Aunjanue Ellis, 54, stars as a high-powered attorney defending a sociopathic criminal in FX’s Justified: City Primeval. The six-episode miniseries is a spin-off of the popular FX series Justified, which ran from 2010 to 2015. Ellis shares how she became an actress, her acting inspirations and how her Oscar nomination affected her life.
Your Justified character is complicated, and it’s difficult to figure out if she’s good or bad. What’s your take?
I think all the characters are kind of caught between the expectations of the jobs that they have and also the really bad situations that they’re in. Sometimes the idea of what’s right and wrong gets murky. There are certain things that are just right — I think human nature complicates that, but I’m certainly not going to fall into this whole moral relativism thing because it excuses a lot of terrible behavior.
Has life changed since you were nominated last year for an Oscar [for her role in the 2021 movie King Richard]?
No, life did not change for me. There are definitely some more zeros added to my checks, but I’m still trying to find jobs, still doing the same things. The first month after I got the nomination, other people kind of controlled my life for that month. That’s not something that I want to revisit. I’d love to get another nomination, but I want to maintain my selfhood if it ever happens again.
You were raised on your grandmother’s Mississippi farm. Would you ever want to go back to farm life?
I was there on the weekend. I still live in Mississippi. My family [is there] and I love nature and you can’t avoid it. It is ever-present. It hasn’t been a working farm in a long time. We just got a lot of dogs around and whatever wildlife shows up and that can be anything from a wild hog, a fox, owls. It’s a bit of a wildlife refuge.
What was the experience like when you left the farm to attend Brown University?
I went to Tougaloo College in central Mississippi, and it’s an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] school, and then I went to Brown. The most [life] changing thing about my experience at Brown was the people that I went to school with. I was in school with these kids who all were city kids, who lived in New York and the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Their lives were filled with trips to the museum and trips all over the world. I’d barely been anywhere. The osmosis of that experience of being around those people, it was path-changing for me.