July 26, 2017 1:00 PM by Julia Felsenthal
"I think it"s incredibly progressive to talk about race in relationships,” says the actress, comedian, podcast host, and former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams. "And I also think it"s really progressive not to address it at all.”
I"m sitting with the actress—in person, she"s arrestingly tall and pretty—in a midtown New York hotel room, discussing her latest project, Jim Strouse"s The Incredible Jessica James , available to stream on Friday via Netflix. Strouse wrote the film as a star vehicle for Williams (she also gets credit as an executive producer), after casting her in his 2015 comedy People Places Things . In the new film, she plays the titular character, a 25-year-old theater geek who runs a drama program for New York City public school kids and aspires to playwriting glory. When we meet her, she is smarting from a string of professional and personal disappointments (when she"s not fantasizing about outlandish ways her recent ex-boyfriend might drop dead, she"s papering the walls of her deep-outer-borough apartment with rejection letters from every major theater company in the Western world).
Then Jessica"s friend Tasha (Noël Wells) sets her up with Boone (Chris O"Dowd), a slightly older app developer who is himself reeling from a divorce. They go on a terrible first date that turns into a tentative, maybe-not-so-terrible romance. From this premise springs a quiet, goofy rom-com about learning to recognize the good things that are right in front of your nose.
The Incredible Jessica James distinguishes itself from your average rom-com in myriad ways. There"s a deliberate effort to flip the script on gender dynamics. There"s an appealing hyper-realism to Strouse"s depiction of Boone and Jessica"s awkward, ambivalent courtship. There"s Jessica herself: passionate, slightly clueless, unflappable in the face of rejection, so much so that her abundance of self-esteem can seem at times like millennial self-delusion or even clinical narcissism. (At other times it just seems really, really healthy —and the fact that it"s off-putting may reflect more poorly on the viewer than on the character.)
And then there"s what goes unspoken. Jessica and Boone are opposites: He"s as self-deprecating and gibbering as she is self-assured and unnervingly direct. But their most visible difference—she"s black, he"s white—is never even mentioned in passing. Race certainly crops up: "Look at me,” Jessica says at one point. "I"m tall. I"m pretty. I"m smart. I am a cocoa queen. Obviously I will have a lot of great loves in my life.” It just never crops up between these two characters. "What I loved about Jessica,” says Williams, "is that she"s a black woman, and that is part of her identity. But in this story, it"s relevant and also irrelevant .”
Jessica James premiered at Sundance, so the film was long in the can by the time its star made headlines at the festival, first for delivering a rousing speech at the Park City Women"s March ("Williams is my last name, but it is not my real name. It is my slave name. I am my ancestors" dream. They fought for me to be able to stand up here in the cold-ass snow in front of a bunch of white people wearing Uggs”); then for publicly tussling with Salma Hayek over matters of intersectional feminism at a lunch for women in Hollywood (Hayek"s position: reject victimhood; Williams"s position: for certain women—black and trans women in particular—"it"s not so simple”).
"Race affects everything that I do, and everything that I create speaks to intersectionality,” Williams explains when I ask whether the film"s handling of interracial dating connects to the point she was trying to make at Sundance. "It"s not a hat I can take on and off. It is a fact and it just exists. It"s interesting, because that means, in a way, even if you"re not trying to be political, you kind of are.”
Later, she adds: "In a way, that"s kind of what it can mean to be black.”
We spoke more about her feelings on that incident, about making The Incredible Jessica James , and about why Williams, who left The Daily Show just before the 2016 presidential election went into overdrive, felt it was high time to move on from the satirical news business.
I"m really tall , so I loved that this movie is about an unusually tall woman. You"re 6 feet tall in real life. Has your height shaped your comedy?
Definitely. Height has been very, very central to the development of my personality. I think when you"re a tall girl, you feel a little bit like an outcast. You have to go to the back of the photo. You"re taller than all the boys. I know I felt more like an outsider. And then as I got older I just got used to it. I got like: I don"t date under 6 feet. That"s my policy.
I"m a lot more comfortable with it. The thing that annoys me as a tall woman: Sometimes I"ll be out somewhere and guys who are just around 6 feet are like, "How tall are you? Let"s stand back to back!” It"s like: Why? It"s always some 5-[foot]-10-ass dude, trying to stand butt to butt with you, trying to see who"s taller. It"s like, okay, alright, I"m the physical incarnation of your failures.
Your character operates with this intense self-confidence. It raises the question: Is she some prototypically self-absorbed millennial? Or is she just a person with a really healthy sense of self that we"re not used to seeing onscreen? How did you read her?
I read her as all of those things, actually. I think there"s something to the millennial sentiment of being, like, I"m great. But I think there"s also something really amazing and powerful about being, like, Oh, hey, I"m awesome. It"s a fine line. But I think it"s possible to be both, to not be the most annoying person in the world, to still be very intriguing and fun to watch. I see Jessica James as very layered and dynamic. I feel complicated. My friends feel complicated. All the women in my life feel complicated. So I was really excited to play her for that specific reason.
In anticipation of meeting you, I was re-reading the story that came out about the Sundance lunch where you got into it with Salma Hayek. Did that experience teach you any lessons about Hollywood that you didn"t already know?
I think I took away a lot about me, actually. I was in a really vulnerable position in that room, and I really felt the need to express myself at this massive table. So I think after I felt sad about it, it was like, oh at the end of the day, it was a little bit brave of me to be able to say that. And what I loved most was the response that it got. I really felt like no matter what happened in that room, there were so many women and men who understood what I was talking about and were really supportive. So I did feel a little alone in that situation, but as soon as I was out of it, there was a lot of love.
You left The Daily Show at the beginning of last summer, arguably when things really started to go haywire with the 2016 election. Have there been moments since then when you"ve felt pangs of: I wish I could get back into the satirical news game?
I only think of that when I come across people I used to work with, because I miss them. I worked in the best office ever. But for the most part: hell no. I really like where I"m at right now. I left The Daily Show to go shoot this movie. I really loved the process of making the movie. I don"t have any regrets about the way I left, and when I left, and what I"m choosing to do. Because, f*ck this. I mean that in the most eloquent way possible: F*ck. This.
You mean politics?
In the film there"s this scene where Jessica James meets the Tony-winning playwright Sarah Jones and asks her: How do you know when you"ve made it? I"ll ask you the same question: How do you know when you"ve made it? Is it when a director writes a movie for you?
I guess so! I think my answer"s more like Sarah"s, where it"s like: Oh sh*t? I"ve made it? There is no official making it. You"re just in the process of it. But yeah, I guess so. I think you kind of just reminded me. Damn, wow, thank you for the life class. It"s just sort of this process: sitting in this hotel, talking to f*cking Vogue about a movie I shot. It"s more about the process and not about the destin— ashe .
I hate to bring up a sore subject, but it was just announced that Comedy Central isn"t moving forward with the pilot you were developing with comedian Naomi Ekperigin. In this film you play a character who manages, no matter what, to put a happy face on disappointment. Do you deal as well as Jessica James does?
That"s not a sore subject and it was not a disappointment. But I have, however, had a lot of rejection in this industry. I feel like I just need to lick my wounds. I need to acknowledge it. Before, I would have compartmentalized everything in a box, just pushed it away, not thought about it, then have it fester for a long time until it finally breaks out of me in a nonhealthy way. I think now I"m trying to acknowledge whatever my disappointments are, why I"m sad, either go talk to my therapist or go work out or something, try to figure out why it didn"t work. And then pull myself up, dust my f*cking outfit off, and get out there. Just keep moving.
Here"s a really basic question: Did the existence of the Netflix show Jessica Jones ever make you think, Maybe we should rename this movie?
I think originally the character"s name was Jessica Jones. We were like, eh, it"s fine, let"s just go with it. When I do press, people are still like: "So, I love The Incredible Jessica Jones .” I"m like: "That"s our b! We did that!”
Spoiler alert: You appear in a pretty dirty sex scene with Chris O"Dowd. How"d you psych yourself up for that?
Oh my god, I was so freaked out. I"m not somebody who even likes to hold hands in public. I"m mortified. Just the idea of doing a scene like that in front of a bunch of crew. … It"s really hot. There"s cameras and a man holding a boom mike who"s ready to go home. It"s so intense. But at the end of the day it"s like, I"m working. I really was like, deep breath.
Was it toward the end of the shoot?
Nope. It wasn"t like the end of the month, or the end of the year, where I could be like: Good night! Never going to see you guys again. I had to see everyone bright and early the next morning, look "em dead in the face at [craft services].
This interview has been condensed and edited.