'Lovecraft Country' Star Aunjanue Ellis on Being Liberated by Hippolyta's Journey (Exclusive)

Aunjanue Ellis
Getty Images / HBO

After earning her first Emmy nomination in 2019 for her stunning performance in When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s limited Netflix series about the Central Park Five, Aunjanue Ellis picked up her second, equally deserved nomination for HBO’s timely horror series, Lovecraft Country, created by Misha Green and executive produced by Jordan Peele. 

In the now-canceled show’s first season about an extended family and friends navigating the real-life terrors of America’s Jim Crow era and equally frightful supernatural horrors inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the 52-year performer played Hippolyta, the unexpectedly widowed mother whose defiance of social norms and aspirations for her own adventure takes her out of this world.  

But when Ellis first read the pilot, which Hippolyta is not the focus of, there was no clear indication where things would go for her. “I didn’t know, at least from that information that I had from the pilot, what kind of journey she would go on, or even who she would be,” she tells ET by phone. All she really knew was that Hippolyta was a mother, a homemaker and an astronomer. 

It wasn’t until she got to Atlanta, where most of the filming took place, that Ellis became fully immersed in the world that the writers had created and saw just how “strange and fantastical” things would get. “I trusted what Misha Green wanted to do,” the actress says. “I knew this was her vision and I trusted her vision.” 

In fact, that’s rare for Ellis, who says it’s not often she’s on projects where she doesn’t have questions from the beginning. “So you can’t fully embrace it because you don’t necessarily trust what you’re doing,” she explains. But here, even with rumors about what episode 7 (“I Am”) would be, she “left that all at the door… and it was extremely liberating.” 

And when it finally came time to read the script for the standout episode, in which Hippolyta opens a portal to another dimension and journeys through space and time, Ellis was not disappointed. “If I had had expectations, it would have exceeded them,” she says. 

Lovecraft Country

In a pivotal moment for the character, Hippolyta realizes that she can be whoever she wants as she befriends Josephine Baker in the 1920s, battles for power among the Dahomey Amazon in the late 1800s, leads the defeat of Confederate soldiers during battle, and reconnects with her dead husband, George (Courtney B. Vance, with whom she reunites with on the upcoming AMC series 61st Street) as they forage on a different planet. 

“Hippolyta is someone who hides herself, in a way, and hides behind this persona that she has to embrace because she’s a Black woman in the ‘50s because she wants to be a good wife and wants to be a good mother,” Ellis says. And by the end, the character embraces her true self, a “discoverer” with fabulous blue hair. (“Let me tell you, I got so much love for that blue hair,” she later shares.) 

When it comes to filming all the different vignettes, including overcoming an ankle injury in order to dance with the flappers in Paris, Ellis doesn’t have a favorite. “I was delighted to do all of it,” she says. “I loved falling in love with Josephine Baker. I loved the Amazon warrior stuff.” 

Lovecraft Country

But what she loves most is how audiences, especially Black women, responded to the episode. “When you hear about Hippolyta’s erasure and how she feels about it, so many women responded to that,” she says. The episode resonated so strongly with viewers that Ellis and the episode’s co-writer, Shannon Houston, found themselves attending conferences just to discuss “I Am” with women. “That shows me that what we did went beyond the page.”

Since first premiering in August, amid the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed attention around the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which is also featured in season 1, Lovecraft Country was not only an ambitious, fanciful story, but it was also topical and unafraid to confront forgotten traumas in American history. “It gave voice to a lot of what people were feeling,” Ellis says. 

And for the actress, the series met her metric for success, which includes critical response and high viewership. “Lovecraft Country checked both those boxes, as far as I know,” says Ellis, who heard credible rumors at the beginning of the year that the series would be getting picked up for a second season. So it came as a surprise to the actress when HBO announced on July 2 that it had been canceled. “It was an absolute shock, actually.” 

Revealing that she would have happily returned as Hippolyta or another character, if the series went the anthology route, Ellis says, “I wish there had been a continuation because I think it would have been exciting to see where Misha’s vision would’ve gone and what she would have done with these characters or other characters and other lands that I know she would have created.” 

So when, a few weeks later, it was revealed that Lovecraft Countrygarnered 18 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series and one for Ellis for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, “it was a bit of a roller coaster,” the actress says, adding that she was “blown away” by the recognition of her performance. 

“When I was nominated for When They See Us, I never ever believed in my lifetime that I would ever get nominated for anything. I had been nominated for things but nothing like an Emmy before. And I just had sort of decided that it would never happen. And I was OK with that, and I would just have another kind of career,” Ellis humbly says. “But then it happened and now it’s happening again.”

ET’s “Standout Performances” recognize the best of the 2020-2021 TV season. See more of our favorites below:

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The 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will air live Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS and Paramount+. In the meantime, stay tuned to ETonline.com for complete Emmys coverage.