Published November 21, 2017
Jesse Williams’ early acting career mirrored that of countless performers: balancing auditions with odd jobs as a waiter in New York City.
But unlike the thousands of actors who traveled to the Big Apple, Williams never dreamed of being an actor. His true passion was in civil rights.
“My whole life I was certain I was going to be a civil rights attorney. That was my plan. I began the process of taking the LSAT and going to law school up until the moment where I decided I would try this thing called acting for a period of 18 months to two years,” Williams told a UB audience on Saturday night.
“If it didn’t work, I would go to law school.”
After a few small roles, Williams’ career took off. Today, the acclaimed actor and activist is leaving his mark in both fields.
Best known for his work as Dr. Jackson Avery in ABC’s hit series “Grey’s Anatomy,” Williams has also served as senior producer and correspondent for the EPIX docuseries “America Divided” and executive-produced the documentary “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.”
His roles on screen and in the community led to his selection as this year’s Undergraduate Student Choice Speaker at UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series. The speech on Saturday in Alumni Arena was sponsored by the undergraduate Student Association.
His lecture was delivered in a question-and-answer format to facilitate discussion about race and social inequality. The event was moderated by Naniette Coleman, UB alumna and SA’s first African-American president.
During the discussion, Williams credited his mother and father as his inspiration for social justice. His parents were both activists and often held political meetings in the family living room, where they explained current events to him.
The passion remained with him during his college years at Temple University. He disregarded the core curriculum, and instead sat in undergraduate and graduate African-American studies courses that he was ineligible to enroll in. He was also active in a number of political organizations on campus and in Philadelphia.
However, a second love for photography led him to pursue a double major in African-American studies and film and media arts.
“Movies are the language by which we view the world, how we interpret experience,” said William. “I saw that as a real opportunity to be molded and shaped into something that could be helpful for us.”
After graduation, Williams moved to New York City, holding down more than half a dozen jobs to stay financially afloat. He waited tables, worked as a substitute teacher and even created a fake resume to land a job as a film production assistant.
He later turned an internship at a law office in Manhattan into a full-time position as the “boy king on Park Avenue,” where he found himself managing “more qualified” attorneys.
Acting was merely one in a long list of jobs Williams took to earn money. He would audition for commercials when low on funds.
“It was never a decision that this is what I’m doing. It was, ‘OK, we’re on this treadmill. I’ll stay on this treadmill for a little while and see if it can nourish me and I can make enough money to exist.’ And that’s still what I’m doing to this day,” said Williams.
“As long as it’s stimulating for me, I feel creatively inspired and I can provide for people outside of myself, I’ll keep playing around with it. But I get bored easily, so we’ll see.”
Eventually, Williams moved beyond commercials. He graduated from an appearance on “Law and Order” and off-Broadway plays to a role in the film “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2.”
His breakout role came when he was cast for two episodes in the sixth season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” He instead stayed for 20 episodes, finishing the season. Williams joked that his temporary role’s transition to permanent cast member was likely due to an “accounting error.”
“Grey’s Anatomy,” Williams said, laid the foundation for diverse casting in television and film.
“As much as that show picked me, I also picked it,” he said.
“I picked that show because people are able to be human beings. Black, brown, LGBTQ folks are able to exist and not demonstrably so … not have to constantly be in a pageant or a trope.”
Williams believes the world is ready for more diversity on screen. He pointed out that the more diverse a film is, the more money it earns at the box office, citing a UCLA study and the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise. “Grey’s Anatomy,” he added, is a top five television show in 146 territories around the world.
The increased number of networks and channels for people to create media will aid the rise of African-American actors, directors and entertainers, Williams said. And he aims to play a role as well.
“People have to be pushed into increased levels of decency. We don’t just get better,” he said. “We’re not just nicer people than when we were in the 50s. You have to be pushed into these positions. And that’s civil rights attorneys and people that are forcing conversations.”
He is the founder of the production company farWord Inc. and executive producer of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a series of transmedia art installations and films.
Outside of film, Williams has worked to develop several apps and services that work to empower the African-American community, including Scholly, an app that has connected students to more than $80 million in scholarships; Ebroji, an app that provides people with access to emojis centered on African-American characters; and Blebrity, a charades game themed around African-American culture.
“We were really aggressive activists back then (in college) and that doesn’t change because I’m on television,” Williams said. “It would be weirder for me to have changed and castrated myself in order to be in this business. I’m not cutting off pieces of myself to work with you. I’ll just go do something else or make my own … It’s OK for us to have movies or experiences or narratives or products that are black normalcy.”
As for law school, Williams is still open to going back to earn the degree and take the bar exam.
“I don’t need this business,” he said. “I wasn’t going to suffer it for a decade because it’s my life’s goal. It’s one of many things that I would be really happy to do.”
For Williams, any career that involves improving the rights and lives of African-Americans is one filled with happiness.