Many comics struggle for years before making it big, but Jessica Williams' lucky break came early. She was just 22 and still in college when she landed a gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show in 2012.
Despite her early success, Williams says that her career before that wasn't always smooth sailing: "I am a 6-foot tall black woman and I have been since I was about 13 years old. ... As a comedian and improviser and somebody who did a lot of sketch and was an actress, I got tons of rejection early on."
During her four-year stint on The Daily Show, Williams became famous for her satirical reports on racism, sexism and homophobia. In 2016, she launched 2 Dope Queens, a podcast she co-hosts with fellow comic Phoebe Robinson. Now Williams is starring in The Incredible Jessica James, a Netflix film, which she also executive produced, about an aspiring playwright who's getting over a bad breakup.
Williams describes her character in the film as "authentic to me and the women that I have in my life. ... What I also love about her, and I related to, was that she has relationships in her life but is not defined by them. Really what she wants is to succeed in her career as a playwright and as a comedian and actress."
On how The Incredible Jessica James doesn't discuss race when her character starts dating a white man
I think it's really progressive to talk about race in relationships. I think there is so much room for that and there needs to be more of it. And I also think it's progressive to not make a mention of race in certain stories. ... I think that there is something to having a minority or person of color or somebody who is queer or whatever just exist in a story and have it not be about that.
On feeling that she didn't fit in at her mostly white school or her black, Baptist church
I was always told that I acted too white. I was always told that I was going to date a white guy — which, in fairness, was true: I do have a white boyfriend. So they weren't entirely wrong, but all of those things were really damaging. I grew up hearing, "You're pretty for a black girl," "You speak well for a black girl." ... I was really bookish. I was reading all of the time. I had big glasses. ... I read so much Harry Potter, that's like all I wanted to talk about. I watched stuff like Lizzie McGuire. I watched things that were very mainstream, but white, and I went to a predominately white school.
On participating in a purity ceremony when she was 14, in which she promised to stay a virgin until marriage
We had these crazy white gowns, and I remember our pastor putting rings on our fingers, and we were all women and the whole church was there, pretty much. I remember that being the first time where I felt like my body wasn't my own, and as a woman, my body, no matter what I did with it, it belonged to somebody else and I was responsible for guarding this idea of purity, and if I didn't there was something wrong with me.
On how getting Cs in middle school led to her mother telling her she could never be average
My mom sat me down in the living room and she was like, "You want to explain these Cs to me?" And ... I thought, "You know what? Mom, when you think about it, when you really think about it, Cs aren't really that bad. When you really think about it, Cs are just average, and is average really that bad?"
And I've never seen my mom that upset ever again, but I saw anger flash in her eyes. And so she says, "Average? I'll show you freaking average! Come upstairs!" And we lived in this nice, beautiful, big house, and so we walk upstairs and she's in my room and she points to my — I had that beautiful, plastic, first-generation iMac. And she was like, "You tell me. Would an average black kid have that? Would one of your little cousins have that?" And she's pointing to my computer, and I don't say anything. She's like, "No!" She points to my phone, and she's like, "Would an average black kid have that?" She's like, "No!" She points to my TV, "Would an average black kid have that? No!" Points to my Harry Potter books, "Would an average black kid have that?" I was like, "Uhhh, no?" She was like, "No!"
She looks at me and she's like, "You, my daughter, will never be average. You are never allowed to be average because you look like me. And because you look like me, you will always have to work 10 times harder than somebody else who will get more for doing less work. You will never ever be average. Do you understand me?" ...
I didn't really understand, and she was really worked up about it. And I realized as I got older that she was right. There is something to what she was saying. And because she had come from poverty and had made this life for herself and had made this life for me, she really wanted me to understand that because of the way that I looked, I would always have to be excellent.
On the most challenging parts of working for The Daily Show
I think when I first started the show I was really, really worried about what other people thought and what other people thought of me. I remember when I did my first piece, my Twitter blew up, and most of the things that I got were the n-word, Uncle Tom, coon, all of these different mean things that I wasn't prepared for at 22. And I think a lot of that stuff got into my head, where I was like, Aw man, should I be here? ...
Once I did more therapy and started to think more about what it was that I cared about, that I really started to care less about what other people thought of me and the mean things people could say about me. ... In general, what I cared about were women's issues, issues for people of color and LGBT issues. And so once I did that, then I felt a lot more confident about what I was doing. ...
The hardest part of the job, actually, for me, was doing field pieces where I would just be out interviewing people that oftentimes were very hateful. I really had to psych myself up to do it. And I remember my first few pieces, calling other correspondents to be like, "I'm really nervous to go into this panel of really, really, really right-wing people." I'd be really afraid. ...
I'd be like, If you can just do this bit for five minutes ... then you can go home. You'll get room service when you go back to your room. Just knock this bit out. ... It was a lot, too, because I knew I was younger and I was black and I was a woman, so in my head, especially at that time, I'm like, I have something to prove, so I can't just, like, punk out on this.
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jessica Williams became the youngest "Daily Show" correspondent ever back in 2012, when she was 22 years old and still in college. She became famous for her hilarious reports on racism, sexism and homophobia. She gives more personal takes on gender and race as the co-host of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens.
Now, she's starring in a new Netflix movie, a romantic comedy called "The Incredible Jessica James." It will be on Netflix starting Friday. She plays an aspiring playwright who has nothing to show for her work except a wall full of rejection notices. And she's still getting over a bad breakup with her boyfriend. After striking out on Tinder, her best friend sets her up with a guy named Boone, who's still getting over his divorce. Here's the scene at a restaurant where Boone and Jessica first meet. Boone is played by Chris O'Dowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES")
CHRIS O'DOWD: (As Boone) So Tasha tells me you're a playwright.
JESSICA WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) Yeah, I write plays. That's something that I do.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Have you written anything I might have seen?
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) Do you see a lot of plays?
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Did you write "Hamilton"?
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) Have you seen "Hamilton"?
O'DOWD: (As Boone) No.
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) No, no, I didn't write "Hamilton." I haven't had a play produced in New York.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Oh.
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) I have had interest from a small handful of theater companies, though. And they want to work with me. So I'm just waiting, right place, right time, so I can make my mark.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) I don't know anything about theater.
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) It's pretty much all I care about.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Well, that's great that you're committed to something you love.
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) Why'd you get divorced?
O'DOWD: (As Boone) That's a pretty brutal transition, don't you think?
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) No offense, but I don't even know if I want to be here right now.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Oh, well, why would I be offended by that?
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) I don't know. Tasha thought this would be good for me to help me get over this guy I thought I was in love with but, to be honest, this whole thing is making me think of him more intensely.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Oh, yeah? How so?
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) I'm just really reminded of how much of him you're not.
O'DOWD: (As Boone) Cool. I mean, I get it. You are the complete opposite to my ex-wife.
WILLIAMS: (As Jessica) What is she, dumb, short and fugly (ph)?
O'DOWD: (As Boone) What I meant was, compared to her, you are much more forthright.
GROSS: Jessica Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did you most relate to about the character you're playing in this movie? Were there parts of the story or parts of her personality that you wrote in because the role...
GROSS: ...Was written for you. So I imagine you had a chance to give some input.
WILLIAMS: Yes, I was pretty involved with the development of the character and the story from concept to creation. I really wanted to make sure that Jessica James felt sort of very now and authentic to me and the women that I have in my life. And I eventually became executive producer of the movie just because I got to have a lot of creative input. But Jim Strouse, who wrote and directed this movie, gave me a lot of room to improvise and ad-lib and make changes here or there, especially since I come from a comedy background. And that was really helpful in making me feel comfortable.
GROSS: On the podcast that you co-host, 2 Dope Queens, you and Phoebe Robinson often talk about relationships and current boyfriends and race and the race of your boyfriends. And in the movie, your character is still in the aftermath of a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, who's played by Lakeith Stanfield. And that boyfriend - that former boyfriend is African-American. The new guy, who may or may not become your boyfriend in the movie, is white. And he's played by Chris O'Dowd. But race is never really discussed between your character and the Chris O'Dowd character. And I was wondering how you feel about that, like how colorblind is too colorblind?
WILLIAMS: That's a great question. I think it's really progressive to talk about race in relationships. I think there is so much room for that, and there needs to be more of it. And I also think it's progressive to not make a mention of race in certain stories. So I was really drawn to this movie and this project because this character, Jessica, just sort of was allowed to exist, fully and unapologetically. And I really think that there is a time where projects or things are too colorblind, like there are certain things that don't necessarily make sense.
Like, for example, I watched a "Game Of Thrones" episode a while ago. And I saw there was a fully black female character in there. It was like the first one that I'd seen. And she totally had, like, a weave in her hair. And I could tell. And so that was really colorblind casting. But also, for me, I was, like, how did this chick get a fully laid-out weave in Westeros? So that (laughter) - that to me feels completely colorblind. But also, I think that there is something to having a minority or a person of color or somebody who is queer or whatever just exist in a story and have it not be about that.
GROSS: So your character is a playwright and is constantly getting rejection letters, which she has displayed on her wall at home. It's kind of like rejection letter wallpaper. She's got so many of them. That's a phase you never had to go through when you were starting your career because you got on "The Daily Show" when you were 22. You got that job when you were still taking your finals, in the final semester at Cal State. So how did you get to even audition for the show?
WILLIAMS: OK, Terry. OK, Terr-Terr (ph). I've always wanted to call you that. Terry.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes?
WILLIAMS: I'm going to stop you right there, Terr-Terr.
GROSS: I like...
WILLIAMS: I will say...
GROSS: I love hearing you say that.
WILLIAMS: Good. OK, good. But Terr-Terr, I got to say, I am a 6-foot-tall black woman. And I have been since I was about 13 years old. So as a comedian, an improviser and somebody who did a lot of sketch and was an actress, I got tons of rejection early on. It - I just got so many no's. I started acting when I was maybe 10 years old. And I grew up in LA, so it was a lot easier there. But right before I got "The Daily Show," I would get kind of close to a lot of things.
But I remember, I went to one audition for a sketch show. And the producer - one of the guys looked at me. And he was white. And he was, like, you know what? I can see that you're good. And you're really raw. But I just don't know what to do with you. I don't know what to do with you. And then I remember getting really close for another sketch project that was actually all black, like traditionally a very black comedy project. And I just remember going in the room and doing the bits that I was doing and not really getting any response whatsoever. And it really, like, was a lot of no's.
And then, I was auditioning for something else. I was doing - I was in Upright Citizens Brigade. And I was auditioning for a movie. And the casting director - her name's Allison Jones. And she is amazing. But at the audition, she was like, OK, you might not be right for it, but I know that they're casting "The Daily Show" in New York. They're looking for contributors. Why don't you come back and you submit a tape? And in my head, I was like, thank you. But also, in the back of my head, I was like, wait, so I - did I just not get this part right now?
WILLIAMS: Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. And I knew a lot about "The Daily Show." I was a fan. I knew that "The Daily Show" was that show that my professors played in class when they didn't feel like teaching that day.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's how you thought of it?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, they'd be like, I was busy. Why don't you guys watch this thing on satire? And it'd be a piece from John Oliver or something. And what I had sort of figured - I thought about it. And I was like, you know what? There are other correspondents there. I know that. I know that - about Colbert and Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac. But what I want to do is, OK, I'm 22 years old. I'm black. I'm a female. I have so much emotion that I carry around simply from being black and a woman. I want to be the most myself that I could possibly be. So I actively didn't Google any of your other correspondents to watch their work. I really just tried to make sure that no matter what, when I walked back into that audition, that I was just myself. And so...
GROSS: What was the audition piece you were given?
WILLIAMS: There were two. There was one that was a stand-up piece in front of a green screen that we normally do in the studio, where we're reporting live from somewhere that we're obviously not at. And then the other one was a sit-down chat at the desk. And I think one was Aasif Mandvi's, and the other one was John Oliver's. And they were pretty...
GROSS: Oh, you mean, so you were doing pieces that had already been done?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes. And but they were...
GROSS: And you made sure not to watch the original versions?
WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. And they were sort of dummy sides in the way, like, it wasn't - it didn't feel like - it didn't have Aasif's spin on it or Oliver's spin on it. They - on stand alone were just great pieces. And so I remember being super excited when I was at the cafeteria at my college to meet my best friend. We would always meet at Panda Express at Cal State Long Beach in the cafeteria before class. And I got a call from my manager, who was like, hold on to your butt, Jon Stewart wants to fly you out to audition with him in the studio in New York city as soon as possible. And my best friend and I just started screaming.
And then I rushed home and I told my mom. I was like, Mom, I have an audition to go into the studio with Jon Stewart. My mom was like, that's right. That's my baby. That's right. And I was like, great. I need to go to the mall, and I need to get a suit. My mom was like, that's right. I was like, great, so can you take me to J. Crew? And she was like, we ain't got J. Crew money. We going to T.J. Maxx. So I was pissed off because my mom is a Maxxinista (ph). And so I was trying to be fly. She was trying to be frugal.
GROSS: My guest is former "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams. She stars in the new Netflix movie "The Incredible Jessica James." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jessica Williams. She stars in a new Netflix movie, a rom-com called "The Incredible Jessica James." When we left off, we were talking about how she got to audition for "The Daily Show." They liked her audition tape, then flew her in to New York to do an in-studio audition with Jon Stewart.
WILLIAMS: I flew in. It was around the time that Nicki Minaj's "Pink Friday" album came out. And she has a really great song on there that's really good for getting pumped. And she's like, raah (ph), like a dungeon dragon. So I was just, like, listening to that just nonstop. I just - I just - I was so confident. And then as soon as I got to the studio, they were like, OK, we're going to take you into the studio. I met some producers. You run it a few times and then we'll bring Jon down because it was a taping day. It was, like, a Tuesday or something, so they still had a show to do.
And he walks up to me and he shakes my hand. And he's like, hey, Jessica, I'm Jon. And I'm like hi, I'm Jessica, nice to meet you. And he's like, here's what you need to know. I already saw your tape. I already think you're really funny. The only thing that you have to worry about is just being present with me. That's all I want is for you to be present with me. And that was really nice of him because I've been - I had been on job interviews at the mall at certain places and they'd be like, we take folding shirts very seriously here. Don't come here with nonsense, you know. And just for this guy to just release me and just be like, hey, just be yourself, it's fine, was really, really liberating.
So we did the audition and we're flowing. And I'm improvising here and there. And he's giving me notes and I'm taking the notes. And it just felt like a really, really good Tinder date. And I was like, cool. He's definitely going to call. And then I went back to LA. And then I kid you not, I was at that same cafeteria at Panda Express when I got the call again that said that they were not going to hire me as a contributor, but they were going to hire me as a correspondent to be a part of the best news team during an election year. So I was so excited.
GROSS: That's so great. OK. So let's hear an example of you on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. This is from June of 2015. And this was after that incident in Texas, like, the pool party incident where a white cop came in - or a few white cops - and - because they'd gotten a call about a pool party and they started, you know, harassing the black teenagers who were at this party. And one of the officers slammed to the ground a 15-year-old girl who was wearing a bikini. So here you are with Jon Stewart talking about that in June of 2015.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: We go to our senior Texas aquatics correspondent Jessica Williams. She's in McKinney.
WILLIAMS: Hi, Jon.
STEWART: Thank you...
STEWART: Thank you for joining us, Jessica.
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. It's no problem, Jon. I'm just going to another pool party.
STEWART: In what appears - that looks like full body armor.
WILLIAMS: Yep, that's right. Or as they call it here, a McKinney bikini.
STEWART: A McKinni (ph).
WILLIAMS: Oh, Jon, I like that.
STEWART: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: This week's incident has taught black people here something valuable. It's that when you go to a pool party, even in your own neighborhood that you live in, you have to know pool etiquette, which is no running, no splashing, no talking back, and if at all possible, get your ass even further into the ground than it is.
STEWART: You know, I mean, this was a pool party. It's supposed to be fun, you know, the water balloons and Super Soaker.
WILLIAMS: A water gun at a Texas pool party? Are you trying to get me killed?
STEWART: No. It's Texas. People are always waving guns around.
WILLIAMS: No, white people are. And they call it open carry. For black people, it's called he's got a gun. He's got a gun. He's got a gun.
STEWART: Jessica, are these things happening more and more? Or are we just seeing it more and more because of the prevalence of camera phones?
WILLIAMS: I don't know. But either way, this incident is progress.
STEWART: Is - I'm sorry.
STEWART: Jessica, a cop pulled his gun out and dragged a 14-year-old girl to the ground by her hair.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I know. White people always want to touch our hair. It's nothing new.
GROSS: OK. So that's my guest Jessica Williams with Jon Stewart in 2015. When you joined "The Daily Show," you were 22. You were the youngest "Daily Show" correspondent in its history. And so here you are walking in at the age of 22 to this really, at this point, established, esteemed, really important show. Did you try to compensate for the fact that you were so young and kind of inexperienced compared to the other people on the show?
WILLIAMS: I did. I think when I first started the show, I was really, really worried about what other people thought and what other people thought of me. I remember when I did my first piece, my Twitter blew up. And most of the things that I got were, you know, the N-word, Uncle Tom, you know, coon, like all of these different mean things that I wasn't prepared for at 22. And I think a lot of that stuff got into my head where I was like, oh, man, should I, like, be here? Like, this is a really important show to a lot of people. And Samantha Bee is amazing. And John Oliver's really great. And I really sort of got in my head about it.
And I think once I did more therapy (laughter) and started to think more about what it was that I cared about that I really started to care less about what other people thought of me and the mean things that people could say about me. And I think once I figured out what my beat was and, I think, in general, what I cared about were women's issues, issues for people of color and LGBT issues. And so once I did that, then I felt a lot more confident about what I was doing because the responses that I was getting from the people that I was trying to talk about and the stories that I was covering, it was a lot more significant. And I felt like, oh, I have support here.
GROSS: So you've said about yourself that you don't like confrontations. But you were in the position where you were kind of getting in people's faces (laughter). And so you would do, you know, reports in which you were at an anti-gay marriage rally right before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage. And so, like, you'd go up to the person who had, like, the meanest reputation and start asking him questions. And he would just be like, you know, I'm proud of the fact that I hate gay people, you know.
WILLIAMS: Ruthless. Just ruthless
GROSS: So what did it take for you personally to put yourself in that kind of position if you don't like confrontation and you know that these people can be very confrontational? Of course, you have the protection of a camera and a camera crew and probably a producer with you, so you're unlikely to be attacked or anything, but what did you have to do to get your stuff in a psychological space to be comfortable with that?
WILLIAMS: That's such a great question. You're so good at questions, like, you're so good. OK.
GROSS: Keep going. Thank you.
WILLIAMS: I feel - you're great at questions. You're a legend. I - that was the hardest part of the job actually, for me, was doing field pieces where I would just be out interviewing people that oftentimes were very hateful. I really had to psych myself up to do it. And I remember, like, my first few pieces, like, calling other correspondents to be like, I'm really nervous to go into this panel of, you know, really, really, really, really right-winged people. Like, I would - I would be really afraid.
That piece that you're talking about where I was at that the anti-gay marriage rally, I was particularly afraid that day just because I had never seen anything like that. The climate was so horrible. Like, it was just very, very intense. And I think I would just really try and psych myself up and try and - I would just be like, OK, if you can just do - do this bit for, OK, five minutes. If you can just be a little bit braver for five minutes, you just knock this bit out and then you can go home. You'll get room service when you go back to your room. Just knock this bit out. You're going to be embarrassed for a little bit. He might call you names, but it doesn't mean anything. Just be a little bit braver. You got this. You got this. You got this. You got this.
GROSS: So do you think being 6 feet tall is an advantage or disadvantage in a situation like that?
WILLIAMS: I think it's an advantage, I think. I have been 6 feet tall since I was, like, 13 years old. And it did feel like a disadvantage for a long time. But when I was a correspondent, it really worked to kind of make me in a way seem like the interviewer. And I think, even when I interviewed men, which for me was also very intimidating, especially older men - especially older white men - I liked the fact that I was tall. It sort of gave me a self-esteem boost. I was like, oh, yeah, I'm kind of taller than this guy. I guess I could take him if I need to.
GROSS: My guest is former "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams. She stars in the new Netflix movie comedy "The Incredible Jessica James." After a break, we'll talk about talking about sex, which she sometimes does on her comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens, and what a contrast those conversations are to her Christian upbringing. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "DRIFTIN'")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jessica Williams. She was a "Daily Show" correspondent from 2012 to 2016. Now she stars in the new Netflix movie "The Incredible Jessica James." It's a romantic comedy and will be available starting Friday. Williams also co-hosts the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens with Phoebe Robinson. So on 2 Dope Queens, you and Phoebe talk a lot about sex. Now, you grew up with Christian parents. I read that you had a church purity ceremony at age 14, which I think commits you to virginity until marriage - chastity until marriage. Is that right?
WILLIAMS: I did. It's deeply upsetting. This is, like, deep cut. We had these crazy white gowns. And I remember our pastor putting rings on our fingers. And we were all women. And the whole church was there, pretty much. And I remember that being the first time where I felt like my body wasn't my own. And as a woman, my body, no matter what I did with it, it belonged to somebody else. And I was responsible for guarding this idea of purity. And if I didn't, then it - there was something wrong with me.
And so I think, in a way, coming to terms with that as I got older - in a way, 2 Dope Queens has really helped me because we really talk about sex. And there is...
GROSS: You really do.
WILLIAMS: We do. Like, we get down and dirty. And I think - I always tell my mom - my mom loves me, and she loves my comedy. She thinks I'm one of the greatest things she's ever created, apart from my siblings. But I'm always like, Mom, listen, girl. Please do not listen to this podcast.
WILLIAMS: Please don't listen. And she's listened to every episode. She's even been on the podcast. It's - so I have really tried to shield her. But my parents, they love it. And they're ministers.
GROSS: Wait, so when you were growing up in a Christian family and you had the purity ceremony, was most of your world a part of that world? Or did you have a world of friends who were outside of that Christian world and were having sex when they were teenagers and doing other things that you were, perhaps, prohibited from doing?
WILLIAMS: It was very split. I always felt like my church that I went to was very black. And when I was young, I had to go to a magnet school because I had tested out of my elementary school. So when I transferred over to that school, I was in a world that was predominantly white and Korean.
And so I was in a different suburban world where everybody listened to Blink-182 and, like, Sum 41. And everybody wore, like, Heelys and stuff. And then I cut to, once a week, I will be going with my parents to my very, very black church. And I felt very disconnected from both. And I mean black church in the sense - I should clarify that. I mean it was very traditionally Baptist for a long time.
And so I really always felt like, when I was at church, I always felt sort of disconnected from my community in that sense. And then when I was at school and I was hanging out with all the, like, blonde white girls or white students, I also felt very disconnected from them, as well.
GROSS: At what point did you kind of leave the Christian community? Or did - you know...
WILLIAMS: Maybe when I was about 14. I remember it was an Easter ceremony, and we had really crazy Easter ceremonies. But every year, they got bigger and bigger. And this particular year, the dance ministry, the praise ministry and the, like, audio-visual ministry had all come together to do this really elaborate retelling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. And this time, they had gotten live animals. And so it was insane because donkeys were, like, taking dumps everywhere.
WILLIAMS: And there were, like, doves flying around. And we had this guy - sexy, black Jesus who, like - Eric Benet was very in vogue at the time, so he had these really beautiful dreads. And he walked around in this, like, long cloth. And you can just tell he just knew that he was, like, hot, you know? And so he would just walk around and make eye contact with everybody. And everybody at church is like, being - they're so moved, and they're so emotional about this retelling.
And then, finally, after he went on trial - spoiler alert, the character of Jesus goes on trial. After he goes on trial, you know, he's - they're like, crucify him. And so then I remember the church - the, like, all the lights blacked out. And then they cut to a clip from "The Passion Of The Christ." And I don't know when it was the last...
GROSS: The Mel Gibson movie?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, the Mel Gibson vehicle. And I don't know when's the last time you saw that movie, but we had, like, sexy, black Jesus. And then they cut to really white Jim Caviezel Jesus.
WILLIAMS: And I'm not saying that Jesus was, like, definitely super black. But I think he's at least some sort of brown, like a vague brown, like a latte brown. You know what I mean? But it was just - it didn't make sense. And then, finally, they strapped sexy black Jesus into a harness. And then he lifted up into the rafters. And everyone was just crying and was so moved. And I just remember feeling completely disconnected from that performance. And I just remember being like, OK, I don't know if this is my scene exactly.
GROSS: That's a very strange - sounds very surreal, the whole thing. So, you know, the...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, that was my "Stranger Things" (laughter).
GROSS: Language is very powerful. And growing up the way you did, it sounds like you wouldn't use a lot of explicit language about the body. Whereas now, like, on 2 Dope Queens, you know, you use the words for genitals all the time. And I'm wondering what it was like, what it felt like for you, the first time you were onstage or on a broadcast and you used the word vagina.
WILLIAMS: I think I was terrified. I was terrified about what I was doing onstage. I was really worried about what my parents thought. And I was worried about letting them down. But also, I just knew that it needed to be said. There needed to be a space for women and black women to talk about sex with each other.
And it - I love - that's some of my favorite feedback that I get about 2 Dope Queens is a lot of women are like, hey, I love your podcast. It feels like I'm talking to my best friend. You guys talk about all of the things that we talk about with each other. And it does feel very progressive and very womanist and very feminist to just be able to shoot the breeze with your best friend and talk about things that make you giggle.
GROSS: Are there both conservative and uninhibited parts of you that are ever in conflict with each other?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Absolutely. I think growing up in a church and then moving to New York City or getting not as involved with the church, there is a lot of things that I had to become more comfortable with. A lot of the things was my body. It's being comfortable with myself. It's a journey. It really is.
It's - there's a lot to - that I have to work through to feel like I'm fully expressed. And I always want to feel like I'm fully expressed. I always want to feel seen, mostly because of how I grew up and how I grew up in the church and didn't feel seen. And I - in my elementary school, and middle school and high school, I didn't really feel seen.
GROSS: Why didn't you feel like you were seen in church?
WILLIAMS: Because I was always told that I acted too white. I was always told that I was going to date a white guy, which, in fairness, was true. I do have a white boyfriend.
WILLIAMS: So they weren't entirely wrong. But all of those things were really damaging. I grew up hearing, you're pretty for a black girl or you speak well for a black girl. And so that was in the other community.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Can we just stop a second? What were the specific things you were doing that led to people saying, in church, saying you were too white?
WILLIAMS: Lots - I was really bookish. I was reading all of the time. I had big glasses. I wore Vans. My cousins and people at church would make fun of me for wearing white people shoes. I read so much "Harry Potter." That's like all I wanted to talk about. And I watched stuff like "Lizzie McGuire." I watched things that were very mainstream but white. And I went to a predominantly white school. And it was just the way I spoke. And I - it was just the way that I carried myself. And I...
GROSS: Did your parents tell you that too?
WILLIAMS: No. No. My parents - they didn't because they grew up in mostly black communities. And they worked really hard to move to Los Angeles and make a life for me. And so I know my parents always were accepting of my personality. But my mom was always like, you need to remember though, this is your personality but also you - know that you are black and know that because of the way that you look you have certain things that you need to do.
One of the biggest lessons my mom taught me was - I remember I was in middle school. And I had gotten all C's. And she had just gone to my parent-teacher conference, and she was very upset with me. In fact, she was so upset with me that on the way home in the car, she wasn't really saying anything.
And so when we got home, my mom sat me down in the living room. She was like, you want to explain these C's to me? And I was like, oh, gosh, how do I - and I thought well, you know what, Mom, when you think about it - when you really think about it - C's aren't really that bad. When you really think about it, C's are just average. And is average really that bad? And I've never seen my mom that upset, like, ever again. But I saw anger flash in her eyes.
And so she says, average? I'll show you freaking average. Come upstairs. And we lived in this nice, beautiful, big house. And so we walk upstairs, and she's in my room. And she points to my - I had that beautiful, plastic, like, first generation iMac. And she was like, you tell me, would an average black kid have that? Would one of your little cousins have that? And she's pointing at my computer, and I don't say anything. And she's like no. And then she points to my phone. And she's like, would an average black kid have that? She's like, no. Points to my TV, would an average black kid have that? No. Points to my "Harry Potter" books, would an average black kid have that? I was like, no. She was like no.
And then she looks at me and she's like, you, my daughter, will never be average. You are never allowed to be average because you look like me. And because you look like me, you will always have to work 10 times harder than somebody else who will get more for doing less work. You will never ever be average. Do you understand me? And I was like...
GROSS: So was your attitude like, yeah, I get it, I'd better work hard, or was your attitude like...
WILLIAMS: No, I was...
GROSS: ...Mom, leave me alone (laughter)?
WILLIAMS: It was leave me alone. My question was, like, so am I grounded or what? (Laughter) But yeah, no, it was - I didn't really understand. And she was really worked up about it. And I realized, as I got older, that she was right. There is something to what she was saying. And because she had come from poverty and had made this life for herself and had made this life for me, she really wanted me to understand that because of the way that I looked I would always have to be excellent.
GROSS: Your mother grew up in a housing project, and you grew up in a middle-class suburb. Did you feel safely middle class, or did you think, well, the bottom could fall out any time and you could end up back in the projects your mother grew up in?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, no, I was ignorant. I felt very safely middle class. I was like mom and dad, can you guys take me to Limited Too? There's, like, a new varsity jacket that I want to get.
WILLIAMS: So I felt very middle class. But, you know, the other part of that was that I did feel isolated as a black person in my community.
GROSS: So we need to take a short break here. And then we'll be back and talk some more. My guest is Jessica Williams. She was a correspondent for four years on "The Daily Show." She co-hosts the podcast 2 Dope Queens. And now, she has a new romantic comedy - a movie that's on Netflix starting Friday called "The Incredible Jessica James." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY"
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jessica Williams. She was a correspondent on "The Daily Show" for four years. She co-hosts the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens. And now, she has a new romantic comedy that's a movie on Netflix. It goes up on Netflix on Friday, and it's called "The Incredible Jessica James."
You were actually a professional actor in high school. You had a part on a Nickelodeon series that I've never seen called "Just For Kicks" about a girls' soccer team. So, like, were you a star in your high school because you actually had a part in a TV show?
WILLIAMS: Kind of. I don't think I was a star. I just think I was known. I just think people were like, oh, that's that girl who has that TV show. It wasn't that cool. But the show - we did 13 episodes, and it was executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg. And that was amazing because she's a hero of mine - or shero (ph) of mine. And I got a lot of experience. But when it was canceled, I was like 15, and I remember just being devastated. I was - I cried. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was like, my acting career is over. I'm never going to dance again. Like, I was done. And then I threw myself into my school's improv team...
WILLIAMS: ...And then figured out that there was, like, another way to dance.
GROSS: So did you learn a lot on that show?
WILLIAMS: You know, I think I did learn a lot on that show. I learned a lot about - I made some great friends that I knew throughout my teens doing that show. And I learned, you know, what it looks like to do 13 episodes of a TV show and be in most of the scenes.
GROSS: And you learn to see yourself. That must have been a thing - learned what you looked like on camera.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I did. I learned what I looked like on camera. I was obviously taller than all the other girls. I was the only black one. And I think I did learn to, in a way, see myself, like, in this environment. Like I - it feels - oftentimes, for me, the black experience can feel very isolating because sometimes you're in a work environment where it is very white. And so I think on that show, that was sort of what it was in a way. And so sort of seeing myself in that situation, I was like, oh, this is what I look like. Oh, this is what I look like around a lot of white people.
GROSS: So since your new movie, "The Incredible Jessica James," is a romantic comedy and it's about - in part about how you meet people. Can I ask you how you met your boyfriend?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I was inside playing "The Sims" because that's, like, my favorite game ever. And it was - I think I was, like, two years in "The Daily Show," so I was, like, spending a lot of my time just playing "The Sims" and, again, like, watching "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." I was like, you know what? I've got to get outside. It's Saturday. And so I walked outside. And this guy is like, oh, my gosh, I love you. And then I look. And it's this tall, beautiful man. And he's like, I'm so sorry. I'm on my way to a music festival. I've had a couple of drinks, but I think you are so funny and talented. And I love you on "The Daily Show." And so we took a photo or whatever. And then I was like, I hope he tags me on something. And then he didn't tag me.
Cut to like 10 days later. Girl, it's like 2 for $10 mimosas somewhere in Williamsburg. So obviously, Terr-Terr, I had like maybe seven mimosas. And I am - I walk into this bar, and I'm watching World Cup because that's - it was when, like, World Cup was happening. And then somebody taps me on the shoulder. And I turn around, and it's the same guy. And I was, like, oh, my gosh, hi. And so then we like started talking. And then he asked me out. And then we, like, went out on some dates. And he was, like, really good at dates.
WILLIAMS: It was really fun. But it was like - I was - it was great because I had had those mimosas so I was able to, like, flip my hair back and be like, oh, my gosh, hi, which I'm not normally able to do because I can be very serious.
GROSS: So let me ask you because we talked about this a little in the beginning of the interview. Does the fact that you're black and he's white come up a lot in the relationship? And I know there's like - is that an issue you talk about a lot when you're talking about your past or your present?
WILLIAMS: We do, yeah. We do. I think if you're like in a interrelache (ph), it's like different for everybody. But I know for us, we are constantly circling back to me not mistaking him for all white people, which I can do sometimes when I'm super worked up and then him just, like, listening to what my grievances and then allowing it to be something that he cannot fix.
WILLIAMS: Also he's going to be very jazzed that I'm talking about him on this episode.
GROSS: (Laughter) Jessica Williams, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WILLIAMS: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I'm very excited.
GROSS: Jessica Williams stars in the new Netflix movie "The Incredible Jessica James." It will be available starting Friday. After we take a short break, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will talk about the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death and her most famous and misunderstood sentence. This is FRESH AIR.
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