Jesse Williams Reflects on Missing His Broadway Debut Due to COVID-19

Jesse Williams
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"Something's gotta change in 2021," says a grizzled, graying and balding Jesse Williams. Yes, that Jesse Williams who, in reality, is none of those things and not even 40 years old. But with a little effects wizardry, the Grey's Anatomy vet looks what the tabloids would call "unrecognizable" as he peers directly into the camera, if only for a moment, before his eyes drift off in contemplative thought.

He then picks up a stick of Old Spice, takes a sniff and the scent reels the real Jesse Williams back in view for the rest of the digital spot (seen below) for the male grooming brand. "This is the year we get it together. Stop using the treadmill as a hamper. This is the year you buy mom a house. You're going to stop taking your shirt off on TV, big fella," he jokes, playing the part of his own hype man. That last part was a dig at his beefcake status but jokes aside, Williams' "Smell Ready for Anything" campaign on behalf of Old Spice is meant to inspire even those who don't regularly show skin on the small-screen how to boost their confidence during what has been a challenging time for so many.

During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Williams says he, too, needed a boost at times over the past year while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and a crushed work schedule that led to a rescheduling of his Broadway debut in the play Take Me Out. It's part of the reason why playing around in a robe for Old Spice was so fun because it brought a little levity into his life. Williams says comedy is closer to his personality than the serious side he's often associated with due to his activist work and playing Dr. Jackson Avery on TV's long-running medical drama.

With THR, Williams talked about his grooming routine, his future on Grey's and how it felt to see his Broadway debut shelved due to the pandemic (and whether he was prepared to bare all for the stage production which features full-frontal nudity).

The last time I interviewed you for a brand campaign, it was for MedMen and so I know how involved you are with the vision of the projects you work on. How involved were you this time as the Old Spice concept took shape?

A lot, actually. There were some things that jumped out at me in the opportunity to work with this team. One is that we leaned into the relatable reality of the day, which is that you know what? We all got our butts handed to us last year. It impacted our schedules, our confidence, and our self-doubt. That includes me. This is trending in a new direction but I think for those who identify as male, it's tough to be vulnerable and that's OK. It's not a learned behavior to not always present yourself as being overconfident, especially in a social media generation. As if to say, "I'm not that confident today. I've had a hard week. And you know what? I've been wearing the same sweat pants for five days and I need a pep talk."

Trying to encourage folks to return to or discover, for the first time, that ability to manifest a better future for yourself, to speak things into existence was an interesting approach, and that it could have value. It also gave me an opportunity to do some writing and comedic stuff, which is really far closer to my real personality than what I ever play on screen. I tend to do more serious [acting] work and because of my work in organizing and activism, I feel like I'm often perceived as a serious if not intimidating person. But I'm also a joke-cracking goofball. I love comedy. Being able to lighten up, take some shots at myself, be self-deprecating, I enjoyed the process and realized I don't get that opportunity very often.

Well, it was great and it's so refreshing and fun to see you do it. I have asked you about those topics before, organizing and activism so it feels superficial to ask you this but seeing you in a robe in front of the mirror, what is your get-ready routine? How do you maintain the glow?

Well, I'll accept that as a suggestion that there's possibly a glow left. Thank you. I pause only because I don't think I've ever had a routine. I just try stuff. But a routine that has been helpful recently is just slowing down — in getting ready but also in life. I'm really busy. I got seven different businesses and companies, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I've really had a turn in these last, I'll say, even as recently as six months, of trying to just be less responsive, not jumping at everything. It can wait. I've done a better job of delegating while trying to be more present with others and myself. Just slowing the hell down and that means my morning routine. Now, I'm trying out a combo of things that I think work. I have a product that is a combo of squalene oil and other stuff that I feel like actually stays so I don't need to put lotion on again.

On the show that I'm on, we're wearing makeup and it's dry in a windowless studio that is blasting air conditioning or heat all the time. As my mom would say, I'm no spring chicken — I'm getting up there — so being able to stay moisturized is important. And you know what else helps? Taking a nap. Also, at work, Joanna, my amazing makeup person gives me these [eye gels]. I put it on my Instagram the other day. Whether they work or not is a different thing but they feel good. I'm somebody who sets my alarm to the minute of what I need to do. I get up and give myself 17 minutes to do some pushups, get in the shower, get ready. I grab some sweatpants, go down and get my stuff for the morning, take something for lunch, make sure I'm feeding the dog, or bring the dog with me. I don't hit snooze. I just pick a time; I plan it out. It's probably not healthy, but I'm a bit of an efficiency soldier.

I need to take a lesson from you in that. In the ad, you end up wearing a baseball uniform which I'm assuming is a nod to Take Me Out
 

Yes.

You told The New York Times that you were looking forward to this more than anything in your acting career ever. Why is that? And how hard has it been to have the setback of not being able to hit the stage?

That's true. In Take Me Out, baseball is a centerpiece and I play a star baseball player. Baseball was a central part of my life growing up. It's a central part of my connection with my father, my brothers, and my peers. I played baseball damn near a year-round and I learned a lot of lessons about individual expectations and collective expectations through the game. I started acting off-Broadway in New York but I've certainly never been on Broadway or played the lead in a Broadway play. This would've allowed me to come back home to New York. I mean, I've never looked forward to something as much as I looked forward to this job.

So, it was tough when it got snatched away. Everybody lost something this last year. There's nothing unique about this. But every now and then, it comes to mind like, wow, that was going to change everything. We were in the third week of rehearsals with nine- or ten-hour days, six days a week. I was getting my butt kicked in rehearsals and then, all that disappeared. Regret just isn't really part of my makeup and I almost try to force it into my life. Like, shouldn't you regret? Shouldn't you be upset? Shouldn't you be looking back, wallowing or wishing? I've had people close to me ask me that about other successes or failures in my life. I think it was kind of beaten out of me as a kid, possibly through my dad who said it wasn't efficient or didn't help anything. As a result, I don't look back and wonder, "What if?" It doesn't accomplish anything. I expect that the play, frankly, will come back. We will get our butts up on stage as soon as we can. We all really love the material and have a terrific group of folks to work with and a great theater. But yeah, that was a hell of a bait and switch for me. I've been on TV a very long time and I was going to be able to go back from whence I came and on the biggest stage possible. They had posters and billboards of us all over the city and then to have it go away, that was tough. I then came back and was unemployed all year. But I flipped that into being able to be a terrific present father so I could make magic in other ways.

I remember from the last time we spoke, too, that you don't operate from the place of allowing fear to dictate your choices. I'm wondering with Take Me Out, how prepared were you for the nudity? Were you ready to bare yourself on stage?

You know ... that was true in the first decade or less of my career but at this stage, I'm looking for fear. I'm looking for discomfort. I'm looking to be scared, challenged, and not know how the hell I'm going to pull this off because that gets my blood moving. In this case, [the nudity] is tasteful. It makes sense, and it's part of the narrative so it's not frivolous. It's something I've been aware of and I take a shot at myself in the [Old Spice] piece about taking your shirt off on TV. Being on a dynamic but admittedly sometimes soapy show, there are these decisions you have to make. Sometimes you figure it's helpful and beneficial, [other times], it's like, "I don't understand why I'm doing this." But I totally understand and that's all part of life.

For the nudity in that play, I'm ready to do what the character needs to do. The unknown, what is coming around that corner, there's really an excitement in that. I really love not knowing. That brings me a lot of happiness because it's like school. I'm learning. No matter what, I'm definitely going to learn from it.

Let's talk about Grey's Anatomy. It remains one of the bright spots of broadcast TV. You are a huge part of that and have been a fan favorite for years. Are you in it for the long haul?  Do you see yourself staying with Grey's until the end?

You know what, I'm not entirely sure. I'd love to go out with the group. This show has defied all expectations in terms of how long it's going to go. These damn writers are too good. I know, at this point, I can say I've been with it for the long haul. I've been on the show more than half of its life, and almost my entire acting life has been on the show. That is something I'm incredibly grateful for and also keeps my appetite alive for doing other things. I've been on the show over 10 years. I've only been acting for 10 and a half or something. I was teaching high school, bartending, waiting tables, and working at a law firm right before I started this. I got on the show immediately after doing Cabin in the Woods. That was many moons ago.

We don't know what's going on next year. I'm certainly available and excited and we've had no indication of anything changing. I could also admit to being a human being that on a show 10 months a year, for 10 years, and raising a family, and prioritizing my kids and making sure I'm part of that decision is so that I can be home and be raising my kids every day and not be off somewhere for six months, or five months, or three months. Those are all decisions I'm proud of and stand behind. I also admit to being a person who wants to play over there, too.

You've long been involved activist projects. Now there's a swell of projects out there and I'm wondering if that has influenced what you're working on or pushed any projects forward?

I think it pulls me in two directions sometimes at the same time. One, because now there is a bit of a momentum shift and folks are starting to feel more and more comfortable coming to where I've been. I'm proud and excited to look around to see that it's in good hands. There's so much incredible talent growing and emerging in storytelling right now. That makes me feel all the more comfortable. … I'm still developing a Harry Belafonte project. I'm doing several things, too, all of which have a core purpose around and with a particular eye towards freedom for Black folks. But I also know that we're in great hands with good stewardship so I can go off and play.

Let's end back at Old Spice. Because you got to flex your comedy skills and be funny, does it make you now want to head more in that direction with another project?

Yeah. I've always had that feeling. The first script I wrote was a comedy with my buddy when we worked at a law firm together. Comedy's a huge part of what I consume and who I am. People who get to know me are always really surprised and startled by that because so much serious stuff is presented about me from outside. So that's definitely a vision I have for myself in the future.

I'm really thankful for the opportunity to be able to work with a team like Old Spice that can take a campaign, like "Smell Ready for Anything," and really drive home relatability, usefulness for our sanity and health, and do it with some levity. They were super collaborative and let me write the spot with them. It's actually a really nice pivot going forward. We have some other things coming in the comedy space that are already up our sleeves. It's really falling into place. I've found the more that I let go, the more things fall into place the right way. It's exactly like the campaign, I've given myself a pep talk to relax and let things fall into place — and it's happening.

 

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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.