Nathan Ellis plays Bobby Byrd in Get On Up, the best friend and long time collaborator of James Brown. As seen in the Get On Up trailer, Byrd is someone who had a front row seat to an icon and likewise, Ellis had incredible insight to the explosive performance by Chadwick Boseman as Brown in the Tate Taylor biopic, out now on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download.
We caught up with Ellis for an exclusive chat where he talked about the secret to what made Brown such a legend as well as what it was that had Boseman capturing lightning in a bottle that is the persona of the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz.
Movie Fanatic: There are so many things that Bobby goes through and knowing Mr. Brown, there is only so much he could say. So much had to be internalized, when you first dove into it, what surprised you about Bobby Byrd?
Nathan Ellis: How powerful he was in his silence. He had to hold things in because I’m sure he had a lot to say but he couldn’t because of how tyrannical James Brown could be as some of the things you saw in Get On Up. I had to look at all these things that this man wanted to say, but he couldn’t say it. But he had to look like because that’s just human nature. That’s how powerful he must have been just to have taken a lot of what he had to take and not say anything about it.
Movie Fanatic: That comes through. You say so much with just your face and how you hold your body. You might not have an answer, but why do you think he stayed with him so long?
Nathan Ellis: [Laughs] Ha, ha, ha – that’s the question! Because he loved him, that was his brother. They were together since they were teenagers. When James Brown got out of prison, he came and lived in Bobby Byrd’s house. That was his dude. That’s why he stayed. He had a regal notion of loyalty.
Movie Fanatic: That’s something that’s rare in the music business.
Nathan Ellis: It is a rare quality in most people. I know a few folks who are like that… maybe it’s not that rare.
Movie Fanatic: I talked to Tate Taylor earlier and I can’t think of a better person to bring this story to life. What most impressed you about him?
Nathan Ellis: He’s a great storyteller. He gets into the guts of what’s going on. He doesn’t mind re-writing a scene right there at that moment to find the truth of a story. That’s a marvelous thing about Tate. He could scrap something because it’s not working and say, “Let’s find out how to fix it.” He’s a true collaborator. He’s sharp.
Movie Fanatic: I've got to ask about Chadwick. I used the word hurricane to describe his performance in my Get On Up review to describe what he did in this movie. One, why do you think he was right for this role, and two, what did you take away from working with the soon-to-be Black Panther?
Nathan Ellis: To be honest, after seeing him play James Brown, I couldn’t see anybody else. He had James Brown’s pizzazz, showmanship, his funk and his dirty and his monster-ness. He had a stir of all that goodness of what made James Brown who he was. And he can dance his a-hole off.
Movie Fanatic: You worked on this movie, and as such you are intimately involved with the world of James Brown. But, I suspect you are also a fan of the man. Is it hard for you to choose a favorite James Brown song?
Nathan Ellis: Nope. Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud is my first and Sex Machine is my second.
Movie Fanatic: What do think it was that was so special about James Brown living in his world for so many months as you did?
Nathan Ellis: His mother left and his father left and he was living with a woman who ran a brothel. Then, he went to prison and then he went to live with Bobby Byrd. Before he lived with Bobby Byrd, his trajectory was… really? Bobby discovered him in prison. He asked his mama, “Can he come and live with us?” And that was the turn of his fate. Bobby put him in the Famous Flames and sooner or later he became the front man. It would be virtually impossible to go through all the stuff he went through and he still became the Godfather of Soul.
Watch Get On Up online now and witness the magic.