TV is plenty weird these days; surreal and jaw-dropping moments are not hard to find. But that was not necessarily the case in 2008, when “True Blood” debuted. It takes exceptional performers to ground the most fantastical storylines — actors like the late Nelsan Ellis, who died July 8 at 39. “True Blood” owes him a great deal.
TV was a lot less experimental a decade ago, certainly when it came to programs that didn’t aspire to wear the “Prestige Drama” label. In that wobbly post-“Sopranos” era, HBO unleashed a pulpy series about vampires, werewolves, maenads and other exotic creatures roaming the backwoods of Louisiana. Remember, this was three years before “Game of Thrones” arrived and announced to the world that HBO was more than OK with delving into genre in a very big way.
Truth be told, “True Blood” took a while to find itself. But from his first scene on the show, Nelsan Ellis was a standout. It’s not excessive praise to say that Ellis’ performance was one of the most important foundations of the show’s success.
From the beginning, Ellis knew exactly who Lafayette was. The short-order cook was solid yet slippery, witty and honest, caring yet evasive. Lafayette was intensely and flamboyantly himself. He didn’t care what you thought of him: He was going to be his truest self, all the time, come what may.
Of course, the short-order cook — whose makeup was always perfectly applied — stood out because he got many of the best lines. Bon Temps, La., was a confusing place with meandering storylines, but Lafayette was witty, realistic and self-aware. In a show in which there were so many wild plotlines that it was hard to keep track of what was occurring and why, Lafayette was a constant source of bitchy retorts. No matter how crazy things got around him, he kept hustling and wisecracking and getting things done.
He was about more than just sarcastic comebacks. Ellis made you care about everything Lafayette went through, even as “True Blood” put the character through the wringer. He gave Lafayette’s troubles and occasional triumphs emotional depth.
I interviewed Ellis after the first season of “True Blood,” a show that took off and became a crowd-pleasing hit, in no small part due to what Ellis brought to it. As effortless as he appeared on-screen, what impressed me about him was how humble and hardworking he was. In person, he couldn’t have been more self-effacing or surprised by the success of the show or the love for his character. “I don’t understand [being called a fan favorite], maybe because I’m so critical,” he told me a decade ago. The actor said he watched every episode more than a dozen times in order to critique his performance. He so obviously cared about getting every detail just right.
Ellis’ combination of charisma and skill was clear in subsequent roles in films like “Get On Up” and on TV shows like “Elementary.” It’s heartbreaking that he died at 39; he was just getting started. Those of us who knew and loved his work will never forget his constant drive to bring dignity, depth and devotion to the characters he played. And oh, what a way he had with a witty rejoinder. Nelsan Ellis will be missed.