"If the struggle is real" was a person, it would probably be Jay Ellis’ character, Martin "Lawrence" Walker, Issa Dee's (played by Issa Rae) love interest on the critically acclaimed HBO series Insecure. Over the last four seasons of the brilliant series, Ellis has given a vivid portrayal of his character's journey: from lacking ambition and crashing on Issa's couch to finally getting a fresh wardrobe with a nice gig to boot. Lawrence is a mirror composite of all the facets of Black manhood. Depending on which camp you’re a part of, Lawrence is either a really good dude with potential, or as Tasha described him in season two, he’s a “F**k ni**a who thinks he’s a good dude.” Undoubtedly, our love/hate relationship with Lawrence makes him one of the most compelling characters of the show and one of the reasons that Insecure is so brilliant.
As Insecure begins its fifth and final season, Lawrence is in the midst of his greatest challenge yet, fatherhood. Complicating matters even more, his on and off again, relationship with Issa (who’s not the mother of the unborn child) hangs in the balance as they attempt to put together the broken pieces of their relationship. Over the duration of the show, the scarlet thread that runs through the series is, ”What will happen with Issa and Lawrence?
EBONY caught up with the actor and spoke to him about identifying with his show's character, the legacy of Insecure and his recent score of becoming part of the Top Gun franchise.
EBONY I recently read that you're an only child and that you moved a lot growing up as a son in a military family. Thinking back on those experiences, did you always know that you would pursue acting?
Jay Ellis: Wow, I don't know, man. I mean, as an only child, I was already kind of the center of attention. Along with my cousins, I would sing Michael Jackson songs or whatever was on the radio all day long like I was performing. I think I didn't know it at the time but there was something about recreating scenes on a show or in a movie that l really loved. I got a rush from it, I got a thrill from it. I didn’t come full circle or it probably didn’t hit me until I was in college. I remember being jealous of all the theater kids. I was playing basketball and I had an amazing college experience, but I was jealous of all the theater kids because they were getting to do these plays and play these characters that they would work on all semester and I couldn't be a part of that. I think that's when I was like, “Oh, that's what I want to be doing. I want to be an actor.”
So your acting career emerged out of pure jealousy?
[Laughs] Pure jealousy! I'm a storyteller too. Even if this was like 700 years ago and we were sitting around a campfire, I'd be telling stories. I love storytelling. It literally drives me but I will say that the theater kids definitely got me jealous.
After playing this character for five seasons, can you give your description of Lawrence?
I think Lawrence is an everyman. I think he is such a representation of what so many Black folks, especially young Black men, in this country face day in and day out. If you were fortunate enough to go to college, you get out there, but then you realize there are no opportunities and that's hard on you because you thought all the jobs were gonna be available for you. You thought you were gonna be a boss but it didn't work out that way. Maybe, it's because you didn't have the skillset you thought you had and you gassed yourself up way too much. Maybe, it's because of other environmental factors in your office or in the place you work. On top of that, you're still trying to figure out how to be a partner, how to be a friend, how to communicate, and still trying to find yourself when you're getting all these mixed messages from the society around you. All of these factors can create vulnerabilities, insecurities, and self-doubt that I think a lot of us face day in and day out.
For me, Lawrence is such a representation of that but he's also trying to be his best self; he's trying to figure out how to be a better man, how to be a better friend, a better partner, and how to be better at his job. He does want those things but it’s just a bumpy path to figuring it out.
When you first read the script, did you have an immediate connection with Lawrence?
Oh, 100%! A friend of mine, Clarence Hammond, who at the time was working at Overbrook, Will Smith’s production company, sent me the script. He was like, “Yo, you should read this. There's a character in here that's perfect for you.” In my mind, when I read the script, I thought he was talking about Daniel. I was like,” Oh, I'm about to be the best music producer on television that there ever was.” So I was completely oblivious to the fact that he was talking about Lawrence—and to your point—he was somebody that I fully connected with when I read it. I understood why this dude was sitting on the couch, sitting there eating cereal in the morning, while his girl was leaving the house. I probably have been a version of that dude and I definitely have had friends who have been a version of him too. I do remember it feeling something so real, authentic, and relatable to my journey and so many of my friend’s journeys.
The #LawrenceHive is serious. They stand behind Lawerence 100%. How does it feel to play a character that has resonated with so many people?
First, I just wanted to say that I didn’t create the hive, it created itself.[Laughs] I'm very grateful for it. What a dream it is to be able to go to work and play this character that resonates with so many people, triggers people, makes people smile, makes people upset—basically, all of the above. That is the joy of storytelling. To me, he connects to something within us and we feel like these folks are real, and we root for them and we're pissed at them. I think the #LawrenceHive are just a group of folks who have come together in support of this character because they relate to him in some way. They want him to win and it's crazy, man. I don't think I could have ever imagined it and I didn't even know what a hive was, to be honest with you. Like Beyonce was just getting the #BeyHive cracking at that time, so I don't even know if I really had my head wrapped around what a hive was.
You mentioned how Lawerence triggers people as well. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a group of people who watch Insecure who are not card-carrying members of the hive. In season two, episode three, Tasha called your character an “F boy who thinks he’s a good dude.” What’s your response to those who characterize Lawrence in that way?
I think that word gets tossed around a little too easily. I feel that we should put some parameters around what that kind of guy is. I think Lawrence was probably a serial monogamist. He was in a relationship with Issa for a long time and all of a sudden, he was coming out of that relationship. He had a little bit of money, he had an apartment, he kind of had his stuff together, and he was like, “Why can't I go live this single life and explore?" I think what happens with a guy like Lawrence is when you've been a serial monogamist—even when you're just trying to be out there, have a good time, and not hurt people—his natural tendency leads him to relationships. Whomever you're dating rather is leading towards this thing becoming a relationship but in your mind, you may not have any attachment or think there's gonna be any attachment. I think part of Lawrence's issue is that he never vocalizes any of that stuff.
I don't love the title but I understand how it can be misconstrued amongst some folks who have had some of those experiences in their life; but I don't think that's what Lawrence wanted to be. I don't think he was ever a playboy like that.
So Lawrence may not be toxic on purpose, but he does have some toxic proclivities nonetheless.
[Laughs] I think you’re right.
Insecure is groundbreaking in its representation of unapologetic Blackness and giving voice to the experiences of those in their late 20s to late 30s. Undoubtedly, it will go down as one of the best and most beloved shows ever, especially in Black culture. Tell me why it's important for you to be a part of that history?
It starts at the top with Issa, [the showrunner] Prentice Penny, and the [director] Melina Matsoukas. When you go back and look at the visuals of the pilot and even more so in season one, how we speak to each other, the microaggressions that each of these characters are facing in their professional life too, it’s what they're not saying to each other as friends or in their romantic relationships. It’s the way we walk, the way we talk, and what we wear. If you look at the T-shirts, the hoodies, picked out by the show's costume designers Shiona Turini and Ayanna James Kimani—they did such an amazing job of dressing us in clothes from up-and-coming Black designers. We wore a lot of T-shirts that had cultural references that were very inside Black culture—that if you didn't know them, you had to catch up or don't.
As the final season concludes, what do you think will be the legacy of Insecure?
I don't feel like the right person to comment on legacy because I'm so inside of it. I feel like the culture and society will tell us where this lives legacy-wise. To your point, I think about what Martin means to me. I think about what A Different World means to me. I don't think they knew that they were having such a cultural impact at the moment—well, I'm sure they were aware of it to some degree—but they were just in the middle of it. We on the outside got to say, “Oh, this changed my life in this way or it made me feel seen or made me feel heard."
I think we as a society have a say on a show's legacy in a lot of ways. I just hope that people will always remember it as a time in their life that was special. I also think about those shows and I think about them as being a very specific time in our lives and moments of happiness because of these shows. I think that's what I hope people walk away with as well as feeling seen, feeling heard, feeling represented and entertained.
Lastly, one of your first post-Insecure roles is in Top Gun: Maverick and you’re playing the character called Payback, a new aviator in the sequel. What was it like a being part of the epic franchise?
It’s been incredible. It was so much fun. Working with Tom Cruise and being a part of the Top Gun franchise has been amazing. I’m really excited for the world to see it. We had so much fun making and it is a masterclass in filmmaking. When everybody sees it in theaters, it’s going to blow their minds.
Insecure airs on Sundays at 10 pm EST on HBO.