Insecure’s leading man, Jay Ellis, is well aware of the show’s robust communal experience. “We’re the comedy version of Game Of Thrones,” Ellis jokes just ahead of the season four premiere. “We have a whole community of people who are constantly in discourse about what is happening, second by second, through an episode—from color choices to music choices to what’s on the wall. And that is such an amazing thing. Of course, I’m the Jon Snow of the story.”
But within every joke is a kernel of truth. Since the show’s 2016 premiere, Insecure has had its own special hold on Sunday evenings, drawing a vocal following on Twitter in order to break down the latest bit of percolating tension between Issa (Issa Rae); her long-time pal, Molly (Yvonne Orji); and her lingering ex-boyfriend, Lawrence (Ellis). After only two episodes, season four is already poised to be a watershed period for the show’s most significant relationships. Now bonded by their ties to newcomer Condola (Christina Elmore)—Issa’s creative partner and Lawrence’s new girlfriend—the former lovers are forced to navigate a new, awkward dynamic. Ellis chatted with The A.V. Club about Lawrence’s slightly messy journey this season, getting to direct his colleagues, and of course, the Lawrence Hive.
The A.V. Club: Lawrence is such a relatable character, whether you identify with him yourself or you know somebody like him. Do you remember the first line you read that made you see yourself in this character?
Jay Ellis: In the pilot, when Lawrence says to Issa, “Maybe her standards are too high,” talking about why Molly can’t get a dude. I’m such a horrible human being, but I realized that I had said that at some point in my life somewhere down the line where I was like, “Hey, she should be happy with what she’s got.” And I take it back! That was not the right thing to say, but I realized then that there’s a little bit of Lawrence living inside me. And that was when I read the side before I auditioned. That was two months before we shot the pilot.
AVC: We’ve seen such growth in Lawrence over the course of four seasons, and while Insecure is still very much about Issa’s journey, it follows his path to adulthood, as well. In that time, your character has built a very vocal fandom—the Lawrence Hive. Did you ever have any indication that Lawrence would garner such a groundswell of support?
JE: No, I was completely thrown off guard. I remember Prentice Penny, our showrunner, saying that the season-one finale [when Lawrence immediately sleeps with someone else after his break-up —Ed.] was going to shock people. He was like, “I’m telling you right now, people are going to go crazy.” And I was like, “I don’t know, I feel like we’ve all seen a lot of scandalous stuff on TV.” I was on a flight that took off from India. By the time it had landed in Dubai, the episode had started, and I turned off my phone and charged it. I landed in L.A., and between the time I turned my phone back on and the time I get home, which is probably only an hour and 20 minutes, my phone died because my Twitter, Instagram, and text messages went so crazy from the way people were responding to the finale.
I feel like there’s probably some version of what happened with Lawrence in a lot of people’s lives, but I guess I just never realized how many people [could relate]. I also think there was this story of the dude who loved his girl, was trying to get back on the right path, and went and got this job that he felt was beneath him because he was trying to show her that he was going to do whatever it took. It seemed like they were on a good path, and then it was all thrown away because of her actions. I think a lot of people saw that he was trying, and I think we’ve all tried to be better versions of ourselves for somebody at some point. A lot of people connected to that, and now we’re 100,000 members strong. [Laughs.]
AVC: This season, Issa and Lawrence’s relationship begins to take an interesting turn as they begin to slowly rebuild their friendship. What do you think continues to bind these two people besides the fact that they were together for so long?
JE: I think it’s truly rare and hard to find someone who sees and loves you for who you are, for your faults, for your quirks, or whatever makes you shine. Lawrence and Issa know each other better than I think we sometimes realize as an audience. I think if these two people met at a bar tomorrow, they would spend the next five years together. Of course, they’ve had their moments, but I think they truly see and want the best for one another. And that’s really hard to find.
AVC: Season four is taking some very huge swings when it comes to individual journeys, as well. What do you feel is Lawrence’s journey this season? Do you think he’ll shock the audience at all?
JE: I think Lawrence is having the same moment a lot of men have had: “I can’t be in the relationship until I have a job. I’ve got to have all my work stuff in order before I’ll allow myself to think about family and anything long term.” And that comes from wanting to be able to provide stability. I think a lot of times we see ourselves as princes trying to build a kingdom, and then once you build it, then you feel like you can enjoy it. It’s part of what Lawrence is going through: He’s a little more stable and competent in the work space, so I think now he’s trying to figure out what this means for him, personally. Like, can you truly have both a successful career and love, or are they always in competition? Is one going to suffer because of the other?
AVC: It’s interesting to hear that, because that is the kind of scenario that ambitious women are quizzed on all the time, especially if they have children. Women are always asked how to “balance it all.” It’s a concept that is rarely asked of men. So hearing about Lawrence having to make these concessions is definitely different.
JE: Right! Men think about these things, but it’s never framed in the same way or really shown at all. In terms of what will shock the audience, I think people are going to be like, “Yo, why is this dude dating [Condola] when he knows the girl is good friends with Issa? What’s wrong with him?”
AVC: You directed the seventh episode of the season. Was it your first time in the director’s chair?
JE: It was. I had done some webseries and skits, but this is the first time directing episodic television, and I learned a lot. I broke down the script in so many different ways, and the second time, I went through it with an actor’s brain and focused on the characters. Then I’d think about impulses, where scenes were trying to go and why they were going there and how you shoot this and how certain things are lit. We got to travel in my episode, which was pretty amazing, so I had to think about what our show looks like when it’s not in L.A.
Once I actually got on set, I talked with actors every single day. I know how I like to receive information or notes as an actor, how I like people to pose questions to me and give me direction. But now I’m on the other side, and every actor’s relationship to that is different, so I had to learn how to best communicate with my actors. That was a whole new process, as well. They took it easy on me, and they did phenomenally.
AVC: Is there anything you can tell us about episode seven?
JE: It is the episode primarily centered around Molly, I’ll say that. We are following her in this new reality that she’s kind of created for herself and trying to figure out if she’s good in this new world without all of the things or people she had before and what that means for her.
AVC: Do you feel like there are any fundamental differences between you and Lawrence when it comes to your philosophies on dating and intimacy?
JE: I think that Lawrence has learned to be slightly more realistic, more giving, and hopefully how to listen a little bit more to his partners. But I also think that he might have jumped the gun a little bit and gotten a couple steps ahead of himself, and I think that might be where we differ. I definitely like to go at slower pace. If we’re the tortoise and the hare, I think he might be the hare who keeps getting worn out. I like to cruise at a pace until we get to the finish line.