“When I was toiling in the wilderness, this was what was supposed to happen, why my steps were being ordered,” says the actress Aunjanue Ellis as we remotely record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 51-year-old has been acting professionally for 25 years, many of which were “disheartening” and “very, very lean” — but the last 15 months have been a different story. Last May, she was seen in Ava DuVernay‘s acclaimed limited series When They See Us, playing the mother of one of the Central Park Five, and her performance was recognized last July with an Emmy nomination for best actress in a limited series or TV movie. Then, back in April of this year, Lifetime debuted — to massive ratings — Christine Swanson‘s TV movie The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, in which Ellis plays the pioneering gospel musician and choral director Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, and for which she could land another Emmy nomination. “I couldn’t see it at first,” the actress continues, “But this was what it was leading up to.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Born in San Francisco to a pastor’s daughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock, Ellis was sent as an infant to Mississippi, where she was raised by her grandmother who was living on Social Security checks and food stamps. Her first experiences with performing came in the choir and plays of one of the several Baptist churches at which her grandfather preached — “I didn’t have a choice,” she remarks — and grew to include school speech competitions, as well. “I never wanted to be an actor,” she insists, noting that writing was her secret passion when she was a youngster. “Where I was from, I didn’t have permission to imagine something like that.”
Ellis eventually enrolled at Tougalloo College, an historically Black college in Jackson, Miss., where two instructors changed the course of her life. One, Dr. Regina Turner, drove Ellis and several classmates — most of whom had never been outside of the state — to New York in a rickety station wagon to see a couple of Broadway shows, which opened Ellis’ mind to greater possibilities for herself. Then, Prof. Jim Barnhill, a Brown University professor who would occasionally teach at Tougaloo, recruited her to appear in a play he was mounting — “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she says — and then to transfer to Brown.
Barnhill subsequently encouraged Ellis to pursue graduate studies in acting at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, to which she applied and was accepted. In her third and final year there, the members her class were invited to audition for a Public Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and, against all odds, she landed the part of Ariel opposite Patrick Stewart under the direction of George C. Wolfe in a production that ultimately moved to Broadway. “It was surreal,” she says, noting that she was only months out of grad school at the time, and also “baptism by fire,” as her reviews weren’t particularly kind.
Screen acting entered the picture around the same time — mostly guest starring parts on TV series and roles in indie films that never saw the light of day. “New York is a tough place, and I struggled, I struggled a great deal,” Ellis acknowledges. “It was disheartening.” She constantly considered changing professions, but every so often a job would come along that would be financially valuable or creatively rewarding enough to keep her in the game. A part as Ray Charles‘ scorned lover in 2004’s Ray, for instance, “was the birth of something,” she recalls. 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123, in which she played the wife of Denzel Washington‘s character, was widely seen. And Tate Taylor‘s The Help (2011), in which she played a Civil Rights era maid, was nominated for the best picture Oscar and won the best ensemble SAG Award (a prize for which Ray‘s cast had been nominated). She and Taylor would reunite three years later in Get On Up, playing the soul singer Vicki Anderson opposite Chadwick Boseman‘s James Brown.
The Help has since become the subject of some debate, as star Viola Davis has expressed regret that she made it. Ellis acknowledges discomfort with the fact that the source novel’s author and the film’s director are both white, but also says, “I’m not uncomfortable playing anything.” Indeed, she took on several other roles that other prominent actresses avoided, like a Revolutionary War-era slave in the 2015 BET limited series The Book of Negroes and the mother of slave Nat Turner in Nate Parker‘s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation, garnering strong notices and awards attention for both. But it was a one scene opportunity as the rigid mother of Stephan James‘ Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins‘ 2018 follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, that offered her perhaps her greatest sense of pride yet: “I felt like I had arrived, honey — I was like, oh, I’m in the big-time now!”
Little did she know what the next two years would bring. First came When They See Us, which reached a massive audience via Netflix and contributed to the cultural reckoning on race that is now engulfing the nation. (“It surpassed what I had imagined,” Ellis says, adding, “I learned so much from Ava about acting.”) And then came The Clark Sisters, a project which she landed midway through production on When They See Us — she signed up to not only star, but also as an executive producer, and wound up making uncredited writing contributions, too — and which was particularly exciting for someone who had grown up in the church. “I was more than a fan,” she says. “I was a student and a stalker of the Clark sisters.” She adds, bursting into laughter, “It was like the stalker being told, ‘Okay, you can come live with us now!’ I mean, that’s what it was like for me.”
Ellis was cast as the matriarch of the Clark family, a complex woman with a raspy voice who, she says, “crafted that sound which changed the trajectory of gospel music in this country.” She elaborates, “Their [the Clark sisters’] voices sound like no one else, they sing like no one else, they sing together like no one else, their songwriting is like no one else, and even though they are churched women, they speak to the alienation that’s specific to Black women — Black working-class women — in a way that Bruce Springsteen speaks to the working-class white dude from New Jersey.”
Most of all, though, Ellis was drawn to Dr. Clark’s no-nonsense approach. “I love playing these roles where the women come in the room and make everyone uncomfortable,” she explains with a twinkle in her eye. “Her presence just sort of destabilizes the air.”