Tyler James Williams sat down with GQ and opened up about his “traumatic” experience being a child star – and the harsh words told to him by a producer on Everybody Hates Chris regarding the future of his career.
He described experiencing fame as a teenager as “weird”, saying the learning curve on that particular show was steep.
“I learned how to carry a show in a matter of two or three months,” he said. “It's the most useful information I've ever gotten in my life.”
But getting that information wasn’t a breeze. And going through a very public puberty was difficult, to say the least.
“The time this was happening was the same time the internet was becoming more ingrained in the industry,” he told the outlet. “So as I'm going through the most awkward years of my life, everyone sees it. I think my voice was cracking nonstop during seasons two and three. I was trying to find myself in front of everybody. And everybody had an opinion and was getting used to getting theirs out.”
In addition to navigating those coming-of-age changes, he described the constant threats that face child and teen actors – things like the possibility of having a stunted career, burnout, or getting stuck in “juvenile purgatory” - being limited to teenage roles.
“I figured that out pretty f-cking quickly,” he said, recalling that a producer on the show once said to him, “I'll never see you as anything else and you'll probably never work again.”
He adds that it could have been meant as a joke, but maintains that he internalized it anyway. “I was like, ‘Holy sh-t, you really just looked at me and said that.’”
While the comment certainly sounds out of line, if the producer was hinting at the very real possibility of Tyler becoming a typecast, there’s at least some validity there, despite the horrible and insensitive delivery. But the idea that he would never work again? What does that stem from?
There have been several child stars who have spoken out in recent years about the cost of child fame. People like Jennette McCurdy, Cole Sprouse, Selena Gomez and Mara Wilson have all spoken at length about the trade offs they made, willingly or unwillingly, and the long-lasting effects of it. But being a Black child star adds a level of nuance considering how marginalizing and tokenizing the experience can be.
With that knowledge, he says he did a course-correction at age 17, when the show ended.
“I decided to stop and pivot. I got with a really good acting coach and I turned down every single thing I was offered,” he said, before finally accepting roles in Dear White People, Criminal Minds and The Walking Dead in the years that followed.
Exercising discernment over the roles you accept is a strategic decision that requires a lot of good decision-making skills. Recently, I wrote about Yara Shahidi exercising similar judgement in her acceptance of the role of Tinkerbell in Disney’s live-action remake of Peter Pan. With both stars getting their starts in the industry in the very early stages of their lives, they’ve both amassed a great deal of success by working hard to put their versatility on full display – but also by stepping into the driver’s seat when it comes to their career.
The other thing both of these stars have in common is the amount of other Black talent they work with – which goes a long way in extending, or at least maintaining, access to opportunities. For Yara, her time on Blackish kept her in the circles of Hollywood heavyweights like Kenya Barris, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne, ultimately leading to her starring in the show’s spinoff, Grownish. Tyler, on the other hand, credits a quick stint on Quinta Brunson’s A Black Lady Sketch Show as ultimately career-changing.
Quinta reached out to him to let him know that she had sold a show, Abbott Elementary, and had written the role of Gregory Eddie with him in mind. And despite intentionally avoiding network television, he was attracted to the idea because he trusted Quinta.
And he was right to trust her – seeing as his depiction of Gregory Eddie landed him a Golden Globe for the Best Supporting Actor in a Television Series, which for him, was reaffirming.
“It helped me relax a bit more and go, ‘Yeah, you earned it. You pull your weight. You're not just coasting,’” he said.
When you spend years swallowing microaggressions and being told that the possibilities are limited for you, especially when you’re young, it becomes easy to believe. This is the reality for a lot of Black child stars. This is what he means when he says that even if it was a joke, that one remark all those years ago lived in him until he felt redeemed and worthy.
But there’s an antidote to this. And it’s the changes we’re seeing unfold in spaces that range from the writers' room to the network boardrooms. We’re seeing more women, more people of colour, more actors of colour. And in banding together, it’s an entirely new ecosystem that helps to ensure people like Tyler and Yara have roles to fill, writers like Quinta have scripts to write – and that despite the crap they heard growing up, nothing is impossible.