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The Second Hardest Working Man in Show Business

Nelsan Ellis on James Brown, Get On Up and his musical dream role

It’s quite a summer for Nelsan Ellis. The 35-year-old actor is not only wrapping up his seventh season on HBO’s vampire series True Blood—quite a feat considering how many characters have met an untimely bite or stake over the years—he’s also starring in Get On Up, director Tate Taylor’s highly anticipated James Brown biopic.

In the film, Ellis plays Bobby Byrd, Brown’s longtime (and long-suffering) friend and collaborator who’s something of a moral compass for the star. And while Byrd’s name was never the one in lights, thanks to Ellis he comes across as one of the film’s definitive heroes, balancing out Brown (played by Chadwick Boseman) with common sense, care and an impressively natty wardrobe. 

DuJour caught up with Ellis to talk about Byrd, Brown and his newfound appreciation for “Sexmachine.”

Were you a James Brown fan before this movie?

Yes, it’s James Brown. He’s a world icon—one of the greatest musicians, entertainers and showman in the world. Tate was directing and Mick Jagger was producing. I knew they were going to do him justice.

Bobby Byrd’s an interesting role. He’s the man behind the man. What made you want to play him?

His devotion to his heart, and there was this soft strength about him that I liked. I think that James Brown was the fun man and Bobby was beside him in a supporting role. But then he always felt bad; he wanted to be a frontman, but he wasn’t.  

Nelsan Ellis

Nelsan Ellis

It takes someone with a special knowledge of themselves to realize that the sideman is what’s for them. Why did he stick with Brown? 

They’ve been together since they were 18; they grew up together as brothers. I think Bobby thought the man was a genius, and he didn’t want to take a backseat to a genius, but he watched him be a genius and learned from him.

What kind of research did you do going to play this role?

There’s not a whole lot other than the music. The one thing I got from a documentary I saw was a small snippet of Bobby in it. He was talking about when James Brown’s mother came to see him perform, and he hadn’t seen her since he was a boy. He said, ‘it wasn’t a good day.’ Having seen the pain in Bobby Byrd, I knew from that that I wanted to play him. I wanted to play him hopefully with the heart, the love and admiration he had for James Brown.

There are a lot of over-the-top scenes in the film. Which was your favorite?

Performing “Sexmachine” was probably my favorite. They had 1,000 extras dancing on stage and a live band. I felt like I was transporting back in time to the real performance. 

What kind of training do you have to do to be able to get up there and pull off those moves and the singing and trading off of instruments? 

We were doing five-hour dance rehearsals; we had band rehearsals and piano rehearsals. It was insane. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.

Did you learn to play piano especially for the film?

No, I just had to learn how to fake it real well. I had to learn how to do the figuring so that when the camera looked to my hands it seemed real. 

Are there any great Bobby Byrd stories that you heard along the way? 

Not really. There’s not much out there about Bobby Byrd, but James Brown’s grandson and nephew worked on the movie and told me that Bobby smiled a lot. That’s something I hold on to, that he smiled a lot. 

Still, sometimes it doesn’t feel like he’s a happy man.

I think there was some weight to having a dream that went to somebody else. I think there’s a weight to taking the back seat and walking in someone else’s shadow. 

James Brown became a star in a world before a YouTube video could make you instantly famous. What can people today take from that?

He was the hardest working man in show business, so I think that people can take that they need to work hard. If it comes easy, it’s going to go easy. 

What do you have lined up next?

A movie called Bolden. It’s about Buddy Bolden—he’s a jazz musician who was schizophrenic.

So you like movies about musicians?

I like all movies. It just so happens that I got this part.

Is there a musician who you’d be especially pleased to work on a movie about? 

Nat King Cole. I would love to play him one day. There’s all that tragedy in his life I’d love to take on.

 

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