In Conversation With...
Jay Ellis, Actor + Humanitarian
"If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready."
A man seeking every day to live in the Present of my life. I am a son and a friend, an actor, a writer, a producer, and real estate developer.
I started my first business in 8th grade by taking my daily lunch money ($3) and buying candy at the local Texaco. I would then take that candy to school and sell it. My profit was about $2 to $3 daily. At 21, I bought my first rental property with the money I was making as a model. I still have that townhouse.
We traveled a lot and bounced around so much when I was a kid that it was hard to have a mental sense of home, which is why I think I am so attracted to real estate, design and architecture. It’s about creating the space of security for the soul and body to rest. My dad was a mechanic working on planes in the U.S. Airforce so I was raised from early on to work with my hands and get dirty so the thought of making any place feel like home by going in and doing a rebuild, putting up drywall, laying carpet, or electrical makes me interested. It also helps me within the industry to focus on something else in between jobs.
Home, as a concept and reality, is always interesting to me. Being able to provide one for others is a blessing, which is why a childhood friend and I started a real estate company in Oklahoma where I spent my high school years. We own 20 units within the University area of town. The thought is to go into lower income areas, refurbish, and in some cases rebuild units, including landscaping, painting, new kitchens, and updating whatever is needed to make it comfortable enough that we would be happy to live there. This way we know the actual tenant will feel pride. We focus on renting to people who need that extra hand of support such as single mothers and the elderly. Within the next five years we are developing an additional 10 units in this same area. Many of our friends grew up there. We had a great time playing there after school so we want to give back and restore it. We are committed to turning it around.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” Muhammad Ali
I do believe that there is an internal struggle and fight we all have, that if you can get your hands around it then you can succeed for your version of success. I believe there is a fight, a struggle, within all of us that we have to grapple with. Your voice matters more than you think especially because of self-confidence. A lot of time we are not told or taught to have the natural entitlements or it has been stripped or taken away from us due to forces outside of us (i.e., life). When you get that confidence, you walk with your head higher, your shoulders back and you are proud—not prideful—you are proud and that is powerful.
There is no such thing as a regular day if I am filming, but if I have an early call time, which is more often than not:
4:00 AM – 6:00AM From the moment I actually open my eyes it takes about 5 minutes or so for me to get oriented: yes, I am alive. Thank you, God. I am usually up for about an hour before my call time. I try to use that time to just clear and create my intentions for the day: to be happy, creative, loving, kind, and focus in on things I want to accomplish through that day. This is my meditation. If I am as efficient as I like to be then 15 minutes in the morning for Meditation.
When I am home, I sit in the same space (quiet) every morning. I am a visual person so I have made an entire wall inside my house into a vision board that depicts everything I want to do and positively impact. So, whether it’s projects I want to develop, countries I want to visit, the work I want to do helping others—images of various refugee crisis camps that I work with for boys and girls, my dream home, what I what people to say about my work—words and pictures it’s all up there; an explosion of what I want to see manifested.
I don’t necessarily journal, but I do have a book with goals aspirations that I keep and reflect on. I keep it near this wall and update it every year so I have blueprint to anchor me. There is also one that I did for ‘Lawrence,’ my character on INSECURE (HBO), exploring what the world looks like through his eyes. I do one for each season.
5:00AM – 7:00AM Depart for set, If I am filming Insecure then I drive myself to work and listen to the Lawrence playlist on Spotify that I curated to get me in the proper head space. It’s filled with all of the songs that Issa and I think he would be listening to. If I am on location filming a movie, like the one I just completed in South Africa, then the car time is spent looking out the windows and taking it in the environment because I don’t know when I will ever be there again to see Cape Town, Robins Island, and Jo’burg.
8:00AM Feels like a good time to say I have breakfast, but again it depends on my filming schedule. When I am working, I am on a pretty strict dietary routine so I eat every 3 hours; a meal, a protein shake, a meal, a protein shake until about 2 hours before I go to bed so roughly 4 meals per day with 2+ protein shakes. My go-to is egg whites with cheese, a side of sliced avocado and tomato. I like to juice so I do a lot of green juice. It’s kind of disgusting, I won’t lie, but it is a way to help me get all of the nutrients in. Oatmeal every once in a while. Green tea with lemon every day.
12 Hours days, 4 Days a week is my schedule when I am filming, so my moves are dictated by the scenes to be shot. For Insecure, usually all of our scripts with the exception of the finale are written before we start production so what we are able to Table Read 2 episodes every week for about 3 weeks before the start of actual production. Each read takes about an hour and half -the half hour is so we can talk about any and everything related to any and everything not about the show. #wearegreat
(LUNCH) I stopped eating meat in January of 2017. I am a fish guy, some green leafy vegetable (broccoli, spinach, asparagus). Every once in a while, I will cheat and have a brownie or cookie. Here is the crazy thing; it is easy for me to stay extremely focused and disciplined when I am working. I can compartmentalize every area of my life and set everything to the side. I am not really sure that is the best thing … When I am not working I will eat every single thing you put in front of me. The holidays are the worst for me! When shooting finishes and they say, “it’s a wrap,” I celebrate the next day at The Griddle with a short-stack of pancakes, pizza and nachos all in the same day. I don’t know why… it feels like my reward… this is my championship and this is my champagne… bottles up. I go so far to the one extreme for work that I swing hard to the other side when I am done. I never, however, let my fitness routine drop on my hiatus or off days.
1:00PM Gym time for 2 hours inclusive of my travel time so my workout is 1 hour and a half. I set that aside every day 5 days a week. It sets the tone.
3:00PM Fridays, independent of where I am in the world, I set aside this time for phone calls with my team: my managers to discuss overall, my agents and publicist, and my business partners.
7:00PM If I am working then I wind down pretty early. I study whatever scenes I have then so that by the time I get into work, the frame is there and all I have to do is just go in and paint in the scene.
Perfect Night (an off-night) – There is the version of me that loves going to the movies. When I was in South Africa I went to the movies every single Sunday. When I am home, if I’m not in a movie theater then I am home sitting on my couch watching a movie. I love watching my friends work. I don’t always tell them or call them about it, but I love watching and appreciating what they are doing—how they kill a monologue or an action sequence. Outside of that a chill dinner with friends around the table… I love communal experiences.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
It’s two things actually: finding a cure and vaccine for HIV/AIDS. To know that one day there will be generations of young people who do not have to live through the horror of what HIV/AIDS has done globally; 30 million lives affected. In the US it is hitting black men and women really hard yet no one is really talking about. This is super important for me.
How do we educate young boys and girls, and especially young boys and girls of color? How do we give them the access? How do we give them resources and tools? How do we put them in a safe space to learn, to be creative, and to become justices, lawyers, doctors, and leaders in S.T.E.M? I want to set up a scholarship or institutional fund that empowers early education and the access that is seldom factored in. The fund would provide needed monetary resources and technology to school districts and systems where our tax dollars are not being spent—making it possible for every child to have the books, transportation, meals, and clothes they need. In doing so, we also become an advocate of every parent who is striving and struggling while dreaming of better for their children.
I'm filled with insecurities like everyone else. I guess it's just about learning how to be okay and keep them in check so they don't take over. But I'm always questioning my work: is it good enough? Was that the right thought? Is that what this character is thinking right now? Are people going to connect to the work or the moment? I think always wanting to make sure people relate and connect to the work are usually my thoughts after I finish a project.
ERASURE by Percival Everett. He is a professor at USC. The book is about this guy Thelonious "Monk", a writer, who is dealing with some real life personal dramas and career disappointments, who decides to write under a pseudonym.
ART. I just started collecting not to long ago. My first piece is a Pablo Picasso that I bid for at auction. It is not one of the large pieces but it is great.
Earth, Wind and Fire, Tupac, Luther Vandross, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
Persol Sunglasses: The Steve McQueen edition. I take these everywhere. They were a gift and fit me perfectly.
Chapstick: Vaseline Lip Therapy in Aloe. It is in those little tins. I am obsessed with it.
Backpack: My life is in there.
iPad: When I am on a plane, I read books and scripts from it. Huffington Post, GQ, Politico, ESPN, Variety/THR, NY Times, BBC, and Architectural Digest are my regulars.
Canon 5D: I like photography. My mother got me one as a gift a few years back. It took me a while to come around to it, but I fell madly in love with it and now take it everywhere I go. Many of the images on my Instagram handle @THEWORLDAROUNDJE are taken from it or my iPhone.