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Interview

Actor Jay Ellis Is Driven About HIV Awareness and Cure Research

February 10, 2017

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Jay Ellis

Jay Ellis (Credit: Mike Rosenthal)

Jay Ellis plays the character Lawrence on the HBO series Insecure -- but the actor is secure in his commitment to HIV research, with a starring role on the board of amfAR, the longstanding HIV research and policy group. We talked recently as he drove his car in the "traffic all day, every day" of Los Angeles, preparing for the annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Could you talk a little bit about the work you're doing with amfAR about HIV and why it's important to you?

Fortunately, a friend of mine introduced me to amfAR about five years ago, and I was able to go on this motorcycle ride that Kiehl's does for amfAR every summer to raise money for grants and research and whatnot. On the ride, I got to talking with the amfAR staff. They asked why I wanted to be a part of it. Was it just because I got to ride motorcycles across the country? Or, was it actually something I was passionate about?

I started explaining that I had an uncle who passed from AIDS in the early '90s; then, I've got another family member who's lived with HIV since the late '90s. So, it was something that was actually really, really close to my heart, and something that I wanted to use my platform to get out there and talk about, bring awareness to and help raise money to put an end to it.

Two years later, a couple of board members from amfAR reached out and asked whether I would be interested and willing to come onto the board, and I said, "Absolutely." Somehow, those guys voted me on.

Now we're out here. I'm beating the drum, trying to make some noise.

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Great. So, when you're beating the drum, what are the top things you say? What are the top three things you think people should know about HIV today?

First, I think that we should know that more than half of all new cases in this country are African Americans, although we represent less than a quarter of the population. And that's an alarming rate considering how small a percentage we are of the population. As an African American, that's something that jumps out to me and immediately makes the hair on my arms stand.

There's also this massive statistic that a lot of people just don't know that they have HIV. And that's crazy.

So, for me, it's just about awareness.

But then, it's also this thing of: How do we find a cure? We'll find the cure through research, and through grants -- through doctors working all around the world. These guys need to be talking to each other. And, for years, they weren't.

Now we have the ability to have these guys sharing information and sharing their findings with each other.

I saw you tweeted out some pictures from the Women's March. What are your thoughts on the political times we're in and what it may mean for HIV efforts and your work?

We're living through something unprecedented, obviously. It's pretty rough out there. The one thing I always go back to is that, at a basic level, we all want and need the same things: That's love, happiness, health and success in some form. And that doesn't mean being a rich millionaire; that just means being successful with the life around you -- no matter how micro or macro that is.

To me, that again boils down to humanity and love and compassion and patience. When you're dealing a group of people who are not connected to that, and who are not connected to the people they actually represent, you end up with a very imbalanced system -- which is, I think, what we're starting to see.

I pray that it doesn't change the work that so many organizations such as amfAR are out here doing. I hope that we are able to continue to do our work and help the people who need it, to reach people before they need the help, and find a cure and find a vaccine.

It's a tough question. It's shitty out there.

I reached out on my Facebook profile to collect questions to ask you. Here's the first one! What role do black actors or black-centered shows play in disrupting HIV-related stigma?

I think we play a big part in it. Because it's this taboo, right? There's this big stigma around it in the black community. So, I think that we, as a community of artists, have to talk about it, and have to bring it to light and explain it to people in a way that takes the stigma away from it, makes them understand it and makes them be able to relate to it. So, I think it's important that we're out talking about it.

Nina Simone would always say that the work of artists reflects the times that they live in. And so, this is part of our job -- to reflect what's happening in our society. This is one of those things that are happening in our community, and one of those things that we have to be out there talking about constantly and making people aware of, and making people know that they can be a part of the change in ending this.

How about in the shows themselves, in the content or the storyline of the shows? What have you seen happen, or what do you think should happen regarding HIV?

You know, I would hope that at some point show runners and writers out there feel comfortable with talking about these topics on their shows, bringing them into their shows, and handling them with respect and care. I think it's very, very important. I think that so many young people out there especially draw life lessons, if you will, out of entertainment and out of television and film. So, I would hope that people continue to do that, and start to do it more.

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