Originally published for Essence Magazine on April 6th, 2022
Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.
A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”
Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Life season 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.
“Williams is one of those alchemical actors who finds such nuanced and interesting ways to play things that never seem calculated,” Harper says. “It feels like magic, but I think it’s because she understands things and questions things that a lot of us don’t. It’s pretty damn remarkable.”
Early in our conversation, Williams and I bond over being taller women—she’s 6 feet tall, while I clock in at a “mere” 5’10—and commiserate about the issues of reaching that height at a young age, from the lingering eyes to being thrown into the unforgiving microscope of the basketball court. Williams took to the stage in an attempt to regain control of how spectators perceive her.
She’s chatting with me via Zoom from the front steps of her new residence, in her hometown of Los Angeles—as a proud first-time homeowner after a decade in Brooklyn, where she still maintains an apartment. (Ironically, her new house includes a basketball court, which has allowed her to take up the sport as an adult without the pressure of competition.) After filming the upcoming Warner Brothers film Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore for seven months, then going straight into Love Life five days after her return from the Potterverse, she took a break for the winter. She used that time to rest, play video games and heal from surgery, after 12 years of enduring pain she describes as “debilitating” as a result of Stage 4 endometriosis.
“I’ve definitely been to the ER for my endometriosis before taping the 2 Dope Queens specials,” Williams recalls, referring to the popular podcast-cum-HBO series with fellow comedian Phoebe Robinson. “It turns out there wasn’t really much that could be done—because it’s women’s reproductive health, and they don’t know a lot about endometriosis.”
Her personal experiences have led Williams to advocate for women of color monitoring their reproductive health. “You shouldn’t be having severe period pain—that’s not normal,” she stresses.
Menstrual cycles notwithstanding, Williams shines when she’s divergent and finding the nuances between disparate motivations within the same character—such as being a Black woman who seeks companionship but has been raised to distrust it. Such is Mia’s character in Love Life. “Part of being alive as a human is those things are actively playing against each other in conflict,” Williams explains. “It’s really cool to see and to play the human condition like that on film.”
For Fantastic Beasts, Williams embraced her well-known Potter fandom as she reprised the character of Eulalie “Lally” Hicks, the prodigious Charms professor at the American Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is the third installment of the series, which is a part of the Wizarding World franchise. “I would be on these sets that were 40 feet tall, to kind of immerse you in this world,” she explains, describing the fresco of rich colors, fabrics and MinaLima fonts in Leavesden, England. “At that point, I’m like, Bitch, I’m a fucking witch.”
Williams would find herself waking up daily at 4:30 A.M. to drive through the sleepy English fog as the sun rose. She spent time at the Harry Potter museum before starting her workday—studying posters of the original eight movie titles and experiencing the universe that she’d been introduced to by her teacher in the third grade.
Her character’s backstory is a compelling narrative that the franchise aims to explore over the series: Raised in Harlem with the guidance of a sagacious grandmother, Lally learned of the traditional magic that existed in her family bloodline despite their living in the nonmagical world. She’s bookish and proficient at an early age, and multiple parts of her character serve as a lens on different facets of Black identity. Her existence as a wizard and a Black woman, straddling magical and nonmagical worlds, adds new dimensions to Lally’s unique state of double consciousness in the series. And her ability to draw from her bloodline is a reinforcement of the mysticism and secrecy that exists throughout the Black diaspora, hidden in plain sight. As an Ilvermorny student, Lally has a tool that’s not an Ollivander Wand Shop creation but a custom object. Its comprised of a strand of African mermaid hair that shocks anyone else who picks it up—a seeming homage to the African folklore water-spirit Mami Wata.
Much has changed since third grade, of course—not only for Williams but for the Potterverse itself, and her relationship to it over time. Williams once had a Harry Potter–inspired tattoo and even had the honor (at the time) to celebrate her birthday with billionaire franchise author J.K. Rowling—an unbelievable manifestation of a childhood dream, resulting in a custom role for her in Fantastic Beasts that was revealed during a showing of The Cursed Child. Since that time, Williams, a proud Black feminist, has repeatedly made it clear that she stands with the queer community in condemning the author’s legacy of transphobia. “I’m so, so, so grateful that she wrote me into this movie, because it’s life-changing,” Williams anxiously admits, acknowledging the power imbalance she faces as a rising Black actress in Hollywood. “But that does not mean that we have the same views at all. I firmly stand with the trans community, and I one million percent believe that Black trans lives matter and trans lives matter, then, now, and always, period.”
Williams’ response aligns with much of her previous public commentary, particularly a highly praised speech she delivered at the 2019 Annual Women at Sundance Celebration. “I need the straight white feminists in the room to acknowledge that life is exponentially more difficult for Black women, queer women and Black trans women,” she said. “We have to acknowledge that this country was built without regard for Black bodies.”
Williams and I spoke a few days before International Women’s Day, which Rowling unfortunately chose to use as an opportunity to oppose proposed amendments to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland, amongst other fearmongering. It’s been an unfortunate interjection in the run-up to the next release, in a franchise whose marquee stars have already made pains to disavow Rowling’s convictions repeatedly. In a twist of irony, the theme of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film is, in many ways, intended as a corrective to previous criticisms of the amorphous political and moral orthodoxy of the Harry Potter universe. It moves beyond truisms, into examining the corrosive nature of fascism and the various approaches that are taken to mount a resistance.
“I do hope people take away that you have choices you can make about the person you want to be when you’re in the midst of conflict, and those choices matter,” Williams reflects. “In general,” she adds more lightheartedly, “I hope people just have fun watching the movie.”
The actress certainly seemed to have fun making the film, bonding with co-stars such as series lead Eddie Redmayne over the months of filming. “I basically didn’t stop laughing for nine months,” Redmayne says of their time on set. “She is incredibly rigorous and serious whilst also exceptionally funny, and I think those are all characteristics she brought to Eulalie that just buoyed this film, this series, so much.”
There is a little bit of Williams in every role she plays, from 2017’s The Incredible Jessica James to Beasts’ Lally Hicks. “Jessica’s sense of humor permeates that character. Swift, understated, smart and crazy-funny,” Harper remarks of his costar. “They both have a twinkle in the eye that says, ‘I may have my secrets, but there’s a whole lot of other interesting stuff here that I am willing to share.’”
In Beasts, Redmayne praised Jessica for being “formidable,” a trait that she evokes with a dash of whimsy that’s endemic to the Harry Potter universe. “She’s a joy and a great pal, and one of the great experiences of this last movie for me was getting to meet and play and dance with her.”
After exploring the fantastical onscreen once again, Williams plans to return to her domain of exploring the quiet, intimate and humorous moments in relationships. “It’s important to see women being funny, period. It’s important to see Black women being funny, and it’s important to see queer people being funny, on camera, and nuanced,” she says.
A woman of many passions, including writing and directing, she is for now building her catalogue of acting in movies and TV. “In general, I’m just trying to give Black people more stuff that they can cosplay, as someone who definitely wanted to cosplay and still would want to cosplay in my life,” she says.
As for the possibility of people cosplaying as her character soon, Williams says, “I use the phrase I would be screaming a lot—and I would scream, because I would be so excited. That’s literally my dream.”
Williams may have more romances to explore on screen, but her most significant one is still within the world of Harry Potter—working through the nuanced contradictions that come up, with care, as she remains steadfast in the principles she holds dear.
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