Nelsan Ellis on James Brown: 'He Surmounted All the Odds'

Nelsan Ellis, James Brown

Nelsan Ellis on James Brown: 'He Surmounted All the Odds'

The actor talks about playing the enigmatic sideman to the Godfather of Soul in Get on Up.

Published January 8, 2015

Nelsan Ellis is a fascinating character actor who disappears into every role he embodies. From Lafayette Reynolds in the cult favorite True Blood to his big screen roles in The Soloist, The Help and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Ellis’s powerful performances remain forever etched in the minds of audiences.

For the James Brown biopic Get on Up, now on Blu-ray and DVD, Ellis brought his same critically acclaimed acting chops to the role of Bobby Byrd, the strong, soft-spoken sideman of the Godfather of Soul. Ellis discusses the potency of James Brown’s legacy and dissects Brown's and Byrd’s complex relationship while speaking to The actor also shares his appreciation for True Blood.

What does James Brown mean to you?
He’s the Godfather of Soul and he’s Super Bad. He means to me all the stuff that a lot of people didn’t know about him. The fact that his momma left when he was a little boy and his daddy disappeared and went into the army. The fact that James had to live with his auntie who was on drugs and ran a brothel and that he had to live in that brothel. It’s how olympic James was in achieving his dreams and goals. He surmounted all those odds to become who he was. He’s a bad man, a bad man. I know Bobby Byrd was credited for discovering him, putting him in his band and making him the frontman. But James Brown would have done all of that anyway.

I heard before Chadwick Boseman got the part you auditioned for the James Brown role.
Yes, I originally auditioned for James Brown. Before I auditioned I read the script and I called the director Tate Taylor and my agent and I said, “I don’t know which character I like most James Brown or Bobby Byrd.” But I had a visceral response to Bobby Byrd. I love how he was on the page. I loved the man that he presented himself to be and in my research it was actually all true. He was a pretty fantastic human being. Not to mention all that he done in the world. I just loved that rock quality and constant calm and peace about him.

To me, the James Brown and Bobby Byrd relationship coined the term bromance. How challenging was it to convey their complex friendship onscreen?
It was easy to do with Chadwick Boseman. They were brothers. They were living together when they were teenagers. Bobby hung with James longer than anybody including his momma and poppa. He was there when everybody else in the band left and when Bobby left he came back. I think they were like ying and yang. James was the tyrant and monster sometimes and Bobby was always the calm person. That was one of the things that James's grandson and nephew told me; Bobby was the peacemaker all the time. He never yelled and he smiled a lot.

One factor that made their relationship complicated was that Bobby turned his band over to James and gave up his own opportunity to be the frontman. Very few men in his position would have done the same thing.
It’s deep. And one of the questions I had to ask was, “Why?” And I had to figure that out fairly quickly in the process, because I would not have done that. But I think he did it out of love. And the fact that Bobby would stick by him. And it wasn’t because James Brown was going to take him wherever he went, because Bobby Byrd was a talent in his own right and did his thing. But I think Bobby stuck with James and gave James his spot because he loved him.

We can’t close out our talk without discussing another great role of yours — Lafayette Reynolds of True Blood. What does that character mean to you?
Lafayette Reynolds got me a career, because I didn’t do too much before that. And it was hard for me to get into rooms for auditions. But when I got Lafayette I got some visibility. So I owe a great debt to HBO, Lafayette and show creator Alan Ball, who gave me the role. I loved every second of playing that part and being a part of the True Blood family.

Get on Up is now Blu-ray and DVD.

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(Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images, Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Written by Ronke Idowu Reeves


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