'Safety's Jay Reeves on Playing 'Ray Ray' McElrathbey in Disney+'s True Story

Jay Reeves
Q&A
Disney+

After a run on CW's football drama All American, Jay Reeves is back on the gridiron. This time the actor and musician portrays Ramon “Ray Ray” McElrathbey in Disney+'s Safety, the true story of the former Clemson University football player who made headlines for secretly raising his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr, on campus while his mom was in rehab for drug addiction. 

On All American, Reeves played Shawn Scott, a drug dealer and gang member shot dead in the middle of Season 1. But that's where the similarities end, says Reeves. He talks to TV Insider about preparing for the role, why Safety matters now, and more.

Tell me about the casting process for this project. 

Jay Reeves: I auditioned for the role early on during pre-reads. It was quiet for a while but then, almost three months later, I received a call back. I tested for it multiple times with different actors, but I always kept a sense of confidence. I knew no one in the world would out audition me for the job, and I owned the room. I even auditioned with a football in my hand. I carried it around town during the entire auditioning process to stay in the mindset of Ray.

I was relieved when I finally got the role, but then I had to test with other actors, and that was nerve-racking because you never know if the job is truly secured or if they might like someone else instead of you. It was a longer process than anything else I've ever been through, but it was a learning experience.  

How much of yourself do you see in Ray Ray?

I see a lot of myself in him being that I played sports growing up. I spent a good amount of my childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, so relatively close to Atlanta and Clemson. It helped me find the similarities between us.

How much did you know about Ray Ray’s story before taking on the role? 

I didn’t know much of anything, but to prepare I dove into it and did my homework. I researched him, I watched all his videos, I looked at his highlights, I found him on Instagram. I did everything I possibly could to have as much information about the role going into the audition process.

Jay Reeves in Safety

Disney+

I know he served as a consultant on the film. Did you develop any kind of bond?

Ray has become like a brother to me. We share information, we’ve eaten together, we still work out together. This is huge and I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else. I’m just honored to show his life on screen.

Was it art imitating life working with Thaddeus Mixson, who plays Ray’s younger brother? Did you play the role of a mentor?

TJ is a very mature young man and he brings that to his role, but sometimes he'll remind you that he's just a little kid. So, for me, it was more of letting him explore and letting him try new things without trying to stop him. I always tried to be encouraging and to lead by example.

Did All American help prepare you in any way for this role?  

I feel like there are small similarities between lifestyles and environment, but as far as overall similarities within character, I would say they are completely different. I don’t believe Shawn and Ray would even hold a conversation. As for the role, I learned and grew a lot while working with the All American cast and that stays with you. I would have to say the experience taught me to be a better actor.  

What do you think makes Safety stand out among other inspiring sports-themed movies? 

It’s not just a sports movie. This film is clearly about how combined brotherhood in a community village can help a person to overcome struggle and succeed. I feel like Safety will give viewers the perfect balance expected from this type of film. It’s a mixture of hardship, family, friendship and, of course, sports. Everyone is going to take away something special from this movie.  

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What do you hope people take away from Safety? 

A new perspective. Understanding that as a community united we can do so much more, be so much more. We are all in this together even if our lives are different. Even when we come from different backgrounds and our histories don't necessarily align, when we stand with each other we can all succeed. With some of the things we've seen recently and the division growing within our society, we need to look at some of the lessons carefully presented in this film, in this story, to open ourselves to unity instead of division. We are stronger together.

Safety, December 11, Disney+