True Blood star Nelsan Ellis remembered for groundbreaking gay role

True Blood star Nelsan Ellis, who died on Saturday at the age of 39, made a huge impact with his character of Lafayette Reynolds.

The actor died as a result of complications from heart failure. Ellis starred as the gay short order cook in the supernatural series from 2008 until 2014.

Although not identifying as gay himself, the character of Lafayette was sensitively portrayed by Ellis. He brought not only a memorable flamboyance to the role but also determination, grit and strength; qualities not always associated with gay roles.

Lafayette’s romantic relationship with the male witch Jesus was also movingly and authentically depicted in the show.

Based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels, Lafayette was originally meant to be killed off in the first season of True Blood. The character was so popular, however, producers kept him on until the series ended.

Ellis said of his role: “I have more makeup on than any of the females in the [True Blood] cast. Once they get me with the fake eyelashes and the eye makeup, I listen to some Rihanna and I’m there.”

Ellis also spoke about being constantly asked about his own sexuality, with many people assuming that he was gay.

“I don’t answer that question, ‘Are you gay or not,’ when it comes down to industry people,” he said. “But if it’s a regular person asking me, that just says that maybe I’m doing a good job. But when a casting director or an agent asks me that question it takes on a deeper thing that says, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this unless you are that’.”

The LGBT media lobby group GLAAD described Ellis as a “friend” and mourned his loss, as did many of the show’s cast and crew.

“Crushed today by the loss of my friend and castmate Nelsan Ellis,” said Joe Manganiello. “He was a wonderful person, a pioneer, and a one of a kind artist. RIP.”

True Blood creator Alan Ball described Ellis in a statement as “a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me”.

Ellis is survived by his son Breon, his father and grandmother, and seven siblings.

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