“The silver lining of this election is that we are here on this early-ass morning, in literally 21 degrees, supporting each other.” Jessica Williams was one of the speakers at the Women’s March in Park City this past weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Led by another whip-smart comedy queen Chelsea Handler, the march overflowed the snowy streets, with other badass women like Kristen Stewart, Jenny Slate, and Zoey Deutch joining in the protest against Trump’s election. Perhaps the most inspiring of the speakers was Williams, who’s always had a knack for infusing humor and heart into the most horrific of political situations. She made the crowd laugh and cry, and reminded us that we all deserve better and our rights are valid.
But for those of us still dawning black in our mourning of Williams’ departure from The Daily Show, there’s a reason for a new wardrobe. Not only does she have an exciting, under wraps Comedy Central show coming out and her stellar podcast, 2 Dope Queens, she’s starring in The Incredible Jessica James, Sundance’s Closing Night film, which was just acquired by Netflix.
This is her big break. Yes, she was already a sensation, but her ability to carry an entire film and, again, take her audience through the wide-ranging spectrum of feelz, proves that the best is yet to come. James Strouse (New York, I Love You) directs The Incredible Jessica James and Williams plays the titular character, a playwright who eats theater for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is dealing with a breakup on the side. When she’s not teaching young kids and inspiring them to be future little thespians, she’s coping with her split from her ex, Damon, played by Lakeith Stanfield. When Williams meets an unlikely romantic match, she starts to re-evaluate her past relationship, all the while striving to remain confident in her passions as a young woman trying to make it in New York.
We got to sit down with Williams at the festival a day before the epic March to chat about the parallels between her electric character and her own life. After all, she’s quite the voice for our generation, her speech re-affirming her ability to destroy complacency and ignite action in others. She opened up to us about post-Daily Show life, working with it-boy Stanfield, and what she does to keep herself affirmed and focused—tips we all need now that 2017 has already devolved into a shitshow.
Your character in the film is in this phase where she is trying to stay inspired and continue to make work. How has post-The Daily Show life been like for you? Is it similar?
Absolutely actually, which I didn't realize. Post-Daily Show has been so busy, which I've been surprised about. We’re basically independent contractors in a way. So you have one gig and you're worried about never getting another gig again, or at least I do. It gives me a panic attack sometimes. I'm very surprised about how once I ended that, I got swept up with 2 Dope Queens and then on to shooting this movie. It's pretty nuts that I keep getting these amazing opportunities. I feel really, really, really blessed.
It must be amazing to end something and immediately have work, but was there a mourning phase?
Definitely. The Daily Show was amazing because I learned so much. I got the job when I was 22. The Daily Show was like my family. We had dogs in the office every day, all day. It was just such a warm, beautiful, sweet experience for me. Choosing to leave the show was so hard because I really, really loved everybody there and I loved what it gave me and the platform it gave me.
An indie film is similar to a family, too! And with this one, you’re working with Lakeith Stanfield.
He's so talented and thoughtful and beautiful and smart. He's also a baby—like 25, I think? My mom saw the movie last night and she was like "Whew, girl, you know he's cute." And I was like, "Omigosh, mom, you're embarrassing me."
Your relationship with him is the backbone of the film in a lot of ways, but in a subtle way. Did you guys hang out, or was it like most movies where you jump in?
Lakeith is so busy killing it—he's got Atlanta, movies and stuff—so we had him for a certain amount of days. We'd both been in relationships that really mattered to us and so we both tried to bring that relationship that makes your heart pang; that relationship that makes you go deep.
In the film, you gift this book to your younger sister at her baby shower.
The ABCs of the Patriarchal Kindergarten.
Yes! Everyone in the audience wanted one. Today, of all days, we have to acknowledge Trump's inauguration. I was watching it this morning. How do you feel we can topple the patriarchy? How are you trying to accomplish that?
I think we can topple the patriarchy by using our voices to speak out against things that aren't right and that we don't agree with. I think for people who are not people of color or members of the LGBT community, it is being an ally and being an advocate in spaces that people of color or members of the LGBT community can’t really get into. I also think that it’s showing up and speaking about injustices and also doing something about it.
I loved that your character teaches young kids in their theater program and really cultivates new voices. You do that in your own life with 2 Dope Queens. Are there any new voices you're particularly passionate about showing next season?
We want to get more members of the transgender community on our show. We're always looking, but we really created 2 Dope Queens to showcase women of color, women and members of the LGBT community, and we really want to make sure that we are giving everyone an equal platform to speak and be your beautiful wonderful souls on our show.
You say throughout the film, "I'm a unicorn, I'm a goddess" and I think right now that’s important. You don’t need the validation of any of the other men in the film. With the Trevor Noah/Tomi Lahren debate and the resurgent Women's Rights movement, there is a fight to prevent other races and genders from validating ones’ purpose. What are you doing to combat this need for others’ validation as an artist?
It's all internal. I feel like actions, the external, can affect you in any way. I'm always constantly trying to guide myself back to focusing just on comparing myself only to me, to not seek validation from the outside world, as hard as it is. Being an artist is showing yourself and being vulnerable, but I think being in control of how I affirm myself and constantly affirm myself is really what my ancestors fought for. It's what the women who came before me wanted. The ability to be able to validate yourself and be able to stand on your own and in your own strength, and know that it is there, is the most feminist, womanist action that you can do.