“True Blood” star Nelsan Ellis gets to bite his teeth into the juicy role of Byrd, the man largely responsible for the career of groundbreaking, “Godfather of Soul and hardest working man in show business,” James Brown. “The Help,” “The Butler,” and “The Soloist” were just appetizers for Ellis, a man of many talents.
In addition to his acting roles, Ellis wrote and directed the short film, “Page 36,” which aired on HBO. Now, with a major role in the incredibly electrifying and engrossing biopic, Ellis’ star status is elevated to even greater heights. Sitting in the world famous Apollo Theater, the affable, engaging and hilarious Ellis opened up about his “Get On Up” experience and let The Film Strip in on some of his own personal secrets.
How did you prep for such a key role in the career of James Brown?
Did research, checked out YouTube, and read about him although there isn’t much material out there. But it was enough to give me a general idea of his accomplishments, his life but not so much about the man. So James Brown’s grandson, nephew worked and his last bandleader, who all worked on the film were there for input. So I cheated [laughs] a bit.
What comes to mind when you hear the name James Brown?
‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ My granddaddy used to play that all the time. And also, I remember the negatives. That is why it’s so great when people see this, they will see the trajectory of his life—the beginning, middle and end. I, and most likely those of my generation, just remember the end. But I appreciate the man, as well as the dynamic entertainer that he was.
What was the most important thing that you took away from this experience?
Be Olympic in the way you work. Chadwick Boseman was Olympic in the way he worked. He raised my work ethic tremendously. I watched him work and I would literally be like, let me go and do something, let me go and read my lines and listen to some Bobby Byrd. I took away ‘work harder and harder.’
Besides giving James Brown that once in a lifetime opportunity, how else would you describe your character’s relationship to Brown?
I would say I was the anchor, the consistent force, the love, the brother, and the most trusted confidant.
How hard is it for a celebrity and anyone in the limelight who is constantly being idolized by his/her fans to not become an egomaniac?
I mean it slips in from time to time because you are but I have to go home to a seven-year-old. He doesn’t care about celebrity status. I have to go home to my friends and family. They don’t care about celebrity. So that keeps me grounded.
Bobby Byrd had a very supportive family in the film. Was your family always there for you?
My family was very supportive of what I wanted to do. They may not have understood it, but they ultimately supported what I did. My father didn’t understand my playing Lafayette [his gay character in ‘True Blood’] but they ultimately supported me. They, my father, are very proud of me.
Was True Blood a turning point in your career?
That role is what got me this role. I’m very grateful for that opportunity because that role opened up so many doors for me, and this was one of them.
There is a scene in the beginning of the film where a white man is disturbed by loud music. How much progress has there been since the pre-civil rights era?
[Laughs] That’s an interesting question to ask somebody from Bessemer, Alabama. I think things have changed. I think sometimes it’s going at a snail’s pace, but I think things have changed a lot.
Will you be directing and writing more?
I was going to direct a feature in October but I got this movie so I had to push it back. I hope to do more directing because I like it. I really do. With writing, I want to. I have that itch but haven’t scratched it yet.
What would be another ideal role for you?
I would love to play Nat King Cole. Somebody needs to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Let’s meet to discuss playing Nat King Cole.’ Hollywood, somebody needs to do that story.
Why not you? There’s Kickstarter?
That’s true. I would have to buy the rights.
Well buying the rights is a whole new ballgame and could pose a problem. Why the Nat King Cole story?
It’s a complicated one. Plus, I look like him.
What do you do in your free time?
I’m with my kid. I’m a movie junkie and go to the movies all the time. I spend a whole lot of time home cooking, drinking wine and having fun with my friends. And I spend a lot of time with the family. I’ll go to the bar and have a few drinks but mostly I’m at home cooking for folks, feeding them.
You cook for your girlfriend?
I am newly single, actually.
If you were back in the dating pool, what type of women would you be attracted to?
I’m interested in strong, opinionated and funny women, who don’t mind a goofy man.
So is there something else your fans don’t know about you?
I’m goofy. I like socks [laugh]. I don’t know what it is about this sock issue, but I love them for some reason. I don’t know why. It might be that I have four brothers and we all just wore white socks. It’s weird isn’t it?
No, Nelsan Ellis, it is not weird. The sock issue is something everyone has dealt with through the ages—why one sock always seems to just disappear into the abyss. Up next for Ellis is the film, “Bolden,” he says. “I play Buddy Bolden, the schizophrenic jazz musician.”
“Get On Up” opens nationwide August 1st.
Syndicated Entertainment journalist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]l,