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Jay Ellis didn’t see that ‘Insecure’ finale coming: It was ‘an out-of-body experience’

A man and a woman embracing
After five seasons, Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa (Issa Rae) get back together in the “Insecure” series finale.
(Raymond Liu / HBO)

The following story contains spoilers from the series finale of “Insecure.”

“I know it’s not done yet and there’s still a long way to go, but I keep thinking about all it took to get here,” Issa (Issa Rae) says in “Insecure’s” series finale. “Doubting myself, going back and forth about what I wanted, being scared to waste my time and look stupid in case none of it worked out.

“And then I realized that it was all in my head,” she continues with palpable clarity. “No one was doubting me except for me. I had to believe that it would work out for it to work.”

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“So, do you believe it’ll work out?” Lawrence (Jay Ellis) then asks her. She responds, “I’m OK with finding out.”

This layered conversation — in which Issa is referring to both her business venture and her relationship with Lawrence — is a scream-at-the-TV moment, written by co-creator and star Issa Rae and directed by showrunner Prentice Penny. Fans of the series have waited through years of tense arguments and tender reconciliations to see if the couple would ever get it together enough to make it work. And it turns out they can — but not without some, well, growth.

“They both know that what they have is so rare, and they were willing to keep trying until it was the right time for the two of them to be together,” says Jay Ellis of the duo. The Times spoke with Ellis about filming the finale’s big reveals, learning from his character’s mistakes and facing fans who still aren’t Team Lawrence.

If you’re not quite ready to say goodbye to HBO’s groundbreaking comedy, you can hold on a little longer with our full coverage of Season 5.

Lawrence and Issa are endgame after all. When did you find out?

At the final table read. I didn’t see it coming, for sure. Like, no way it’s gonna happen after that push-and-shove match [Lawrence and Nathan, played by Kendrick Sampson] had [in Episode 9], and her leaving with [Nathan]. In my mind, Lawrence did what he was supposed to do: He said his feelings and it looks like it’s not gonna work out. But at least he can walk away saying he tried. To me, that was the cake, if you will.

Then you get to Episode 10 with these reveals. Finding that out with everyone all together at the table read, it was a very shocking but satisfying moment for me. Lawrence wasn’t supposed to make it past Season 1, so for him to get this far with the job and the kid and the girl, and all of it to come together after all these ups and downs we’ve seen this couple go through … not only did he get the cake, he got the icing, he got the ice cream, he got the little figurine on top.

Let’s get into these reveals. Issa calls Lawrence on his birthday, and he practically ditches his parents to pick up on the first ring.

Yeah, he don’t wait. I’m sure he just assumed that she was calling to say happy birthday, but he was definitely excited to get the call. There’s this respect and love between the two of them that if one of them needed help, if one of them called to say happy birthday or wanted to grab lunch, grab dinner, grab coffee — whatever it is — they’re gonna stop what they’re doing and take the time to have a conversation or pick up a call. In this case, it had been a minute since they had last spoken, so he wanted to hear what she had to say.

The actor joined The Times to break down Molly’s happy ending — and how it was part of showrunner Prentice Penny’s plan for the series all along.

After a missed call, Issa and Lawrence reconnect at her new office.

When we originally did the table read, that scene wasn’t there. I remember going to Issa and Prentice and I was like, “I feel like it’s such a jump. I want to see them together before I see that. We’ve waited for five seasons. I want to know how they got to the point of being together at Molly’s wedding, even if I just get a glimpse of it.” I think everybody was having the same feeling, including Issa, after hearing it out loud.

The last week of production was crazy, so I didn’t see that scene until probably 48 hours before we shot it. Prentice covered it from a bunch of different angles; all three of us wanted to get it right and make sure we were fully locked into the dialogue, the emotion, the physicality.

We’ve seen them have these moments — the Season 2 finale, or [Season 4, Episode 8] where [they] have that amazing conversation — but to me, that scene was the culmination of all of it. They’ve grown up, they’re both vulnerable, they both know what they want and they’re not ashamed about it.

A glamorous couple at a wedding
Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa (Issa Rae) are indeed a couple in the “Insecure” series finale.
(Raymond Liu / HBO)

The episode jumps a year to Molly’s wedding, where Issa and Lawrence are — surprise! — still together.

Exactly. That scene in her office doesn’t necessarily lead you to believe that they’re endgame, right? This show has done such a good job of like, the left hand is over here distracting you but the right hand is really the story! I’ve fallen for it myself, plenty of times.

The writers kept saying they knew there had to be a wedding in the finale, they just didn’t know whose it was gonna be. It was hot when we shot that day — I mean, hot. Everybody was with mini fans and running in the shade, but it was so beautiful. And Yvonne looks straight out of a fairy tale, just absolutely beautiful and gorgeous and graceful.

Then it fast-forwards to Issa’s birthday, as it was in the pilot. She has a ring on her finger — are they engaged or married?

I don’t want to misspeak, but [Lawrence’s son] Elijah is about 5 in that scene, so I think we felt like it was far enough in the future where maybe they had gotten married. It was this beautiful Baldwin Hills house, and my co-star playing Elijah absolutely loved playing with the cake. He was in the chocolate the entire time. His mom was standing on the side, like, “Please don’t let him have no more chocolate. Please, Lord, don’t let him eat no more frosting. He won’t go to bed tonight!”

With her HBO comedy, Issa Rae set out to tell a different kind of story about her hometown. She and other key creatives look back on how they did it.

That was also my last day of filming. Yvonne and some of the guys showed up when I wrapped, and our [assistant director Valerie Johnson] goes, “And that’s a series wrap on Jay Ellis,” and everybody starts clapping and stomping and screaming. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.

When we started, I was the only one who had been a regular on another show before. I joined [“The Game”] in its 100th episode, I was the new guy, and I was like, “Hey, you want to run lines? You want to do scenes together?” That cast was loving and open, but what I didn’t understand then that I do now is that they all started together and grew together.

Coming into “Insecure,” I remember thinking, “I want that bond, that community with my co-stars.” Not every set is like that. Some people just want to show up, do the work and go home; they don’t want friends, they don’t want to know when your birthday is. But we all came in and committed to be of service to Issa and be the vessel that the story was being told through. To walk away with friendships that are so tight and loving and respectful is, to me, such a testament of the work we did together.

A couple and a child in the kitchen
“Insecure” closes with Lawrence, Elijah and Issa in their Baldwin Hills home.
(Raymond Liu / HBO)

Looking back at your work on this show, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of playing someone who many of my friends felt represented them, someone they had never seen onscreen before. This is a story about Molly and Issa at the end of the day, but Lawrence was still given a journey of frustration and depression and success and fatherhood and co-parenting, all from a Black man’s perspective. Outside of Earn [played by Donald Glover] in “Atlanta,” I don’t know that we’ve seen these kinds of conversations with Black men before. And when I would have friends call me and say, “Hey man, that was just me last week with my girl,” I was like, we’re telling stories that are happening right now in real time in people’s lives.

How has playing Lawrence influenced you as a performer?

People might think that Lawrence was easy for me to step into but it was actually the opposite. I was terrified to play Lawrence for a long time. Up to this point, everything I tested for, everything I had worked on was comedy, comedy, comedy. Man, I didn’t even know I could be vulnerable before Lawrence! I definitely feel like I got stretched, I found stuff I didn’t know was in there that I was able to bring to the work and the character. I feel like I’ve grown to be so much better, whether in my own preparation or listening when you’re in a scene with somebody and connecting. So much happens in the white space on a script, in between the lines, and I learned so much about really using that space to fully round out a character.

The multi-hyphenate calls her directorial debut for the HBO series ‘a call to arms for authenticity.’ But getting there took a lot of growth.

There’s also so much I learned about communicating my own feelings and emotions. I didn’t know I’d be going on this journey with Lawrence as he really dives deep into his feelings and how he looks at manhood and relationships and friendships. It made me reflect on all of those things; it made me go, “I never thought about that, maybe I could communicate better, or, maybe I’m feeling sad today, I should just voice that.” There was no choice but for me to learn from his mistakes and everything he was going through, and look at how it could affect my own life. I would be foolish to not soak it up and become a better partner, father, son, grandson, friend and co-worker and all of those things because of it.

Personally, are you happy that Lawrence and Issa got back together?

I am. I’m always happy when love wins. I’m happy they’re together. They’re soulmates, you know? At this point, there is nothing that could separate them, they have been through the highs and the lows. I go back to [Season 4, Episode 8] and it’s like, “That is special. We all want that.” Things happen and folks don’t work out sometimes, but also, sometimes you gotta get through a little dirt to get to it. That doesn’t mean it’s not special, or it’s not perfect in its own way, or that it’s bad for you or you shouldn’t do it. It just means you had to learn some lessons to get there, to be able to appreciate and love each other in a way you let judgment go. I would feel really sad and heartbroken for both of them if they didn’t at least try.

Issa (Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) in the memorable season-four "Insecure" episode.
“That is special, we all want that,” says Jay Ellis of Issa and Lawrence in the memorable Season 4 episode of “Insecure.”
(Merie W. Wallace / HBO)

I love that it’s after they’ve both grown on their own.

Lawrence would probably still be sitting on the couch if Issa hadn’t broken up with him, and I think Issa needed to understand who she was because she had lost herself in that relationship. Both of them had to go through that journey individually to realize that they were with the right person, they were just not with them at the right time because they each had some growing up to do.

Working with Issa is probably one of the easiest working relationships I’ve ever had in terms of connecting with another actor. It’s effortless, and I’m super grateful for that. I think it’s because Issa is so giving as an actor, and wants to make sure you’re getting what you need from her, which then makes you open up and give her what she’s looking for and what she needs. So it has been easy to show up and be Lawrence and fall in love with Issa Dee every day.

Any words for “Insecure” fans who haven’t exactly been Team Lawrence?

I’ve had so much fun playing a character that people hated and loved and then hated again and then rooted for! I truly feel this way: If you hate Lawrence, then I’ve done my job. If you love Lawrence, then I’ve done my job. If you’re down the middle and you feel no way about Lawrence, then I have not done my job.

And if, come Sunday, they still can’t get on Lawrence’s team, too bad for ’em. Lawrence Hive forever, baby!


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