Jay Ellis On Directing ‘Insecure’ And Whether Issa And Lawrence Should Be Together

The actor made his directorial debut on the latest episode of the HBO series, entitled “Lowkey Trippin'.”
Jay Ellis directs Episode 7, Season 4 of "Insecure."
Jay Ellis directs Episode 7, Season 4 of "Insecure."

One of the last scenes of Sunday’s episode of “ Insecure” shows Molly walking alone as the sun sets on the resort where she’s bae-cationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Molly, portrayed by Yvonne Orji, walks along the shore as she contemplates the latest hurdles she’s run up against in her life. She’s fallen out with her best friend, Issa. She feels like an outcast at the law firm where she practices. And she just had a huge argument about race with her boyfriend’s brother. Brian Marc’s “Newports” plays as she takes a seat on the shore to make a call to the therapist she ghosted in Season 2.

After a season of so many losses, it feels like Molly is on the verge of an awakening, or at least she’s finally taking steps to find out why things seem to always be fucked up for her. The scene feels like a potential turning point. It’s also a turning point for Jay Ellis as he makes his directorial debut.

Ellis, who also plays Issa’s ex-boyfriend Lawrence on the show, told HuffPost in a phone interview that that scene was one of the most challenging to film. With only three days to shoot and roughly 10 hours of sunlight to work with — they filmed in December — Ellis and team were racing against time.

“I had four or five page days where it was easily 12, 13 hours’ worth of work, but I only had 10 hours’ worth of daylight that I had to shoot in,” he said. On top of that, Orji ended up getting sick during filming.

Ellis is no stranger to going up against the clock. In preparation for his directorial debut, the Sumter, South Carolina, native went to Mexico three times, scouting locations and figuring out ways to shoot a show that’s so inherently Los Angeles in a foreign country.

“I was shooting Monday through Friday. Saturday, Sunday, I would be in Mexico, prepping and location scouting,” he said. “And then I’d be back to LA for Monday morning call time as an actor. So, all of that was happening kind of at one time, it was a lot.”

But his directorial dreams aren’t a new thing.

During his final season on “The Game,” he experienced his own version of film school, he said. He told show creator Mara Brock Akil that he was interested in getting behind the camera shortly after he joined the show in 2015. Ellis got his chance to be camera operator for a full episode for the scenes he didn’t appear in. Reflecting back, he called it “crazy,” but that taste made him hungry for more.

Fast forward to “Insecure,” Ellis told show creator Issa Rae that he was interested in directing. He shadowed Melina Matsoukas for Season 2’s finale. He started taking classes at UCLA during his hiatus and took one weekly class while filming Season 3. Influenced by Matsoukas’ keen attention to detail in every shot, he studied a lot. He shadowed others including Alec Berg and Mike Judge on “Silicon Valley,” Nzingha Stewart on “Black Monday” and Michael McDonald on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” He also chatted with Jordan Peele, who emphasized to him the power of saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?” as a director.

“I had a lot of people who put their arms around me,” Ellis told HuffPost.

He received a lot of praise on social media for Sunday’s episode, including from his former boss Brock Akil, a full-circle moment for his new path forward.

Ellis also offered his thoughts on some of the most polarizing storylines this season. When it comes to whether he’s on Team Issa or Team Molly in terms of their friendship — or what’s left of it — he thinks they both have to take accountability for their missteps. Social media is aiming the bulk of the criticism at Molly. While Ellis admits that though he doesn’t know if that’s fair or not, he knows it’s easier to love Issa.

“I do think that there’s probably a few Mollys out there who were seeing their own behavior, and it’s easier to point the finger at Molly and hate on Molly than it is to be like, ‘I’ve done that before, that’s messed up,’” he said. “And I think we also all want to be the hero of our own stories. I think it’s easier to side with Issa in this situation because it seems like Molly’s intent is a little more she’s choosing and being more focused in not being a friend to Issa. As opposed to Issa, I think she’s not even fully aware of it all. So I don’t know that one is more to blame. I think just because Molly’s is a choice, it feels easier to attack.”

He also chimed in on his opinions around whether he believes Lawrence and Issa should get back together, a question that comes up every season. Ellis believes they are soulmates and will always be in each others’ lives, but doesn’t know if he wants to see them together.

“They clearly know each other better than they know anyone else in the world. And I think that there’s something obviously super powerful to that and that’s special and that’s rare,” he said. “I do also believe that they, whether they’re meant to be or not, I think they had to go through what they went through in order for them to both grow. I don’t know that Issa would’ve had this professional challenge if she was still in a relationship, I think she needed to be free so she could focus on what it is she really wanted to do career-wise. And I think the same thing with Lawrence; I think they both kind of needed that.”

As with the rest of the world, time has slowed down for Ellis during the pandemic. After a marathon finishing “Insecure,” “Mrs. America” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” he’s grateful to be slowing down a bit and spending more time with family. But he can’t stop thinking about those most impacted by COVID-19. Production in Hollywood is halted, so he’s spending time reflecting on how he can help those in need, whether it be through donations or congratulatory graduation videos for students whose ceremonies were canceled.

“I just think about, [Hollywood] will obviously come back and bounce back in some way, whenever that new normal is,” he said. “What can we do with our reach? With our ability to tell stories and get people’s attention, what are we doing that helps people in need? And sometimes that’s just pure entertainment.”

“Hopefully what [Hollywood will] continue to always remember is, the people who watch the things that we do, they need us in a different way right now.”

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