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Insecure’s Jay Ellis Is Convinced That Issa and Lawrence Are Soul Mates

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

Insecure delivered its most romantic and intimate episode on a weekend when one of its actors, Kendrick Sampson, was shot multiple times by police with rubber bullets while protesting police brutality and systemic racism against black people. That reality made it difficult for the cast and crew to savor the moment they know fans had waited for since the end of season two: Issa and Lawrence reuniting on a romantic date, enjoying and forgiving each other, and even spending the night together.

“Lowkey Happy,” a lovely bottle episode written by Natasha Rothwell (who plays Kelli) and directed by the show’s director of photography Ava Berkofsky, devotes all of its time to Issa and Lawrence. Actor Jay Ellis told Vulture he had no idea the reunion was coming until he read the script the night before the table read, which he felt was the “most beautiful” episode of the entire series to date. Even so, Ellis said he felt ambivalent about discussing his work while the black community was still reeling from another incidence of dehumanization at the hands of law enforcement.

“I want to make sure that, although we gave 30 minutes of reprieve for people to smile and laugh and cry, we also did not take away from the very needed conversation that’s happening in this country right now around police brutality,” Ellis said. The actor said he also checked on Sampson over the weekend, and “he was just super-exhausted — he hadn’t had a break.”

How are you doing today?
Oh, you know, I’m as good as I can be. I’m healthy. I’m alive. My family’s healthy and alive. But my heart is broken at the same time. How are you?

The same. To be honest, it feels weird to talk about a TV show today. But in a way, Sunday’s episode was the perfect antidote. It was such a beautiful, uplifting love story. Is it hard to talk about your work when the world seems to be crumbling around us?
I think it’s very conflicting. There’s moments where I’m angry with myself; there’s moments where I realize that the representation of these characters onscreen is part of the conversation that needs to happen in America. You know, trying to find moments of understanding that although it’s my job and although it’s entertainment, there’s also a place in this world for art to speak to people, and hopefully help people get through tough times. And also help people hopefully change their minds and be opened up to a new perspective. I hope that that’s what our show does.

Why are you sometimes angry with yourself?
It’s tough to have conversations like these in moments like this. I want to make sure that my efforts and my voice and my platform are being used to entertain and to make people laugh and to have fun, but I also want to make sure that in moments like this, my voice and my platform are being used to help create change, and help people who look like me, especially black men, feel like they’re seen. And that I love them, and that they’re being represented onscreen, and that I’m here as much as I possibly can be to help create change in their lives. It’s that duality of having to do both at the same time. Sometimes, it feels a little bit conflicting.

Did you participate in any protests this weekend?
I went out on Sunday. I’ve been paying attention to everything and reading. I’m constantly FaceTiming and texting and talking to friends who’ve been out. It’s amazing to see so many people of so many different backgrounds and faiths and colors and religions and races and pronouns together, peacefully supporting this movement for change. That’s one of the things that I really got out of going out. You look around, and for every person that looked like me, there were also people who did not look like me. That is the true power of humanity.

It’s not often we see black love stories on TV. Did you know there was an Issa-Lawrence reunion episode in the works?
I read this script the night before the table read, and it felt like closure. It felt like love. It felt like friendship. It felt like soul mates. It felt like our show is so universal. There were just so many things about it that were absolutely amazing. I remember turning to Natasha and telling her, “I think you just wrote the most beautiful episode of this show ever.”

As a viewer, you’re so excited to see Issa walk into the bar. And then boom, she’s on the floor!
At every turn, our writers will always find a way to make you realize that even in our most beautiful and loving moments, we still are humans who trip or say funny things or embarrass ourselves and have our insecurities. It’s also so befitting of that character to have this glow about her as she walks into the room. It’s like God was standing behind her. It’s just true to who that character is: Every good moment in her life comes with a moment where you have to laugh. You have to humble her just a little bit.

Even Lawrence had his moment before she arrives with the Altoids.
Natasha did such a great job showing that these two people are nervous about seeing each other, because they want to be their best selves for each other. Lawrence doesn’t want his stink-ass breath in her face. They give each other butterflies.

And then TSA Bae shows up!
Natasha is the queen of ad-libs on our show. She crushes every single ad-lib. As my own challenge, knowing how great of an improviser she is, I just wanted to have moments that were like an homage to Natasha and who she is as a performer. And so that moment when he popped up, there’s just so many things in there that we played with to embarrass Issa. They just had this beautiful conversation at dinner, but there’s always something that comes back and humbles you immediately. And in this case, it’s TSA Bae.

And then Lawrence pretends he’s leaving. Poor Issa.
They’re going back to their playful nature and who they were as a couple. You can tell from his smile when she walks away to the bathroom that he didn’t want the night to end. When she says something about the Art Walk, what a perfect joke to play on her. No, no. I gotta get out of here. Prentice Penny, our showrunner, ran over and whispered that in my ear, “Pop around the corner and go, ‘Brrrap brrrap!’”

Issa Rae and Jay Ellis in Insecure. Photo: HBO

The restaurant scene where the big conversation takes place is flawlessly written. How long did you work on that?
It’s a six-page scene, which is long for us. But it didn’t feel like a six-page scene. Ava shot it from maybe five or six different angles — close-ups, reverses, two shots from both sides of the table — and shows the change in their conversation, which was just such a beautiful way to use the camera to help tell that story. That conversation was deep. Would they still be together if she hadn’t cheated? I don’t think either one ever had a chance to think about that because breakups move so fast sometimes. He was too hurt. She was embarrassed and hurt by what she had done herself. Neither one of them ever got a chance to ask that question. I think it’s one of the most beautiful scenes we’ve ever had on the show. The writing did all the work. Issa and I just got to say the words.

Were you surprised to learn that Lawrence bought a ring?
Yeah! When we get to that conversation in the middle of the table read, I remember going, “Dios mio!” Everybody just bust out laughing. It was such a shocking moment. They were gonna make the commitment to spend the rest of their life together. And this is the first time that she’s finding that out. It’s the first time that he’s ever had the confidence to say it. He’s probably told no one else in his life.

That Art Walk scene was so romantic and magical.
It was amazing to shoot! Our production designer Kay Lee built this entire set. It looked like Art Walk. The scale of it was insane. It gives you that feeling of happiness and lightness and euphoria. There was something about just starting the scene walking through those clouds. They’re joking with each other and you really get to see why these two were such a great couple. Lawrence sees Issa in a different way for the first time. He sees how much she’s changed and how much she’s grown since they last spent this kind of time together. That, to me, was what was so beautiful. Him seeing how much she has blossomed, and then her seeing the same in him, but feeling good that he has recognized her growth and that he doesn’t look at her as the woman who cheated on him.

When Issa says, “You make me happy,” in the apartment, it took my breath away. It was so moving. Was it emotional on set?
It was truly a beautiful moment. When we said, “Cut!” men, women, people in video village, the PAs who were just listening to the scene in their ears, everyone was either crying or wiping tears out of their eyes. Everybody was quiet. It was such a cathartic moment. It was a true-love moment — two people fully recognizing that there’s nothing else on the planet that makes them happier than being with each other. That is what love is, at least to me anyway. And to be able to say that to someone who’s hurt you, it’s just such a massive thing. I remember laughing on set at all the people crying, “Y’all know this is TV, right? This ain’t real.”

It was a moment of maturity for Issa. She could have gotten upset about Condola, but she chooses to be honest with him and take the chance.
I think she realized that if she doesn’t say something, that might be the last time we ever see her and Lawrence together. What I saw out of him communicating with Condola was that he has learned what is “fuckboi” behavior and what is being open and communicating and being respectful of people that you have in your life. He’s never really been able to sit down and have those kinds of conversations before, so it’s growth. At least, I hope that’s what it was.

What did you think of how things ended between Issa and Lawrence?
I kept saying, “I would never let her walk home!” And Natasha was like, “I need you to sit down and to chill.” What Natasha said to me, which is clearly a perspective I don’t have and why I’m so grateful for her, is we spent that episode in Lawrence’s perspective, and now at the end, Issa fully takes control. And so when she says, “I’m good, I’m gonna walk,” Lawrence sees that and he respects that. He sees that she’s in a really good place and he sees the woman she’s becoming.

You also directed the seventh episode earlier this season. Having a location shoot in your first directing job seems like a big deal. What challenges did you face in Mexico?
Part of it was just in the way the schedule worked out because I had to act. Part of it was some episodes had already been given to other directors. None of us had shot out of the country before, so I’m sure once everybody started really putting all the pieces together, it was too late at that point. But it was a lot. I had to go to Mexico three times to scout. I had three daylight-specific days, and we were shooting three days before the winter solstice. But our Mexican crew was absolutely amazing. Everybody just rallied and hustled and we had a really great plan for how we were going to attack everything.

And Yvonne Orji got sick, right?
On the second day, we shot all the pool stuff. We were constantly taking [the actors] out, throwing towels around them and robes and slippers. We shot that whole first scene, and we quickly ate lunch. Yvonne now has to shoot the towel kiosk scene. But she gets sick and she starts throwing up pretty bad. So her stand-in, who is dressed like her, is the one we use for the over-the-shoulder scene with the towel kiosk worker because we were running out of daylight. And then Yvonne rinses her mouth out, brushes her teeth, comes back, and snatches that towel out of that woman’s hands. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life! We got a few takes and then we immediately had to throw her in wardrobe for the walk on the beach. We literally had nine minutes because the sun was going down. Yvonne was such a trooper. She fought through all of that.

What did you learn about yourself?
That I’m a masochist? In a weird way, there’s something about having to perform under pressure that I really enjoy. I also learned that it’s okay to ask for other people’s perspectives. [Director of photography] Michelle Lawler was great for that.

I have to ask: Will Lawrence and Issa get back together?
I think what we saw in that episode could easily be closure, and I think we could all be happy with it if it ended that way, because it ended in the way that we want our love stories to end. I think it also, at the same time, opened the door for a new chapter of love for them. I think they will always be in each other’s lives no matter what happens. They know each other better than they know themselves and better than they know anyone else in the world, so I think that there is something to that. I do truly think they’re soul mates. I used to say I wanted them to be together, but now I just want them to be happy with themselves, whether that means they’re together or they’re grateful for the time that they had together.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jay Ellis Is Convinced That Issa and Lawrence Are Soul Mates