Pop Culture

How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Star Tyler James Williams Made Gregory a Stealth Heartthrob

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He first broke out as the teenage star of Everybody Hates Chris before eventually landing the role of a lifetime in Quinta Brunson’s hit ABC sitcom. And he has a few thoughts about Janine and Gregory’s will-they-won’t-they romance.

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Tyler James Williams turned 30 last fall, but he’s a senior citizen in Hollywood years. “Quinta says I’m 65,” the actor says. That’s Quinta Brunson, the star and creator of Abbott Elementary, the hit ABC sitcom, which will wrap its acclaimed second season in a few weeks. The show is the latest phase in Williams’ career reinvention—and the last place he thought he’d ever end up.

We meet at Los Angeles’ Swingers diner during Oscars week. Sliding his wiry frame into a booth, Williams, who has lived in Los Angeles since he was 14, says this is around the time of the year when he usually escapes to his native New York for refuge. Williams is warm and affable. We agree that Boomerang is the best romantic comedy of all time and that “Green Eyes” is the perfect conclusion to Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. He usually prefers to keep a low profile, which is reinforced by his lowkey outfit—a black and gray flannel over a black t-shirt, a subtle gold chain, gray sweatpants, and a black Yankees dad hat pulled low over his eyes. Although Williams loves acting, he’s never gotten completely comfortable with the exposure. “I like quiet,” he says, sipping an afternoon chai latte. “I’m an introvert at heart, so it’s still difficult. I think it’s something I learned how to cope with, but never learned how to embrace.”

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Williams broke through at the age of 12 when he was cast in the lead role of Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, which aired from 2005 to 2009. He broke out again, as an adult, as Abbott Elementary’s Gregory Eddie, a tightly-wound first-grade teacher at a severely underfunded West Philadelphia public school. Gregory dresses meticulously, with never a wave out of place on his head, but at Abbot, he’s finally learning to relax. Williams captures Gregory’s genuine care for his students and co-workers, his visceral reactions to what’s happening around him, and his many idiosyncrasies, from disliking pizza and pie to insisting that “fruit should not be hot.” 

With its clever slant on the workplace mockumentary, Abbott Elementary has reinvigorated the network sitcom and become one of the best shows on television. It has also drawn attention to the efforts of dedicated teachers working with minimal resources to give predominantly-Black student bodies the best education possible. But rather than exalt them as heroes, it depicts the teachers as people, with all their hilarious and poignant flaws.

The second season of Abbot Elementary, which premiered last fall in ABC’s coveted 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot, has yielded phenomenal ratings. The show has also racked up three Primetime Emmys and three Golden Globes, one of which—Best Supporting Actor, Television Series—went to Williams. He’d attended the Golden Globes ceremony when Everybody Hates Chris was nominated in 2006. If it was exciting to go as a kid, it was something of a relief to win as an adult. “It helped me relax a bit more and go, ‘Yeah, you earned it. You pull your weight. ​​You’re not just coasting,’” he says in his calm baritone.

Awards aren’t the only reason Williams is receiving extra attention these days. His performance as Gregory, particularly the spark between he and co-worker Janine Teagues (Brunson), has transformed him into a stealth heartthrob. Abbott Elementary has distinguished itself from The Office, but think of Gregory as the Jim to Janine’s Pam.

Williams himself? Single. He insists that fame makes it difficult to date, outside of surface-level relationships—which isn’t what he’s seeking. “It makes it hard to be seen,” he explains. “I’ve also never gotten a chance to introduce myself to anybody. There’s something that’s really cool about when I look at people and I’m like, ‘Damn, y’all met and she ain’t know nothing about you. You just were able to give her who you are right now.’” 

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Williams, who grew up in Yonkers, New York, booked his first job on Sesame Street at the age of four. In one clip, a young Williams draws on the computer while Ernie tries to guess what he’s creating. (His younger brothers followed him into acting. Tyrel, the middle child, is currently starring in the Party Down revival. Tylen, the youngest, quit acting to be a DJ.) Williams began appearing on Saturday Night Live as an extra at seven; one of his appearances was on Kenan Thompson’s debut episode. “I just told [Kenan] like a month ago, ‘Dog, I did your first night at SNL,’” Williams  says. Saturday Night Live was where Williams first realized he could do comedy. “It was during Jack Black’s opening monologue, and the bit was that he had a bunch of kids in his dressing room who were his illegitimate children that he’d  been having with groupies,” Williams explains. “I didn’t have a line and the bit was that he’s supposed to forget my name. I threw a look to the camera and got a laugh [from the audience]. That’s the moment I realized, ‘Yo, I don’t need a line to get a laugh.’”

Everybody Hates Chris premiered two years later. Williams, who read for the role six times, found out he got the job after he’d boarded the plane to fly home. Of all the sets he’s been on, Williams says the learning curve on Everybody Hates Chris was the steepest. “​​I learned how to carry a show in a matter of two or three months,” he says. “It’s the most useful information I’ve ever gotten in my life.” 

Carrying a show is an especially heavy burden for a new teenager: They’re entering adulthood as the world watches. Williams describes fame as disorienting to begin with; experiencing it as a teen is “the weirdest shit in the world.” 

“The time this was happening was the same time the internet was becoming more ingrained in the industry,” Williams says. “So as I’m going through the most awkward years of my life, everyone sees it. I think my voice was cracking nonstop during seasons two and three. I was trying to find myself in front of everybody. And everybody had an opinion and was getting used to getting theirs out.”

When I search for a better euphemism to describe fame than “traumatic,” Williams interrupts me, eyes widening. “It was traumatic,” he says. “I still get triggered by things that are part of everybody else’s childhood. Every time someone comes up to me, regardless of what it is they recognize me for, what that says to me in the moment is that I’m seen. I have to be on, immediately, because someone’s watching.” 

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Williams says he’s been in therapy for years as a result. “Hypervigilance was one of the things that we had to tackle, because I would be listening to everyone’s conversation in a room,” he says. “I could hear my name being brought up from two, three tables down. I could see how many people clocked me when I walked in the door. And that’s not healthy.” He’s recently managed to establish firmer boundaries and slow the pace of his life. 

Williams also had to deal with the possibility that his career might be stunted or even ended by his early success. Hollywood can burn young actors out before they’re old enough to vote. If they aren’t discarded once they reach young adulthood, many get stuck in juvenile purgatory, playing teenagers. “I figured that out pretty fucking quickly,” Williams says. He remembers the time an Everybody Hates Chris producer told him, “I’ll never see you as anything else and you’ll probably never work again.” “I was like, ‘Holy shit, you really just looked at me and said that,’” Williams recalls. He notes that the comment was probably a joke, but he internalized it nonetheless.

When Everybody Hates Chris ended, Williams course-corrected. “I realized at 17 that I didn’t like the road I was on,” he says. “So I decided to stop and pivot. I got with a really good acting coach and I turned down every single thing I was offered.” Over the next 10-plus years, he eventually accepted a major part in Dear White People, meaty stints on shows like The Walking Dead and Criminal Minds, and a role in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. 

But it was a 2019 appearance on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show that changed his career. In a skit titled “Rome and Julissa,” he and Brunson portray rival stans drawn to each other à la Romeo and Juliet. During the early days of the pandemic, Williams and Burnson kept in contact via DM, and one day, Williams got a message from Brunson saying she sold a series. She had written one of the roles with him in mind: Gregory Eddie.

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 Williams had steered clear of network TV, especially sitcoms, but he trusted Brunson because she didn’t have a traditional TV background. “I was standing on my balcony and she called me. Abbott was going, and she was like, ‘Do you want to do this?’” he recalls. “We had a two-hour conversation about what we needed to see in Gregory, and when she listed the characters that he could be like, they were already on my list.”

On the Gregory Mood Board: Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, Will Smith in Hitch, and Delroy Lindo in Crooklyn. Murphy’s Charlie Hinton and Lindo’s Woody Carmichael spoke to the paternal instincts that Williams and Brunson wanted to shine through. “We wanted Gregory to feel like somebody who was not yet a great dad, but you knew he would be,” Williams says. “I think specifically as Black people, we need to continually romanticize Black dads.” 

(Gregory’s own father, the military man  Lt. Col. Martin Eddie, is played by Orlando Jones, who also appeared on Everybody Hates Chris. “When Quinta came to me and said, ‘We’ve gotta cast your dad, who do you want?,’ I was like, ‘It’s gotta be Orlando,’” Williams says. “He’s somebody whose career I’ve always respected, because he’s like, ‘I’ll do what I want, fuck it.’ He always finds a way to give me some words, so our relationship is kind of fatherly in that way.”)

“What I love most about him is watching him try to bridge the gap between being something he hasn’t seen before and what his kids need,” Williams says of Gregory. “I think a lot of Black men are trying to do something we’ve never seen before.” The more time the former substitute spends with his students, the better he understands his position as a role model, especially in light of the scarcity of Black male teachers in classrooms

When I ask Williams how many Black male teachers he had growing up, he makes a zero with his hand. He’s surprised that I had any at all. Now, of course, he’s one of the adults in the room on the Abbott Elementary set. He wants to make things better for the show’s many child actors, especially since he understands the position they’re in. “Abbott, in general, has been therapeutic for me,” he says. “I needed to know that I could influence it being done differently.”

His influence extends to his adult co-stars as well. “He’s my Obi-Wan because I don’t know what I’m doing,” explains Janelle James, who plays Abbott’s shifty principal Ava. “So I listen to him, point for point—and whenever I don’t, he’s always right and I have to admit it. I feel super-lucky to be working with him, because he’s helped me navigate not only acting, but the business, what kind of car I should get. Everything.” Special-guest star Vince Staples, who had a recurring role as Gregory’s close friend, concurs. “I’m new to a lot of this stuff and he was able to translate it to certain things that I didn’t realize aligned with each other,” Staples says. “Explaining how to connect your character to your real life. Learning what to separate and what to keep. All those things come from experience.”

As much as it seems like Williams had a firm grasp on Gregory from the start, he admits that he didn’t truly find the character until the eighth episode of the first season. That’s when Gregory, struggling to get through to his students, loosens up and breaks out into dance during an anti-drug performance by Janine’s then-boyfriend, Tariq (Zack Fox, comedic gold). It helps win his students and co-workers over in an unexpected way. But Williams wasn’t confident that he could make the dance work, noting that he fought Brunson “tooth and nail” until he finally let go. 

“I had not sat in Gregory enough to know how he would move. He had been nothing but stiff up until that point,” he says. “My body’s never moved like that before; can’t get it to move like that again, to this day. And the one GIF that goes around, I’ve never moved like that. But that was the day I found him.”

Crouching inside an intimately-lit exhibit decorated with flowers from the Philadelphia Flower Show, Gregory and Janine finally shared their first kiss on the February 22 episode “Teacher’s Conference.“ Gregory, fresh off a breakup, makes the first move. After a brief pause, Janine grabs him by the lanyard and pulls him in for more. 

Gregroy and Janine’s relationship has been a series of lingering stares and tender moments since their meet-cute in the pilot. They nearly kissed in the snow earlier this season after running into each other at a nightclub. The timing was never right, but the chemistry was always there. So of course it was a big deal when it finally happened—and it was as messy as it was anticipated. In addition to them being co-workers, Janine was dating Gregory’s friend Maurice, played by special guest star Vince Staples.

Williams, however, had his doubts when he first read about the kiss in the script. 

Can we pull this off?” he remembers thinking. “Because we have to protect the two of them. I knew that the top of the episode started with Gregory in a whole other relationship. My one thing with Quinta is that she sometimes gives me these hairpin turns in an episode. I’m like, dog, give me some breathing room to get to these things! I didn’t see the flower room until the day [we filmed it] and that’s what changed it for me. Randall [Einhorn, who directed the episode] set it up so beautifully that we shot it like a play”

Still, Williams is on the fence about Gregory and Janine as an item. “I’ve always been pro-Janine and Tariq because I love him,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m pro-Janine and Gregory, after growth. They need to grow into the people they’re becoming. Because I’ve yet to even see who they’re becoming as a performer, I can’t say that they should be together yet.” 

Williams adds that he’s not even sure Brunson has made a decision herself. She could want to subvert expectations; it’s not like every romance people champion works out in real life, anyway. Williams, for one, would love that: “How many times have you been with somebody or been excited about somebody and you thought this could be it? Three weeks later, it’s a wrap.”

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On a different show in a different era, Gregory would’ve been a lame and the butt of regular jokes. Instead, Williams’s performance has made him the subject of prolific online thirst. “Every time I see somebody feeling that way, I’m like, good—because there’s a n-gga down the block who looks just like me,” he says. “So go talk to him, because he’s a good dude with a good heart.” But it can still be strange for Williams. 

“A lot of the work that I do takes place in the past because I look like a Black man of any era,” he says. “That is attractive and I will die on that hill. Abbott gave us an opportunity to make that attractive. So it wasn’t Quinta Brunson making me a heartthrob. It was giving people the opportunity to see the man they see every day as that.”

Williams, who deleted his Twitter account and treats his Instagram like a series of billboards, says Brunson keeps him abreast of the online comments about him. “Periodically, she’ll send me tweets that she sees. And one, from when Abbott was first starting to pop, said: ‘Tyler James Williams looks like a n-gga you meet in church,’” he recalls. “That’s exactly what I’m going for. I don’t want him to feel like some unicorn.” It’s all a part of his commitment to foreground regular Black men’s experiences. “I hated that all of the love interest characters I saw were either the same brand of white man, or, if he was Black, he was ‘the unique other.’ The asterisk. Almost an angel that fell to Earth. ​​And with Gregory, we have the opportunity to put on for the dude at church, for that boy who works at the corner store, for your cousin.”

Williams isn’t redefining how Black men are depicted onscreen because that definition was never completed in the first place. He’s just trying to help create a fuller and more accurate picture of them. And doesn’t want anyone to get too used to seeing his face everywhere as he does it. 

“I hope people don’t expect me to maintain this,” says Williams, laughing. “I’m going away again after this is done.”

Julian Kimble is a writer who has written for GQ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more.

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