Season 3 of HBO's vampire soap, True Blood, was its most extreme yet, dialing up the nudity, bloodlust, and bodily fluids to the point that one of the show's flashiest characters, the hulking queer fry cook Lafayette, seemed at risk of getting lost. Then he got a boyfriend. For 32-year-old actor Nelsan Ellis, it was transformative: His character, whose butch-queen realness always skirted stereotypes, became the show's grounding center.
At first, Ellis wasn't into the relationship thing. He'd established Lafayette as a former hooker, a porn hub proprietor, and a drug dealer who pushed vampire blood. "I had fun playing the prostitute and running the porn website!" says Ellis. "I thought if Lafayette got strapped down that all that fun stuff would go away." But he soon warmed to it. "I like [to portray] the love," he says. "It's rarely seen on TV: courtship, commitment, and faithfulness. In all the craziness of True Blood, you have these two dudes in a real relationship. Honest and real and straightforward -- all that good stuff."
According to rumors, season 4 is set a year in the future, when Bon Temps, La., is beset by a pack of witches. Ellis says Alfre Woodard will not return as his schizophrenic, homophobic mother but that Lafayette and his nurse boyfriend, Jesus, are still together, "doing well" against the odds: In the last episode of season 3, Lafayette learned that Jesus was a witch. "It challenges the relationship," says Ellis. "Lafayette has been in many circles, but witches ain't one of them. He's street smart with vampires, but witches are a bit daunting, especially because he's sleeping with one."
The emergence of witchcraft on the show (joining werewolves, vampire kings, shapeshifters, and Alexander Skarsgard's abs) will result in more warring factions, and hopefully more standout moments for Ellis. His favorite scene to date is one of the series' buzziest YouTube clips: When a trio of rednecks dubs one of the Lafayette's dishes an "AIDS burger," he menacingly licks a bun before rearranging the bigots' faces. "People mention it to me a lot," says Ellis. "Most of them were shocked to see a gay guy beat somebody up -- shocked that he can wear makeup and be fashiony and feminine, and also take off his earrings and whip some ass. I like that dichotomy."
Lafayette's dark family drama mirrors Ellis's own. As a child, he was a ward of the state and lived with several relatives before attending The Juilliard School to study acting. His mother, who was never fully comfortable with his playing Lafayette, died between the show's latest seasons. To cope with "a dark moment," Ellis wrote a script about a dying woman whose son rescues her from death by stopping time.
As for his acting, Ellis aspires to Jeffrey Wright's versatility. After a small role in last year's Secretariat, he'll appear this summer with Emma Stone and Viola Davis in the indie film The Help, about black maids in the 1950s South. Ultimately, the flamboyant Lafayette, far from being an ambitious actor's nightmare, has been his launching pad. "He's so different from me," says Ellis. "I'm a boring person. I'm not interesting. I like to get into different skins, and Lafayette is a strong character. Hopefully he's my first step toward convincing people I'm a character actor."
True Blood's fan base needs no convincing. Even out of Lafayette's token eye shadow and mall wear, he's often descended upon by fangbangers. "I get men who think I'm Lafayette in real life and want to do bad things to me," he laughs. "I get women who think I'm Lafayette and want to change me. Honestly, it's the thug heterosexual dudes who are most in my face: 'Dude, the character is sooooo good.' "
And, unlike many of his cast members, he hasn't had to strip down to earn a rabid following. Although he's one of the most consistently clothed members of True Blood, Ellis doesn't feel left out. "No way," he says. "I am in no hurry to get nude. I've purposely tried to let a few places go so they won't make me. I'm eating cheeseburgers."
The fourth season of True Blood premieres June 26 on HBO.