On July 8, 2017, news that 39 year-old actor/playwright, Nelsan Ellis had died in Los Angeles, California, soared to the top the internet’s trending topics. Ellis’ family released a statement two days later announcing he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for years. They went on to say that he “was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life.” His family believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.
Originally from Harvey, Illinois, Nelsan Ellis was a Juilliard School for the Performing Arts alumni. In the summer of 2007, a hopeful Ellis filmed a pilot for a new television series about vampires with his Juilliard classmate and fellow graduate, Rutina Wesley (now starring in Queen Sugar on OWN).
In the summer of 2008, HBO’s True Blood debuted, and Ellis’ character, Lafayette Reynolds, made a lasting impression on what quickly became a multi-season ratings juggernaut. His portrayal of Lafayette – the layered line cook and unapologetically Queer medium – helped secure True Blood as a horror/fantasy/cult classic.
True Blood adapted the critically acclaimed Sookie Stackhouse Series by author Charlaine Harris into a mature-audience TV series. Life was sinister, romantic, and sexually charged in the fictitious and (seemingly) charming town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, where vampires, werewolves, fairies – you name it – lurked around every corner.
Lafayette was a headstrong – yet troubled – young character. In the book series, readers remember him dying in the debut novel, his body found lifeless in the back seat of a car parked outside Merlotte’s Bar & Grill. In the TV series, it’s Miss Jeanette (Aisha Hinds) who’s found dead and Lafayette survives as a rare, multidimensional representation of a Queer Person of Colour (QPOC) in the Southern United States for six full seasons.
The only Gay civilian living and working in the bayous of Bon Temps (besides the homo/bisexual vampires hosting orgies and feeding parties at Fangtasia); Lafayette Reynolds lived his life privately, away from the carnivorous creatures of the night.
“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,” Ellis told the Philadelphia Inquirer about getting into character. It’s said Lafayette’s mannerisms were inspired by Ellis’ mother and aunt.
But Lafayette’s vexations weren’t always at the hands (or claws) of the show’s fantastical beasts. As the show progresses, we see Lafayette is not as scared of the town’s hocus pocus as he used to be. As a medium, he becomes a part of it. His inner demons could not be set free by his guilty pleasures of sex and getting high on V (vampire blood); however, he carried the difficult burden of empathizing with his alcoholically abusive/religiously-crazed aunt Lettie Mae (Adina Elizabeth Porter) and mentally ill mother, Ruby Jean (Alfre Woodard).
In the shadowy town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, Lafayette experienced numerous examples of prejudice due to his race and/or sexuality. Standing up to racism and homophobia became a running theme for Lafayette on True Blood and it spawned some of the best scenes of the series like the viral scene entitled “AIDS Burger” where Lafayette stands up to three White rednecks who returned the food he prepared for them back to the kitchen because “it has AIDS.” Or when Lafayette was taken prisoner by the vampires of Fangtasia and a fellow prisoner apologizes for giving him a “hard time” about being Gay, confessing he let his bunkmate “blow him” in college. We see where insecurity hides and how it can be projected onto others.
Throughout the 2008-2014 running time, Nelsan Ellis grew to new heights with his character. The audience witnessed Lafayette go through hardships alongside male love interests and close family members, and soon enough, his shielded, more vulnerable side revealed itself.
At the height of the show’s popularity, some fans proclaimed that True Blood represented southern Black people in a negative light and accused the show of resorting to stereotypes. It’s said some LGBTQ+ fans were also upset with the show because Lafayette was a prostitute – but within a myriad of misfortune – he never played the victim.
When asked by Vibe Magazine what the Gay community thought of Lafayette being a prostitute, Ellis defended the character: “I don’t think it’s a reflection of the Gay community. That’s just Lafayette.” He went on to mention the hypocrisy surrounding Black vs. White actors in the industry: “I can’t just get upset with regular folk because all they see is the character. But 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. 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.”
Nelsan Ellis the actor identified himself as a Straight Christian man, but his most famous and critically celebrated role was within the intricate and tortured Gay character, Lafayette. His popularity within the QPOC/ LGBTQ+ community grew larger with each season, and he publicly expressed his support for the community in the same interview with Vibe: “I support it [Gay marriage]. I think anybody should – I mean – I have my religious views, but I don’t choose to oppress them on anybody. I think in this country, anybody can do whatever they want to do as long as it’s not hurting anybody else or violating the laws of society. If you want to get married to a man then get married to a man. If two women want to get married they should get married. It’s not hurting me. The beautiful thing about this country is that I can be a Christian and feel free to do so. Or somebody cannot be a Christian and do whatever that entails. Or somebody can be a Christian and still be Gay and I support it. Let Gay people get married.”
Nelsan Ellis was a bona fide fan favourite, swooning audiences with his assertive on-screen personality on all six notary seasons, and while True Blood ended in 2014, Ellis was only just getting started.
No one had ever seen a dynamic character like Lafayette Reynolds on television before, and we’ve yet to see anyone like him since.
In the words of Lafayette Reynolds,
“Tip your waitress.”
[Watch Nelsan Ellis in his final role as Bobby Byrd in the celebrated 2014 James Brown biopic, Get On Up.]
Lafayette Reynolds Facebook Page
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.