Jay Ellis was shopping at a corner diner in Harlem when a woman in a crop top and Ray-Bans approached him. “My God, I’m so happy!” she said.
It was a sweltering Monday in September, halfway through the walking tour of Harlem, where Mr. Ellis lived in the mid-2000s, then when he was a model, trying to make his way into acting. After several years of sporadic work, he landed the lead role in the BET comedy drama The Game, set in the world of professional football, and then landed a romantic lead role in the HBO comedy Insecure, playing Lawrence, the creator of Issa Rae’s TV series Issa.
At the end of the show’s first season, Issa is cheating on Lawrence. Lawrence responds by reneging on the promise of a reunion and then putting his colleague to bed. This means that the attitude towards the character – and Mr. Ellis – is rather controversial. (“Insecure” returns for its fifth and final season on October 24th.)
“I’m not your fan,” explained the woman in the wine cellar. “This payback was wrong. Still, you are a great actor. “
Mr. Ellis, 39, gave her his Sunday morning smile and then left with water and unsalted cashews.
The skyscraper depicting a man of dizzying charisma, Mr. Ellis, is 6 feet 3 inches, during the day donned jeans, a striped Comme des Garçons shirt, a slate jacket and trainers, dazzling white as new plywood. He met with guide Neil Shoemaker at the office Guided tours of Harlem on Malcolm X Boulevard. Together they set off on a disorderly walk around the neighborhood.
“Now you can meet my mom any minute,” Mr. Shoemaker said as he led Mr. Ellis to the basketball court in the center of the Martin Luther King Towers. Fourteenth stories above, Mr. Shoemaker’s aunt was waving furiously from the window. shouted Mr. Shoemaker to her, teasingly introducing Mr. Ellis as her “new nephew.”
They then walked through an African market near West 116th Street and past Masjid Malcolm Shabaz, where incense fogged the air in late summer, and a nearby café advertised men’s jewelry and vegetarian burgers. Mr. Ellis hasn’t returned in 15 years. He noted that the burned-out brownstone houses had been renovated. And the presence of the police seemed easier.
The tour continued past the Minton Theater and near Marcus Garvey Park, the site of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was featured in the documentary “Summer of the Soul,” which Mr. Ellis had just watched. He stopped at the house where Maya Angelou once lived, admiring the ivy falling from the lintel.
During the walk, fans stopped Mr. Ellis to greet him and take a photo. “Take him with you, not me,” Mr. Ellis told the excitable middle-aged woman who stopped her car to catch him. Friends and family also stopped Mr. Shoemaker, and Mr. Ellis, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and little daughter, seemed a little jealous of the noisy street life.
“This is a musical Mecca for black culture,” said Mr. Ellis. “This is the Mecca of style. From a religious point of view, this is Mecca. I come here and ask, “Why do I live in Los Angeles?” “
Mr. Ellis, the only child in an Air Force family, moved to Los Angeles immediately after he studied in Harlem. He gave up the game briefly, then confessed again. The bold hustle and bustle – he pretended to be recommended by the casting agent – hooked him with a decent manager, and after a couple of years of acting, he started ordering roles.
No one meant as much to him as Lawrence, a character who struggles with the commitments of black masculinity. Lawrence was not supposed to go through the first season, but something about Mr. Ellis’s layered portrayal made him a fan favorite. And least favorite.
“I always say that if people are angry with me, if people are happy with me, if they are sad or something else, then I have done my job,” he said. “Even if you hate Lawrence, I did my job because you felt something. I hope you love him because I love him. But I understand if you don’t. “
Lawrence and Issa – an endgame? Mr. Ellis knew better not to comment. “I want them both to be happy,” he said diplomatically. “I hope this is with each other.”
He has already started his career after Insecure, starring in Top Gun: Maverick, which is due out next year. (His character alias? Payback.) He recently signed up for the romantic comedy Someone I Knew and co-authored the podcast Decommissioned, which features works by previously imprisoned authors.
Mr. Ellis followed Mr. Shoemaker past Dapper Dan, to Harlem Dry Goods and Harlem Shake, where Mr. Ellis was returning for a hamburger after a walk. On 125th Street, he stopped to read the text on a monument to politician and human rights activist Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
The tour ended at the Apollo Theater, “where stars are born, legends are made,” said Mr. Shoemaker. Mr. Ellis is already a star, but he still dreams of appearing on one of his amateur evenings. Will he sing? Tell a joke?
“All this,” said Mr. Ellis, flashing a slow, dancing smile. “I would do anything.”
Mr. Shoemaker pointed to a vacant rectangle on the Apollo Walk of Fame, next to Lionel Richie. “I see Jay Ellis right here,” he said.
Mr. Ellis posed for a photo with one or two fans, including a teenager who recognized him from the thriller Quest. Then he and Mr. Shoemaker took a friendly farewell.
“Thank you, Chief,” shouted Mr. Ellis as he walked back down 125th Street. “Tell Mom I’m coming, I’m hungry.”