It scarcely seems plausible that an ordinary human could be the most vivid character on HBO’s ghoulish “True Blood,” a show teeming with supernatural, larger-than-death freaks.
Then again, “ordinary” is probably not the best way to describe Lafayette Reynolds, an emphatically gay man in a small Southern town. Brilliantly played by Nelsan Ellis, Lafayette is a redneck-thumping, drug-dealing diva with a tongue saltier than the gumbo he serves up as the grill cook at Merlotte’s honky tonk.
Amid “True Blood’s” menagerie of vampires, shape-shifters and werewolves, Lafayette’s bayou bohemian was the hardest role to cast, according to creator Allan Ball, who adapted the show from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels.
“Whenever you have a character in which one of his defining qualities is his sexuality, it’s always challenging,” says Ball via e-mail, “because you don’t want to bring in someone who’s going to play that in a phony way.”
That Ellis has fashioned Lafayette into one of the most incandescent homosexuals in the annals of television is all the more impressive when you learn that the actor is straight. A former Marine, no less.
From Camp Lejeune to Camp Camp. How do you pull that off?
“I think I’ve been in every gay club from New York to California,” says Ellis, 32. “I would be in clubs with my recorders in my pocket, taping people talking. But at the end of the day, I drew more from my (four) sisters and my mother. I’ve been mimicking them my whole life. They’re in my bones.”
The transformation isn’t all interior.
“I have more makeup on than any of the females in the cast,” Ellis says. “Once they get me with the fake eyelashes and the eye makeup, I listen to some Rihanna and I’m there.”
Lafayette had an abbreviated shelf life in the books and wasn’t expected to last long on the TV series, either. But Ellis’ supercharged presence changed all that.
“My contract was for one season as a recurring character,” he says. “All of a sudden, Lafayette was in every episode. After six, Rutina (Wesley, who plays his troubled cousin Tara) started telling me, ‘I don’t think they can get rid of you.’”
Says Ball, “Nelsan’s performance definitely brought him to life in a way that made me realize we could never kill this character the way he dies in the books.”
As the third season swings into high gear, Lafayette’s personality continues to gain substance. He’s acquired a spooky mother (Alfre Woodard) who is locked away in a loony bin. And he’s about to get a lover, mom’s attendant Jesus (Kevin Alejandro).
Ellis had some initial qualms about tackling the role. “My fear at first was that my family is going to hate this,” he says. “There are homophobic people in my family. They’re deeply religious.”
But Lafayette has been a godsend, bringing Ellis critical acclaim, respect in the industry, and a steady paycheck. The world is his crawfish. But it’s been a long crooked road to success.
Bookended by some years in Chicago, he spent his childhood in rural Alabama.
“The nearest house was, like, 25 minutes away,” he says. “You had to get up really, really early to catch the school bus because it took so long to get there. No running water. Using an outhouse. Chopping wood for fire. Those things were particularly difficult, but I got used to it.”
He enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school.
“I went in at the ripe old age of 17. I liked the clothes,” he says. “Those pants is straight up with the red stripe.
“Plus I was a rough kid. Truth be told, I had never been disciplined by men. I was raised by women. Boot camp was the first time I got a heavy dose of discipline. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He found the training far more fulfilling than active duty and quickly transferred over to the Reserve. A couple of years later, pursuing a late-blooming passion for acting, he enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan.
He was not a happy thespian.
“You spend the whole time adjusting to old white teachers who are somewhat behind in the times. They’re absolutely brilliant in what they teach you, but they lack grossly in cultural — phenomenon,” he says, laughing heartily. “Like black people and international students.
“I think when you have the same huge problems with minority students year after year, maybe you should realize it’s not them. It’s you.”
He changed his first name to Nelsan (a phonetic approximation of the way most people pronounced his given name, Nelso’n) and moved to Hollywood. After scraping by with sporadic supporting roles in films such as “The Soloist” and “The Express,” he landed “True Blood.”
That, in turn, has lead to other opportunities. He spent the most recent hiatus from the show filming the upcoming “Secretariat,” in which he plays the groom to the legendary racehorse. Coincidentally, the movie was shot in Louisiana. In the town of Lafayette, no less.
Afterward, it took him a while to get back in full-on Creole queen mode for “True Blood.”
“When I have months of being myself, I have to refind Lafayette and his mannerisms or else it’s not natural.”
He’s certainly locked in now.
Says Ball, “Nelsan channels from a completely unique place. He has access to Planet Lafayette.”
And sugar, the air up there is sweet.