“Insecure” star Jay Ellis was fully prepared to become public enemy number one after Sunday night’s episode aired. Titled “Pressure, Okay?!,” the half hour was dedicated to what happened after Lawrence (Ellis) and Condola (Christina Elmore) welcomed their son and all the drama that comes with co-parenting.
“Maybe I can be public enemy number two or three,” Ellis joked, catching up with Variety over the phone ahead of the episode’s debut, as he steeled himself for fan reactions.
“I remember first reading it during the table read and I was like, ‘This is gonna be rough,’” he added. “Like I might go to Mexico or Cuba or something and hide out for a few weeks after this episode because there’s some stuff that’s really hard to come back from.”
In fact, Ellis hadn’t yet watched the episode, despite series creator and star Issa Rae telling him that it was one of her favorites of the series. The actor admitted that he was “a little terrified” to relive the emotional roller coaster captured on screen and, after taking a pronounced pause to gather his thoughts, explained why.
“It’s funny because Christina is a mother — she has two children and she’d just had her second child about six weeks before we shot this episode. She was experiencing being away from her newborn at the time,” he shared. “And I was experiencing being away from my daughter [Nora, who turned 2 on Monday] and my fiancé [Nina Senicar] at the same time, because of a family emergency while we were filming this episode, so there were so many things that were real in terms of distance and what distance does to you.”
Ellis described filming the episode as a pretty lonely experience. “All of the scenes with Lawrence alone in that San Francisco apartment, like that shit was miserable,” he chuckled. “I was on set by myself. I didn’t get to go back to talk to any other actors. I’d literally just go into a green room that was just my chair, just me by myself. To relive all of that and see how it really plays out for Lawrence, I don’t want to cry all day long. I’m such a fan, too, and he said some stuff that’s pretty, pretty harsh.”
So, instead, the actor opted to take the punches live with the fans on Sunday, unsure if even the ever-supportive #LawrenceHive would be able to save him.
Written by Jason Lew and directed by Ava Berkofsky, the capsule episode takes a deep dive into the experience of co-parenting while not in a relationship, plus the challenges that arise when one person lives hundreds of miles away from the baby. The half hour begins with Lawrence settling into his new life in San Francisco — getting into the groove of his new office and recovering from his breakup with Issa, before his world turns upside down with the ding of a text message.
Yes, Lawrence learned that he and Condola’s child was born via a text … that he received while in the middle of a date. So Lawrence hops on a flight to Los Angeles, where he meets his son Elijah Mustafa, as well as Condola’s mother Jackie (Lela Rochon) and sister Kira (Keke Palmer) for the first time.
A quick aside: Rae explained that the casting for Palmer (who’s been a longtime and very vocal supporter of the show) was its own inside joke, coming after Palmer tweeted that she wanted to beat Condola down for getting in between Issa and Lawrence.
“I saw that tweet from Keke and it cracked me up. And then I was like, ‘Okay, say less.’ And then as we were crafting the story, we came up with this idea for Condola’s sister,” Rae told Variety. “And given the context of Keke’s original tweet about beating Condola’s ass, I thought it’d be funny to have her be Condola’s ally instead. So she came on set like, ‘Okay, I see what you did there.’”
That’s Team Condola, and, of course, on Team Lawrence are the representatives of “Men-secure” — namely Chad (Neil Brown Jr.) and Derek (Wade Allain-Marcus). The duo dole out new daddy advice to Lawrence, who, as the episode progresses, struggles to prove that he’s ready to step up to the task of fatherhood, because building a crib in his San Francisco apartment isn’t going to cut it.
Below, Ellis details Lawrence’s perspective moving forward and why this episode was so emotional to film.
What was your initial reaction when you found out that Lawrence and Condola would get this capsule episode to really explore what’s going on with them as new parents?
I cannot think of a time in television, where we have gotten to watch two characters have a moment like this, even more so from the guy’s perspective of it and what’s going on inside of his head, and how he thinks. He’s got this vision and this picture of what co-parenting is going to look like — coming down on the weekends and being a good dad, and at some point, obviously, thinking that you know, Elijah is going to come up [to San Francisco]. I think there was some delusion.
I remember asking the writers, “Why is he taking his office and turning it into this nursery?” And we just started talking about [how Lawrence] just doesn’t know how to deal with this situation. He’s not talking to anybody there. There’s probably like this little bit of — I don’t want to use the word depression — but there’s this separation from his kid, from Elijah, and I think he’s creating this narrative in his head, like, “Elijah’s going to come up here and spend time with me, and we’re gonna have fun in the Bay Area.” But he’s never had this conversation with Condola at all, whatsoever. He’s never thought about what she needs or how he could possibly help and be a better co-parent.
And at the same time, we see him going through this, seeing him wanting to be a father, and then wanting to try, and then wanting to be good at it, but just not communicating, not talking. And obviously it gets to an ugly place at a point.
It gets to that ugly place, but that blow-up seems like what they needed to be brutally honest about the fact that this is not working and they have to figure something else out. So where do you think Lawrence and Condola could go from here?
At the end of that episode, when we see Lawrence hit that turbulence and have that moment … about seven days after my daughter was born, I actually had to fly to Mexico to scout for the episode I directed in Season 4. We came into Puerto Vallarta and we hit a little bit of turbulence. I’ve flown a billion times, so by no means did I think the plane was going to go down because we hit turbulence, but it does do something to you where it makes you go like, “Have I squared everything away? Like if something were to go wrong, how will I be remembered? Did I leave things right with people? Was I a good father? A good partner? A good son?” All of these things. And I think, when Lawrence has that moment on the plane, for him, it’s like, no matter what, I just want to figure out how to be the best for Elijah and do whatever is best for him.
So I hope that that is where they go. Because I think on the flip side of that, it could also mean that Condola tells him like, “Hey, maybe it’s best if you just take a step back for a little bit, that would be easier than this ‘fly in on the weekend’ chaos that you create.” I hope that’s not where she goes. But it’s a possibility when you’re talking about doing what’s right for a child and especially doing what’s right for the person who is taking care of that child.
And if that’s where it goes, then what’s he gonna do with this crib?
I know, right? He’s just gonna stare at it all day long. He built it and it’s just in his office? I don’t know maybe he’ll flip it over and it becomes his new desk?
What was your first reaction to the name Elijah Mustafa?
I died. Died. I was like, why would she do that? Wouldn’t she just call him and just be like, “Hey, what do you think about this?” She just straight went for it. I think it’s amazing. We came up with some cute nicknames for him. Mustafa is a very strong name, [but] I like it.
What did you make of the dichotomy this episode presents of Lawrence and Condola’s experiences as new parents — even using a split screen to compare how each of their lives have, or haven’t, changed?
Reading it, what I thought about was these highs and lows. He’s having this high in his career, and he’s living this life that he wanted as a professional, and it took some time for him to get there. If we go all the way back to Season 1, this is the challenge that Issa put in front of him of like, “Hey, maybe you should figure out what you’re really passionate about and go be good at that.” And now here we are five seasons later and he’s figured that thing out. But on the flip side, his personal life is a full wreck. He’s not with the woman he loves, probably heartbroken about that, and definitely not communicating it or healing from it. He also now has this child that he loves, but with this woman who he’s not connected with. And in some ways, that is a low for him. He wanted the dream — he wanted the wife, the kid, the happy home.
I remember thinking — which, to me, is so much of the journey of this series for Lawrence, but even more so this season — you can have a vision of the thing that you want and you could have an end goal, but just because you don’t go down the yellow brick road to get there and you end up taking a different journey, doesn’t mean that that goal or that vision is not as beautiful, sweet or as fulfilling as it was when you first thought about it. It just means you got a little more life experience.
As a father yourself, what was an element of this story that was important to get right?
We talked about what does it feel like when a baby is really crying — our babies were still great by the way; Christina and I worked with four or five sets of twins in this episode, and they were all amazing. None of them cried when we needed them to cry. All of them were so happy.
But there were a lot of things that we wanted to make sure felt very real for new parents. Like the sleep deprivation is crazy, decisions are hard to make. Everything is hazy all the time. It’s inevitable that your baby is probably going to cry all night for some reason and you have no idea what it is and the kind of frustration that that brings between two people, it’s neither of their fault, but because you don’t know how to stop it, you end up taking it out on each other.
I loved putting together like all my daughter’s toys and crib and all that stuff, so all of that was a lot of fun to me. And Ava, who directed this episode, was becoming a parent later that summer, probably about three months after we finished that episode. So there were also so many things that Ava was like, “Oh, okay, I’m gonna remember that. That’s great.”
Chad and Derek also get their own opportunities to share fatherly advice for Lawrence.
Which is amazing. They’re both fathers in real life: Neil has two boys that are in their early 20s now, and then Wade’s daughter is about the same age as my daughter. So what was happening on set with these characters was amazing, because clearly these two look at parenting in a completely different way. Chad is the last person to take advice from when it comes to kids. And Derek feels like he’s still figuring it out and hasn’t fully bought in either at times, but then there’s times where it’s like, “Oh, he’s the perfect dad. He’s so amazing.”
When cameras were not rolling, all three of us would just be showing pictures of our kids to each other and talking about stories. Neil being the O.G. of the group is like, “Wait till this thing happens.” It was really cool to be able to sit there with two guys who I absolutely adore and love, and I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and be able to experience both, fatherhood as these characters and talking about it, but then also experiences like in real life at the same time.
What does this development in Lawrence and Condola’s relationship mean for Issa and Lawrence? Is there a possibility they could still be endgame?
I mean, sure there’s a possibility. But Lawrence has to figure out — and I believe this about any relationship — you’ve got to figure out your own shit before you go into a relationship; you’ve got to figure out your own happiness and your own inspiration and all those things.
Now, with this new addition into Lawrence’s life, Lawrence needs to figure out what fatherhood is and what being a co-parent is, before he could even entertain bringing the woman that he loves, who is his soulmate into his life and asking her to be a part of the situation. Because I think if he doesn’t understand who he is, that co-parent relationship with Condola, and who he is the father, then it’s just going to have horrible, horrible ripple effect with Issa. So he’s got to learn that first.
But once he gets a hold of that and figures that out, I think there’s a world in which Issa could see that, and see the man and the father that he’s become and still say, “This is my soulmate, and we’ll figure it out.” I think there’s a possibility.
“Insecure” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.