I recently sat in on a roundtable interview with Tyler James Williams, star of the new film “Dear White People.” The film takes place on an Ivy League campus as four Black students deal in different ways the reality of living on the grounds of a predominantly white university. Tyler plays Lionel, a gay student whose major is undeclared and is living in a dorm where he just doesn’t fit in.
You saw this film at Sundance with an audience. With this film, it is more important that the audience gets the film rather than like the film. What was it like seeing the film with an audience that got it?
Tyler James Williams: It was the first time that we had seen the film. We didn’t know how the film had come together, whether it was good or not or even how people would receive it. We were relieved that we got our message across. I had been talking about this film is not an open letter. I just want people to see it and know that it isn’t out to attack anybody. It’s a movie that you can laugh at. It was a relief to see people realize that.
When I first saw it, I was thinking “This is something that Chris Rock would make.” It’s that biting humor of his that helps people get his point about racial politics.
Tyler: I agree, especially with some of the stuff that he is making now. That’s what opens the door. If you can get people laughing, and they see everyone else is laughing, then everybody feels that they are together, that they are one in this. It penetrates more. It’s not a film where we are shoving something down your throat. That’s the type of films I hate, where they are trying to drive something home to you. This film isn’t that way. You are supposed to walk away from this film getting your own experience. You walk away having a conversation with yourself about the film and maybe discuss it with others.
We loved you “Everybody Hates Chris.” What was it like transitioning from a TV comedy to a film like this?
Tyler: Well, they are two completely different types of comedy. This was a bit more grounded that “Chris” was. There was a bit more responsibility with this film. With “Chris”, we were really just trying to entertain people. With this film, there was a voice and a gravity that came with that voice. There are certain comedies that you will do that are just fun, where people can laugh and have a good time. But there are others where there is something deeper there, that you have to take into account. Kind of have the audience carry that weight with.
Do you miss “Everybody Hates Chris?”
Tyler: No, not really. Even before we got canceled, we knew it was coming to an end. There wasn’t much more we could do with it.
You couldn’t get beat up in any more ways.
Tyler: Yeah, that’s it. It got to the point where Chris was doing the voice overs, and my voice was deeper than his was. It just didn’t make sense. It’s kind of like high school. Nobody ever wants to go back to high school. You appreciate the time for what it was, but nobody ever wants to go back. That’s kind of how I feel about the show.
Did you have to do anything special to prepare for this roll?
Tyler: Yeah, with every role you have to prepare something special. If you treat every role like the last one, you will just get stale and do the same things over and over again. With this particular role, it was just making sure that my thought pattern lined up with Lionel’s thought pattern because he has so many opinions that he doesn’t voice. Breaking down not only my lines but everyone else’s lines, and my thoughts on those lines. I would re-read them over and over and over again to make sure that they were really engrained. I had done that for a character in a very long time.
Can you talk about what it was like on set during that intense party scene near the end of the film?
Tyler: It was intense for several reasons. We shot that scene for eighteen hours. We started at 2 pm and went till 10 am the next morning. So it was intense for that alone. We were in Minnesota, where we were working with people we hadn’t worked with before. The extras kind of got delirious, which made them really get into it. The situation made me mildly uncomfortable. Several times Teyonah Parris, who plays Coco, and I had to set outside and take a break. We would use the situation to our advantage. We would use the intensity of the scene. The reason the scene was so hard to film was that it had to go there. I am glad we didn’t play it toned down, because that’s not how those parties are. They aren’t politically correct, and they happen…a lot.
Talk about your character in the film, with Lionel being African American, gay and being an outsider at the university.
Tyler: All of those things are what made me want to play Lionel. Those are all the things that drew me in. When I read the script, I kind of expected all the other characters but I didn’t expect him. I love the fact that he was an outsider. Given the issues that the black community with gays, makes Lionel, an outsider. Lionel doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t’ identify with any one group. And the fact that he is a writer but doesn’t know his voice is just perfect. Because that’s what all writers go through at some point in their lives. They have to figure out, what do I want to say and what is my voice. Being pigeonholed into covering the “Black issues” isn’t something that he wants to do.
Have you ever thought about going to college?
Tyler: I went to college briefly. Think when you add all the times I went, it added up to about 2 and half months. Initially, I was a drama major. What stopped me were all the schools I wanted to go to and got into were conservatories that required me not to work for four years. Being that I have been working steadily since I was four years old, I just couldn’t shed it. I also didn’t like that most opinions were being filtered through one vessel. I have no issue with learning, and I have no issue with getting new information. However, I want to get all sides of the puzzle. I combated most of my professors. I purposely wrote papers that went against the grain. I just didn’t quite fit into that system.
Raven-Symone made a statement that she doesn’t want to be labeled gay or African- American, she just wants to be called American. Lionel kind of makes a similar statement. Talk about that.
Tyler: I in a lot of ways I make that same statement. I did not understand at all why everybody freaked about that. I think that it’s ignorant to say that I am only one thing to do with my genetic makeup. I don’t’ see how that defines a human being one way, or another. I don’t negate the fact that I’m black. I don’t negate that fact that I relate to certain black experiences. But that’s not who I am. When people ask who I am, I answer I am black, and I am my father’s son. The identifying yourself by the color of your skin is so minimal. That’s what I love about Lionel. He doesn’t want to be anything other than Lionel. When I heard what Raven said, I heard “I want to be Raven.”
How did making this movie affect you?
Tyler: Portraying Lionel shifted how I view the world. It’s interesting coming from a Christian background and being very involved with the church and then hearing about this role that was so different from what I am used to playing. My whole perception changed. You do not know somebody until you walk in their shoes. Acting is one of the few jobs where you can attempt to do that. It changed by relationship with civil rights issues. Everybody should have their beliefs but never impose their beliefs on other people that don’t share your values. That was my realization from playing Lionel.
What do you want people to get out of this film?
Tyler: I don’t necessarily want people to get anything from the film, but I want them to contribute to the conversation. I want everyone to talk about the issues this film brings up. We didn’t make this film to make money off it; it’s a very small low-budget film. But we want people to go see it because we want people to start talking about the issues the film brings up.
Can you talk about why you have been in Atlanta the last month, maybe something you are working on currently?
Tyler: I can say why I am in Atlanta. I am in Atlanta for a part in “The Walking Dead.”
Can you say any more about that?
Tyler: No, I can only tell you my character’s name is Noah and that is all I can say. They won’t let me say anything else.
Thank you for your time and good luck with the film.
Tyler: Thanks, guys.
“Dear White People is playing currently in Atlanta area theatres.