Jay Ellis Comes Home to Harlem


Jay Ellis was buying snacks at a corner bodega in Harlem when a woman in a crop top and Ray-Bans approached him. “Oh my God, I’m so happy!” she said.

This was on a sticky Monday in September, halfway through a walking tour of Harlem, where Mr. Ellis had lived, on and off, in the mid-2000s, when he was a model trying to break into acting. After years of sporadic work, he landed a starring role on BET’s “The Game,” a comedy-drama set in the world of professional football, then booked the romantic lead on the HBO comedy “Insecure,” playing Lawrence, the boyfriend of the series creator Issa Rae’s Issa.

At the end of the show’s first season, Issa cheats on Lawrence. Lawrence retaliates by dangling the promise of a reunion, then bedding a co-worker. Which means that attitudes toward the character — and Mr. Ellis — are pretty divisive. (“Insecure” returns for a fifth and final season on Oct. 24.)

“I’m not a fan of yours,” the woman in the bodega clarified. “That payback wasn’t right. Nonetheless you’re a great actor.”

Mr. Ellis, 39, favored her with his Sunday morning smile, then left with his water and unsalted cashews.

A skyscraper of a man with dizzying charisma, Mr. Ellis, 6-foot-3, had overdressed for the day in jeans, a Comme des Garçons striped shirt, a slate jacket and sneakers the blinding white of new veneers. He met the tour guide, Neal Shoemaker, at the offices of Harlem Heritage Tours on Malcolm X Boulevard. Together they set off for a shambolic stroll through the neighborhood.

“You may meet my mom any minute now,” Mr. Shoemaker said as he led Mr. Ellis onto the basketball court at the center of Martin Luther King Jr. Towers. Fourteen floors up, Mr. Shoemaker’s aunt waved furiously from a window. Mr. Shoemaker shouted up to her, teasingly introducing Mr. Ellis as her “new nephew.”

Next, they walked through the African market near West 116th Street and past the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, where incense clouded the late summer air and a nearby cafe advertised male enhancements and veggie burgers. Mr. Ellis had barely been back in 15 years. The burned-out brownstones had been renovated, he noted. And the police presence seemed lighter.

The tour continued past Minton’s Playhouse and alongside Marcus Garvey Park, the site of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that was chronicled in the documentary “Summer of Soul,” which Mr. Ellis had just seen. He stopped outside the house where Maya Angelou once lived, admiring the ivy that tumbled from the lintel.

Throughout the walk, fans stopped Mr. Ellis for greetings and pictures — “Take it with me, not of me,” Mr. Ellis said to an excitable middle-aged woman who had halted her car just to snap him. Friends and relatives stopped Mr. Shoemaker, too, and Mr. Ellis, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and baby daughter, seemed a little jealous of the humming street life.

“It’s the music mecca for Black culture,” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s the style mecca. Religiously, it’s a mecca. I come here, and I’m like, ‘Why am I living in LA.?’”

Mr. Ellis, the only child of an Air Force family, moved to Los Angeles just after his Harlem years. He briefly gave up on acting, then recommitted. A plucky hustle — he pretended that a casting agent had recommended him — hooked him a decent manager, and after a couple of years of acting classes, he began to book roles.

None has meant as much to him as Lawrence, a character who struggles with the obligations of Black masculinity. Lawrence wasn’t supposed to make it past Season 1, but something about Mr. Ellis’s layered portrayal made him a fan favorite. And a least favorite.

“I always say that if people are mad at me, if people are happy with me, if they’re sad or whatever, then I did my job,” he said. “Even if you hate Lawrence, I did my job because you felt something. I hope you love him because I love him. But I get it if you don’t.”

Are Lawrence and Issa endgame? Mr. Ellis knew better than to comment. “I want both of them to be happy,” he said diplomatically. “I hope that it’s with each other.”

He has already begun his post-“Insecure” career, with a starring role in “Top Gun: Maverick,” due out next year. (His character’s nickname? Payback.) He recently signed onto a romantic comedy, “Somebody I Used to Know,” and is the co-creator of the podcast “Written Off,” which features the work of formerly incarcerated authors.

Mr. Ellis followed Mr. Shoemaker past Dapper Dan’s atelier, into the Harlem Haberdashery and cater-corner to Harlem Shake, where Mr. Ellis would return for a post-walk burger. On 125th Street, he stopped to read the text on a monument to the politician and civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

The tour ended at the Apollo Theater, “where stars are born, legends are made,” Mr. Shoemaker said. Mr. Ellis is already a star, but he still fantasizes about appearing in one of its amateur nights. Would he sing? Tell a joke?

“All of it,” Mr. Ellis said, flashing that slow dance smile. “I’d do it all.”

Mr. Shoemaker pointed to an unoccupied rectangle on the Apollo’s Walk of Fame, next to Lionel Richie. “I can see Jay Ellis right there,” he said.

Mr. Ellis posed for a photo with a fan or two, including a teenager who recognized him from the thriller “Escape Room.” Then he and Mr. Shoemaker said a friendly goodbye.

“Appreciate you, chief,” Mr. Ellis called as he headed back down 125th Street. “Tell your mama I’m coming, I’m hungry.”



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