Before stealing scenes and hearts on Grey’s Anatomy, Jesse Williams was shaping minds and grading papers as a high school teacher. This fall he returned to his classroom roots and helped Clearasil launch Teacher Truths, a campaign for educators to provide fun advice to students. In an exclusive interview Williams gets real on his journey to Hollywood, protecting civil rights and how he knew his wife was the woman for him.
What drew you to education?
I grew up in Chicago in an under-served community, over-crowded classrooms that sometimes had two grades in a classroom. Then I moved to a suburban area and had a healthy public school experience. I found this incredible chasm between two of the many Americas we have. I got a much better education and resources because of my zip code. I wanted to be part of the solution, so I started working in my community when I was at Temple University. As a former teacher, I know that teenagers go through a lot of difficulty and transition in the early teenage years. Clearasil was generous enough to offer $5,000 a day in scholarships to students with this campaign.
How’d you make the switch from educator to Hollywood actor?
I’ve always been obsessed with history and taught history. I thought there are ways that we could tell stories that could have a lot of value in communities that are constantly being told that they’ve come from nothing. I decided to participate in the storytelling process and learned that you can actually do a lot of good on camera, by really giving voice to characters and storylines. I started on stage in New York and did some Law & Order. I got lucky a few times on some small roles, some cool films and a little show called Grey’s Anatomy.
Yeah. A little show. When did you realize you were famous?
It was Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, too. I was riding trains in Brooklyn and excitable teenage girls and women in their 20s were freaking out. Obviously the biggest thing in my career is Grey’s. What’s interesting about TV is people really think they know you. It’s different to watch people in your house, in your sweatpants, on your couch, every week versus seeing The Rock on a big screen. Early on, people would just start talking to me because they’d think they know me.
You’ve been such a needed advocate with #BlackLivesMatter. Has there been blacklash for your career?
Even before #BlackLivesMatter took root, I worked on both Obama campaigns. On the second Obama campaign I lost like 30,000 followers and got so many death threats. I went from being their favorite character to a n*gger, real quick. Makes no difference to me—just people showing their ass. I want to give Hollywood some credit. It’s not like they’re freaking out and calling me, telling me to stop. I know it does scare some people off. It’s very easy to spin any brown person who is speaking with any confidence into an angry person. Every time I say something, articles call them rants. How can something that’s 80 characters in a tweet be a rant? Most of the people that hate are hiding behind some avatar. It’s not even a person that could stand behind their word.
You’re executive producer of “Question Bridge: Black Males” which includes interviews with Black men. What question could we, as women, be asking the men in our lives?
Your question reminds me of my teaching days. What I found with our boys is that they’re entirely run by girls. How girls felt about how they dress, what’s cool, how much bass they tried to put in their voice, it’s entirely about impressing girls. It became my burden as a teacher to find creative ways to trick the boys into using that pressure from girls to do good. It kind of becomes the women’s burden to continue to find creative ways to challenge us in a way that’s going to move us forward. Men are still completely dictated by what women determine to be valuable. If you guys raise the bar, we will have to raise our standard. It’s a completely unfair burden. It’s also an effective one and we are familiar, as Black people, with a lot of unfair burdens.
Congrats on the beautiful family. So what was it about your wife that said, she’s the one for me?
My wife has a tremendous amount of strengths that are my weaknesses, and that’s the ying-yang that I look for. What I value is being a person that could completely exist independently of me. I don’t gain strength from the weakness of others. I need to be able to learn from my partner. That’s what keeps us alive. We have mutual respect for each other and we can help each other where we need it. We need a multi-set of tools. Both of us don’t need a hammer.