Jessica Williams Is More Than Incredible

When Jessica Williams slides into the seat across from me at the Vulture offices, the first thing she says is that she’s happy she’s being interviewed by a black woman. She repeats it again during our conversation: “The fact that you and I, as black women, can speak freely between each other … To me, that’s progress.” We both agree that in a political climate rife with absurdities — a few hours before we meet, the president tweets that transgender Americans should not be allowed to serve in the military, and we’re just a day away from the White House communications director unloading to a reporter in a curse-filled rant on the record — talking to one another about movies, the Sims, and Beyoncé feels like a radical act of self-care.

The Incredible Jessica James, a rom-com that stars Williams as its eponymous character and hits Netflix today, feels similarly groundbreaking. Save for an awkward moment at a baby shower, where the movie’s Jessica gives a mommy-to-be a handmade picture book about fighting the patriarchy, James doesn’t have any of the fiery monologues that made Williams a must-watch on The Daily Show. Jessica James is a classic romantic comedy heroine: Just a girl, trying to get over a boy (Lakeith Stanfield), debating whether or not to unfollow him — and casually sleeping with another boy (Chris O’Dowd) in an attempt at self-distraction. That man just happens to be white, older, and Irish as hell (… his name is Boone), but it’s a natural romance that happens almost by accident, and, wisely, Boone and Jessica’s dates aren’t a vehicle for a Larger Message about race or injustice. Mostly, Jessica James is about its heroine trying to reckon her determination to make it as a playwright with her own vulnerabilities. But it’s not a bogus post-racial fantasy, either.

Williams says this complexity is, in part, what drew her to the film. “[In older rom-coms], there weren’t people of color. I think when we take out this basic idea — that boy meets girl and then boy has to get with girl and that’s the end of the story, and we allow room for people to be of different races and orientations and for the characters to be complicated and dynamic and interesting, then I think there’s room for the rom-com to be more relatable and better.”

Williams left the Daily Show to make Jessica James, which marks her first starring role, and was written with her in mind by writer-director James C. Strouse. Aside from “2 Dope Queens,” the podcast she co-hosts with her friend Phoebe Robinson, Williams is ready to focus on being a movie star, so, as she put it in our interview, she can “pull up” everyone else that Hollywood is less likely to properly reflect. Ahead of the film’s debut, Williams talked to Vulture about leaving the Daily Show, that difficult conversation about feminism and black identity she had at Sundance in January, and how to navigate Hollywood without being a straight white dude.

James Strouse wrote the movie for you. What’s your relationship like?
Jim and I did a movie two years ago called People, Places, Things, and I was a supporting character in that, and it starred Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall, who I love. Jim was really nice, in that after we did the movie, he was like, “I cannot wait until somebody writes something for you.” And he said he was thinking about it [and then thought], “Oh wait, I can write something for her.” So he came up with this story idea he was kicking around, and then he said that his kids were like, “Dad, you should see if Jessica wants to do this first before you keep writing this.” And so he reached out to me. He’s very talented and very smart and funny, so I was like, “Hell, yeah! Of course you want to write a movie for me, of course, I’m super available.” We met a few times to talk about the character, and he would send me new drafts and ask for my input, and then by the time the final draft was done, they asked me to be executive producer of the movie, which is great.

This is your first time executive producing, right?
Yeah, yeah and I was like, “How is it any different?” And they were like, “You just give us your opinions.” And I was like, “Great! I was doing that in the first place.” So, yeah, it felt very natural. And then we shot it really quickly, so it all happened pretty fast.

So how is Jessica James different than Jessica Williams?
We’re very determined and we both really want to succeed in our careers. But she’s very forthright in a way that I’m not. I don’t really like conflict at all, and I really find conflict pretty devastating. I try to avoid it at all costs. There’s an opening scene in the movie where she’s on a Tinder date and she’s letting the guy know upfront that she’s not down to continue this date at all, and I feel like that’s very Jessica James. I would’ve just continued sipping my vodka soda, going throughout the rest of the date knowing I wasn’t down, but wouldn’t say anything. By the time I got home, I would just text my friends about it. I’d probably play the Sims that night and just delete my Tinder app, then get it again a few weeks later.

You’re in a relationship now. What are you like in relationships?
I’m not sure how I am since I’m in it, I think. I’m always battling how to be in a relationship while simultaneously maintaining my independence and my career. When I was a young lady, I never fantasized about getting married. I was always like, “That’d be really nice and really lovely,” but I wasn’t acting out getting married [with dolls] or pinning things about weddings or getting married on my Pinterest page. I do like my relationship, though. I like my relationship, and being in a couple, but I also have that day-to-day tension of still maintaining my independence.

Vulture did a rom-com week a couple months ago where we came to this conclusion that the rom-com movie is dying because not a lot of actresses want to make them. Do you feel like there’s a dearth of good romantic comedies? Do you miss them?
I enjoy romantic comedies in general. I like them when they’re bad, I like when they’re good. I do think they get a bad rep, just because I think there was a rush to push them out [at one point], which left room for a lot of characters that weren’t relatable doing a lot of things that aren’t relatable at all. There wasn’t a lot of room for the female leads to be complex or even for the male leads to be complex or dynamic, which is what can make [rom-coms] great.

Even though James is a romantic comedy about a black woman and a white man, there’s not that typical scene where your character says, “Okay, well, I’m black and you’re white, so let’s kind of talk through this.” I’ve scrolled past so many “In Defense of Dating White Guys While Woke” pieces lately, so that absence felt interesting.
I think it’s powerful to have and show those conversations between interracial couples, to have conversations about what it means actually to be woke and date who you choose to date. But I also think it is powerful to allow characters to just exist. You can consider gender and race directly, or they can just exist wholly and fully. Straight white guys get to do a million different kinds of films for every different kind of situation, and it’s never about him being a man or white. It’s about just whatever the story is, sometimes. For us, there’s room for both. I was really excited to do this movie, because this black woman got to exist wholly and fully and not have it be only about race this time.

Photo: Benedict Evans/Vulture

Between Jessica James and Insecure and Girls Trip, there are so many black women falling in love onscreen right now. But oftentimes it’s relegated to TV. Do you think it’s harder for women of color to be comedic powerhouses in movies?
No! Absolutely not. I think it is in no way harder for women of color to be funny in movies. We’re funny as shit. I can name so many funny black women who would kill it in movies, TV, on Broadway, in improv, in everything. It’s just the difference is, it’s sort of like what Viola Davis said in her Emmys speech — it’s the opportunity to do that.

Right, I think that’s what I was asking about: The access available for black women comedians seems different in TV and in movies.
Yeah, it is different I, think. A lot of times, studios are trying to fulfill something that they call the four quadrants — “Are all demos gonna be happy and satisfied?” As somebody who is an actress and wants to eventually write and direct, that model matters less to me. What matters to me is that the story’s good and that it matters to me, and that the characters are relatable and truthful. Movies like Girls Trip and Get Out speak to this idea that if the idea is great, and the script is good, it will be a little bit of a “risk,” but I think it’s very possible to satisfy whatever the four quadrants are.

And it pays dividends, obviously.
Totally, if that’s what you want, then yeah, it’ll pay. I think it’s just time, the way that things are shifting — it’s time to see more people of color represented in so many different types of movies and shows.

And in different mediums.
All different mediums! Even with podcasts, you know, we have Two Dope Queens. There’s so many other great podcasts led by black women; Another Round is amazing. So we’re here and it’s just about kind of pulling up women and pulling up women of color and pulling up members of the LGBT community. That’s the only way I think we’re gonna get exposure.

You mentioned writing and directing — who do you want to work with? What kind of movies do you want to be in?
I wanna do movies. I wanna do my own show. I also wanna do more Two Dope Queens stuff — we have a lot of cool stuff coming up, but those are the main things right now. It’s a privilege to be able to create art and occupy people’s time and occupy a space in someone’s brain. It’s really great privilege and honor to be able to do that, and I want to do it with integrity, just because I respect and value the fact that they’re giving their time to me.

During the women’s march that was organized at Sundance, you said, “I am my ancestor’s dreams.” That is so powerful.
Oh, we all are. To be a woman of color and a black woman, we are the product of the black women and men that came before us. We are their dreams. They fell on the sword a lot for us to be able to do what I’m doing, what you get to do. The fact that you’re here and there isn’t, technically, a white man in this room, standing over you, telling you what you can and cannot do. The fact that you and I, as black women, can speak freely between each other [is powerful]. When we sat to do this interview, I told you, ‘I love that you’re a woman of color, I love that you’re black.’ And that, to me, is progress: We can engage each other, we can watch different things from Ava DuVernay, or we can watch Insecure, or we can watch Underground, and really just speak to each other on our own accord. It’s really amazing. It’s really powerful and — I know it’s like, we’re just doing an interview, and this is just a movie.

No, I understand! Just talking to one another feels like a radical act sometimes.
Yeah, totally. Whether we choose it or not, what we do oftentimes is political, and so it really is just so surreal and awesome that we get to do this. It’s cool.

For me, sometimes, it feels like too much — I feel that pressure.
Yeah, totally.

How do you deal with that?
I go to therapy, I talk to this wonderful woman named Heather. The most wonderful thing my therapist Heather has told me is, “You don’t have to fight today.” And I’m like, “But what about this?! What about this? And Trump does this and what about all this stuff?” And she’s like, “You don’t have to fight that today. What you can do, if you have a lot going on, you’re free to do self-love and self-care and you can go home and you can play the Sims” — because I love to play the Sims — “and you can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and you can rest. You can order Postmates. You can take your bra off, and put your feet up and chill, it’s okay.”

I think it is making sure that you honor yourself and practice self-care, you take a seat at the table, you get in the shower, you rub cocoa butter on your skin, and you just curl up and just allow yourself to be. Especially with this current environment, we have to allow ourselves to recharge. Everybody’s gonna be critical of you until the day you die, and maybe afterwards, too. But I know for me, it’s really difficult — like, I read all the comments everywhere, I see everything. And so it can be really difficult for me to not focus on the negative and focus on the ways people are critical of me because they have expectations of me, and because there is this idea that you need to be a perfect woman of color. There’s an idea that you need to be a perfect feminist, you need to be a perfect womanist, you need to just not say this or that, and I think it really is kind of honoring yourself and what your internal compass is.

Since you brought up Trump, on days like today —
I know. It’s insane, it’s insane.

So on days when Trump has done the most recent crazy thing, do you miss The Daily Show, or having a platform for political satire?
In a way, I miss the time where it was easier to be satirical about this sort of stuff.

Ah, okay.
A lot of the things that he is doing now are deeply upsetting and really sad. I think there was a time when satire was a lot easier to do. There are amazing people doing satire now — Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah — but there was a time when it was a lot easier. I don’t regret leaving the show, because I got to do this movie. I don’t regret leaving, it’s just that [the political climate] is so fucked up. But no, I have no regrets.

My salve is to share great photos of black women on Twitter, because not everything has to be about Trump all the time, and it always is.
It doesn’t have to be. I hated that I brought him up — it’s like I don’t even want to give him the time on this piece.

We’re done with Trump. That’s the only Trump question.
And you can totally say that, too — I don’t even want to give him the text in this.

What was the hardest scene for you to shoot in Jessica James?
Just me making out, it’s really difficult.

Was this your first sex scene?
Yeah, it was so crazy. I’m 27. I was very concerned because I don’t even like kissing in public.

Were there guidelines?
I think it’s just as actors, you sort of know we’re acting and let’s do this for an amount of time and be done. I come from a very conservative, Christian background, and I think that was making me the most nervous. But it was very easy and normal.

What was the most fun scene to film?
I really love working with kids, because a lot of the stuff the [kids in the film] added they did themselves, and it was really funny. Kids can be brutally honest and they’re not necessarily burdened yet by the traumas of life, so they just have a beautiful, open filter. What they say a lot of the times is really funny, brilliant, insightful.

Jessica James posts her rejection letters on her wall, which I thought was hilarious and very poignant. How do you deal with disappointment and rejection?
I text my friends like, “Can you believe this?” And then I go inward, in a way. I’m pretty introverted, so I go home and I sit with it and I do the self-care, self-love stuff, try not to get too emotionally involved in the no’s because there will be other yes’s. The reason why rejection can feel so devastating is because it feels like it’s your only option. I try to remind myself that there are an infinite number of possibilities and so many things coming down the pipeline that are going to be yes’s, even though it’s difficult in the moment to get the no. Then after I do that, I emerge from my cocoon, somewhat restored and onto the next audition, or onto the next thing.

What roles are you turning down?
I’m turning down roles that don’t feel like they add to society. I don’t want it to feel like I’m doing something that’s really offensive that sets women back or sets black women back. If I feel that it sets women or black women back, it’s offensive to other people, I want no part of it.

Do those types of parts come to you regularly?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s not even people actively trying to be offensive. Sometimes it’s a rush to create and a rush to put something out that sometimes leads to these sort of things happening.

Back to Sundance for a second. I’d like to talk about the Los Angeles Times story from January, which reported a conversation you had with other women at the festival about feminism and identity in the wake of the election. It was certainly a difficult conversation to read. How do you reflect on that today?
I think about it. I mostly really hated having that conversation. I go inward in those situations, so I sort of shut down, and at the table when I feel any sort of emotion, I tear up and I shut down. In my head, at the time, I was thinking, “Cool, nobody understands what I’m trying to say.”

Sometimes, as a black woman or a woman of color — even though you get in all these spaces and these rooms — sometimes you still feel really alone. I think that’s what bothered me the most in that situation. There were awesome advocates there — Dee Rees, Jill Soloway, Kim Peirce — but I still felt very alone. It goes back to being a black girl or woman, being a kid, and feeling alone, in that sense. That, in a way, dictates the African-American female experience which is the only thing I can speak to.

I didn’t know that article was going to come out. I think a lot of people didn’t know that was going to happen, and when it did come out I was surprised. The women that were there were very surprised that that article was written. I was very surprised by the amount of black women who really understood what happened and came to my defense. When that happened, my social media did blow up — but it was all from really awesome women of color, and even white women, who were like, “No, we understand exactly what happened, we understand what you were trying to convey, and we support you.” There have been so many black women who have been like, “We’ve been through that too, I know that feeling of feeling very alone, even in the feminist movement, I can speak to that.” It was amazing.

What was great about it was as black women we were able to engage, and talk about this idea that we’ve struggled with since the birth of feminism: the need to be acknowledged, that there is a difference between us and them. We are all trying to achieve a common cause, but we are in a country where the history is that black women have been the opposite of white women and the opposite of white men in social status. [We have been cast as the opposite of] what is traditionally considered feminine or beautiful. So what we need is the acknowledgement that we are intersectional, and what we need — or, what I need, because I can’t speak for all black feminists — is just the acknowledgement of the difference. Acknowledging that doesn’t take away from someone else’s personal experience. A lot of the history in this country was dependent on the ownership of black bodies and black women and black women’s sexuality and black women’s babies. We are still suffering the effects of that years later, decades later. There needs to be, at least for me, an acknowledgement of that, so that we can then have serious conversations about feminism and womanism, because there are differences. I don’t even think feminists are trying to be oppressive at all, and that’s also the frustrating part.

Exactly. That erasure isn’t always meant to be intentional.
It wasn’t intentional, no. It’s a conversation where someone just is not understanding what we’re saying. I look at you and I know you know what I’m talking about. When I run into black women it’s like, You know what I’m talking about.

To shift gears a bit: What are your favorite and least favorite Beyoncé songs?
First of all, I love Solange, so anything where she references Solange. There’s so many for different occasions. What’s the one on the last album where she’s like … “All Night.” It’s gorgeous. It’s my favorite Beyoncé song right now. But “Get Me Bodied” is my favorite workout song.

Get Me Bodied Extended Mix”?
Yes. “Party.” I love just to chill at home. I also still love “Drunk in Love.” I love the remix, it’s great. My least favorite song is when she did the song “Nasty Girl” with Destiny’s Child? It’s very slut-shaming and very cringe-y, like, Wait a minute. “Girl what you thinkin ’bout lookin that to’ down.” Like, what? Excuse me? I love the shit out of her, but I’m like Oh, that one I’m not here for.

Your birthday is next week. Any big plans?
I’m going to a beach somewhere. I need to buy my ticket, my boyfriend and I are going to spend time with friends. It’s going to be amazing. I’m just really excited. I’m going to eat food and celebrate 28.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jessica Williams Is More Than Incredible