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9 Quick Questions for Aunjanue Ellis

Actress Stars in FX’s ‘Justified: City Primeval’

spinner image aunjanue ellis in black sparkly outfit with hands on hips against pinkish purple background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Amy Sussman/WireImage/Getty Images)

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.

spinner image aunjanue ellis as carolyn wilder sitting at table with champagne glass in front of her in justified city primeval
Ellis stars in “Justified: City Primeval,” a spin-off of the popular FX series, "Justified."
Chuck Hodes/FX

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.

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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.

Did you have a backup plan if acting didn’t work out?

spinner image aunjanue ellis as carolyn wilder standing at table in still from justified city primeval
In “Justified: City Primeval,” Ellis plays high-powered defense attorney Carolyn Wilder.
Chuck Hodes/FX

I didn’t have any designs on being an actor. It was definitely something that someone else saw in me —  Jim Barnhill, a Mississippi-born professor at Brown — and encouraged me to do. I just kind of followed that person’s inspiration. I was more interested in being a writer. I was a kid from a farm in southwest Mississippi. There was no example. There was no template for any sort of creative professions for me. I was going to do something that was practical and brought in a check every week. Whatever that was, I was gonna do.

Who are your acting inspirations?

Ruby Dee and Mary Alice.

Is there an actor, writer or director who you really want to work with?

I would like to work with Toni Morrison even though she’s not here anymore. I’d love to be a part of something that brings her work to life — to be involved in the adaptation of [the novel] Jazz by Toni Morrison.

What’s on your TV binge list?

I watch a lot of British mysteries. I finished watching this piece called Dalgliesh, but I’m more of a reader than a TV watcher these days.

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What are you reading?

This really great book by Camonghne Felix. It’s a memoir, but it’s written in this really sort of fascinating way. She’s a poet, mainly. It’s prose poetry, and it’s a memoir of her life. It’s called Dyscalculia [A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation]. That’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I also read this book called An Autobiography of Skin by this author Lakiesha Carr, and it’s fantastic. I want to bring her work to the screen.

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