 6, 2011. Retrieved April 6, 2012. [dead link]
  7. ^
  8. ^ Schneider, Michael (August 9, 2007). "HBO rolls with Ball's 'True Blood'". Daily Variety. Retrieved March 20, 2008. 
  9. ^ Mitovitch, Matt Webb (August 10, 2007). "True Blood Vampire Saga Tests Positive at HBO". TV Guide. Retrieved August 17, 2008. 
  10. ^ a b Hiltbrand, David. "Actor brings extended life to 'True Blood' character". Philadelphia Enquirer. Retrieved August 20, 2010. 
  11. ^ Rhett, Starrene. "Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) Talks 'True Blood,' Gay Marriage, Tyler Perry". Vibe Magazine. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  12. ^ "HBO Renews True Blood for Seventh Season". Daily Dead. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  13. ^ The Screen Spy Team (September 3, 2013). "True Blood to End its Run in 2014". Screen Spy. 
  14. ^ a b "2008 13th Annual SATELLITE Awards Nominees". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on December 18, 2008. Retrieved December 15, 2008. 
  15. ^ a b "Scream 2009 Best Supporting Actor". Retrieved on September 1, 2009.
  16. ^ Nordyke, Kimberly (May 7, 2013). "'The Butler' Trailer: Oprah Winfrey Plays 'Proud' Wife to Forest Whitaker (Video)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  17. ^ Labrecque, Jeff (May 8, 2013). "'The Butler': The new trailer showcases Oscar-winning actors tackling history – VIDEO". PopWatch (column) (Entertainment Weekly). Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  18. ^ "Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)". Rotten Tomatoes. August 16, 2013. Retrieved August 16, 2013. 
  19. ^ Gallagher, Brian (October 21, 2013). "Nelsan Ellis Joins the James Brown Biopic Get on Up". Retrieved December 23, 2013. 
  20. ^ "Get on Up (2014)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 31, 2014. 
  21. ^ "NewNowNext Awards: Who Won?". Retrieved on May 23, 2009.

External links[edit]