In backwoods Louisiana, short-order cook Lafayette Reynolds wears lipstick and earrings while dealing drugs and pimping himself out. Thanks to the man who plays him on HBO’s vampire drama True Blood—Nelsan Ellis, a native of south suburban Harvey—Reynolds has amassed a cult following. Though averaging little more than a couple of scenes per episode, Ellis as Lafayette is a powerhouse, oozing confidence and sexuality. On May 19, season one’s DVD goes on sale; until season two premieres on June 14, 6.8 million viewers await the answer to one question: Is Lafayette dead?
Created by Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) and based on the best-selling novels by Charlaine Harris, True Blood turns the vampire mythos on its head. Long relegated to the shadows of the night, vampires finally have come “out of the closet”; a new synthetic blood fulfills their dietary needs. They want to integrate with humans but must face the social issues—bigotry, violence and vampire profiling—that come with it.
As a gay black man in the Deep South, Lafayette, one of the show’s nonvampires, embodies the history of two oppressed societies that, much like the vampires in True Blood, have fought an arduous battle for basic civil rights. In the first two Harris books, the character makes only a few brief appearances before biting the dust. “I was a little harsh on Charlaine when I read the books,” L.A.-based Ellis says via phone. “I had a problem with the character. I thought, this [author] don’t know the black South! You have to be a tough gay person in the South.”
The actor credits Ball with putting flesh on the bare bones of Harris’s Lafayette, who’s little more than a sex addict with painted nails. “I didn’t like him in the books, but I loved the Lafayette I saw in the pilot,” Ellis says. “He lives in a place where he deals with extreme scrutiny and adversity from everybody. He has to be tough and shrewd.”
Ellis graduated from high school in Dolton, Illinois, before training at New York’s Juilliard School. Yet he spent much of his childhood in the poor town of Bessemer, Alabama. “It was hell,” Ellis says. “You go back to my town, it’s like going back to the 1960s…just not a great place to grow up.” In Alabama, Ellis’s sister, Alice, was murdered. “She was pregnant, and my brother-in-law shot her point-blank with a sawed-off shotgun in front of my six-year-old nephew,” Ellis says. He channeled his grief into authoring the 2002 play Ugly, which focused on domestic violence. It won the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Martin E. Segal Award.
In True Blood, Ellis, who says he ad-libs some of his lines, has crafted a vernacular for Lafayette based on what he overhears at L.A.’s gay clubs, which he frequents to research the role. At times, this has led to confrontations with aggressive fans who don’t draw a line between Ellis, who’s straight, and his assertive, flamboyant character. “I’m sort of shy, so I don’t know how to deal with that,” Ellis says. “I’ve been followed. One time I was inappropriately touched. The man in me wants to rise out and put up my dukes. [Instead], I just gotta say, ‘Thank you for liking Lafayette, but I’m Nelsan; I’m different.’”
Ellis also has worried about backlash from the black community. “I thought, Oh, my people are gonna just banish me to hell. My people are gonna hate this! But actually, I have gotten more Timberland-wearing, saggy pants–drooping, tattooed-up dudes coming up to me saying, ‘Man, I love that hustle! I love that character.’”
But the actor says his father, who hails from Chicago’s South Side and is a deacon in the conservative Church of God in Christ, disapproves. “Truth of the matter is, he don’t want his son prancing around in lipstick and makeup, playing some gay dude,” Ellis says. “He believes the character is supporting an ideal that Christians don’t normally support.”
Ellis sees it differently; for him, True Blood is an allegory for societal oppression. “It’s about accepting what’s different,” he says. “You have to learn to not hate who you have to live with.”
True Blood season one hits stores May 19. Season two begins on HBO June 14.