Jessica Williams Gets Her Best Material From Her Grandma
Jessica Williams is, to put it simply, luminous. The comedian and actor can turn a supporting role into an enduring cultural touchpoint, which she did as the impossibly cool Miss Fine in 2019’s Booksmart; and a two-person comedy performance into a wildly popular podcast, which she did as a co-host (alongside Phoebe Robinson) of the show 2 Dope Queens. This year, Williams took on her biggest role yet, as the mysterious Mia Hines, a woman entangled in a romance with Marcus Watkins [played by William Jackson Harper], in the HBO Max romantic comedy series Love Life. Packed with moments sure to resonate with anyone navigating the dating world today, and studded with guest stars like Saturday Night Live’s Ego Nwodim, the show is an undeniable standout on HBO Max’s fall slate. Tonight, HBO Max will release Love Life’s final episodes, and fans of the series will find out if Hines and Watkins end up together. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Williams to discuss her lead role, her improv years at Los Angeles’ famed Upright Citizens Brigade, and the feeling of gliding through a good scene.
JAKE UITTI: Hi! How are you?
JESSICA WILLIAMS: I’m good, I’m good! Are you in New York?
UITTI: I’m in Seattle.
WILLIAMS: Ugh, I love it there. My brother went to Washington State, so for a while we’d go up for football games and stuff.
UITTI: They take it pretty seriously there.
WILLIAMS: I also went to Sasquatch! [Music Festival] out there. I remember seeing Fleet Foxes and it was sunset and I was in college and I was like, this is, I feel like I’m living right now. Just getting a contact high—I was like, ugh, this is great. I’m going to live forever, man!
UITTI: Well, in the spirit of living forever, let me ask—did you like that segue?
WILLIAMS [Laughs] Yes, go on.
UITTI: I always wonder when people who are professionally funny told their first good joke. The first time you made someone laugh or react in a way that made you go, “Oh, this is good, I want to do this more.” When was that for you?
WILLIAMS: My grandma, who is no longer with us, was a funny gal. I think there are two different kinds of grandmas. The milk and cookies grandmas, and the ones who drink beer and smoke cigarettes and have a hearty laugh. They don’t cook shit, and they swear. My grandma was the latter, for sure. She had a really good sense of humor, so whenever I would go stay with her—she used to live in the Valley—she would let me stay up late and watch South Park, Space Ghost, Conan [O’Brien], Saturday Night Live, Mad TV. She had a really good, twisted sense of humor.
WILLIAMS: She informed that that world view was okay. She would always send me back to my mom’s—I’m from Torrance [California]—and my mom would be like, “What happened over there? You’re crass. What is this?” And I would be like, “Well, I was at grandma’s house!” I have these really fond memories of just watching The Critic with her and being like, “It stinks!”
UITTI: So, humor is in your DNA, but it was also part of your upbringing? That’s the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of comedy.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, definitely. My grandma passed when I was 13 or 14, before I made my high school improv team, or any of the rest of it.
UITTI: When people are funny, people often assume they’re not equally cerebral. As you were gaining a reputation for levity and humor, did you also have to make sure people knew you were sharp, intellectually?
WILLIAMS: That’s a funny question. No, I find usually—maybe because I’m six-feet tall, I don’t know, I have an intimidating stature—that people tend to believe what I’m saying. They’re like, “Yeah, that seems right.” And I’m like, “Wait, I just pulled that out of my ass!” I don’t know, I think people think of comedians as thinkers now. I know I do. The Bo Burnhams of the world, people like that, we think of them as people who shine a light on different aspects of society. Like, have you thought about this?
UITTI: How did Upright Citizens Brigade shape your creative sense? The shows are like torrential storms of amazing improvisation, like dream factories. How did they mold the way you think about performance?
WILLIAMS: I had done improv in high school and in college, too. I went on a date with some guy and we went to UCB. I had been interested in it. Then I saw Derrick Comedy improvising as Derrick Comedy and winning this Battle Royale of improv and I just fell in love. I was like, “Oh shit, this is tight.” Everyone was standing, it was completely full. Now that we’re in the pandemic, sometimes I think about completely full theaters, like, what was floating around in there? What did I walk away with? But I remember feeling really feeling like, “This is where I need to be.” I talked to my parents, since I was still in college, about doing Upright Citizens Brigade part time and school part time. They were like, “That’s totally fine”—for some reason? It just worked out. I did that for a few years and then I got on The Daily Show.
UITTI: Your most recent show, Love Life, is about relationships and dating. Have you ever been the super-cool object of affection like the person you play in the series?
WILLIAMS: [Laughs] NO! No! No, I was not the super-cool object of affection. Like, ever. I was definitely playing a part with this one. And I feel like I did have a little bit of a hang-up in my head of being like, “I haven’t been this! How am I going to do this? How am I going to portray Mia in this way?” But then I got over it and gave her life in the way that she demanded. But no, no, no!
UITTI: Well, you pulled it off!
WILLIAMS: Thank you so much!
UITTI: There’s a certain mystery about her, a very in control exterior and out of control interior. It’s a different role from Ms. Fine. Why did you want to play this character?
WILLIAMS: Her journey was explained to me, so I knew that Marcus and Mia would end up together somehow, in spite of it all. So, I was excited to play this fully-formed, well thought out person with autonomy on screen. It was just a no-brainer. I’m also just a big William Jackson Harper fan, so I was excited to do scenes with him. I loved the first season of Love Life and it was nice meeting with Sam Boyd and Rachelle Williams, two of the three co-show. I really trusted them, and they trusted me with the character. They had some ideas about Mia, but a lot of her character I think it was tailor made for me when I was cast. You don’t really get that opportunity too often.
UITTI: When you learned you were cast, what went through your mind? There’s a great deal of on-screen romance, which would certainly intimidate me. Was there any trepidation?
WILLIAMS: There was a bit of trepidation, because you are vulnerable in those scenes. And I don’t want to fucking see what me kissing somebody looks like! I don’t want to see that!
UITTI: Over and over!
WILLIAMS: But now, it exists! And it’s going to exist for eternity, it’s going to be online forever, you know? I’m just like, “Oh boy!” That is intimidating to me. But it was a really comfortable set. I was seen and listened to and was never pushed out of my comfort zone in a way that felt bad. So, I felt safe.
UITTI: Did your comfort zone as an actor change at all as a result of your work on the series?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, because a lot of my scenes are with William Jackson Harper and he’s such a great actor. We have good chemistry and he made me a better actor, as well. I learned a lot about myself this summer—what I’m capable of, what scenes bring me joy, what scenes I don’t like doing. It was just a good experience to add to the pot and sift through and just become a more thoughtful actor. I taught me to just do things I want to do, and not doing any bullshit.
UITTI: Also, your career is growing. You are a famous person! A major step in that process was your podcast, 2 Dope Queens. When that was happening—as the numbers were going up, what were you thinking? Were you like, “Oh fuck,” or was it all joy?
WILLIAMS: That’s a good question. When that happens with acting or comedy, the weird thing is that the more you put out there, the more popular you become. That’s just the way that this particular career goes. But honestly, when I’m out and people come up to me, they’re talking to me like a normal person. There’s such nuance to being recognizeable, and I feel like I’m in this really good sweet spot where I get to, like, go to Qdoba low-key and just be at Qdoba. [Laughs]
WILLIAMS: So, I’m definitely not at any kind of mega-level, but it is nice—there is this restaurant across the street from my house, and there is this really lovely baker there who’s in charge of putting out the cakes every day. She’s a fan of me and the podcast, so always gives me a slice of cake. She’ll give my mom a slice of cake at the diner whenever she goes too, a lemon-lavender loaf. But I still got to pay for the damn meal! They’re not like, “It’s on the house, Tom Cruise!” No.
UITTI: You’ve mentioned food a few times. Do you like to eat? What do you like to eat?
WILLIAMS: Yes, yes and yes. I just had endometriosis surgery, so I’m trying to do anti-inflammatory foods. But for some reason when I bought my house, the first thing I got was cookbooks. They’re so pretty, I’ll show you the one I’m most excited about. [Williams heads off and goes for her cookbooks, bringing back a powder blue one called Dishoom]. Have you been to London?
UITTI: I have! Not for a while, but I have.
WILLIAMS: Have you ever been to Dishoom?
UITTI: I haven’t!
WILLIAMS: Oh my gosh, it’s this incredible restaurant.
UITTI: Earlier, you mentioned your grandmother. Is there a person, maybe it’s her, that you’re particularly grateful for in your life?
WILLIAMS: Oh, my mom, for sure. She’s my No. 1 fan. She has a Google alert set on me, whether for good or for bad. I’ve been in Brooklyn for 10 years and I bought my house before the pandemic here in L.A., because this is where I’m from. I renovated a house over the pandemic, which was insane. But my mom is so excited—I made her a guest room.
WILLIAMS: The other day, she came over, and we watched The Bachelorette, which we haven’t been able to do because I’ve been living in New York. By the time she left, I realized that she had done all the dishes in the sink and put everything away. She had quietly done it. It was just the sweetest, most loving thing that anyone could do. So, I said, “Mom, thank you so much!” And she was like, “Yeah, you’re my baby! That’s what moms are for!”
WILLIAMS: It was really nice. So, yeah, my mom. Just for the little things. And I guess for birthing me, that was pretty cool.
UITTI: Last question. What do you love most about what you do?
WILLIAMS: I’m adding to more representation on screen. I hope to continue doing things that I would have wanted to see growing up, and that I would have related to. I like that I’m helping people feel seen. Another thing I like is when a scene is good, and I’m just in the moment. Acting in a good scene or with a great scene partner feels like flying. That’s why I do it. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s like when you’re roller-skating or something and it feels like you’re gliding. That sweet spot is why I do it.