Tyler James Williams has experienced several different kinds of fandom since childhood, starting with films like “Unaccompanied Minors,” and then his starring role in “Everybody Hates Chris,” and even a stint on “The Walking Dead.” But there’s nothing that compares to the passionate audience of teachers who have gravitated his latest series, ABC’s hit comedy “Abbott Elementary.”
On this episode, Williams talks about the show’s resonance, his experience as a child actor, where his character’s relationship with Quinta Brunson’s character might be heading and so much more. Listen below!
“It’s such a blessing that they feel so represented by it,” Williams tells Variety‘s Awards Circuit podcast. “Now I feel like, if there’s a teacher within ten blocks of me, I’m going to know about it. They’re going to say something. I didn’t realize how much this show resonated with them until going back out into the world. And seeing how willing they are to give all of the love towards us. It’s really been one of the more beautiful experiences of my career.”
That reaction has had a real impact on the show’s stars and producers. Williams has also felt the importance of his character in particular, a young Black man who is also a teacher. “It’s in every script that comes in, every scene that we’re breaking down, I’m thinking about it,” he says. “We had an episode about this, actually, when you realize that there’s a certain responsibility that comes with that.”
We talked to Williams in May, after the WGA writers strike had already gotten underway. Williams remembers the 2007-2008 strike — he was shooting “Everybody Hates Chris” as a kid at the time — and “how scary it felt for everybody. Because that one went on for a while. And there were shows that, when we came back to the Paramount lot, didn’t come back with us. I didn’t even realize that was a thing or a possibility. And what I remember being explained to me, the word ‘new media’ kept coming up a lot. That was the first time I’d ever heard that term. And it was being thrown around left and right to cover all types of genres of content. I didn’t fully understand it then. And now seeing where we are, it’s like, holy shit. I see why it was such a conversation.”
“Abbott Elementary” would have opened its Season 3 writers room at the start of June, with an eye toward starting up production in July — which clearly won’t happen at this point. “I know that a lot of our writers room is very active right now in the strike,” he says. “And I applaud them for that, because it’s a difficult decision to make when you’re on a show that’s doing well. Because it could compromise what the next season looks like, what the episode count looks like.”
“Abbott” is part of a disappearing trend of full season, 22-episode orders, which Williams calls “exhausting” but gratifying to pull off. The sitcom continues to receive accolades including the Golden Globe for best comedy in January. (Williams won the Globe for outstanding supporting actor in a TV series that same night.) “Abbott” became the table to be at as the show’s stars and producers celebrated their big night.
“We always have a really good energy at these things,” Williams says. “I think partially, because we’re in the middle of filming our season. So we’re exhausted. And a little delirious. We’re just trying to have as much fun with it as possible. There’s something really great about assuming you’re not going to win a category because you have a good time. And you’re like, ‘I’m just happy to be here.’ The people who were in my category, there was no way in hell I had a shot. Then, sometimes you get pleasantly surprised and it’s even more beautiful than he thought.”
Asked if he ever watches those “Everybody Hates Chris” episodes from his youth, Williams notes that he doesn’t even watch “Abbott” now. “I can’t do it,” he says. “Because what’ll end up happening is I’ll see something and I’ll be having a good time. And then I’ll see one thing I don’t like and I’ll just spiral out of control. I’m not one of those people who can really do that too frequently. The ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ era, it’s weird how foreign it feels now. I feel like I watch this, it’s almost watching a different a different person. And I have to remind myself that it’s me.”
When we point out that Williams seems to have come through childhood fame unscathed, he admits that he feels like he has “gotten better at coping with it. But it’s still weird. It’s very strange to see things that’ll pop across my timeline or my YouTube algorithm by accident. Who is that child? I’m aware that that child is me. But who is that child?”
Williams at least has his siblings to lean on, both of whom have also worked in Hollywood since they were kids: Tyrel Jackson Williams (“Party Down”) and Tylen Jacob Williams (“Instant Mom”). “It’s great that my brothers also have the same story because we can talk about it together,” Williams says. “It’s our weird family dynamic. So much of our childhood was on television. We don’t know anything else.”
Williams says the brothers are “each other’s biggest fans. Because we see our progression as artists over time.” Coincidentally, because Tyrel is on the revival of “Party Down,” they’re both contenders in the comedy supporting actor category. “I have two people that I want to eventually lose either an Emmy or Globe to,” Williams says. “One is [‘Abbott’ co-star] Chris Perfetti. And the other one is my brother. That would be an ideal world for me. Nothing would make me happier.”
As for what he hopes to see next on “Abbott,” will his character and Quinta Brunson’s character, Janine, become a full-fledged couple? Does he want that? “I really go back and forth. There’s so much of their work relationship that I really love. And we all know that with romantic and work relationships, there comes conflict. I like the purity of the work relationship. But obviously, the romantic side is there.”
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