chat room

Insecure’s Jay Ellis on Lawrence’s Sexual Escapades and Fragile Masculinity

Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers for Insecure season two ahead.

“You worse than a fuck nigga. You’re a fuck nigga who thinks he’s a good dude.” So went Tasha the bank teller’s overdue evisceration of former nice guy Lawrence (Jay Ellis) on Insecure’s previous episode. This week, Lawrence solidified that reputation, thoughtlessly moving on from Tasha, without considering she might’ve had a point, and straight into the bed of two roommates who lure him into a random threesome under questionable pretenses. With the tables now turned, Lawrence is left wondering how anyone could so casually and routinely use another person, a crisis of self he faces while parked outside of the apartment he once shared with his ex-girlfriend, Issa (Issa Rae). All season, Lawrence has recovered from the aftershock of Issa cheating on him by dulling the pain with sexual dalliances. It’s a sharp turn of character that’s torn apart his rabid Twitter fan base (see: #LawrenceHive) and whole black households alike. Vulture spoke to Ellis about whether you should still root for Lawrence, that threesome, male fragility, and his new web series, Hard Medicine.

If you had told me that season-one Lawrence would end up having a threesome with two women he meets at the grocery store this season … at this point, is the show just writing exclusively for #LawrenceHive?
I remember one day our showrunner Prentice Penny texted me saying, “Bruh, I got something for you and it’s every man’s dream. I’m telling you, man, the Lawrence Hive is gonna love it.” But he didn’t tell me how the threesome ends. That was his way of getting me excited for it, and then when I actually read it, I was like, “Come on, man, why does Lawrence gotta go out like this? This ain’t fair!” It’s cool, but I’ve never had that experience. I’ve had friends who’ve had threesomes, and it’s an interesting take on how those situations can sometimes happen.

You know, we have three really interesting stories this year with Issa, Lawrence, and Molly being single and dealing with the fallout from episode eight of last season [when Lawrence leaves Issa]. What we’re seeing with Lawrence is single-male behavior. I can honestly say I’ve had friends who’ve walked similar paths, and there are some things Lawrence has done this season that I’ve even done while being single and dating in Los Angeles. I don’t think it’s writing for #LawrenceHive as much as it is writing from a real perspective with an honest take of what it’s like to be a single male in this city. A single black man, on top of that.

Race comes up in this scenario, too, because Lawrence thinks it’s going to be a huge win, but a less naïve audience can automatically see it’s a trap: These two women fetishize black men.
I think Lawrence doesn’t see it because in the previous episode, one of his co-workers tells him he’s like a unicorn. He starts believing his hype a little bit. Before, he’s like, “Nah, I’m just nerdy Lawrence; that’s just me.” But when these girls approach him, it’s the first moment where he goes, Maybe this is easier for me than I thought. Maybe I am this unicorn. Obviously, that all unravels when he’s told by these girls that another black guy can do it much better than him, and Lawrence is far from their first.

How do you film a sex scene like that and have it not be totally awkward?
I chemistry-read with the two actresses. From the minute that you get to start creating this story with other actors, you have to be kind, honest, and respectful. You’re stumbling through this just like they are, but you’re here to protect them first. The most important thing is that they feel comfortable. And we’re lucky to have such a super-talented team behind the camera. That day Prentice directed, [executive producer and director] Melina [Matsoukas] was on set, Issa was also producing behind the camera, and we had the writer of the episode. They were all there, but not in the room. You start to see we’re in really good hands, so if there’s a question or insecurity, they’re there. This is Issa’s vision, obviously, but we’re all in this together, and we’re all in search of authenticity in this moment. But it’ll always be awkward. You got somebody sitting on your face and thighs who you just met 48 hours earlier. And you’re being directed, “Stop! Slower! Faster! Grab his face!”

Lawrence has much more sex this season, and I think it’s because men handle being cheated on differently than women. They take it as a direct assault on their masculinity and make it about themselves, then feel the immediate need to nurse their bruised ego with sexual gratification.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve had friends call me after finding out they were cheated on, and one of my closest friends went on a tear for a whole summer. It was just a different girl every day. Because we don’t always use our words, you’re right, we’re trying to reclaim our masculinity and pride. You don’t wanna be exposed or vulnerable. So you’re out there having to prove that not only can I get girls, I can lay it down with any girl I want at any time. Not every dude, obviously. For whatever reason, we’ve been indoctrinated to think that’s the way to do it. You just end up being more unfulfilled and more lost than what you were before. In Lawrence’s case, he’s left buck naked in those girls’ bed while they move on.

Right, whereas Issa only starts seeking out new sexual partners once Lawrence seemingly kills all hope of a second chance. That they both missed their ho phase in college I think doesn’t help the situation.
They were loyal together for sooo long. They need to figure out what having a sex life is like without each other. And Chad is very much a proponent of, “Bruh, get out here and smash all the girls you can. Just add them up like trophies and tack ‘em to the wall and don’t fall in love. And then a few years later, when you’re done playing with these zeroes, find you a real one.” That Chad mentality rubs off on Lawrence, especially when he gets this affirmation from his co-worker.

But of course, emotionless sex is easier said than done, and we see Lawrence unable to separate the two at the end of the season opener when he has sex with Issa. He also ends up outside of her apartment after the threesome. Do you see their story as being finished?
I’d like to think these two people can find a way to communicate with each other, because right now they’re not. Issa tried, but Lawrence shut down. They need to use their words. These people love each other. But it’s tough — for a dude, being cheated on is probably one of the toughest things to come back from. Not that it isn’t tough for women, too, but we as a society have allowed us to say it’s okay in one direction and not the other. I think that breakup sex started as confusion and passion and love, but if you watch it, there’s this point where he stops looking at her in the face while they’re having sex. I think that’s where it turns almost into revenge. He definitely moves a little faster and the sex become more aggressive, and that’s the point where he realizes he can’t just fall back into this and needs to move on. But he’s still conflicted, and that’s evidenced by the peck on the cheek. He doesn’t wanna hurt her, but he doesn’t know how to handle the situation. One thing I’ve learned from working with so many women on this show is that men’s messages aren’t being relayed the way that they want them to be perceived. It’s read as revenge or petty. All cause dude’s don’t want to be vulnerable. Ever.

That’s why it’s so great when Tasha finally calls Lawrence out for what he’s become: a “fuck nigga.” He doesn’t respect her vulnerability. Do you see Lawrence as a villain this season?
I feel bad for him. He’s hopeless and lost, especially in the middle of the season. But he is being reckless because he won’t deal with his own feelings. He’s just pushing them to the side and won’t talk about them. What you see is that anger, frustration, and embarrassment play out in his recklessness. I think it’s only after Tasha calls him out, and then the threesome, that he starts to see he’s actually just lost. He’s a bit of an anti-hero for a second. He’s a guy that you want to root for, but he’s doing all the wrong things for a good portion of the season. Eventually, he has to face his own demons. But I’ve seen many men say Lawrence is the GOAT this season. But for women, he’s public enemy No. 1. There’s going to be an anti-#LawrenceHive that develops specifically to call out his foolishness.

People probably don’t know that outside of Insecure, you developed your own web series that just got picked up by the Urban Movie Channel.
Yeah! We premiered Hard Medicine on Facebook on August 2, and it’s created by a young woman of color named Melissa Effa. She graduated from Loyola Marymount University, and she and a couple of her classmates wrote this amazing web series, and I wanted to help make it become a reality, so I executive-produced it. It’s a wonderful story: Melissa’s mother is a doctor who had worked in an urban community urgent-care center that was underfunded for most of her career, so Melissa wanted to tell the story of a black doctor who’s quirky and doesn’t have it all together, and she’s not driving a fancy car, and she’s trying to save this clinic. It’s a comedy in the style of a mockumentary, like Parks and Rec. It’s a lot of fun; we’re releasing new episodes every Wednesday.

It seems like getting young creators of color through the door has been a big priority for you and Issa.
Issa’s an inspiration. And I will say, as an actor, coming to Los Angeles and going to auditions where I would read material that just wasn’t authentic to me, or always being told, “Oh, we didn’t have a writer or we didn’t have a director for that voice” — I know there are. There are tons of talented people out there, and we just don’t get a chance to get into this system. I want to be a part of that. I want to help these young, diverse, unique voices tell stories. I want to create this pool of talent to draw from, and I hope that people get inspired to make more web series and bring them to me to help develop. I have another project I’m developing at Comedy Central with Tristen Winger, who plays “Thug Yoda” on the show, that he completely came up with called Elephant in the Room. I also think film is the next step for me. I don’t ever want to be put in a box. The doors are definitely different now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Insecure’s Jay Ellis on Lawrence’s Sexual Escapades