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The Sitdown: Nelsan Ellis, of ‘True Blood,’ ‘Get on Up’

As told to Maudlyne Ihejirika, Staff Reporter

Fresh from last month’s finale of HBO’s vampire saga “True Blood,” and a star turn in this summer’s James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” actor/playwright and Chicago native Nelsan Ellis recently came home to celebrate with his family. Best known for playing the gay, drug-dealing, short-order cook and spiritual medium Lafayette Reynolds on “True Blood,” Ellis has gotten rave reviews for his role as Bobby Byrd, co-collaborator and bosom buddy to the Godfather of Soul. The 1997 graduate of south suburban Thornridge High School credits longtime Fine Arts Department Chairman Tim Sweeney and legendary drama coach Bill Kirksey for diverting him onto a path of success. He grew up poor, was dyslexic and spent his childhood as a ward of the state. He briefly joined the U.S. Marines at 17, then at 21 applied and was accepted at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. At its peak, “True Blood” drew “Sopranos”-level ratings, earning him many best supporting actor honors. He has two sons, ages 14 and 7, and is close to his father, who lives in the Chicago area. He is preparing for his next movie project, “Bolden,” another biopic, on the life of jazz legend Buddy Bolden.

I was born in Harvey. My parents divorced when I was 6 or 7, and my mother took us to Alabama to live.

When I was 8, things happened there, and the state came and took us away. But my grandmother, Alice Brown, walked through the system to get us back, took all these kids in. She’s still taking care of kids.

She’s probably the most wonderful woman in all the world, responsible for the greatness of so many other people and you never even know she was there, an unsung hero.

I came back to Illinois at 14, to live with my aunt in Dolton, eventually reuniting with my father. But even though we lived with various family members, we still remained wards of the state, till 21. That comes with a lot of issues. You feel like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why doesn’t anybody want you?’ And I have wonderful parents. I don’t love any other woman in the world more than my mother, and my father is the most fantastic man in the world. We just had a situation where somebody else had to take care of me and my brothers and sisters for a while.

While I’m here in Chicago, we’ve chosen two students from Roosevelt University who are wards of the state. I will meet with them, and we will be celebrating them. 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.

Acting was the only thing I ever knew how to do, but when you come from abject poverty, it seems so distant, this thing that you have in you that you can’t begin to reach for. So God has blessed me richly, because I don’t know how it happened, but it did.

I discovered acting at Thornridge, through two teachers who were just relentless in teaching it. Mr. William Kirksey and Mr. Tim Sweeney ran the speech team.

My theater company in Chicago, Collective Theater, is made up all of us who were taught by them at Thornridge. They inspired, motivated and pushed us into people we didn’t know we could become, made us believe in the stars, believe in ourselves.

My self-esteem wasn’t quite up there. I auditioned for Juilliard because they gave me the confidence. They were so magnificent! We still keep in contact with them today.

I went to Columbia College for a year, then Illinois State for two years, before Juilliard. I went to UCLA to work on my master’s, before I got my first movie.

“True Blood” was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m so indebted to producer Alan Ball, who hired me to play Lafayette Reynolds, who dies in the book. My deal was just for one season, but Alan kept me all seven seasons.

I’ve been able to walk into many rooms only because of Alan Ball and the opportunity he gave me.

With “Get on Up,” I auditioned to play James Brown, but after reading the script, I called director Tate Taylor, and was like, ‘I don’t know which part I like better, James Brown or Bobby Byrd.’ For some reason, Bobby Byrd spoke to my spirit. I auditioned for him and when Tate played my tape for producers Mick Jagger and Brian Grazer, they all said, ‘You’re Bobby Byrd.’ It was a good decision and a good fit.

It’s always good to come home to Chicago. There are cousins I haven’t seen in 10 years.

They’re all coming to a party to celebrate my making the cover of Ebony Magazine. Never mind that I’ve actually been on a TV show and in a couple of movies. It’s Ebony that’s making them swoon as if I’m a star. And it makes my daddy happy.

My mom died of cancer the third season of ‘True Blood.’ We all cling to dad.

Looking at Chicago’s violence, my advice is not for the youth, but for their parents: Y’all gotta do better. We as parents have got to do better. My boys are never going to do none of this stuff because I’m present.

We have to cherish our children, make them feel loved, steer them in a different direction. When there’s something going on with my kid, I’m the first to know about it.

My boys have egos out of control because I’m always telling them, ‘I love you. You’re special. Don’t do that. You’re good boys.’ Parents are the only ones who can steer their children in a different way.

I’m 36, and my father still has influence over me. Talk to your child. Say, ‘You can do better. You’re smart. You’re brilliant. You’re wonderful. Stop.’

Email: mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Maudlynei

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