'When They See Us' Emmy Nominee Aunjanue Ellis on Why She Thought She'd Never Work With Ava DuVernay

Lagniappe is a word used primarily in the South, specifically New Orleans and other Louisiana zip codes. According to history books, it's a mix of French, Creole and Spanish and a decent definition comes from American writer Mark Twain, who covered his discovery of it in the memoir Life on the Mississippi

"It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a 'baker's dozen,' " Twain writes in the book, published in 1883. "It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure." 

Aunjanue Ellis knows that meaning. She's not from Louisiana but nearby, in Mississippi, so when asked to express what it feels like to have earned her first Emmy nomination in a nearly 25-year career, that word rolls off her tongue because she's living it. 

"I still can't believe that Ava cast me in this series in the first place, so I'm still in that head space. So anything beyond that is just... lagniappe. Like, it’s bonus, you know what I mean?" asks Ellis. There's no question as to who she's referring to. It's Ava, as in DuVernay, her director on When They See Us, a limited series about the Exonerated Five.

The Netflix project scored 16 nominations, and Ellis is one of eight actors singled out, thanks to her portrayal of Sharonne Salaam, mother of one of the wrongly imprisoned boys, Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse). The collaboration with DuVernay is one that Ellis was convinced would never happen. So much so, that she whipped out her phone one day and typed up a message to herself listing three things she would never experience in her life. 

"Well, I don’t know about you, but I go through periods in my profession where I feel like this is not what my mother imagined for me, you know? I was having one of those days, and I was just, it was just a pity party with balloons and music, everything," she explains. "I don’t know what the other two or three were, but [working with Ava] was one of them."

After building up an extensive resume working on projects for both big and small screens — she might be best known for roles on Quantico, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Help and The Birth of a Nation — Ellis was ready to take a next step in her career by working with auteurs. But she didn't see it coming. 

"I thank God every time someone hires me. I feel like I won the lottery every time because not everybody gets to act, but having said that, you know, it is what I do, it is how I pay my bills, it is how I take care of my family and I don’t wanna just be a workhorse. I want my purpose to meet my paycheck and so working with visionaries is a part of that," she says. 

Needless to say, Ellis's vision did not come true. Two weeks after typing out that scroll on her smartphone, Ellis was on a FaceTime call with DuVernay to discuss a role in the project, which tells the story of the five teenage boys who were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park in 1989. She got the part, and during preparation she would also speak to Salaam, calling that conversation one of the most significant of her life. 

"When They See Us is an act of restorative justice. It’s justice too late, but it is restorative and Ava, you know, executed that so wonderfully," says Ellis. "I think of Ms. Salaam in the same way that I think of Angela Davis, in the same way that I think of Assata Shakur.  My sort of tagline for her is she was a warrior waiting for a movement, and unfortunately the movement had to be her own son."

Ellis has found her own movement now, working with these big-time Hollywood visionaries. Next up for her is Lovecraft Country, a series for HBO from Jordan Peele, Misha Green and J.J. Abrams, among others. "It is sci-fi, it is horror, it is the Civil Rights Movement," she details. "It is Josephine Baker, it is Afro-futurism. It’s all these things and I don’t know it’s gonna turn out. We will all find out at the same time, but I’m so excited to be a part of that."