IHEJIRIKA: Nelsan Ellis’ death shocked me, but now I understand
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I was on a road trip when I heard that Nelsan Ellis — the 39-year-old actor best known as the gay, drug-dealing, short-order cook and spiritual medium Lafayette Reynolds in HBO’s vampire saga “True Blood” — had died.
No, it can’t be the articulate, soft-spoken Nelsan Ellis I interviewed twice in August 2014, I thought. I doubted it so much that I called the office, which confirmed Ellis’ death.
The next day, July 10, Ellis’ family divulged that the Harvey-born actor, unbeknownst to Hollywood and his fans, had battled alcoholism and drug abuse for years, relapsing after myriad attempts at rehab.
He’d died trying to detox from alcohol on his own, his father said in a statement.
As family, friends and fans of Ellis gather for his wake Friday night at A.R. Leak and Sons’ Funeral Home in County Club Hills, those 2014 interviews — one by phone and one in person — still stick out to me. Ellis wasn’t shy about sharing the stories of his troubled childhood, but there were no signs of the local boy-turned-star being a troubled adult.
So I went back and read the transcript of the interviews, which I recorded.
And suddenly, the roots of the demons Ellis battled made more sense.
So just as his family disclosed his addiction problems in an effort to help others, I’m disclosing his previously unreported words to you, hoping to do the same.
“Growing up, I moved around a bit,” Ellis told me. “I think that the only thing I ever knew how to do is act. But to be from abject poverty, it seems so distant, this thing that you have in you that you can’t begin to reach for.”
He then opened up about having longtime issues with self-esteem, stemming from his experience as a ward of the state.
“To be a ward of the state, it means a lot of things. You feel like, you know, what’s wrong with you? Why don’t anybody want you? Why don’t your Momma and Daddy want you?
“I don’t talk a lot about my childhood, because you know, my father, he goes up in arms. You know black folks. We’re supposed to keep our problems in the house.”
Ellis pointed out he’d since repaired his relationship with his father and was back in Chicago to celebrate his accomplishments with family. The month before my interviews with him, “True Blood” had wrapped up its seventh-season, and Ellis had just made the cover of Ebony for his portrayal of Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic, “Get On Up.”
“It is the Ebony cover that’s making all my family go crazy,” he said. “And you know what? It makes Daddy happy. I love my Daddy.”
Ellis’ parents divorced when he was an elementary schooler, and his mother moved with the kids down South, to Alabama. In one of my interviews, he opened up about how he ended up in foster care a couple of years later — a part of his life that, in hindsight, had clearly left psychological scars.
“When I was 8, things happened there, and the state came and took us away. My mother, unfortunately, she was arrested and she was in jail, gone for two weeks. The neighbors called authorities, and they came and took us away. And unfortunately, shortly thereafter, my brother died, and my mother just didn’t recover for a long time. . . .
“My grandmother walked through the system to get us back. My father, he was in Chicago. My mother had sort of disappeared with us, so he didn’t really know where we were. It was later that my grandmama was able to contact his mama and tell her where we were. . . .
“I came back to Illinois at 14, to live with my aunty in Dolton, eventually reuniting with my father. But even though we lived with various family members, we still remained wards of the state. And the rules are different in every state. You have to be 18, 21, or 26 to leave state care. I remained a ward of the state until 21.”
Ellis discovered acting as a student at Dolton’s Thornridge High School.
“I was living with my aunty at the time, and my self-esteem wasn’t quite up there,” he said. His drama teachers “made me believe in myself. They gave me confidence. I mean, it takes some confidence to audition for Juilliard.”
When I met Ellis in person at a party, it struck me just how lithe and stylish he was. This was a great story, the one about the role model who had turned a difficult childhood — poverty, dyslexia, ward of the state — into amazing success!
But I also was struck by Ellis’ bloodshot eyes; the deep-down hurt that resonated in his voice when he spoke about his childhood, and the emphatic tone he took when discussing his love of his own two children.
“I don’t have advice for the youth, because whatever they’re doing, they’re already doing it. My advice is as a parent. There’s always hope. I went to the Congressional Black Caucus, and spoke on a panel, and I heard parents say, ‘I don’t understand my kid.’ I’m like: ‘You gotta do better.’ When there’s something going on with my kids, I know about it. I understand them better than anyone else.”
Ellis also discussed how he tries to support young people grappling with similar childhood experiences as his.
That weekend, he was to meet with two students from Roosevelt University who were wards of the state.
“I think it’s a powerful lesson for people to know that despite the fact that you’re in that situation, life moves on, and you, too, can move on in a marvelous way.”
In light of the addiction problems that led to his death, I can’t help but wonder if Ellis had believed what he told me about moving on.
It must have been agonizing to wear the mask.