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Tyler James Williams Breaks Down the Abbott Elementary Season 2 Finale

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the season two finale of Abbott Elementary.

At the age of 30, Tyler James Williams is already an industry veteran. Having begun his career as a child actor on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street, Williams rose to fame in the mid-aughts for playing the teenage version of Chris Rock on the UPN/CW sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. Intent on proving his range as an actor, Williams spent the first decade of his adulthood exploring work across various genres, including horror (The Walking Dead), drama (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), rom-coms (The Wedding Year), and procedurals (Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, Whiskey Cavalier).

But in recent years, Williams has stepped back into the primetime spotlight with Abbott Elementary, the acclaimed ABC mockumentary about a group of effervescent educators at an underfunded Philadelphia public school. In the Emmy-winning workplace comedy, Williams plays Gregory Eddie, a tightly-wound but well-intentioned first-grade teacher who harbors a not-so-secret crush on protagonist Janine Teagues (played by series creator Quinta Brunson).

“The thing I like most about [Janine and Gregory] is that there’s something really childlike about the way they interact with one another,” Williams tells W over Zoom on a recent Friday afternoon. “In a world where they are supposed to be the strong adults who have everything together, they allow each other to be comfortable in their inexperience.”

Below, Williams breaks down the heartbreaking and heartwarming moments of the season two finale (which was shot on location at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute), how he feels about the progression of Janine and Gregory’s will-they-won’t-they relationship, and the experience of working with the next generation of child actors.

How did you and Quinta develop the short-hand and obvious chemistry that Janine and Gregory have?

Quinta and I do quite a bit to flesh out their relationship, but I think there was also something that just inherently worked with us on-screen from the moment we were on A Black Lady Sketch Show together. There are certain people who creatively speak the same language, and it feels like the more we shoot, the quicker our shorthand is.

How did you react to Janine and Gregory’s first kiss this season? Did you feel like it was still too early in the story?

Quinta pitched it really well. [Laughs.] She was like, “Okay, so we have the kiss coming up, but…” and then she continued to pitch out the rest of the season after that. I think most people see kisses as an endgame, like, “Okay, they kiss and then everything’s great.” But she had this really good take on it that I also resonated with, which was, “That’s just the beginning of their conversation.”

Why was the overnight field trip the right time for Gregory to finally confess his feelings for Janine?

One of the more brilliant things that the writers did this year was make Jacob [Chris Perfetti] Gregory’s confession point. Gregory needed a safe place to say how he felt about Janine, and it made it a little easier to wrap my head around him saying that. There was also a little smile to everything I said in that scene, because you love being able to say that you like somebody. I wanted to make sure that we got the feeling that he was excited about this—because he should be.

In the wake of Janine’s rejection, Gregory needed someone to hug, and the fact that Jacob of all people is there to comfort him says a lot about how their friendship has blossomed this season.

I fell in love with that moment immediately when I read it and even more in love with it when we shot it, because one of the things I don’t think we get an opportunity to see a lot is men not only being hurt and in a raw place, but then also finding physical comfort in other men. We wanted to make that not like a cool “bro” hug, no, Gregory needed a hug, and he was able to get that from a source that he would’ve never really considered. I look at season two as this beautiful will-they-won’t-they friendship between Gregory and Jacob that ends the way we want it to. We just didn’t know that’s what we wanted. [Laughs.]

Besides the literal act of gardening, what do you think Gregory means when he says, “It’s time to plant something new,” in his final voiceover of the season?

I think what he means is that, “It’s time to stop turning over this soil and get serious about who I am and where I want to go. I figured that out, so let me live and walk that out.” There’s a certain freedom going forward in that [mindset]. After the rejection from Janine, he found that he didn’t want to leave Abbott. Although she was the reason why he stayed, this [relationship] not working out doesn’t mean that he leaves. I feel like he became an adult in a different way that day.

You’ve spoken quite a bit during these first two seasons about the responsibility you feel playing a young Black male educator on network TV. What parts of the everyday man were you most interested in portraying, and what kind of feedback have you received from people who might see parts of their own experience reflected in Gregory?

I think the everyday man wants to believe in love. The everyday man is just trying to do better than what he saw, but he may not have the tools to do so. I wanted him to be flawed, and I wanted him to make as many mistakes as possible. I wanted his life to be in this gray area outside of success, outside of the things that we use to define masculinity and manhood in America.

In regards to Black male teachers, I want them to feel as seen as possible, and that’s the response I’ve gotten. One guy DM’d me like, “I literally dress just like Gregory!” Even from the way we choose his wardrobe, it shouldn’t feel like a perfectly well-put together man. It should feel like some guy who’s trying to spice it up, and that’s why I love that bit with the hat that we had. It doesn’t work, but he’s trying. And that’s what I think the average person is doing.

Did you have any favorite teachers that helped you get to where you are?

The majority of my high school experience was on the set of Everybody Hates Chris, so I had two different studio teachers: Nancy Flint and Sharon Sacks. They were tasked with putting a kid who was in 27 out of 30 pages of a script through high school. They had to teach me a whole lesson in 20-minute blocks between camera setups, and they actually pulled it off. That’s where I began to understand that every teacher, regardless of what level of privilege, is tasked with an impossible job, and they somehow figure it out. That’s what I try to have simmering under Gregory at all times—he’s constantly being asked to do the impossible, yet he pulls it off.

Do you feel extra protective of the young kids you work with on Abbott, considering that you were once in a similar position?

100 percent. I know how toxic sets can be for children—and we don’t do that here. Quinta has done a really good job of establishing a good work environment for everybody, and that includes the kids. For me, it’s about treating them as equals.

Especially in the beginning of their careers, most kids don’t understand timing in comedy. But the unexpected is the best timing. There was a scene that’s been going around the internet where we’re doing a plant experiment, and the kid raises his hand and says, “I swallowed a seed. Does that mean a plant is gonna grow in my belly?” And Gregory tries to make that a lesson. He goes, “Well, did you also swallow a wet paper towel?” The kid came back with a “yes!” so fast, and I was sitting there like, “You’re hilarious, but you don’t even fully know that yet.” We can set up all the things necessary for comedy to work, but there’s this other rogue aspect where the kids may find something that none of us would’ve even thought about.

How would you describe your own experience with the transition from child star to working adult actor? Have your priorities shifted over time?

I’m not somebody who likes to do the same things twice. Usually, when you do something successfully, your offers are going to be strictly things that you did already. I wanted to go into casting rooms that didn’t really want me or consider me. At first, I was just trying to prove staying power.

I’ve always had this kind of “I do what I want” mentality. I think Quinta also has that. She wanted to make a network comedy when everybody else was doing these super cerebral streamer shows. It gives me the freedom to be that version of an artist, not somebody who’s just chasing the calendar and trying to fill it up as much as possible. Once you’ve come out of that box, you feel super free. I’m not afraid of having the phone stop ringing, because I’ve already gone through that and know how to navigate it. Now I’m just doing what I want.

Source: W Magazine

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