Growing up in the era of “Road Rules” and “Real World,” Jean Elie had always been enamored with reality television. His fascination with the contestant challenges compelled him to respond to a casting call he heard on the radio. As a fresh 2008 graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Elie had nothing to lose, so he went to the audition.
It turned out to be a scam.
“But, what it did for me is pique my interest enough to invest more,” Elie said. “It was like my little secret. I was working at Sprint as a manager and doing nightclub promoting, but on the weekends and when time permits, I was doing background work or working in short films and work that I found on Craigslist.”
Elie knew acting wasn’t one of the three acceptable professions his Haitian mother allotted for him (those were medicine, law and engineering), but he was on the journey anyway — one that eventually brought him to Issa Rae’s groundbreaking HBO series “Insecure.”
Once he found his stride in those early days, Elie disclosed his secret acting work to his brother, who was unabashedly supportive.
“I told my older brother about it and my older brother was like, ‘Yo, bro, anything you do, you’re going to aight in because I’ve never seen you try something and not finish it all the way through,’” Elie said.
After his brother’s death at the age of 30, Elie knew he had to branch out, leave his hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts, and move to Los Angeles. A former colleague from AT&T offered that Elie could crash with him in LA, saying his brother was on “Hotel for Dogs.” With a mere $1,000 and some suitcases, Elie took the leap.
That, too, fell through.
“I quit my job. I throw a little party, and I move cross-country. By the time I landed in LA, the person I was supposed to live with told me I can’t live with him anymore,” Elie said. “I end up having to move in with someone I met at baggage claim.”
For four months in 2010, Elie was living on a kind but complete stranger’s floor. During that time, he hustled nonstop, eventually booking his first speaking role in the movie “Project X.” He later secured a room via Craigslist in a home on Bassett Street in the Van Nuys neighborhood of LA.
“That house was kind of like an arts house, where a bunch of creatives and transplants from around the world met in this one house, and they supported one another and got to help each other hone their craft and get to where they need to be. By the time we all left that house, we all left with our own little careers,” Elie said.
His “little career” features positions as a production assistant and second-second assistant director on various projects, a notable cameo in “American Crime,” and the recurring role of Ahmal Dee on “Insecure.” The 34-year-old said getting to “Insecure” was a series of appointments.
“I said ‘American Crime’ was going to be the thing. It’s going to launch me. This is where people are going to see me,” Elie said. “What was great about it was the opportunity to speak Creole on national television and include my mother in the process because she doesn’t understand what acting is and how it works.”
After “American Crime,” Elie continued creating his own content while his management team submitted him for multiple roles, one of which was on “Insecure.” He first watched the pilot in New York at Urbanworld Film Festival where “A Gentleman Always,” a short film he produced and starred in, premiered.
“I sat in the audience and watched ‘Insecure,’ the pilot episode, and they did the Q&A after the fact. Someone interviewed me at the premiere of my movie and they asked, ‘Can you see yourself on that show?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can see myself on that show.’”
A year later, for Season 2, Elie was cast as Ahmal, Issa’s gay younger brother who candidly says what’s on his mind and is always down for a good time. Elie almost didn’t go to the audition because he said he wasn’t self-aware enough to play a character like Ahmal.
As a cisgender and heterosexual Black man, Elie said it was challenging coming into the role of Ahmal, but more than anything, he sought to depict the character carefully and authentically.
“What did he read? Who did he look up to?” asked Elie, recalling his creative process upon booking the role. “I just wanted to be able to fully submerge myself in Ahmal and who Ahmal is, what he stood for, how he holds himself, and how he carries himself throughout the world.”
Reflecting on his upbringing in Brockton, Elie said it wasn’t an outwardly affirming environment for LGBTQ individuals. When he lived in the house on Bassett Street, he met an out gay man for the first time; he became a good friend. In playing Ahmal, Elie had to move past the idea that sexuality is the only trait that defines him.
“As a straight cisgender male, the first thing you harp on is your sexuality. The thing is, sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with who Ahmal is as a person,” Elie said. “It’s an interesting part of him. What they did amazingly on ‘Insecure’ is that they didn’t oversexualize who Ahmal is. They let him be a person with feelings, thoughts and experiences, which I thought was amazing.”
Elie said Ahmal is no different than he is; the back-and-forth teasing with his own sisters is a mirror of Ahmal’s relationship with Issa. Elie also said that playing Ahmal has given him the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and learn from teachable moments.
“Because in Essence magazine, I made a comment like, ‘Ahmal is a masculine representation of what a gay man could look like,’ some folks in the community took offense to it as I was saying anything feminine was not a good representation of what a gay man could look like. That was wrong of me to actually have to have that conversation,” Elie admitted.
Being Ahmal has also allowed Elie to be a conduit for conversation among his own friends, one of whom came out to him as gay.
“He’s like, ‘I appreciate you taking on that role and not making a caricature of who Ahmal is and not BSing it. You took it seriously. I really appreciate that,’’” Elie said. “Because that’s the goal. If I’m playing any character, I want people to feel seen within that character that I’m playing. I want nothing but that in all my work now.”
From “Insecure,” Elie has been creating more work of his own and pitching his ideas to executives. In April 2020, Elie teased a new project he developed called “Send Help.” The coming-of-age dark comedy series is a letter to Elie’s brother following his murder and highlights the responsibilities Elie was thrust into at an age when he needed his brother the most.
“It’s a shoutout to Black men and mental health, a shoutout to Black men and dating, how that looks, how we deal with certain things or close off at times and don’t deal with certain things,” Elie said. “It’s about life after death when you’re not the person that died, and how everybody else continues moving on.”
As Elie continues his journey through Hollywood, he has developed a community that will bolster the work of diverse filmmakers. Aptly named as an homage to his humble LA beginnings, the company is called Bassett House Pictures.
“It’s a platform that will house short films from diverse filmmakers. Oftentimes, you go to a film festival and you see some amazing shorts. If they don’t get bought there, they kind of just disappear,” Elie said. “I am creating a curated space for those short films, where you can find all your favorite short films right on that platform. It’s also an opportunity for other filmmakers to create with one another and collaborate with one another.”
For Elie, being a part of “Insecure” means a lot to him as does being an example for Haitian American youth, which he didn’t have growing up. His hope is that he continues to open doors for others to create narratives and be a part of stories where they can feel seen.
“I’m glad I can be a point of reference of someone from my city — which not a lot of people leave my city — and for Haitian Americans to be able to say, ‘If this motherfucker could do it, I can do it.’”