Jesse Williams arrived at the BlackBook offices wearing a t-shirt that bore the unmistakeable silhouettes of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. (They’re unmistakeable if you’re as big fans of the actors as we are.) It was a tantalizing piece of promotional swag for The Cabin in the Woods, and was given to Williams by the film’s co-writer and executive producer, Joss Whedon. For horror buffs and the Whedon faithful, Cabin could not come out soon enough. Initially slated for release in February of last year, it was delayed until January 2011 for 3D conversion, a decision that nearly proved fatal—for the film, and for Williams’ budding acting career.
In July of 2011, MGM financially imploded, and The Cabin in the Woods was one of several anticipated films to find itself in distribution purgatory. Williams, a former high school teacher who had little acting experience, thought the film would be his big break. He was forced to regroup and embark on a career where his high-profile calling card collected dust on a shelf. It didn’t take long for the 30 year old to catch another break. After nailing a guest stint as Dr. Jackson Avery on the immortal ABC soap Grey’s Anatomy, producers awarded Williams with a full time gig beginning last season, the show’s seventh. Somewhere along the way, Lionsgate picked up The Cabin in the Woods, which is finally hitting theatres on April 13. So when Williams sat down with us for a quick chat recently, he was all smiles.
Under what circumstances did you become a regular on Grey’s Anatomy? It was supposed to be two or three episodes and then they said, stick around for a few more weeks, because it’s a performance-based contract. I didn’t know if I had a job each week, and ended up doing like twenty episodes. But every week it was like an audition like shit, am I going to be around?
Did you really want to stick around? I did. I hadn’t done anything that big, and I admired the work being done there.
Did you watch the show before? I didn’t. I was aware of it, and I was kind of aware of the music on it, because they break a lot of artists. But I got the audition the night of my birthday. I was on my way out, but I stayed in so I could see what this show is that I was auditioning for. So I watched a bunch online, and gave a shitty audition the next day.
Your show is infamous for backstage drama. What’s it like now? We had a bad couple of years, and I landed right afterwards. I kind of regret that because I wish I got to see all the good stuff, because now it’s like one functional family. I got there and Katherine had her last episode on my first episode. So we worked together for one or two episodes.
Was there a big goodbye for her? Yeah I think there was. I didn’t work there on her last day, and I was brand new. She’s a tough cookie, but she respects being pushed back. I don’t know her, but my experience on set was she’ll stomp all over you if you let her, and she’ll respect you if you push back
What happens to your character that lets him stay for the long haul? Well, they’d laid some of the groundwork before I got the offer, and I think it was probably a bit of a try out for me. My grandfather is character that’s been talked about for seven years on the show, this legendary surgeon, and I’m his grandson who shows up, and I resent him for the burden of his legacy.
Is your character a ladie’s man? I might have the record for the most amount of episodes without banging anybody. It came to a screeching halt with an out-of-the-blue shower scene with Lexi Grey, who’s the main character’s half-sister. We’re talking and flirting outside her car, and the next thing you know it’s us having sex in the shower.
What do you like best about working on Grey’s? I’ve been in this business for only five years now, but it feels like a luxury to be on a show as a person of color where the characters are complete people. They’re just individuals, not leading with race and not self-identifying all the time with some sassy TV bullshit. We don’t have to talk in slang, we’re just people. I think Grey’s has been a leader in that field for network TV, to have people from all backgrounds just be human and not have to wear that on their sleeve all the time.
I think your most watched performance in Rihanna’s video for “Russian Roulette.” It has 60 million views and counting. That was her first song back after the Chris Brown thing. They called me up and were like, She’s a fan of the show and her manager is also a fan, so it was just one of those random things.
Did anybody mention Chris Brown on set? Absolutely not, but I felt like I was playing the Chris Brown character. I’m a guy of similar complexion with tattoos, so I read into it.
Tell me about The Cabin in the Woods. There’s a lot of anticipation surrounding it, among a certain set of film fans. It’s creepy and unnerving, but it can’t help but be really funny.
Do Bradley Cooper and Richard Jenkins play the villains? I don’t know if I can say that, but in many ways, they’re not. I think it also really questions what a villain is, and how much damage you have to do to become a villain. I worked at a law firm defending people who did some pretty bad things, but were they villains?
You worked in a law firm? Yeah, I actually wrote a comedy about working in a law firm that I’m starting to circulate. I worked in one on Park Ave. for a year and a half. I was a case manager, and I hired and fired contract attorneys who were way more qualified than me. It was stupid.
Has it been frustrating to watch Cabin in the Woods get pushed back repeatedly? It was, because these are our calling cards. I’m nothing without my work, and we’re out here selling that I’m the lead in a studio film. It was coming out in 2009, and they pushed it back to make it 3D, and then MGM folded. I worked on that movie for three and a half months, and we became very close, and were all trying to do our thing. None of us were famous. And we were all waiting on this thing, and it puts you in a very vulnerable position, because you have no control over it, but in some people’s eyes, you’re nothing without it. This is a business of followers. If you’re in a movie, I don’t need to see your work. Someone could be in Twilight with no lines, but they’ll get something, because they’re in Twilight.
It says something about the studio’s faith in the film that it’s still getting a theatrical release. It looks like Lionsgate is very serious about it, and that’s exciting. It’s a memorable film. There’s nothing indifferent about it.