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Jessica Williams on Taking a Bite Out of Ed Helms

Jessica Williams. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Like The Office meets Alive, with a bit of The Descent thrown in, Patrick Brice’s dark comedy Corporate Animals follows a group of workers on a team-building exercise who find themselves stuck deep inside a cave. Written by Sam Bain (whose credits include Peep Show and Four Lions), it’s a midnight-movie-style mixture of potentially schlocky elements — and it did, indeed, premiere in the Park City at Midnight section of Sundance — but it works mainly as a carefully calibrated, and deeply hilarious, piece of satire. The characters work for a company that sells edible silverware, and they’re led by a domineering, narcissistic boss (played with snarling abandon by Demi Moore) who knows how to manipulate each and every one of her underlings. Even as the trapped co-workers’ situation gets more desperate, they have to contend with corporate hierarchies and petty office jealousies.

The cast is fantastic — it includes Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Calum Worthy, and Nasim Pedrad — and the film wisely lets each performer play to their strengths instead of forcing everybody into the same style of comedy. And the glue helping hold it all together is Jessica Williams as Jess, the careful, soon-to-be-vice-president who doesn’t want to do anything wrong, and who often holds back on saying how she really feels. That may seem like an odd part for the comedian, best known as a correspondent on The Daily Show, but she’s actually been demonstrating her versatility at Sundance for some years: She gave one of the most nuanced performances of the 2017 festival with her lead role in the romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James. I recently had the chance to talk to her about the new film, about the kinds of roles she’d like to play, and which of her co-stars would break first if they were ever trapped in a cave. (But be warned, there are some spoilers here for Corporate Animals.)

I was impressed with the chemistry of the cast in Corporate Animals. Did that take a lot of rehearsal?
We didn’t really rehearse all that much. We shot the movie in just 18 days, and it all takes place for the most part in one room. A lot of things actually came together at the last minute, and we got really, really lucky. We all just fell in love with each other. I think what the film does really well is balancing out all these different characters — in order to keep the comedic tension, people have to be on different levels. You’ve got people like Isiah Whitlock and Martha Kelly and even Calum Worthy, and everybody is really funny in their own way.

There was probably also a balance to strike given the rather, shall we say, intense premise. You have to convey enough desperation that we buy the characters’ eventual actions, but not so much that it starts to become unfunny.
I think that that is a really tough balance to strike. We sort of had to put faith in Patrick and Sam, because I do agree that it could easily just get really dark and not funny really quickly. I am a big fan of Patrick Brice’s. I really loved The Overnight. And I am obsessed with this show called Peep Show, which Sam Bain co-created and wrote a lot of, and so I kind of knew going in that this would be funny, dark, twisted, and, you know, also provide some sort of commentary. The script was really cool and fun and really gross. And I think Sam did an incredible job of keeping the comedic tension. I’ve seen the film now a couple of times. The premiere at Sundance was my first time seeing it, and people were really laughing throughout. And that’s a great sign.

So, at one point, your characters resort to cannibalism. And there is this longish shot of you biting off a piece of Ed Helms’s severed arm. What did that arm taste like?
Well, shout out to Galaxy [San Juan]. She created the arm. It was really heavy. Ed Helms sent in a ton of reference images of his arm, and it just looked so real and so freaking gross. But, you know, technically the arm, the inside of the arm, was vegan. Galaxy told me, “For a lot of the tendons we used coconut jerky, and for the blood we use chocolate.” So I remember before I bit into it, as I was preparing, Galaxy told me to think of it as like a sweet candy luau, which is pretty gross. But it was ultimately really sweet and very vegan, so that was nice. [Laughs.]

Did you have to do multiple takes of that?
I only had to do two. Honestly, it was so, so gross. I could not emphasize to you — because it looked so realistic and because the arm was so heavy, it really was one of those things that was a head trip to bite into. Luckily, Patrick and all the executive producers were really nice and let me only do like two takes of it — it really was gag-worthy stuff.

Among that cast, who do you think would break first if you guys were stuck in a cave in real life?
Oh, I think Isiah Whitlock. He would lay back for a bit; he’d like chill — but if he needed to survive, he would definitely take us down, for sure. Actually, he would let us fight among ourselves, and he’d go away, and then get us in the end. Mind you, he’s the sweetest man ever. He’d be very hesitant … but if it came down to it, I really think he would survive.

How long do you think you could last in a cave like that?
I’d say about ten minutes! I would last about ten minutes before I’d lose it. I really, really don’t think that I would survive that long. I’d be pretty upset, honestly.

Have you actually ever been caving?
No, I haven’t been caving, but you know … The set was really cool because we had an awesome, awesome set builder, and it felt realistic. We were shooting these scenes, and in between takes, we’d just sit in the cave. We really got used to it. I’ve never been caving, and honestly after this movie, I don’t know if that’s something that’s in my top things to do.

Over the years, I’ve seen you in a number of films at Sundance where you’ve really demonstrated your versatility: People Places Things, The Incredible Jessica James. These are smaller movies. Do you think people are aware of how much you can do? 
In the beginning, I would often be typecast into the kind of parts that a lot of women do in comedy — either the girlfriend, or a character who is mostly supportive to a white male comedic character. Or who’s nagging them about something — like about how they need to get their life together. But I think now with the work that I’ve done, and especially with where we are as a culture, I just get more opportunities to play characters who are fully developed and allowed to be funny on the page. Or are allowed to do exactly what needs to be done, without compromise. But I think the landscape is changing because now a lot of us are able to get more opportunities to play fully, fully realized characters.

Do you have any dream parts you’d like to play?
Dream parts … I have to think about that … I would love to be in an apocalyptic movie of some sort. And I would love to do just a straight-up dramatic role. I don’t necessarily get opportunities like that yet, but I’m really open to them. I think sometimes it’s just a matter of time before things start happening.

Have you thought about writing parts like that for yourself?
Definitely. I mean, that’s the thing now. It’s 2019. We’re really lucky right now to be in a time when we can actually create. If people of color and LGBTQ [performers] just sat around and waited for straight white Hollywood to call and offer them a part, we wouldn’t have careers. And I feel really lucky for the people who came before me, [who allowed me to] be an actress in this time right now, today, when I have the ability to create. So, yeah, while you’re waiting for that awesome part to come, now is the time to create and write for yourself as well. We get to have a say in what it is that we do, and that’s really exciting.

Jessica Williams on Taking a Bite Out of Ed Helms