In 2008, Nelsan made his feature film debut in The Express as Will Davis, Jr., the same-aged uncle of Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
Growing up in a violent largely poor suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, Nelsan's mom was once shot. His father, divorced from his mother, was working for a grocery distributor and living in Dolton, Illinois.
Playing Lafayette Reynolds on True Blood was his first-ever portrayal of a gay character.
Nelsan comes from a Christian background.
Ellis worked as a production assistant for the movie Ornaments (2008).
His first name, which is spelled unusually, comes from the name of an uncle who has the same birthday as him.
Film and TV Movie Credits:
• Lost (2002) as Hoffa
• Warm Springs (2005) as Roy Collier
• Trespass (2005) as Donny
• The Express (2008) as Will Davis, Jr.
• The Soloist (2009) as David
Nelsan has always been a fan of the vampire/werewolf and sci-fi genres. His favorite vampire movie is Interview with a Vampire.
In the film The Soloist, Ellis was supposed to play a bit part as a homeless man. But after a table-read session in which he read in place of the absent Jamie Foxx, the director was impressed by him and gave him the bigger role as the homeless-shelter counselor David Carter.
In 2008, Nelsan Ellis won the Satellite Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television for his role on True Blood. In 2009, he won a NewNowNext Award in the category, Brink of Fame: Actor.
After his sister was shot by her husband in front of her six-year old child, Nelsan wrote a semi-autobiographical play, while at Julliard, called Ugly, which won the Martin Segal Award. It was later performed as as Off-Broadway play in New York.
Nelsan lives in Los Angeles.
In 2005, Nelsan appeared in A Soldier's Story at the Second Stage Theater off-Broadway in New York.
Nelsan wrote, produced, and starred in a 2005 short film entitled Trespass. He was also an executive producer of the 2006 comedy short Flower Shop.
Nelsan Ellis: Violence, in reality, is strikingly different than from what you do on the set. I can walk down the street and see someone with that energy. They don't have to be physical at that moment, but if I see that same look I saw in people when I was growing up, that will shake me a little bit.
Nelsan Ellis: (on performing in plays during high school) It was my first experience being at a school where you had teenage black men who were serious about stuff, and you had these teachers who cared about the students and paid attention. I was, like: 'I'll do this because people seem to be serious.' My years at Thornridge probably changed the course of my life.
Nelsan Ellis: (on working with his "The Soloist" co-star) Robert Downey Jr., I fell in love with the man. He's – I mean, my goodness, he's an extraordinary actor, and he's an extraordinary person. 'Cuz I was fairly new then, in movies, and he took me under his wing. And every step of the way he was showing me a better way to do things. And I thought that was marvelous of him. 'Cuz you know, when you work with mega-celebrities, they don't typically have time to - to really (laughs) deal with anybody, you know what I'm saying?
Nelsan Ellis: (about playing Lafayette on "True Blood") It's been a learning experience. I'm pretty shy and a lot of times introverted. The first day of shooting, Alan [Ball] said, 'Nelsan...it's a theater! Whenever the camera comes over there I want Lafayette to put on a play.'
Nelsan Ellis: (about his influence in portraying Lafayette on "True Blood") My mother is a strong inspiration. The base core of Lafayette is my mother. My mother is a sexual creature and I wanted to make him like sex and bleed sex. Not mannerisms, just the way she operated as a sexual creature.
Nelsan Ellis: I love movies and I'm drawn to stuff that's weird. I get to be weird. I like to play characters that are offbeat, because I'm offbeat. I like to – the straight dude, you know the straight guy, I'm not really interested in that. I want the crackhead, junkie, you know what I mean? Insane person. Something that's a little off-kilter.
Nelsan Ellis: (on wanting to be an actor) I don't think I had any choice in the matter. I think God preordained that. It's the only thing I know how to do. Hopefully, from time to time I'll get it right.
Nelsan Ellis: (on playing the role of Lafayette on "True Blood") My concern was if I was going to offend anybody. I don't want to offend nobody. So I had great concerns with black people and gay people. Black people are going to say this, gay people are going to say this... My career is going to be over. People are going to hate my guts if I don't do this right.
Nelsan Ellis: (on attending Juilliard) The studies were so intense and the institution is so white, and I'm a black man from the South with a very specific vernacular and palate. I felt like an alien, and I struggled the first couple of years. But it transformed who I am as an actor and a person.