After a few small parts in TV shows including The Eric Andre Show and American Crime, Jean Elie got his big break playing Issa Rae’s brother Ahmal on HBO’s Insecure. That kind of exposure is something any actor would be grateful for, which Elie is. But he’s also not waiting around to put his creative livelihood in someone else’s hands.
“Insecure has been such a huge blessing,” Elie says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “That validated a lot of the stuff that I’d been doing behind the scenes.”
In addition to acting, Jean is producing and writing his own projects, including several short films and Send Help, a semi-autobiographical series produced by Rainn Wilson’s entertainment company SoulPancake that features Elie as a first generation Haitian-American immigrant trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles while caring for his family back home. Elie also made it into the writer’s room for Netflix’s Magic for Humans. But as a young actor still trying to establish himself in that field, is he spreading himself too thin in other areas?
“Sometimes I feel like it’s too much. But you’re supposed to work on your craft,” Elie says. “And if you’re not getting the jobs that you want to get, create the jobs you want to be in. I’ve never been a person to sit around and wait for a handout.”
In this episode of Creative Conversation, Elie lays out his rules for being a creative hustler, how not to take criticism personally, and his stance on straight actors playing gay characters.
Praise and backlash for playing gay
“[In the past,] when they showed a gay guy [on TV], he was very flamboyant. He was very loud. So I went with [another] route, when I started playing Ahmal. I just wanted to do the most honest representation of a gay black man that I know. And then after the season was over, people started coming to me, like, ‘Hey bro, just to let you know you’re playing me on there.’ And it really meant a lot to me because the thing is, I don’t want to disrespect nobody.
“You have homies who are trying to roast me for playing that role. I’m like, ‘Bro, relax.’ But then I also have gay dudes who are upset at me for taking on the role and I’m like, ‘Bro, Neil Patrick Harris has been doing it forever–he’s been playing straight [on How I Met Your Mother]. It’s like, how can I do what I really want to do, which is represent the underrepresented in a real way if I can’t do that?”
Don’t take it personally
“You can’t things seriously. You can’t take things to heart because your feelings can get hurt real quick. There was a time [while working on Magic for Humans when] someone made a suggestion about one thing and I built on that idea and the [host Justin Willman] was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I really want to do that.’ And then you have the writer’s assistant in the room writing all the notes [on a screen] on the wall. I look up to the wall and you see my idea being erased slowly. It’s not like she highlighted it and deleted it. It was like click, click, click, click, click. I started crying, like, this is hilarious! You can’t get upset. If the idea didn’t work, it didn’t work. On to the next one.”
Elie’s most important creative advice
“If you’re trying to do this for real, surround yourself with the people that do it for real. Because you’ll learn very quickly if this is for you.”