For a generation of Everybody Hates Chris viewers, watching Tyler James Williams onscreen is as comforting as curling up in your childhood bed. Abbott Elementary, his return to sitcoms after roles in Dear White People and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, introduces Williams as substitute teacher Gregory Eddie. His presence is both nostalgic and unexpected, much like Abbott Elementary itself, which pairs Hollywood veterans such as Lisa Ann Walters and Sheryl Lee Ralph with internet breakers Quinta Brunson and Zack Fox and scene-stealing newcomer Janelle James. As the new guy at school, Gregory is immediately swept into the politics and drama of molding young minds, even when they go against his own very rigid personal values. By mid-season, Gregory is subverting his own expectations of himself, begrudgingly saving the school garden with the green thumb he inherited from his landscaper dad, and attempting to shake what his mama gave him at an anti-drugs concert for the kids.
“We’re trying to reinvent a bit,” Williams told Vulture over Zoom. “We don’t want to do the same thing other people are doing. That’s what made me leave the sitcom for so long: Every pilot I read, I knew where this character was going, who they were by the first two pages. That’s boring.” Below, Williams schools us on his Abbott Elementary love triangle, working with comedians who bring energy like a “loaded gun,” and his favorite Quinta B. meme.
As straightforward and buttoned-up as Gregory can be, he’s kind of a weirdo. How did he come off on the page?
His voice sounded really natural to my voice, and that’s by design. When Quinta brought it to me, she was like, “I kind of wrote this with you in mind.” I was able to find these smaller nuances about how he felt about the world around him. And not just what he was going through: On the page, it was more like him trying to get into this world, but there’s also a lot of opinions in his head.
On top of dealing with the school’s regular problems, he’s got the challenge of being a substitute teacher. Did you do any research about that job?
The thing I got to first was the instability of it. He’s somebody who likes routine. You see it in the way he eats, his schedule, when he leaves work. Substituting was something that was naturally uncomfortable for him, and it would force him to make a decision about his future.
What do you think his dad’s main issues are with Gregory being a teacher?
Every parent wants the easiest life they can imagine for their child. He sees what we all see and know is the public school system. It’s a life where you’re not going to make a lot of money. It’s going to be very hard work. His father started a business that he can bring his son into, and eventually, his son could run. A lot of minority families in America are facing what the future looks like. We know it’s only getting harder to survive; prices are only going up. It may be in your best interest to look at something more lucrative. But hopefully, what we also found coming out of the height of the pandemic is it’s not only about that. If you don’t feel fulfilled, you can have all the money in the world and it doesn’t matter.
Unlike his Philly co-workers, Gregory’s from Baltimore. Did you add any Baltimore-isms to your portrayal?
I didn’t as much because he strikes me as somebody who has done a really good job to make sure he fits into any position he wants to be in. As somebody who grew up being an actor from New York, I know I can’t walk into every single interview talking [drops into a New York accent] like this just because this is where I’m from. I have to have this non-regional thing. Gregory is very similar to that. What we’re ultimately getting to is, whether it be Philly or Baltimore, he’s learning he can still reside in his natural, authentic self. We saw that in the “Work Family” episode where he decided to let loose with these kids and have a good time. We’re still very early in seeing who Gregory is, so we’re not seeing as much of where he came from.
In the brief interactions we’ve seen between him and Janine, how do you make his crush and the slow-burn relationship trope feel new?
You’re injecting conflict. You have two characters who are fairly different, who need to learn a lot and need to grow up a lot. That’s the bigger story here, that these people are becoming the people they need to be. If that leads them down a road of being together, then great. That’s what the audience hopes for.
I mean, how can you possibly feud with Zack Fox, who plays Janine’s boyfriend, Tariq?
I’m Team Tariq. Gregory may have an issue with him; I personally think he’s a joy. Zack’s not safe. I like working with actors who are going to make a choice that changes my reaction or changes how my character feels about something. Zack is like sitting a loaded gun on the table. Janelle James is the same thing. She walks into a scene and you feel that anticipation rising in you. I don’t know what’s about to happen, but she’s gonna do something.
What’s it like being on the receiving end of her repeated HR violations?
It’s actually a nice dichotomy because I love Janelle immensely, but then we have to turn it on onscreen. And I have to be the most uncomfortable person in the world as she essentially tries to get me to crack and break. I know that when she walks off before the take starts, she’s thinking of something to do. I don’t want to know what that is. I’ll see it in the moment. And then y’all will see my reaction when it comes out.
Hair flip is one of my favorites. She does it so often when we’re shooting because it’s like a period on the scene where there doesn’t need to be one. Walk out like mid-scene but we still have stuff to do.
It’s her TV show, for sure. Quinta posted a really sweet video of all the kids calling her “Ms. Teagues” like she’s really their teacher. Do your kids know you’re acting?
No, they call me Mr. Gregory. We keep the continuity of the kids in each class specific, so when we had the scenes in the gym, we were standing with our kids who we’ve gotten to know over the course of the first season. Twin girls in my class, we have the same birthday, so when our birthdays came around, that was a thing. What’s actually kind of sad is, going into season two, they’ll have to go to somebody else’s class. Those aren’t my kids anymore. If anything, the kids come in from Quinta’s class.
Now that more UPN shows are available on streaming, we’re seeing a resurgence of love for Black TV actors like Reggie Hayes, who plays the superintendent on Abbott Elementary. Who would you want to see as a guest?
That’s a rough one because there’s a lot of names being kicked around currently. It’s really a blessing. You know what, that is a question for Quinta Brunson. I wouldn’t even want to limit it by throwing a name out there that you probably recognize, because there’s probably somebody else who’s been good for years, much like Reggie. I was watching his work on Girlfriends through quarantine because we had nothing else but the time to do that. I watched the entire eight seasons; he doesn’t miss once. The joke lands every time. That’s an actor who deserves to work.
Do you have a favorite meme of Quinta’s?
Oh, “People be gay.” Which, actually, strangely enough, Zack Fox made. He was like, “Yeah, she said it one day, and I was like, ‘That should be a quote.’”
Both you and Coco Jones from Let It Shine are on sitcoms at the same time. Has that been a blast from the past?
Not necessarily. I feel like I’ve worked with a lot of really talented people, and I expect those really talented people to continue to work. So was Trevor Jackson, and we’re currently under the same Disney umbrella.
Jones went viral for talking about her experience figuring herself out as a young actor. Do you relate to that, having played one character for so many years?
It was something I tried to preempt while we were shooting, trying to educate her and Trevor, like, “Hey, it’s not one and done. It’s not that you do one project and then the network takes care of you for the rest of your life and you’re a superstar from here forward. It’s a marathon.” I’m really happy she came out on the other side whole and intact. She stayed the course and kept going.
My last Q is arguably the most important: Do you eat pizza?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, I’m from New York. I grew up on a steady diet of pizza, chopped cheese, and street pretzels. I think it’s in my DNA at this point.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.