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From child star to 'Abbott,' Tyler James Williams pays it forward to the kids on set

Tyler James Williams and Quinta Brunson co-star as teachers on <em>Abbott Elementary.</em>
ABC
Tyler James Williams and Quinta Brunson co-star as teachers on Abbott Elementary.

Actor Tyler James Williams co-stars as a buttoned-up first-grade teacher in the ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary. For Williams, it's the latest role in a career that spans more than 25 years.

Williams began as a child actor, most notably as a young Chris Rock in the TV sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. He says the role thrust him into the public eye in a way that felt traumatic — especially since he was going through puberty at the time.

"One day, I was just a kid in New York who was walking down the streets of Manhattan, auditioning," he says. "And the next day, my face was on every bus in the city."

Though he struggled with the pressure of carrying a hit show, Williams says his role on Everybody Hates Chris helped solidify his desire to be an actor: "Having been able to live very early parts of my life doing what I loved on set, consistently, day by day. I had tasted that. There was no going back," he says.

Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary that centers on a team of quirky teachers in a struggling Philadelphia public school. Williams worked with series creator and co-star Quinta Brunson to develop his character, Gregory.

"I think from the minute we got on the phone about it, Gregory became a collaborative effort," he says. "We very quickly had a conversation about the importance of showing an active Black male struggling with and attempting to do a really good job in raising the next generation, because those are the men I grew up with, and those are the men that she grew up with."


Interview highlights

On the simplicity of his Abbott Elementary character

I love that his story isn't rooted in some sense of trauma or some massive conflict that is very specific to his race. ... He's a guy with a job who's just trying to do a good job, who happens to be Black at a Black school with Black kids. I know that I've longed for stories that were rooted in an everyday conflict.

On being a former child actor — and working with child actors on Abbott Elementary

I can see them processing. ... One asked me the other day, what does "swinging a lens" mean? In TV, "swinging lens" means you're going tighter with the camera lens. So you had this wide shot and you're going into this kind of tighter shot. And they hear that every day and they're like, what does that mean? ...

I can tell that there are some who are going to try to pursue this for, I guess, a good amount of their lives. So I just want to make sure that they feel as comfortable and welcomed and leave with as much information as possible on this potential world that they could go into and that they're having fun. If they're not having fun there's no reason for us to be doing this.

On getting diagnosed with Crohn's disease

I had been living sick since I was about 19. I became aware how sick I was when I was hospitalized at 23. And I had a surgeon look at me in my eyes and tell me, "You need emergency surgery. ... Like, we need to do this right now or your insides may explode and you may die."

On living with pain before his diagnosis

It was nonstop. It became my normal. And this is when we talk about Everybody Hates Chris, this is the part that most people don't know, that show almost killed me. We had to figure out what the direct connection was because the doctors I was diagnosed [by said] ... "You're one of the worst cases I've ever seen." ... And we realized that one of the triggers was the stress. So the stress that I was experiencing from fighting for my career, from carrying a show at 12, was slowly scarring the insides of my intestines, as it would inflame because my body didn't know what to do with the stress. ... I was throwing up like three times a day. Trying not to eat when I knew I had to work, because I knew eating could possibly mess something up and I don't know what it was.

On his health now

I haven't had an incident where I had to go to the hospital in years. At this point, I'm on medication, but I think also I changed the way I lived. A lot of it was diet for me. There were certain things like, I just couldn't have anymore. I haven't had a drink of alcohol since I was 23. I haven't had a cup of coffee since I was 23.

On staying off social media and trying to block both negative and positive things people say

The trap that most people fall into — and I've seen that happen over and over and over and over and over again — is they start listening when it's positive. But eventually it was always turned. ... You have to block it all out. You have to figure out how you feel about you. And I think that's one of the things that has had our industry in a stranglehold, is this idea of what the audience is going to think before you make the art. But do you like it? If you like it, then do it and put it out. They might not. They may shoot it down before they even see it. That's fine. That's not why you made it. I've learned to turn off the noise — good and bad.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.