Actor Tyler James Williams was a fixture of my generation’s childhood. In addition to his breakout role on “Everybody Hates Chris,” Williams voiced an animated character in the series “Little Bill,” starred in the underrated Disney Channel original movie “Let It Shine,” and played Lionel in the film “Dear White People.”
From depicting Noah on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to Lester in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Williams’ portfolio continued to grow as we grew up with him.
“Since I’ve been 16, I haven’t been able to walk outside and somebody’s not known who I was and not go on and say, ‘You were my entire childhood,’” Williams told HuffPost. “Because of what happened with ‘Chris’ and how big it became even in syndication, it’s afforded me the ability to stop chasing things that other people chase deep into their career.”
Now, Williams, 29, has one of the lead roles in Quinta Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary.” He plays Gregory Eddie, a wary substitute teacher who is meandering through the rungs of education administration and develops a liking for his co-worker.
Williams has never been interested in the fame machine; he’d rather engage in “projects that move the needle in some way, societally, or speak for people.” As he approaches 30, Williams reflects on his impactful career and moving with intention.
“I saw an opportunity in Gregory Eddie to show Black male teachers in a way that I don’t think we’ve really seen before, with a vast emotional spectrum, a deep care for his kids and getting sucked into this crazy world that is the public school system — regardless of if this is what he planned for his life or not,” Williams said. “I want to be able to use my face and notoriety from the past to amplify voices who are really good. That was something that I wanted to do with Quinta as well.”
When Williams first came aboard “Abbott Elementary,” he was intent on “validating the Black male experience in the rearing of the next generation.” Through his character, he wants people to think about how society perceives male teachers and to amplify the presence of Black male educators and role models.
“You can feel all the emotions — the good ones, the bad ones — you can feel love … and still be a strong, beautiful Black man at the same time. I oftentimes wonder how different my early life would have been if I had been given permission, either by myself or by somebody else, to be able to be that.”
– Tyler James Williams on depicting dynamic Black male characters
Although teaching was once considered a career for men, women have made up a vast majority of the country’s educators since the 1880s, according to The Atlantic. Saddled with misogyny, “entrenched stereotypes,” and lower pay than most professions, teaching became considered a “feminine pursuit” of “low social standing.”
Williams said he hopes to make Black men teaching sexy and attractive.
“We know for a fact that when you can see it, then you can be it,” Williams said. “Outside of making people laugh and have a good time with this show, Quinta and I were conscious of understanding that that’s what we were doing here. We’re appealing to a whole generation of young Black male educators to get involved.”
He did not grow up as “a teacher’s kid” like Brunson (Williams’ father worked as sergeant with the NYPD), but Williams had a basic understanding of the issues that educators navigate daily, from low salaries and long hours to pleading with their local community for supplies. He said that being a part of “Abbott Elementary” not only heightened his appreciation for educators, but also gave him firsthand insight into working with young children.
Williams said he tries to place himself in the character’s shoes as much as possible. Beyond depicting the honest realities of educators, he seeks to show the depth and breadth of the Black characters written by Brunson. She assembled “a cast of Avengers” for the series, he said.
Williams hopes that “Abbott Elementary,” with its potential office romances and mini squabbles over phonics and sight-reading, can be a series where Black characters are no longer relegated to the background. In predominantly white workplace comedies, characters such as Donna Meagle in “Parks & Recreation” or Stanley Hudson in “The Office” often lack complete storylines until later seasons.
“We wanted to show Black people in a workplace environment that can also have lives. Their life doesn’t just revolve around this. These are human people,” Williams said. “I think for Black characters in comedies, particularly in workplace comedies, we oftentimes throw that on the back burner. Those two things can be upfront as well, the objective and their life. We can humanize them and show what they do at the same time.”
The consistent thread for Williams in his work, he said, is to show the average Black experience accurately, with heart, and with a vast emotional spectrum. When opportunities come across his desk, he approaches them with a character-first mindset.
“If it doesn’t allow me to give voice to the young Black men that I needed to see growing up, then I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Williams said. “I was a child of the early 2000s where, as great as they were, there wasn’t a lot of representation of an average Black male who was emotionally available, who had a vast emotional spectrum, who was thoughtful and who could also be attractive at the same time. It didn’t have to be one or the other.”
Williams recounts a dichotomy he saw on screen growing up: either a nerdy, intelligent Black man whom no one finds worthy of friendship, love and attention, or the heartthrob who attracts everyone but is emotionally bereft. Two of his greatest inspirations are Eddie Murphy and Will Smith, who, in Williams’ eyes, subverted Black male tropes on screen.
Murphy’s performances in “Dr. Dolittle” and “Daddy Day Care” helped Williams understand that comedy wasn’t merely about the punchline, but was a form of artistry that took dedication and work. The range of characters played by Smith, whether in “The Fresh Prince, “Men in Black” or the “Pursuit of Happyness,” made Williams, for once, feel seen.
“They were these, what I like to call, radical Black men of the early 2000s. Will caught so much flack for being that emotionally available in a time when that wasn’t the case, even into his music career,” Williams said. “That’s what ultimately led me to ‘Let It Shine,’ which was this idea of bringing battle rap to kids in a way that I love battle rap, but not in a way that required you to get shot nine times in order to be able to authentically do it,” Williams said with a laugh.
Through his career, Williams wants his younger self and other young Black men to “know you exist and you’re possible.” He wants his roles and his journey to open the door for the next generation of Black men to have permission to be multifaceted, dynamic individuals.
“You can be all of those things. You can be beautiful, you can be smart, you can feel all the emotions — the good ones, the bad ones — you can feel love. You can feel empathy. You can feel compassion. You can feel hurt,” he said. “You can feel it and still be a strong, beautiful Black man at the same time. I oftentimes wonder how different my early life would have been if I had been given permission, either by myself or by somebody else, to be able to be that.”
In “Abbott Elementary,” it appears that Williams’ and Brunson’s characters may have an “Office”-esque Jim-and-Pam-style storyline on the way. Williams said that while their on-screen fate hasn’t entirely played out for viewers yet, he wants to have the opportunity to depict regular Black love.
While so many of us ’99 babies and beyond are happy to see Williams back on a family-friendly network again, he said the spotlight isn’t about him. He just wants to help move the conversation forward, and has been blessed to do that in his career before turning 30.
“I want to do things that, for me, feel artistically rewarding. When eventually I’m gone, I can say it wasn’t just about me. It was for the culture, at the end of the day. People ask me all the time, ‘When are you going to lead another show?‘’’ Williams said. “I’m like, ‘I’m happier now than I ever was.’ I’m really, really fulfilled here, and I’ll continue to do so. Whenever I can use the power of what I’ve done to push forward what’s happening in the present, you’ll see me there.”