Jéan Elie is probably best known for his role as Ahmal Dee, Issa’s quick-witted younger brother on Insecure. He gave us punchy lines, dry humor, and a rivalry with Kelli Prenny that brought many of us joy. Now, he’s stepping into a leadership role of his own making in his new series Send Help, which he created with his producing partner, Mike Gauyo.
Elie is young, gifted, and Black with a laser focus on making a lane for himself and the stories he finds important. BGN had a video chat with Elie, and he brought all of his #BlackBoyJoy into the virtual room. He shared his thoughts on discovering his passion, how Insecure prepared him for his future, and what the audience can expect from Send Help.
What led you into the arts?
That wasn’t my dream growing up. I literally thought I was gonna be an astronaut or a scientist. I was in love with Dexter’s Laboratory and things of that nature. So I was like: “Yes! Science. That’s what’s going to be.”
My parents are immigrants, and I’m a first-generation Haitian American, so they wanted me to do something practical, like a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. It wasn’t until around 20-something that I heard a radio ad for The Real World/Road Rules, and I wanted to be on one of those shows. I went to this casting call, which turned out to be a scam, it piqued my interest enough to try it out. I started looking for jobs on Craigslist, and I found one that became a speaking role on that day. I improv-ed my way through the scene.
It wasn’t until I got an acting class at Playhouse West that I really fell in love with the craft of creating and telling stories and just being and just living, you know? But then, as time goes on, you’re not getting the jobs you want. So I’m saying f*** it. I’m just gonna start creating my own work and telling my own stories and telling stories I want to be involved in.
I was also inspired by my roommates when I lived at Bassett House. My roommates there encouraged me to take myself and my career much more seriously than I did when I first got there. One of my roommates was my go-to scene partner. Another roommate acted as my manager, and another roommate might help me get people for photos. They just inspired me because they were all creatives. We all support one another and share each other’s craft and art to support each other’s work.
Many parents are not supportive of their children pursuing a career in the arts — especially immigrant parents. Did you get a look or hit upside the head when you told your family this is what you wanted to do with your life?
Uh, yeah! Actually, my mom is now starting to get it. I’ve been able to do the most amazing thing possible. While I was producing, I was able to fly my mother out, put her in the show, and allow her to experience the set and see what the job entails. I’m not just remembering lines and saying them on camera.
She’s really happy. Now, everybody, she meets: “Oh my son is so busy. He has so much work.” Before that, even being on Insecure, “You should come back home.” She didn’t understand that you would work for a couple of months and then not work until you find another job, and you’re constantly looking for new jobs.
How did your work on Insecure prepare you for this next step in your career?
A lot of ways. The other day I texted Issa a picture of herself that I took once on set, and she’s like [exasperated sigh]. I looked at it, and laughed; I made a joke about it. Now, I’m looking at that picture, and I said, “She was dealing with a lot, and I finally know what that picture means.” I sent her the picture and she knew exactly what I was referring to. She said, “Post-production?” [Laughs] I was like, “Yeah. Post-production.”
Tell us about Send Help and the character you play.
Send Help is a coming-of-age story about a first-generation Haitian American who relocates to LA to pursue the Hollywood dream. Before he can achieve everything, he must overcome this unexpected family trauma plaguing himself, his mom, and his family.
Most men and most immigrant people, I think that we don’t really tend to handle the issue right as it comes; we try to bury ourselves in other things and say we made it through. You’re gonna see him deal with family drama, and himself and try to get out of his own way, as most of us are. We’re all in our own way most of the time.
What can people expect from the show in terms of tone?
The vibe. There are a lot of things that you can gravitate to. You get to gravitate to the family drama, you can gravitate to the comedy aspects of it all, the surreal moments. There are a lot of little things for everybody in the show, that I feel anybody who’s tuning in will be able to really gravitate to. Certain characters, certain moments, sometimes they’re like, “Damn, I’ve lived that. I’ve been in that situation.” So you’ll have a little bit of everything for everybody in the series, especially this season.
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Celestial Holmes is passionate about the power of prose, and she uses it to uplift her people for various Afrocentric outlets. She is also a published author, writing under the pseudonym Mbinguni.