Aunjanue Ellis

Aunjanue L. Ellis (born February 21, 1969) is an American film, stage, and television actress, and producer. She began her acting career in theater, and made her film debut in Girls Town. She later had leading roles in a number of independent movies, and co-starred in several mainstream films.

Aunjanue Ellis
Ellis in 2015
Born (1969-02-21) February 21, 1969
EducationTougaloo College
Brown University (BA)
New York University (MFA)
OccupationActress, producer
Years active1995–present

Ellis is best known for her roles in films Men of Honor (2000), The Caveman's Valentine (2001), Undercover Brother (2002), Ray (2004), The Express: The Ernie Davis Story (2008), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and The Help (2011). On television, Ellis had regular role in the ABC police drama series High Incident (1996–97), and later co-starred in a number of short-lived dramas. She had recurring roles on The Practice, True Blood, and The Mentalist, and played roles in a number of made for television movies, such as Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (2009) and Abducted: The Carlina White Story (2013).

In 2015, Ellis played the leading role in the miniseries The Book of Negroes, based on bestselling novel by Lawrence Hill. She received critical acclaim and a Critic's Choice Award nomination for Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries. From 2015 to 2017, she starred as Miranda Shaw in the ABC thriller series Quantico. In 2016, Ellis played Nancy Turner, Nat Turner's mother, in the period drama film, The Birth of a Nation. In 2019, she received Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie nomination for her performance in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us. She is starring in the upcoming HBO drama series, Lovecraft Country.

Early life

Ellis was born in San Francisco, California, and raised on her grandmother's farm in McComb, Mississippi.[1] She attended Tougaloo College before transferring to Brown University, where she completed her Bachelor of Arts in African-American studies. She also studied acting with Jim Barnhill and John Emigh. During her years at Brown University, Ellis made her debut in a student play. She went on to study acting in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.[2] She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.[3]



In 1995, Ellis made her professional acting debut appearing as Ariel opposite Patrick Stewart's Prospero in a Broadway revival of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.[4] She later made her screen debut in the episode of Fox police drama series, New York Undercover. In 1996 she had the co-leading role in the independent film, Girls Town alongside Lili Taylor.[5] During the late 1990s, Ellis also had supporting roles in films Ed's Next Move, Desert Blue, In Too Deep, and A Map of the World. From 1996 to 1997, Ellis starred as Officer Leslie Joyner in the ABC police drama series, High Incident, created by Steven Spielberg. The series was canceled after two seasons. In 1999, she had the recurring role of Sharon Young on the ABC legal drama, The Practice.[6]


In 2000, Ellis starred opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. in the drama film Men of Honor, directed by George Tillman, Jr.. The following year, she played daughter of Samuel L. Jackson's character in the mystery-drama film The Caveman's Valentine, directed by Kasi Lemmons and based on George Dawes Green's 1994 novel of the same name. Also in 2001, Ellis had a supporting part in the critically acclaimed comedy-drama film Lovely & Amazing.[7] In 2002, she had main role alongside Eddie Griffin in the action comedy film Undercover Brother. In 2004, she played Mary Ann Fisher in the Academy Awards-nominated biographical film about musician Ray Charles, Ray. In 2007, Ellis played the leading role in the thriller Cover.[8] The movie received negative reviews.[9] She also appeared in films Freedomland (2006), The Express (2008) and Notorious (2009). She also played Denzel Washington's wife in The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) directed by Tony Scott.

On television, in 2002 Ellis had regular role on the short-lived ABC medical dramam MDs. From 2005 to 2006, she co-starred alongside Benjamin Bratt in another short lived drama,E-Ring on NBC.[10] She also had recurring roles on Third Watch, 100 Centre Street, Jonny Zero, Justice and True Blood. In 2009, she co-starred alongside Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kimberly Elise in the made-for-television film Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. Ellis also has appeared in a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre productions. In January 2004, she performed in Regina Taylor's play Drowning Crow, at the Manhattan Theatre Club.[11] In the Spring, 2012 Hampton University semester, she taught entertainment industry courses. She was also featured in a Hampton Players and Company production, "Through the Crack."[12]


In 2010, Ellis co-starred opposite Wesley Snipes in the action film Game of Death. She played the leading role in the independent film The Tested based on the award-winning 2005 short film of the same name.[13] In 2011, she appeared in the critically acclaimed period drama The Help directed by Tate Taylor, as Eula Mae Davis, one of the maids, for which she received awards as a part of the ensemble cast. In 2014, she played Vicki Anderson in the biographical drama film Get on Up about the life of singer James Brown, also directed by Tate Taylor. As lead actress, Ellis starred in the independent films Money Matters (2011), The Volunteer (2013), Romeo and Juliet in Harlem (2014), and Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind (2014).[14][15][16] She also played the leading role in the 2012 television film Abducted: The Carlina White Story.[17]

From 2010 to 2013, Ellis had a recurring role in the CBS series The Mentalist, as Madeleine Hightower. She also played Ashley Judd's best friend in the 2012 ABC miniseries Missing, and had another role on the CBS procedural, NCIS: Los Angeles. Ellis also starred as one of the lead characters in the 2013 AMC pilot The Divide, but later WE tv had decided to pick up pilot to series. She left the show and her role was recast with Nia Long.[18][19]

In 2014, Ellis was cast as lead character in the international co-production epic miniseries The Book of Negroes, based on Lawrence Hill’s bestselling 2007 novel.[20][21] The Book of Negroes premiered in 2015, and Ellis received critical acclaim for her performance.[22][23] The Hollywood Reporter critic Whitney Matheson praised her performance, wrote in review "Ellis’ gripping performance that holds the six-part miniseries together. Except for the first installment that focuses on Aminata’s girlhood, Ellis is present in nearly every scene, aging decades and displaying a stunning range of emotion."[24] Ellis received Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Movie or Miniseries nomination for her performance.[25] On February 25, 2015, it was announced that Ellis was cast as main character in the ABC thriller series, Quantico.[26][27] She left the series after two seasons in 2017.[28]

In 2016, Ellis co-starred in the historical drama film The Birth of a Nation, based on the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The film also stars Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union.[29][30] Ellis plays the role of Nancy Turner, Nat’s mother, in the film.[31] Also in 2016, she was cast opposite Keke Palmer in the drama film Pimp about life of women on the streets of New York and work in the illegal sex trade.[32] In 2018, she appeared in If Beale Street Could Talk, a drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins.[33]

In February 2018, Ellis was cast in a leading role on the CBS drama pilot Chiefs.[34] It was not picked up to series. Later, she was cast in the independent drama film Miss Virginia opposite Uzo Aduba and Vanessa Williams.[35] In June 2018, Ellis joined the cast of HBO upcoming drama series Lovecraft Country based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff.[36] She also was cast in the Ava DuVernay-directed miniseries When They See Us for Netflix.[37] She received Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie nomination for her performance.[38]



Year Title Role Notes
1996 Girls Town Nikki
1996 Ed's Next Move Erica
1998 Side Streets Brenda Boyce
1998 Desert Blue Agent Summers
1999 In Too Deep Denise
1999 A Map of the World Dyshett
2000 John John in the Sky Earlene
2000 Men of Honor Jo Brashear Nominated – NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
2000 The Opponent June
2001 The Caveman's Valentine Lulu
2001 Lovely & Amazing Lorraine
2002 Undercover Brother Sistah Girl Nominated – Black Reel Award for Best Actress
2004 Brother to Brother Zora
2004 Ray Mary Ann Fisher Nominated – Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
2005 Perception Vera
2006 Freedomland Felicia
2007 Cover Valerie Mass
2008 The Express Marie Davis
2009 Notorious Sandy
2009 I Love You Phillip Morris Reba
2009 The Hungry Ghosts Nadia
2009 Motherhood Sample Sale Friend
2009 The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Therese
2010 The Tested Darraylynn Warren
2010 Game of Death Rachel
2011 The Resident Sydney
2011 The Help Yule May Davis National Board of Review Award for Best Cast
Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast
Hollywood Film Festival Award for Best Cast
Women Film Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast
Satellite Award for Best Cast – Motion Picture
Southeastern Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast
Women Film Critics Circle Award for Best Female Ensemble
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Nominated – Detroit Film Critics Society Award for Best Cast
Nominated – MTV Movie Award for Best Cast
Nominated – San Diego Film Critics Society Award for Best Performance by an Ensemble
Nominated – Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Award for Best Ensemble
2011 Money Matters Pamela Matters
2013 The Volunteer Leigh
2014 Get on Up Vicki Anderson Nominated — Black Reel Award for Best Ensemble
2014 Of Mind and Music Una Vida Newport Beach Film Festival Award for Best Actress[39][40]
American Black Film Festival Award for Best Actress
2016 The Birth of a Nation Nancy Turner
2017 Romeo and Juliet in Harlem Lady Capulet
2018 If Beale Street Could Talk Mrs. Hunt
2018 Pimp Gloria Ray
TBA Miss Virginia


Year Title Role Notes
1995 New York Undercover Claudia Episode: "Buster and Claudia"
1996–1997 High Incident Off. Leslie Joyner Series regular, 32 episodes
1999 The Practice Sharon Young Recurring role, 4 episodes
2000 Third Watch Gail Moore Episodes: "Journey to the Himalayas" and "32 Bullets and a Broken Heart"
2000 Disappearing Acts Pam Television film
2001 100 Centre Street Amanda Davis Recurring role, 3 episodes
2002 MDs Quinn Joyner Series regular, 10 episodes
2004 The D.A. Ellen Baker Episode: "The People vs. Sergius Kovinsky"
2005 Jonny Zero Gloria Recurring role, 6 episodes
2005–2006 E-Ring Jocelyn Pierce Series regular, 23 episodes
2007 Law & Order: Criminal Intent Carmen Rivera Episode: "Flipped"
2006–2007 Justice Miranda Lee Recurring role, 9 episodes
2008 Numb3rs Ivy Kirk Episode: "Power"
2008 The Border Amira Episode: "Family Values"
2008 True Blood Diane Recurring role, 3 episodes
2008 The Prince of Motor City Cora Neel TV pilot
2008 Racing for Time Officer Baker Television film
2009 The Good Wife Linda Underwood Episode: "Crash"
2009 Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story Candy Carson Television film
Nominated – NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
  • 2010–11;
  • 2013
The Mentalist Madeleine Hightower Recurring role, 17 episodes
2012 Blue Bloods Sylvia Marshall Episode: "Reagan V. Reagan"
2012 Missing Mary Dresden Recurring role, 3 episodes
2012 Abducted: The Carlina White Story Ann Pettway Television film
Black Reel Award for Best Actress on Mini-Series or Television Movie
2012–2014, 2017 NCIS: Los Angeles Michelle Hanna Recurring role, 7 episodes
Episodes: "Rude Awakenings" , "Wanted", "Descent", "Ascension", "Humbug", "Uncaged" and "Unleashed"
2014 Sleepy Hollow Lori Mills Episode: "Mama"
2015 The Book of Negroes Aminata Diallo Miniseries, 6 episodes
Canadian Screen Award for Best Actress on Television[41][42]
Gracie Award for Outstanding Female in a Leading Role in a Made for TV Movie or Limited Series[43][44]
Nominated—Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Movie or Miniseries[45]
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film[46]
Nominated—NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special[47]
Nominated—Black Reel Award for Best Actress: T.V. Movie/Cable
2015–2017 Quantico Miranda Shaw Series regular, 44 episodes
2018–2019 Designated Survivor Vice President Ellenor Darby Recurring role, 6 episodes
2018 Chiefs Kendra Unsold television pilot
2019 When They See Us Sharonne Salaam Miniseries
Nominated – Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
2019 Lovecraft Country Hippolyta Black Main role
2020 The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel Mattie Moss Clark Main role


  1. "Up and Coming: Aunjanue Ellis and Carrie Preston;Two Young Performers Ride 'The Tempest'". 17 December 1995. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  2. "NYU Graduate Acting Alumni". 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-01.
  3. Robert Brauchle (January 13, 2012). "Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters to meet this month". Daily Press. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  4. The Broadway League. "The Tempest | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". IBDB. Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  5. "Movie Review - Girls Town - Getting Even and Then Some as the Best Revenge -". Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  6. "Aunjanue Ellis Biography (1969-)". Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  7. "Lovely & Amazing". 31 August 2001. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  8. "Cover (2007) - Trailers, Reviews, Synopsis, Showtimes and Cast - AllMovie". AllMovie. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  9. "Cover". 1 October 2007. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  10. "Aunjanue Ellis movies, photos, movie reviews, filmography, and biography". AllMovie. 1969-02-21. Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  11. Ben Brantley (February 20, 2004). "THEATER REVIEW; Chekhov Shows He Can Rap". The New York Times. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  12. "'The Help' actress to teach courses at HU". WAVY-TV. January 17, 2012. Archived from the original on February 13, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
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  14. Sergio (19 October 2011). "Ryan Richmond's "Money Matters" With Aunjanue Ellis Comin - Shadow and Act". Shadow and Act. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  15. Vanessa Martinez (11 September 2013). "UWFF 13 Preview: 'The Volunteer' at Soup Kitchen Has Affa - Shadow and Act". Shadow and Act. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  16. "Film Review: Una Vida". Archived from the original on 6 April 2015. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
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  18. Andreeva, Nellie. "WE TV Eyes Expansion Into Scripted Programming With Series Order To AMC's LaGravenese/Goldwyn Drama Pilot". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  19. "WE TV Announces First Scripted Program 'The Divide,' 3 More to Follow | Filmmakers, Film Industry, Film Festivals, Awards & Movie Reviews". Indiewire. 2012-10-26. Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  20. "Louis Gossett Jr, Cuba Gooding Jr, Aunjanue Ellis & Lyriq Bent Set For 'Book Of Negroes' Miniseries". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  21. "Aunjanue Ellis, Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr. Board 'The Book of Negroes' Adaptation | Shadow and Act". Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  22. "The Book of Negroes". Metacritic. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  23. "Bustle". Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  24. Whitney Matheson. "'The Book of Negroes': TV Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  25. Erik Pedersen. "Critics' Choice Television Awards Nominations 2015". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  26. Lesley Goldberg. "Aunjanue Ellis Nabs Female Lead in ABC's 'Quantico' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  27. Nellie Andreeva. "James Earl Joins 'Cooper Barrett's Guide'; Aunjanue Ellis In 'Quantico'". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  28. Ausiello, Michael (16 February 2018). "Quantico: Aunjanue Ellis Officially Out". Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  29. Dave McNary. "Aja Naomi King Joins Armie Hammer in Nat Turner Movie". Variety. Retrieved April 10, 2015.
  30. Erik Pedersen. "'The Birth Of A Nation' Adds To Cast; Ryan Gosling In Talks For 'The Haunted Mansion' - Deadline". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
  31. "Nate Parker Recruits Aunjanue Ellis, Gabrielle Union And More For 'Birth Of a Nation'". Retrieved 11 April 2015.
  32. Lincoln, Ross A. (22 June 2016). "Sophia Lillis Joins New Line's 'It' Remake; Aunjanue Ellis Sign On To Christine Crokos' 'Pimp'". Retrieved 23 June 2016.
  33. N'Duka, Amanda (6 November 2017). "Finn Wittrock & Aunjanue Ellis Cast In 'If Beale Street Could Talk'". Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  34. Andreeva, Nellie (16 February 2018). "'Chiefs': Aunjanue Ellis To Star In CBS Cop Drama Pilot". Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  35. Busch, Anita (10 April 2018). "Aunjanue Ellis and Vanessa Williams Join 'Miss Virginia'; Christopher Egan, Hanna Griffiths Cast In 'Brookers'". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  36. "Lovecraft Country adds Courtney B. Vance, Elizabeth Debicki and Aunjanue Ellis". 21 June 2018. Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  37. Petski, Denise (3 August 2018). "Ava DuVernay's 'Central Park Five' Drama Adds Niecy Nash, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Storm Reid To Cast". Retrieved 19 November 2018.
  38. N'Duka, Amanda; N'Duka, Amanda (July 16, 2019). "Ava DuVernay Thanks The Exonerated Five After 'When They See Us' Nabs 16 Emmy Noms".
  39. Rhea Mahbubani; Michael Miller (2014-05-02). "Film festival winners - Daily Pilot". Retrieved 2014-05-24.
  40. Coker, Matt (2014-05-05). "The Sublime and Beautiful, Kickstarted Drama, is Big Newport Beach Film Fest Award Winner | OC Weekly". Archived from the original on 2014-05-25. Retrieved 2014-05-24.
  41. "CBC shows The Book of Negroes, Schitt's Creek win big at CSAs". Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  42. "N.S.-linked shows well-represented at Canadian Screen Awards". The Chronicle Herald. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
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  44. Medina, Marcy (21 March 2016). "Gracie Awards 2016 Winners Include Jada Pinkett Smith, Oprah Winfrey". Retrieved 3 June 2016.
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  46. "2015". Retrieved 20 January 2016.
  47. Patrick Hipes. "NAACP Image Award Nominations 2015—Full List - Deadline". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 20 January 2016.

Further reading

  • Brenna, Susan. “Up and Coming; Aunjanue Ellis and Carrie Preston; Two Young Performers Ride the Tempest.” The New York Times, 17 Dec. 1995, p. 2002006,
  • Current Biography. Bronx, N.Y: H.W. Wilson Co, 1940. Print.
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