Insecure’s Jay Ellis on #TeamLawrence, Filming in the Shower, and Whether a Relationship Can Survive Cheating

By

Spoilers for Insecure's fifth episode ahead.

For a time it seemed like Lawrence and Issa's five-year relationship on HBO's Insecure had long passed its expiration date. The show begins with Lawrence failing to put himself before Issa and properly celebrate her birthday; meanwhile, Issa remained the couple's sole breadwinner as Lawrence continued to go through the motions of looking for a job. Slowly but surely, though, Lawrence swallowed his pride, taking an entry-level job at Best Buy, and became the model boyfriend, even friendzoning Tasha, an overeager acquaintance at his bank. It's what makes the startling revelation in Insecure's fifth episode, "Shady As Fuck," that Issa Rae's character goes through with cheating on Lawrence with an ex — a betrayal that's been developing since the pilot — all the more devastating. Vulture spoke with Jay Ellis about how fans have turned on Issa, whether or not he's #TeamTasha, getting intimate for TV, and why working on a female-dominated show is so refreshing.

Poor Lawrence. How did you react to learning that Issa actually does cheat on him?
I dropped my script. I literally dropped it and was like, “Ohhhh shit!” That was the first thing that came out of my mouth and then I had this moment where I was just completely frozen and didn’t really know how to process everything. It was honest shock. I was actually in my trailer when I read it and didn’t wanna pick up my script off the floor. After a while, one of the PAs knocked on my door like, “Is everything okay?” I played it cool, picked it up, and finished reading. But I was heartbroken. I’m actually still pissed right now and don’t want to talk to Issa [laughs].

Were you told why the writers room took it there?
Issa wanted to show that women can be vulnerable and make mistakes — it’s not always the guy that does it. That character has flaws just like anyone else and she wanted to talk about that in an honest way. Going forward, you’ll see how her actions impact her in that relationship.

Our first impression of Lawrence was that he was selfish, but over time we’ve grown to see that it’s because he was in a dark place and is actually an honest, considerate man. Now he’s a fan favorite. What’s been the reaction to seeing him get cheated on?
It’s interesting because when you first meet Lawrence, he’s down on his luck. He’s completely crippled by failure, so that makes him react in an asshole-ish way. Little by little, you see him trying to do better so you want to give him another shot. When I tell you I got so many #TeamLawrence tweets after the episode aired, it was unreal. My mentions feed couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t keep up! Both men and women were so shocked and disappointed in Issa because Lawrence has worked hard and stepped up to the proverbial plate that Issa told him he needed to step up to.

Are you now #TeamTasha?
A lot of people are saying Lawrence should have slept with Tasha, but that’s hindsight, right? Two weeks ago, everyone was like, “She needs to back up,” “Issa needs to watch out for Tasha,” “Why is she trying to break up a happy home and steal Issa’s man?” Now it’s flipped and it’s, “Oh, Lawrence should’ve done that.” It’s amazing. That’s what's so great about storytelling. But it’s hard! Tasha makes Lawrence feel good and she’s obviously a pretty girl, but at the same time, he’s trying to be faithful. I don’t know that I’m necessarily #TeamTasha, but if this Issa situation wasn’t there, then everything about Tasha seems right.

Hey, there’s always the possibility of revenge sex if Lawrence finds out.
Haaaa. I don’t know. A lot of people are gonna be asking for it for sure, especially dudes. But I don’t know if Lawrence is that kind of guy. I think that’s what we’ve learned about him. And if he is that kind of guy, then he must be pretty broken and at an absolute low to be that guy.

So far Lawrence’s story has felt like the classic tale of the nice guy finishing last.
In some ways, yeah. I talk to people about this all the time and I think what we see here is the nice guy who’s knocked off his pivot, to use a basketball term, and kind of stumbling through life. Then he gets called on, starts to put the pieces back together to better himself, his relationship, and his future, and does all the things we hear women say they want in a guy. And all of a sudden, those things aren’t good enough. In a moment of weakness, I guess, for Issa, all those things that Lawrence has done just go out the window.

This show is told from a female perspective and it’s run mostly by women, which I imagine must be unlike other projects you’ve worked on. How has it been for you being pretty much the lone male presence?
You’re right. Our writers room is predominately women, our DP is a woman, we’ve only had one male director, our producer is a woman, the heads of the wardrobe, makeup, and hair departments are women, the camera operators are women, even the PAs are women. It was really amazing to watch this myth that women can’t work together being debunked. It’s so cool. It’s not just that we have women working together, we have 20–25 creative, opinionated, strong, smart women, who all came to work together every single day, and we all had no issues. They totally respected Lawrence’s story in regards to it being told from this side. It’s also cool to see how women view these things. We’d be talking between scenes and I’d be like, “Whaaat? That’s what you think? No!” Of course if it’s me and my boys, they’d be like, “No, no, you need to call Tasha right now.” But then you hear the woman’s side of it and you start to understand the logic of why women think men would react certain ways.

For me, one of the best ways this show gets long-term relationships right is the way it depicts intimacy. How do you approach scenes like the one where Issa and Lawrence fail at having shower sex?
It’s wonderfully awkward. First of all, it’s the first time that Issa and I had been in an intimate scene before, so we had to talk through that. I also always want to be respectful toward women, especially in a scene like that. I ask, “Are you okay with this?” or “Is there an area you don’t like to be touched?” You have to know what’s off-limits. But then once you get in a shower that’s literally like 18 inches by three feet, you can’t help but just brush up against somebody so many times. At a certain point, you get used to it. Issa was a great sport about it — I kept apologizing for rubbing up against her and she was like, “It’s okay, I get it. This is what happens in real life.” I still felt weird. But by the end of it, we did very much feel like a couple who’s been in it for so long. It was fun discovering that comfort level.

Are you rooting for Issa and Lawrence, or should this relationship come to its natural conclusion?
I do want them to stay together, but I also want what’s best for Lawrence. We still have to see if he finds out about this.

Should Issa tell him?
Yes. I’ve had sooo many conversations about this and it’s always yes, yes, and more yes. I’m not a believer in what you don’t know won’t hurt you, unless it’s innocent. But this is a part of love and those are the conversations we have to have sometimes, whether they’re fun or not. When you love somebody, you gotta be honest with them even if it’ll hurt them.

Do you think a relationship can survive cheating?
Ummmmm. Yes, I do. I think it’s hard. The odds are probably like winning the lottery, but I think it can be successful if you become better at communication.

If they don’t make it, could you see Lawrence joining Molly in her online-dating escapades?
That would actually be a lot of fun to see! Because right now we’re only getting the woman’s perspective on dating from Molly, but if it was the man’s point of view, we could see how different they are, or even if they are different. Though I don’t know how Lawrence would handle that because he’s an introvert and such a monogamist. Tinder didn’t even exist when he and Issa got together! 

This interview has been edited and condensed.