Thanks to “Grey’s Anatomy,” millions of people already know who Jesse Williams is.
The show has basically been his entire career, but now, at 40 years old, he’s trying something new.
Today, we find Williams on Broadway, onstage in the revival of “Take Me Out,” which won the Tony for Best Play when it premiered on Broadway in 2003. Williams himself is up for a Tony (the awards ceremony is June 12), and while he’s still marveling at how demanding the live theater schedule is on both body and mind — he’s also having the time of his life.
“Take Me Out,” which mostly takes place inside a men’s locker room of a baseball team, grabbed Williams from the get-go, he said. Baseball was about the only thing he had in common with the material — he grew up a Cubs fan — but says that as soon as he read the play, “I was hooked.”
“It’s really funny, but really painful, really dramatic, really demanding. It is not divorced from reality, the confines, restrictions, and obstacles that are presented in the human condition,” he says. “It’s contemporary, but it also has an effect of a time passed, in terms of the language, the dynamic of the way we speak. And it’s charting new territory in terms of a character I’ve never played or explored before. The beautiful thing about acting is you get to live out and experience what you otherwise would not have a connection to.”
Williams says his interest in Broadway as his post-“Grey’s” move was one motivated by the challenge: Broadway, to him, has always been the “highest form of the art of acting.”
“And I knew that once I left ‘Grey’s,’ I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to do something that was entirely a new challenge, something that is really sincerely scary to me, that feels really like there’s a lot of ways to fail. I kind of felt like I’ve been in a safe space, in some ways, for quite a while. Which has, frankly, been my entire acting career: I hadn’t started acting until I was almost 30. And then I almost immediately got on ‘Grey’s.’ The vast majority of things in my career are ahead of me. It’s not like I had a movie career first. I hadn’t done a bunch of theater. I didn’t come up studying this. It wasn’t my life’s dream. I don’t have all those experiences yet. They’re all ahead of me, which is exciting. But I wanted to go right into the fire and get my ass kicked and make it be purely about the story, purely about the art.”
Williams is naked in a scene of the play, which was recorded and leaked online a few weeks ago despite audience members being required to seal their phones upon entry. Being nude in live theater wasn’t exactly on his wish list, Williams says, but he immediately resonated with the creative choice behind it.
“Once I read it it was, ‘I’m not not going to do this. This is perfect.’ And that said, I looked at the nudity and was, like, ‘Oh, s–t. I don’t want to do that. I would never say I want to do that,’” Williams says. “But it makes sense in the context of this play and it invites the audience to experience some of the realities of what the characters are going through. And it’s really a fitting time to examine heteronormative male relationships to each other and themselves and identity and what it is to be a man. Why does ‘being a man’ require you to discriminate against others? Why does it require you to have power over another group? Why does it require you to be homophobic, in order to prove that you’re a man? What happens if you don’t? What do you have left?”
Leaving “Grey’s Anatomy,” Williams says that he was nervous about being pigeonholed, given it was all audiences knew him from. To his surprise, the fear was only his own.
“I had an expectation of what was going to be projected onto me, and I was consistently and pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as restricted as I thought it was going to be,” Williams says, as he carries his computer with him to the kitchen to put some tea on. “It wasn’t new to me, but it was new to the world: I was very politically present in the world. Years ago, the beginning of the movement for Black lives, I was in Ferguson. I was very [vocal] on the news all the time, speaking truth to power, fairly directly and aggressively, in ways that people had never seen actors really do in my generation. And so I had this persona, where if you didn’t watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ the way people knew me was as a straight-talking person who has a perspective. And I found that I started losing a lot of jobs after that speech.”
But the right jobs would eventually come, and Williams was pleasantly surprised to find he was offered a range of things, even comedies.
“[Leaving ‘Grey’s’] I knew that no matter what, I’m going to have to go out there and pound the pavement and make new work. Because if you didn’t watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ you’ve never seen me work,” he says. “People knew me for me. But not for what I make you feel as an actor.”
As for what is next once “Take Me Out” ends?
“I’m not in any rush because I know this is ripping open a whole new path for me. So I’m letting those cards fall as they come,” Williams says. In the works though, is a limited series written for TV about his character from “Take Me Out,” as well as some opportunities for Williams to direct hopefully, something he’s long been eager to try more of.
“I really do love directing, and I’m really good at it. And it makes me happy,” he says. “It’s kind of really, probably the most suited to my personality type.”
And no matter what happens on Tonys night, Williams will be back out there onstage the next night, giving it everything once again.
“The spirit of everything about theater is that it’s alive. It’s all alive. Nothing is settled. Nothing is done. And you’ve got to go out and re-prove it every time,” he says. “Which is awesome, in the true sense of the word. It all feels like this incredible kind of storybook that I’ll have to sit and look back on in a few months and really see how it settles into my bones, because it all feels euphoric.”
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