Director and actor Nelsan Ellis spoke with The Real Chicago to discuss the play he’s directing, “HooDoo Love,” as well as his love of Chicago, his personal style and what it’s like to work with Christopher Walken
By Nicole Weddington
Photo by Ryan Bourque
Nelsan Ellis is best known for his role as the flamboyant Lafayette on the HBO hit series “True Blood” and various movies like “The Help,” “Secretariat” and “The Soloist.” Now he takes a shot at directing for his new theater company, The Collective Theatre, with Katori Hall’s “HooDoo Love,” currently at the Athanaeum Theatre through Oct. 21.
Q: What first interested you in directing “HooDoo Love?” Do you know the woman that wrote it?
A: I do not know Katori Hall, but we came from the same school. She went to Julliard. The play was introduced to me by the company [Collective Theatre], and that was the first time I read the play. I fell in love with the lyrical nature of the language and complexity of the relationships. It’s about human nature and the great lengths that one would go to feel loved.
Q: What would you say is your favorite thing about the play?
A: My favorite thing about the play is Candy Lady, hers and Toulou’s relationship, the history of their relationship. Jib is her brother. She ran away from home three years ago, and her brother found her and they have a very interesting and complex relationship.
Q: You were born in Chicago. What are the people like in Chicago compared to the other cities you’re lived in like New York and L.A.?
A: I would say Chicago is kinda like a soft New York. Chicago people tend to be a little jazzy. You know what I mean? A little jazzy and up front. Chicago has a style. People are like, “You look like you’re from Chicago.” People just got that stink on you. I guess it’s sort of the Chicago swagger. That’s a swagger to the city. There’s a swagger to the people, you know? There’s an accent, depending on where you are, you can really, really hear it. Chicago [draws it out in a Chicago accent]. You know, that Chi-ca-go thing right there. I wouldn’t liken it to L.A. or New York. L.A. is bohemian. Sushi. It’s way more laid-back and sort of glossy. Chicago’s got a little more poetry.
Q: What do you think about Chicago’s theater scene, especially in relation to what you’ve seen in New York and LA?
A: I haven’t seen much theater in LA. Places like Steppenwolf and Lookingglass, they’re on par with Broadway, I think. Chicago does great, great theater.
Q: What are two things that you have to do when you come back to Chicago?
A: Go to the Green Mill for some good poetry and go to Au Cheval for dinner for some good food. That’s some good eating over there.
Q: How do you feel about the direction that “True Blood” is going in lately with the fairies and the scary smoke monster? I found last season a little far-fetched. I liked the fairies, but I was wondering about the smoke monster.
A: You’re trying to get me in trouble. I think we could bring it home a little more. I’ll just say that. I think we could bring it home.
Q: Can you describe your personal style? Any favorite designers?
A: I do. My favorite watch, because I’m a watch fanatic, comes from Michael Kors. He’s my man. I’m a Diesel fanatic. I have a whole lot of Diesel hats. But then I also am a fedora man. I also love a lot of shoes. Those new Pradas with the gym shoe soles and the dress shoe tops, I want to marry those shoes all day long. But then I’m also an Adidas dude. My favorite, favorite, favorite shoes, I must say though, come from Tom Ford. But Gucci! I’m fast on the Gucci dude, too. Because I love, love, love Gucci suits. Tom Ford is my favorite for suits though, because they fit me like a glove.
Q: Do you still do all your own shopping?
A: I do sometimes, but I have a stylist. He takes the liberty of getting stuff for me.
Q: Do you tell him what you like?
A: Yeah. And then we compromise sometimes. He lives in Chicago. We compromise to stretch my style a bit. He works in high-end fashion because he works for (Tom) Ford. I like to look more rugged. I’m not really into the metro-type look. But he tries to stretch me from time to time. His name is Richard Paden.
Q: Your new movie with Christopher Walken, “Gods Behaving Badly,” looks really interesting. Can you tell me a little about that?
A: It’s about the Greek Gods dropping to New York City. I play Dionysus, the god of wine and sex. Basically, I play the god of pleasure. However, when the film starts, we are losing our powers, so my powers are waning throughout the movie. When you see me, I’m either high or getting high or trying to get people to be happy. It was a lot of fun.
Q: What was it like working with Christopher Walken? “True Romance” is my favorite movie of all time.
A: You’re the second person to say that [laughs]. I mean, Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken. The image that he projects and all the quirks that you would think a person like that would have, he has them. The way he talks, the way he is. I would try to imitate him, but I won’t — it’s bad, bad acting. He has these quirks that are just so funny and this rhythm that is unearthly. He has a rhythm of speech and a rhythm of moving. His mannerisms are completely out of this world. He’s like an alien. Where did he come from? He’s such an interestingly eccentric person in the way he speaks and moves and he has these big piercing eyes. I just stared at him most of the time, trying to figure out how he got these gifts [guffaws]. He is blessed with something that is entirely his that you will never see in someone else.
Q: Who are your favorite actors or mentors?
A: Morgan Freeman, Jeffrey Wright, Don Cheadle, Tom Hanks, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Ian McKellen … kind of a lot, my list is pretty long though.
Q: You have a movie coming out next year called “The Butler” where you play Martin Luther King Jr.? What was it like playing him?
A: It was hard because you’re playing this figure that is known worldwide and those are some pretty big shoes to try to fill, Martin Luther King Jr. So the whole time, I was like “I hope I don’t f–k this up.” But then when you’re thinking like that, chances are you probably will f–k it up because I was trying too hard, and then I didn’t think I was trying enough. I’m thinking, “Is this working? I don’t know if Lee Daniels is pleased. This scene could be more.” It was hard. It was really, really, really hard.
Q: Tell me a little more about your movie “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
A: We shot half of it in India. That was culture shock, so I don’t think my brain was working too well while I was shooting that movie. I have never been there before. I was like, “What world is this?” I think my brain started working when we went to the hotel and they had to check our stuff for bombs to get into the hotel. There were armed guards protecting our hotel, and it was surrounded by a big wall. Then you’re dealing with homeless children and the monkeys. The whole time you’re like, “We are privileged. Oh my god.”
Q: Is there anything else that you want to say about your new play, “HooDoo Love?”
A: Well … I hope that you like it. It is a labor of love by a group of people that discovered the arts together at Thornridge High School and 15 years later decided to start our own theater company and make a print in Chicago and do what we do.
HooDoo Love is playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. When: Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through October 21, 2012. Visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org for more information.