Jay Ellis opens up to Gotham about the final season of HBO's Insecure, his turn in the long-awaited Top Gun: Maverick, working with formerly incarcerated writers and much more.
Let’s start off with what’s on everyone’s mind—the final season of HBO’s Insecure. You play Lawrence, Issa Rae’s beau, on the Emmy-nominated comedy series and have gained quite a following, #LawrenceHive. What could fans expect in the fifth and final season? Oh, man, this season has so many highs and lows. It’s crazy that it’s coming to an end, but at the same time it’s special to get to watch these characters ride off into the sunset. There’s going to be a lot of tears. Ultimately, Lawrence is going to become fully realized—grown up. He’s stepping, whether he wants it or not, into the man that he’s going to be, and it’s going to be a struggle for him. This season for Lawrence is all about finding happiness and accepting that the vision or plan he may have had originally might change and he can either be comfortable with it and find happiness in it or he can fight it and see where that gets him. The #LawrenceHive is going to feel fully seen and represented.
You’re also in the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick sequel (releasing May 2022) as new aviator “Payback.” What was it like being part of the epic franchise? It was by far the craziest and most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had filming a project. I’m in Top Gun. Hearing it still sounds surreal. Working with Tom [Cruise] was obviously a highlight. Tom was a mentor, a friend, a co-star. Everything. [He was] super giving with his time and stories from his career and all the projects he worked on—just a wealth of filmmaking knowledge. He really wanted to give us everything he knew about making movies so we could go be great every day. It’s so rare. It doesn’t even seem real because you have the biggest movie star in the world telling you, ‘You’re a movie star!’ Mind blown, but also message received.
What was it like getting behind an F/A-18 and flying in Super Hornets every day? Aviation is definitely in my bloodline. We’ve had three generations in the Air Force: my grandfathers, my dad, cousins. My dad was in the Air Force, so growing up, I spent a lot of time around jets. Whenever we didn’t have school for some reason, I’d always go to work at the hangar with my dad. My dad [would] take me up the ladder and sit me in the cockpit and let me throw the stick around like I was a fighter pilot. To this day, those are some of my favorite memories of going to work with my dad. My childhood was globe-trotting from Air Force base to Air Force base, so shooting Top Gun felt like being home. I got about 45 hours of flight training toward my [pilot’s] license while shooting the film, and now that the world is somewhat getting back to normal, I’m going to get [my license] ASAP.
You’re also a producer. Tell us about the action-comedy film you recently sold to Netflix, where you will produce and lead alongside your Top Gun co-star Glen Powell. GP is my guy! On Top Gun: Maverick, Glen and I would goof around, playing pranks on people or talking movies, and after a while, Joe [director Joseph Kosinski] and Tom kept telling us we should do a movie together because we played off each other so well and had great chemistry. So, we sat down and figured it out. As soon as we wrapped we started meeting with writers, then production companies, and once we got everyone on board we pitched it to Netflix and sold it in the room. The way we sold it was wild. Glen knew Tan France was going to be in the Netflix building that day, so we talked him into crashing our pitch and telling the exec how great the movie was going to be. I think we sold it because we had Tan promise our Netflix exec that he would take him shopping.
It won’t be your first time producing though. You have a production company, Black Bar Mitzvah, with friend and cofounder Aaron Bergman. Talk about the Written Off podcast series, in partnership with Lemonada Media, where you give a voice to formerly incarcerated writers. Written Off is actually four years in the making. I was originally introduced to this organization called InsideOUT Writers (IOW) by my producing partner, Aaron. He teaches creative classes and was on the board of the organization. He took me into L.A. Central Juvenile Hall once and he used this prompt from a Kendrick Lamar song called ‘DNA’ as a way to get the kids to write about all the things they knew. From that moment I knew I was in. The power of one’s own voice and being able to tell your own story and have an agency is so profound and life-changing. [After that experience] Aaron and I made a mission to figure out how we could get the writing out to the world. It wasn’t just our writers who were inside, it was also our alumni who were released from the incarceration system and needed a support system. They were all brilliant writers and none of them were college trained, but they still knew how to express themselves in master structure and storytelling in a way that was so profound and powerful and moving.
Why is it important to spotlight these stories? I think it’s important because we often forget about folks who have been in the incarceration system. They get labeled. They get written off. And the resources and opportunities and prospects for them outside of incarceration are so few and so limited. We forget to support them, and we forget that they have voices and they have stories and they are limitless. So I wanted to find a way to give them agency and give them their voices back and let them know that there are people out there who are listening and who care, and that they matter. And that their writing matters. On top of that, we also paid every single writer a small licensing fee to use their piece on the podcast. It’s so worth it to hear every single one of our writers react when they hear a celebrity read their piece and all of a sudden have this aha moment that the celebrity knows who they are and knows their work, and now millions of people who listen to the podcast do too.
Your career is reaching new heights and you’ve already played in comedies, dramas, action films and thrillers. Is there a genre of acting that you prefer? It’s really all about character in any given story for me. I feel like I find something new about myself, about my craft and about different genres with every project I do. It’s fun to dive in and use different muscles every time. That’s one of the reasons I love what I do so much. I just want to play. It’s also scary AF, but coming out on the other side of it makes it all worth it. All I know is wanting to be challenged and pushed and jumping from one genre to another almost always gives me that ‘Oh, shit! WTF did I just get myself into?!’ feeling. If I don’t have that going into a project, then I shouldn’t be doing it.
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED & STYLED BY ADRIAN MARTIN