Jesse Williams: ‘Celebrity culture? I am not going to participate in that’
The Grey’s Anatomy star is back on screen as TV pin-up Jackson Avery, but for the former teacher it’s his civil rights work he wants people to talk about
There is a heatwave making its way through Los Angeles. It’s the second week of September yet temperatures remain at 32C (89F). At 8am, most of the city is still asleep or just waking up, while surfers at Venice Beach have already spent hours searching for the perfect wave. About 5,000 of the city’s residents will wake up to no power as demand on the power grid has triggered blackouts.
On South La Brea Avenue, the street seems deserted except for Jesse Williams, who has seemingly appeared out of nowhere – with no car in sight or handlers in view as he casually strolls up the street. It’s a surprisingly low-key entrance into the world of a man millions of viewers watched when Grey’s Anatomy returned to ABC for its 12th season. On average, about 8.22 million viewers tuned in every Thursday night during its 11th season.
Williams plays Jackson Avery, a handsome doctor who unlike some of his other male colleagues – McSteamy and McDreamy – has been able to escape death thus far. Yet, even if he were killed off, Williams has a back-up plan: being a civil rights attorney. It was that or being a football player, says Williams, recalling his childhood aspirations.
“I didn’t quite fill out,” he quips before talking about his aspirations in law: “That was the plan. It still very well could be the plan. I could still get around to taking the bar. It’s what I love and what I care about. That’s why I wake up.”
Even now as he spends most of his time in Los Angeles filming Grey’s Anatomy, Williams remains involved with the social justice movement. When he is not playing a doctor at Seattle Grace hospital, Williams serves on the board of directors of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, and he works as one of the executive producers of Question Bridge, a trans-media art project/exhibit that focused on the experience of black men in the US…
..Being biracial – his mom is white and his dad is black – Williams has been able to experience both sides of the spectrum. “I have access to rooms and information. I am white and I am also black. I am invisible man in a lot of these scenarios. I know how white people talk about black people. I know how black people talk about white folks. I know I am there and everyone speaks honestly around me,” he says.
“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’ It was real. That fucking happened. And she meant it. And she meant it sincerely and sweetly. She was paying me a compliment.”
It’s hard to pay Williams a compliment. As we talk he actively avoids taking credit, instead bringing up everyone else who works on the projects he is involved in. He praises the Black Lives Matter organizers, “particularly the incredible women running the organization”; the Advancement Project employees; the new generation of social justice activists…
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