Like everyone else, I was shocked by the recent death of Nelsan Ellis at the tender age of 39. I became a fan, as many of you did, watching him for years play gay short-order cook Lafayette, one of the good guys, on HBO’s True Blood. He would show his versatility in the movie Little Boxes, opposite Melanie Lynskey, and the CBS series, Elementary, on which he had a major arc this last season—ending with his character’s surprising death.
I got to interview Ellis just once, for about five minutes on camera, in Nachez, Mississippi, while on the set of the James Brown biopic, Get on Up (see trailer at bottom of post). In the film, which today plays frequently on cable and VOD, he played the legendary soul/R&B/funk musician Bobby Byrd, founder of the Flames and “discoverer” of James Brown, his best friend. I found Nelsan Ellis to be a thoughtful, sweet man, as calm in person as in his performances. Here is that brief interview as my way of paying tribute.
Danny Peary: Everybody involved with Get on Up wants the new generation to see James Brown. You want that to happen but I’m sure you also want recognition for Bobby Byrd.
Nelson Ellis: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that Bobby Byrd has a powerful story in regards to James Brown. I hope that people glean from this movie how James Brown became James Brown because there was a Bobby Byrd, and Bobby Byrd was Bobby Byrd because there was a James Brown.
DP: It is a shame that Bobby Byrd did not get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame at the same time as James Brown, and not until several years after he died.
NE: It was in 2012 that he died and he deserved to be in there way earlier than that, certainly when he was alive.
DP: Did you know much about Bobby Byrd before playing him?
NE: Not at all.
DP: Which is a shame, because we should know, right?
NE: It is. I didn’t know there was a Bobby Byrd. I knew there was a James Brown and I knew he had a band, but I had no idea who Bobby Byrd was. Then during my research I was like, “Oh, I feel ashamed of myself.”
DP: I’ve seen videos of James Brown and Bobby Byrd performing together and James Brown is being James Brown and doing all kinds of spins and whatever, and Bobby Byrd is just singing normally. But when you watch them together do you see Bobby Byrd as a talent unto himself?
NE: I see the big thing about Bobby Byrd is that he’s a supporter. Everything he’s doing is in support of James Brown. But yes, he was a talent unto himself. He was a frontman for the Gospel Starlighters before James Brown ever came along. He’s the one who started the Flames. He was a talent, he had a hit record, he could sing. To my ear he and James sounded kind of alike.
DP: Would James Brown have had the same career he had if not for Bobby Byrd?
NE: Absolutely not. Well, no one can ever say something like that.
DP: Well, you can.
NE: Bobby Byrd is actually credited for discovering James Brown. It was Bobby Byrd who gave James Brown his first opportunity to be in a group, the Gospel Starlighters, and from there they took off.
DP: Bobby Byrd got him out of jail.
NE: He got him out of jail. He came and stayed with his family. I think that there are notable steps that Bobby Byrd was responsible for in James Brown’s life.
DP: In the movie, what is the trajectory of the relationship between the two men?
NE: As in any relationship that falls apart, you have your good times and then you have your bad times and sometimes it doesn’t work out. So you’ll see good and bad times, and maybe it doesn’t work out, and maybe it does.
DP: I don’t know if you would use the word loyal in regard to both of them in their relationship, but Bobby Byrd was the only Famous Flame who stuck with James Brown, all through the years while everybody else sort of faded away. Did James Brown feel the same towards Bobby Byrd? And was James Brown as protective of Bobby Byrd as Bobby Byrd was of James Brown?
NE: I would say that Bobby Byrd was definitely loyal to James Brown. But he was in a different position than James Brown, so I don’t know if James Brown could feel the same.
DP: A different position?
NE: Bobby Byrd wasn’t the frontman—James Brown was. James Brown always stayed in touch with Bobby Byrd despite whatever falling outs they had, so while he couldn’t be as loyal, he was committed to their relationship—if that means anything.
DP: You’re from Alabama and Bobby Byrd was from Georgia, so do you think you had an automatic connection to him because of that?
NE: I did. He grew up in the South, and came from a strong Christian family. I grew up in the South and came from a strong Christian family. So I automatically knew 50 percent of who this man was. The other 50 percent I had to figure out.
DP: What kind of satisfaction, gratification do you have being in this movie?
NE: I get to play a person who hasn’t been given the credit that he deserves. I’m the one who get to play that dude and ultimately the responsibility falls on me. I feel privileged to play Bobby Byrd.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.