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Tried and true Aunjanue!

Actress stars in ABC TV series ‘Quantico’

Kam Williams
Tried and true Aunjanue!
Aunjanue Ellis (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Aunjanue Ellis)

Aunjanue Ellis currently stars as Miranda Shaw, the director of an FBI base who oversees the training of a new group of recruits, on the ABC-TV drama “Quantico.” And she recently appeared on BET’s epic series “The Book of Negroes” for which she received a Television Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Actress in a Movie or Limited Series.

Ellis also has starred in numerous movies, including “The Help,” where she played Yule Mae Davis, the maid arrested for allegedly stealing a ring. In the James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” she portrayed Vicki Anderson, acknowledged by Brown in his autobiography as probably the best singer he ever witnessed.

Earlier in her career, she starred opposite Denzel Washington in “The Taking of Pelham 123,” and opposite Samuel L. Jackson in “The Caveman’s Valentine.” She shared a SAG Award nomination for her role as Mary Ann Fisher in “Ray” and received an NAACP Image Award nomination for her performance as a medical student in “Men of Honor.”

Ellis’ additional film credits include “Romeo and Juliet in Harlem,” “Ed’s Next Move,” “The Express,” “Freedomland,” “Lovely & Amazing,” “A Map of the World,” “Notorious” and “The Volunteer.” She made her motion picture debut in Jim McKay’s Sundance Film Festival hit “Girls Town,” opposite Lili Taylor.

On television, she starred in “Abducted: The Carlina White Story” and garnered a second NAACP Image Award nomination for her portrayal of Candy Carson in the made for television film “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.” Aunjanue has appeared as a series regular on “The Mentalist,” “High Incident,” “E-Ring” and “Justice.”

Though born in San Francisco, she claims the small Mississippi town of McComb as her home. There, Ellis’ grandmother raised her on a farm that has been in the family for generations. “My mother gifted me with my particular kind of radical imagination,” she reflects, “and my grandmother gave me the tools to execute it.”

But it was not until she was a student at Tougaloo College that Ellis would discover the stage. That led her to transfer to Brown University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in African American Studies, while also training as an actor. She went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Here, she talks about her latest outing as a New Orleans street singer suffering from Alzheimer’s in “Of Mind and Music.”

What interested you in “Of Mind and Music”? Do you know anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s?

Aunjanue Ellis: It was a New Orleans story, first and foremost, and my romance with that place is deep and enduring. And yes, my Aunt Mae had Alzheimer’s. My mother has Parkinson’s disease. So, neurodegenerative diseases have defined our family life. It was free therapy for me to be able to explore the living pain of it as an actor.

How did you prepare to play Queenie?

AE: One of the symptoms of Parkinson’s is intermittent dementia. So my mother’s experience informed a great deal of my choices. I studied her and took what I learned to work.

What was the most challenging aspect of the role?

AE: I had never played anyone like her before. What was most challenging was playing the age which meant a long time in makeup, and being consistent with her manner. I hope that people will watch the movie and start a needed conversation about the woes and rewards of caregiving for someone who has the disease. And also I hope it spurs an urgency to cure it.

Congratulations on the success of “The Birth of a Nation,” in which you play Nat Turner’s mom, Nancy. Were you surprised when the movie won both the audience’s and the jury’s Best Picture awards at the Sundance Film Festival last month?

AE: Thank you. I loved working with Nate on the film. He is such a generous director, producer and acting partner. I am so proud to be a part of it. The night of the screening was magic. And while I had no expectations, I had an inkling that something remarkable would happen.

Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?

AE: Spiritual component: Well, I was raised by the wife of a pastor of four churches. So, I was in church in some capacity almost every day from the time I was 3 until I went to college. There was no choice. But I have no resentments. None. In fact, I am so grateful for it. The experience of that rooted me in the notion of worship. And that is what art is — worship. Giving of yourself completely to the creation and acknowledgement of something bigger than you, higher than you. Whatever that may be.