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Jessica Williams Brought Her Own Spice, and Scrunchies, to Shrinking

Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

The title and logline for Apple TV+’s Shrinking suggested the show, created by Bill Lawrence, Jason Segel, and Brett Goldstein, would center on a therapist (Segel’s Jimmy) dealing with grief as he upends the way he approaches his practice. And while Jimmy’s unorthodox, arguably unethical way of dealing with his patients drove much of this season’s humor, the overlapping bonds between its varied cast of characters turned out to be the true foundation of this workplace-family sitcom. It’s how Gaby (Jessica Williams) got to spend time not just with Jimmy and her boss, Paul (Harrison Ford, in full grump mode), but also with Jimmy’s daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell), one of his patients (Luke Tennie’s Sean), and, perhaps most thrillingly, Jimmy’s “rich white lady” neighbor, Liz (Christa Miller).

With her brightly colored jumpsuits, stickered laptop, and hilariously outsize water bottle, Gaby is often a ray of sunshine amid story lines that flirt with grief and death in increasingly melancholy ways. Following the show’s season finale, Williams chatted about putting her own spin on the “Black lady therapist” trope, her improvised moments — including that Mariah Carey riff — and what she wishes for Gaby as the series gears up for a second season.

I figured we would start with the “safe dick” of it all.
Yeah, sure.

I’m curious whether Jimmy and Gaby were shipped from the beginning or whether it was a discovery of sorts as the season went along.
I think it was a little bit of both. It certainly was always the plan even before I took the job. I think they had the first couple episodes written already, then everything sort of happened organically. But, yeah, that was definitely always a part of the plan, that initial, accidental sort of hookup.

But now it seems like it’s more than a hookup.
Who knows! I mean, with safe dick, you never really know. Safe dick is a really hard opportunity to pass up, you know?

Oh, believe me, I do. So talk to me about your chemistry with Jason because it does seem like you two have a great comedic groove going on.
Yeah, I was super-nervous to do the show. The way I got the job was I just had a long Zoom with all the creators of the show and Jason. And I got COVID the first couple weeks, so they shot around me. Then my first day was a really quick scene with Jason, and when we started acting together, it was like, Oh, okay, I like this. We were just really on the same page, and we were both painting with similar colors. It’s really fun to try and make him laugh.

By the end, Gaby was part of all of these odd couples — not just Gaby and Jimmy but Gaby and Liz and Gaby and Paul. And there’s great chemistry in all of them.
At this point, I’ve done a lot of rom-coms and things like that, and I work really hard to have chemistry with every single person that I act with. I think a big part of generating that is I like to home in on why I think that this odd pairing is funny. So, for example, with Christa Miller’s character, I personally love rich white ladies. Watching The Real Housewives and stuff like that makes me laugh and laugh. That’s how on my end I can generate that joy in chemistry — thinking, Okay, If I was hanging out with a rich white lady in Pasadena, here’s what will be funny about it. 

And same with Harrison, too. He’s a grump. There’s nothing funnier than annoying someone who is already naturally grumpy. So how can I, as an actress, give Harrison something annoying to bump up against? Oh, what if she’s got that childlike wonder whenever she talks to him or is more annoying than usual whenever she talks to her boss? So it’s about thinking about what the tension is between the two characters and really doing my part in leaning into it. Then the scenes sort of write themselves.

There’s an unguarded optimism about Gaby that translates into what she wears and how she decorates the office. How much of that were you bringing into the character?
I think even before I signed on for this job and I had my initial meetings with them, the people in charge wanted Gaby to be this bright character. The writers really wanted her to be someone where you saw her clothes and they’d be like, Where’d you get that? They really wanted her to be able to balance out Jimmy’s character, who’s going through really traumatic grief, and Paul’s character, who’s going through another kind of shadow grief of his own. They knew that they wanted Gaby to be light. Like, she has her own problems, but they wanted her to be more optimistic and moving forward and kind of floating between those guys. So even with set design, they had her office be colorful, whereas Jimmy’s office has, you know, dying plants. And Paul’s is more, like, mid-century. A lot of the lines are beautifully written for her, but then a lot of it I got to improvise on set. Between Bill Lawrence and Jason Segel, they made it so that I could really put my little spice on it.

Was there any particular spice you remember adding to Gaby’s aesthetic?
I remember on set I had a bunch of really huge scrunchies that I got online, and they let me tour Gaby’s office a day before we started shooting and I was like, Oh, I just want to add scrunchies to this lamp, based one of my good friends, Vicky, who has scrunchies everywhere in her house. So I added those, and then the writers initially wrote it in, and I think in episode five there’s literally a conversation between Gaby and Paul about the scrunchies on her lamp. A lot of it was just this really beautiful collaboration process between me and the writers.

I enjoyed watching as the season progressed how keenly aware Gaby is that she’s a Black therapist, which made me constantly think of the “Black lady therapist” trope. Were you familiar with it?
I’m definitely aware of that. I just really try and attack my comedic choices with specificity, and when you attack scenes with specificity, it helps take things out of trope land. But this is also about, you know, white people giving you opportunities because of the way the system is set up. A lot of times, you need white allies to make it on-camera and to tell compelling, interesting stories. But also they have to give you permission to fly and have depth and to add to your character. I don’t know a lot of therapists being portrayed on TV right now that are able to talk about “safe dick” or singing “Absolutely (Story of a Girl).” A lot of that stuff is a collaboration between incredible writing and executive producing and then just me being able to add what I like to the character. A big part of that comes from the white people in charge allowing that to be, which doesn’t happen all the time.

But, yeah, I think that’s a really valid and interesting trope. And I think it speaks back to us as caretakers with the history of slavery and the way that we’re seen as fixers, just people who don’t have problems of our own. It’s a trope that allows for people to use Black people as a sounding board to get advice without asking them how they’re doing — which is, you know, not tight.

Part of what made Gaby so fun to watch is also how funny you’ve made her. I have to ask, Was that Mariah Carey impression something you had in your back pocket already?
Um, yes. I think about Mariah Carey all the time. She’s embedded in the pop-culture wheelhouse in my brain. But that was improvised. I think the writers wrote, “like Mariah Carey hitting the high note good.” And then there was a take where I just did that thing. And James Ponsoldt, who was the director of the finale, was like, “That is absolutely going to make it into the show.” But a lot of times on set I don’t remember half the things that I do because my job is to just be present in the moment, and with Gaby, I’m always trying to do stuff onscreen that I would be doing if I was hanging out with and bullshitting with my friends.

Speaking of, the other amazing moment Gaby had this season was her art-show meltdown. How much fun was that to play?
It was really fun. That episode was directed by Zach Braff. It was also the first time we had the combo of Liz and Sean, and that was a really fun combo to explore. I think that meltdown was written as one or two lines, and Zach really kind of let me go for it.

It was funny because I stopped by the writers’ room a couple of weeks ago, and they were already writing the second season, and that episode had just aired. And I was like, “Did you guys write the ‘thumbs in the butt’ stuff?” And they were like, “No, nobody wrote that.” I was like, “Oh, shit, did I do that?” Apparently nobody told me to do that. So I don’t know how that happened or when that happened and how that speech got so ignorant. But it was really fun to do that, and that’s one of those things where I just feel so, so, so lucky to be able to just kind of let my brain go where it needs to go.

And now butt stuff has become a callback, even in this finale episode!
Yeah, she loves it.

Speaking of the finale, we don’t just end with “safe dick” but with a more gruesome kicker involving Jimmy’s patient Grace, which made me wonder what you hope we’ll get more of in season two.
Oh, God. Heidi Gardner is so good. I remember it didn’t hit me until I watched a cut of it when the finale was finished months after we shot it and I just thought, Damn. Well, I hope we get a second season because I would love to unpack that.

As for Gaby, I want somebody to take care of her. I want more combos. I want more scenes with Harrison — I think Gaby and Paul are amazing together — and more scenes with Michael and more scenes with Luke and Lukita and Christa. Like, I just want to just do more of this because everyone’s really bringing their A game. It’s really fun for me to play Gaby. It doesn’t get any better than that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How Jessica Williams Brought Her Own Spice to Shrinking