If you're a fan of actress/creator Issa Rae's hit HBO show "Insecure," then you're already acquainted with her character Issa Dee's openly gay brother, Ahmal, played by Haitian- American actor Jean Elie. Elie, who identifies as heterosexual, recently spoke to Essence Magazine about landing the role, the importance of representation and why he was determined to play his character against widely held stereotypes about gay men.
Insecure fans rave whenever you hit the screen. How does it feel to see that response to your character?
Because he’s always had his opinions no matter what. He is himself completely and he loves himself. So when we see someone who’s so quick or open to just express themselves fully, people tend to gravitate to that because they sometimes want to say everything. They want to say what’s on their chest. Ahmal gets to say what he feels and how he feels. Also, outside of that, he represents a different type of gay Black man now. He’s not stereotypical. He’s a different version of what a gay Black man can look like.
After playing this role for a few years, what can you say are some common misconceptions, or tropes, about Black gay men in television and films?
Some common misconceptions [are] that they’re all feminine and sassy, maybe more like a caricature—not the person I wanted to portray. Representation matters, and the [gay] people in my circle don’t behave [like that.]
What do you want people to walk away with after watching Ahmal?
Know that somebody’s out there representing them in the best possible light, and [I] also want people to walk away with just feeling like, ‘That’s someone I know.’
In another interview, Elie also spoke about the criticism he's received from some in the LGBTQ community for accepting a gay role as a straight actor, and the "roasting" he's received from some of his straight peers for playing a gay character.
“[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?”
You can catch Elie on "Insecure" on Sundays on HBO at 10pm EST and online.