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‘Insecure’s Jay Ellis breaks down his top-secret return and weighs in on Issa and Lawrence’s future

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Jay Ellis as Lawrence in a scene from Season 3 of “Insecure.”
(Merie W. Wallace/HBO)

[Warning to readers: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of “Insecure.”]

It was the convenience store encounter that had “Insecure” fans talking — and gasping, and shouting and tweeting.

The final moments of last week’s episode, “High-Like,” saw Issa (Issa Rae) running into her ex-boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) at a 7-Eleven — a major surprise for those who thought the show’s break from Lawrence was a permanent thing.

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This week’s installment of the HBO comedy took things beyond the awkward “heys” … eventually. Viewers get a glimpse of what Lawrence has been up to — in a nutshell: He’s had a lot of sex and has an STI to show for it. There’s a less awkward encounter between Issa and Lawrence at a co-ed baby shower that has her later proclaiming to bestie Molly (Yvonne Orji) that she’s found closure on that relationship. Meanwhile, Issa is growing more suspicious of where things stand with her current suitor Nathan (Kendrick Sampson).

The Times spoke with Ellis by phone about the response to his character’s return and where he stands in the Issa + Lawrence debate.

What’s the last week been like since your big return? Are you reading all the Twitter reactions and think pieces?

It’s pretty amazing. Definitely to see some of the Twitter stuff, obviously, and I love interacting. But I ... I kind of stay away from the think pieces. I feel like that’s not a part of my job. I feel like I just get to do it and let other people have an opinion about it. It’s been a lot of text messages and phone calls and emails. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way, in the best way possible.

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My phone died before the episode. It died somewhere between Minute 28 and Minute 29 of the episode that night. And I plugged it in, and by the morning, I couldn’t even get through all of the text and Twitter and emails. It was pretty intense.

What are your thoughts about what Lawrence has been up to in the time we haven’t seen him?

I think that Lawrence is just figuring out how to be single man in this world and in Los Angeles. I think he has grown up a little bit, obviously, from the closure we saw with Issa at the end of Season 2. But that doesn’t mean he has life figured out, that he doesn’t still fight and has to still get up that hill of adulting.

This show has faced criticism by some for not doing enough to show that condoms are being used. This episode, we learn that Lawrence has chlamydia. It seems to be a response or at least a way to raise the topic of sexual health —

I think that’s something you have to ask Issa and [showrunner] Prentice [Penny]. I just show up and read lines. I think that was a decision that they made. I think that’s something that they have more insight into than I think I could ever give.

How did you spend your time off from the show?

My life was not nearly as exciting as Lawrence’s life. While I was away, I had a very quiet, chill time. I actually got out of town. I went away for a little bit, did some writing. Just tried to spend some time with my family and friends. Yeah... just have personal time, have some life enrichment.

There’s a faction that does not want Issa and Lawrence back together, and a faction that does. Where do you stand on it?

I think that... they should figure out themselves first. I think they’re both up and down. I feel like Lawrence is getting a little bit more on track with his life — minus what we see in the top of Episode 5. But it feels like he’s starting to get his life under control a little bit and stepping into some responsibility. I think Issa is now trying to maybe take life into her own hands — take responsibility for her own life and her choices. I think she still has a bumpy road to go, but most of them do, and I think they really just need to love themselves and figure out who they are before they can possibly try to be together.

We all have relationships that probably just come and go — not that you would ever forget your exes, but I do think that this is one of those relationships that will forever be something special. Whether they’re together or not — it will forever form who they are as people going forward.

Have you had that moment where you’ve run into an ex?

I’ve had that moment before, yeah. It’s awkward. I mean, it’s just no way around it, you know? It’s just... you gotta figure out: Do you talk? Do you not talk? Do you walk away? Do you look away? What do you talk about? You know especially if it’s out in public. It’s definitely always a little bit awkward, but we got words. We know how to use them, hopefully. I think things can always work themselves out for the best.

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It was a tight-lipped return — there was an alias for you and the character in the script. But did you tell one person in your circle you’d be coming back?

My parents knew, for sure. Outside of that, it was pretty tight-lipped. It’s a hard thing to keep secret for so long. I mean, I’ve known since February, maybe March, somewhere in there.

But, yeah, we didn’t want the secret to get leaked, we didn’t want it to be spoiled. So, me, Jay Ellis, became Lincoln Washington, which was the name of the son of one of our [assistant directors]. And then we changed Lawrence’s name to Mike in the script. So when I get to work, people literally had no idea who Mike was. Even when I showed up to set, our crew looked at me like I was a ghost. Everybody was shocked when I walked into the room. So, it was pretty great.

If we had a spin-off of the Lawrence character, what would his show be called?

“Messy”? “Mistakes”? “Still Learning”? “Trying” — I like that one. “Trying.”

You’re shooting the sequel of “Top Gun.” What has it been like, since you come from a military family?

I get to play a pilot, which is pretty cool, I won’t lie. It’s literally every single day at work is... I feel like a kid who literally is just playing pretend. I feel like a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old who is just running around with his arms out, making airplane sounds, buzzing all day long. That’s actually what I get to do for real and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s an amazing group. I mean, one of the greatest movie stars ever in Tom Cruise, to our director Joe Kosinski, who is one of the most detail-oriented people I’ve ever met in my life and has turned out amazing projects. It’s been really, really, cool.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy


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