Anthony Mackie and Tyler James Williams on Getting Past Child Stardom and Actors Who Choose the ‘Wrong’ Roles: ‘You Gotta Become Sexy’

Tyler James Williams is shifting through poses in front of a photographer when Anthony Mackie appears on set, voice booming, to poke some fun

Published Time: 08.06.2024 - 19:31:29 Modified Time: 08.06.2024 - 19:31:29

Tyler James Williams is shifting through poses in front of a photographer when Anthony Mackie appears on set, voice booming, to poke some fun. He asks Williams to coach him on pursing his lips like he’s Trey Songz. During their conversation, Williams outlines his path from “Everybody Hates Chris,” where he played the 13-year-old title character, to starring as first-grade teacher Gregory Eddie on ABC’s hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” In exchange, Mackie explains how he played an amnesiac named John Doe in Peacock’s video game adaptation “Twisted Metal,” and what it was like to take his Marvel character, Falcon, from film to TV and back.

ANTHONY MACKIE: Since the last time I saw you, you’ve been nominated for an Emmy 35 times and won, like, 20.

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TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS: Just two. And same thing: You’re superhero-ing everywhere.

MACKIE: I didn’t even get nominated for a BET Award. I ain’t got nothing.

WILLIAMS: We’ve come a long way. Last time I saw you, we were doing “Detroit” with Kathryn Bigelow.

MACKIE: You were in your mid-20s. A kid. You asked for a cup of milk, eating peanut butter cookies.

WILLIAMS: “Can someone please shell my pistachios for me? I’m a child.”

MACKIE: You’ve been doing this for a long time, and in a way that a lot of actors have not been able to. Looking at your career, there’s a certain dignity that came with it. You’ve been in it since before “Everybody Hates Chris.” How did that work, blowing up at a young age and transitioning to a professional adult actor?

WILLIAMS: I had to fight for my career to survive, and I feel like if that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have gone as hard as I did. I was fighting for staying power — fighting to say that I wasn’t just a cute kid who could land a joke every now and then. I didn’t really start to feel stable in it until we did “Detroit.” Everyone has that period when you have a role here and there to “No, I’m going to consistently work with great people.” You made that transition really well. I remember Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me.”

MACKIE: A lot of people hated that movie. And my first movie with Spike, nobody saw it: “Sucker Free City.” One day on set, a Volkswagen dealer came and goes, “Yo, you’re the lead of the Spike Lee movie? Here, take this.” The whole time I’m in San Francisco, I have this Volkswagen that ain’t even out yet. I’m living. Then the movie came out, and it was just silence. While we were shooting that, Jeffrey Wright was supposed to do “She Hate Me.” One day Spike goes, “Man, Jeffrey’s not doing my movie. What you doing after this?”

WILLIAMS: You had the same thing with Kathryn Bigelow. You’ve worked with her how many times now?

MACKIE: Twice — “Hurt Locker.” When I met with Kathryn, they wanted me to play one of the other soldiers, and I explained to her how war wasn’t about race; they’ll kill you whatever you look like. She saw what I was implying. And I was doing this movie that never came out with this awful director — his name was Dan, I won’t say his last name — and we go over by six months. I was supposed to leave to do “Hurt Locker.” Kathryn was like, “I’m sorry. Maybe the next one.” So they go and offer it to another actor, and he said no. So they came back to me like, “Look, we’ll wait, if you leave the day you wrap.” That movie literally started my career, because one dude said it wasn’t enough money.

WILLIAMS: I tell people all the time, if whether or not you do a movie is because of the money, you’re handicapping yourself.

MACKIE: Around the time you were doing “Everybody Hates Chris,” you did a lot of voice-over work. How did you venture into that part of your career?

WILLIAMS: My voice dropped, and it scared production. My voice was deeper than Chris Rock’s voice-over, and it didn’t make sense anymore. I was trying to make that transition from child actor to adult, and the voice-over space allowed me to do that because I sounded older than I was until I was able to have my body and face catch up.

MACKIE: You work with a lot of kids now. Do you offer advice?

WILLIAMS: There’s several kids who I’ve passed along to my old child agent like, “Hey, there’s somet -

hing here.” Cindy Osbrink, one of the best child agents of all time. She had me, Dakota Fanning — everybody who made that transition.

MACKIE: Is your agent different now?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I turned 18 and was like, “Should I leave? How does this work?” She said, “No, not yet. When it’s time, I’ll tell you.” I was like 21, 22. I had just done “Dear White People.” Right around then, she was like, “I think you’re ready to go.” And she handed me off. I don’t know where I would be in my career had I not been with somebody like her who could handle those transitions.

MACKIE: How was it going into “Abbott” and emerging as the hot piece of ass on the show? You’re street meat now. How do you feel about that?

WILLIAMS: Part of the transition of getting the industry to see you as an adult is that you gotta become sexy at some point.

MACKIE: But a lot of people did it in the wrong way. In the ’90s and early 2000s, when we actually had Black shows with kids and families, everybody would come off those shows like, “I gotta kidnap babies on ‘Law & Order’ so you see me as an adult.” You did it in a way that’s mature.

WILLIAMS: The goal here is not to be sexy. The goal is to show your heart, and there’s something sexy about that.

“Twisted Metal” may be one of the hardest shows to do on TV right now, because you’re dealing with source material that doesn’t really give you a lot. There’s no backstory in the video game. Did you find that limiting or freeing?

MACKIE: It’s freeing as hell. It was literally demolition derby: Blow each other up, whoever’s the last to get blown up wins. That was it. So John Doe lived in this world of boundless possibilities. I had to take everything that Quiet played by Stephanie Beatriz was saying, everything that the writer was saying, everything that Samoa Joe as Sweet Tooth was saying, and build the character and make him this quirky, awkward dude who had no connection to anybody or anything. He was a nomad. And there were so many things in this show that weren’t on the page.

WILLIAMS: Film and TV need to be approached very differently a lot of times. You’re now taking a character that was developed in film, Falcon, and transitioning that to TV. What are the challenges you faced there?

MACKIE: My first episode of television was “Law & Order.” It was the hardest seven days of my career. TV is a different beast. I can handle a movie, but TV — that’s six to eight months. With “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” instead of a two-and-a-half-hour movie, you have eight hours. Luckily, it was a transition with great leadership. They utilized that show to set Falcon up as Captain America, so they had something to aim toward. But for the most part, it was a daunting task for me. How do you make that worth those eight hours?

WILLIAMS: People don’t realize that about TV, especially when you do it at a high clip. We do 22 episodes a year.

MACKIE: Are you able to go into the writers’ room and fight for stuff you want? How do you make sure you’re telling the story you feel is right for your character without being perceived as difficult and an asshole?

WILLIAMS: It really does start with your showrunner. If your showrunner wants to protect the characters and can hear them in your voice, then so can the room. But, yeah, there are times. We were shooting our finale recently. Something didn’t sit right with me, and it felt like we weren’t protecting Gregory properly. It was going to be really hard for me to turn on a dime for what we knew was coming in Season 4. Sometimes it has to get a little tense. But that’s the collaborative effort that is TV.

MACKIE: Last thing: When watching Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and “Abbott Elementary” guest star Jalen Hurts act, did it make you feel like a better actor?

WILLIAMS: Jalen did do that in the midst of trying to make a playoff run. But yes.

MACKIE: I’m not mad; I’m just saying.

WILLIAMS: But that’s the thing. I can’t throw a ball 70 yards. It’s just as hard to throw a ball 70 yards as it is to land a joke.

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