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Jay Ellis talks about what inspired his role in ‘Like Cotton Twines’

The ‘Insecure’ actor’s latest role explores Ghanaian culture

After college, actor, director and philanthropist Jay Ellis (HBO’s Insecure and The Game) found himself going from a brief internship with the Portland Trailblazers to joining AmeriCorps to working with disadvantaged students in Portland, Oregon.

Now, he’s in Los Angeles and working as an actor. the Urban Movie Channel (UMC) is showcasing him in the film Like Cotton Twines. In the role of Micah, he leaves America to travel to Ghana to volunteer in a small village. His 13-year-old student Tuigi (Ophelia Klenam Dzidzornu) becomes a victim of the country’s culture, as she is forced to pay for her father’s crime by becoming a sex slave.

Ellis said the role as a volunteer teacher is different from any role he’s played in a lot of ways.

“I end up doing a lot of comedy, which truly leans a little bit more toward my passion,” he explained. “I’m usually a guy who stuff always happens to. I play the straight guy, never the funny guy. This is different, obviously just in the makeup of the story, right? It’s a drama. It’s about a character who’s recently lost his mother who kind of goes on this search of self-discovery in Ghana. While he’s there, he falls in love with the culture and the food and the environment, the surroundings, the colors, and he falls in love with everything. While he’s there, this tragedy, if you will, happens to one of his students. He kind of finds this greater purpose in himself to stand up and say something. To be about action and to do something.

“I think this is a little different. Most of the guys I play are kind of … They’re figuring life out. I guess that they’re similar in a way. This guy’s figuring life out. He’s just doing it on a different continent. I guess in some ways this is actually similar to some of the stuff I’ve done. It’s different, definitely, in the makeup of the material, for sure.”

Premiering on UMC in January, Like Cotton Twines is a harrowing story of sexual slavery justified by religious tradition. Ellis is also co-executive producer. Written, directed and produced by Leila Djansi (Where Children Play), the film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and has gone on to screen at the Urbanworld Film Festival, the International Black Film Festival, the African Diaspora International Film Festival and the Savannah Film Festival, where it won the award for best narrative feature.

Ellis talks about the inspiration for the new film, Ghanaian culture and preparing for the role.

Did you see any value in the cultural aspect of the role?

Absolutely. I don’t know if I ever would’ve gotten the chance to go to Ghana and to experience not only the city, the big metropolitan city, but then also be rural and on the countryside and see more of what that life was like, also. I don’t know if I ever would’ve gotten that experience had I not had an opportunity to go do this project. Culturally, I’d like to think that my box got expanded a little bit and some more got thrown in there in the way of language, customs, history, learning a little bit more about where my ancestors come from. I definitely think it was worth it. I think that it’s something that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget those 27 days I was there.

How long did it take you to prepare for the role?

It took about a month from the initial conversation and reading the script to sitting with the director, Leila, and then actually starting to put a character together and putting a backstory together. Kind of figuring out what makes him tick and what his passions are, his drives are, and his experiences in life that inform who this guy is on the page as well as off the page.

What’s the most shocking part of the character for you?

There’s definitely things about his journey throughout the story that were shocking. I don’t know if there’s anything shocking about him. One of the things that I always do when I look at a character or when I’m reading something is kind of find out how I, as Jay, and that character are similar. What similar traits we have, or experiences we may have had in life. To me, those are something like, ‘I don’t need to work on those things ’cause they’re already there and they’re already built-in.’ What I try to focus on are those things that make us different. That’s what makes that character become a fully realized three-dimensional person and character.

The loss of his mother, the wanting to go on this journey for two reasons, I think. I think he wanted to go on this journey, in some way, to respect his mother’s wishes. It’s something that she wanted him to see God, to see Africa, to see where he comes from. To have those experiences. I think also, the search for him to find himself. Those were two things that jumped off the page to me. I don’t know that they were shocking.

I think it’s something that’s real in all of us. Not many of us have had the experience to go to our ancestral place. … Actually, no matter what your race is, if you are an immigrant of any kind in this country, or any country for that matter, you’ve never visited your ancestral beginnings. I think it’s always a question we all kind of have. Where do I come from? What do people where I’m from, what do they look like? How do they speak? How do they interact with each other? What are the customs? The social cues and all those things, I think those are the things I tried to focus on and build my character around.

Is it easier to play this particular character, or to be yourself?

That’s interesting. I love what I do. I’m probably always gonna say playing a character is easier because I don’t have to worry about my own decisions. I can just purely worry about that person’s decisions. And build what’s on the page and go off of that person’s life.

Was the script challenging for you at all?

Yeah. It’s definitely challenging material. I think any time you’re dealing with a loss of some kind, slavery, a wrongdoing, just at its core a wrong that is being done against humanity, whether it’s one individual or whether it’s a group of people. I think those things are always hard to dig into.

Then, to find that this is a practice that still exists in rural … not just in rural Ghana, but around the world. There’s cases of this in India. There’s cases of it in South America, Asia. To know these young women are being taken and they have no rights, they have no voice, that I think is always a really challenging thing. I can only help to think about the … my cousins … I have a ton of young girl cousins, and even older. I can only help to think about them and what if they were in that position.

What do you think people learn from this film?

I think we learn that no matter what your idealistic view of a place may be, or world, or an environment may be, there’s always going to be issues. There’s always going to be things that we as people, we as humans, have to deal with and have to react to, have to take responsibility for because our brothers and sisters, they need us. They need our help. There is something that we can do.

Not everybody can get up and fly to Africa. I understand that. You can find a way to make a difference, even if it’s just educating someone to the cause of what’s happening somewhere else. If it’s donating time, money, clothes, resources of any kind, you can help. You can make the difference. Every single person can truly make a difference. I think the big thing that I like to think is we should never walk away feeling hopeless.

What inspires you?

People. As cliché and corny and macro as that may sound, looking into someone’s eyes, no matter what age they are, and hearing their life. Seeing their life. Having them tell you a story or an experience. Watching them cook. Watching them interact with their family members or their children or their craft. I think to me is just … we are an amazing species on this planet. Our creativity and our ingenuity is boundless. We can do anything.

When I get those experiences to be around young people and watch them have this sense of play and imagination, it just pushes me further to continue to create and have this sense of play when I act. When I have the experiences going into someone’s home in Ghana and having a meal with their family, it makes me realize that you have the same wants and needs and basic human connection that I have at home with my family. To me, little things like that are so inspiring. They’re massive at the same time.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

One, Mara Brock Akil, who gave me my first job on The Game, she used to always say, ‘Get what you came for.’ It’s something that’s so small, but it just sticks in my head every single day. I started acting, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to change the conversation around young black men in this country and what we’re perceived as. Her words are something that literally stick with me every single day. That’s what I came to do and that’s what I’m gonna do. There’s that, for sure.

UMC is the first premium-subscription streaming service that showcases African-American and urban entertainment across all genres from RLJ Entertainment (NASDAQ: RLJE). Over the years, Ellis has been featured on critically acclaimed series such as Masters of Sex, Grace and Frankie, How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.