Sundance Report: Jessica Williams on Leaving 'The Daily Show' for the Buzzy 'Jessica James,' Her 'Star Wars' Dream Role, and More

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·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
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Jessica Williams in ‘The Incredible Jessica James’ (Sundanc)

From her debut on The Daily Show in 2012, Jessica Williams seemed primed for stardom. Williams was the youngest correspondent ever and a breath of fresh air as its first black female voice at a time when the show’s stable of faux reporters wasn’t nearly as diverse as it is today. Foremost, though, she was funny as hell, instantly becoming a viewer favorite; an online fan petition even lobbied for Williams to replace Jon Stewart before Trevor Noah took over in 2015.

Williams left the show last year, but with the Sundance unveiling of her first lead role in The Incredible Jessica James, it’s now obvious she was destined to leave the faux-news desk for acting. The comedy, which has been one of the most buzzed-about movies during the festival’s opening days, bursts with energy, mainly because of the Williams’s hilarious and vibrant performance — the type of star-making turn we’ve seen from Jenny Slate in Obvious Child, Brie Larson in Short Term 12, and Issa Rae on Insecure.

The 27-year-old Los Angeles native specifically departed The Daily Show to make Jessica James. Written and directed by Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone, People Places Things), the film follows the titular struggling playwright recovering from a break-up (her ex is played by Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield) before beginning an unlikely relationship with a recent divorcée (Chris O’Dowd). In a sitdown with Yahoo Movies, Williams talked about the move from TV to movies, whether she misses The Daily Show, and why she really loves the new Star Wars films.

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I heard that Jim Strouse wrote The Incredible Jessica James specifically for you? That was nice.
He did, which was really nice a thing to do. We did the movie People Places Things two years ago with Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall and Stephanie Allynne. I was a supporting character in that and while we were doing press for it, Jim was like, “I’m really happy you’re in the movie. I really just wish there were more scenes with you in them.” And then he says he sat with that and said, “I really wish someone would write a movie for Jessica. Oh wait, I could write a movie for Jessica.”

Did you have a lot of input into your character?
Yeah, we met a few times and starting working on this character and trying to figure her out and trying to put her in this story and trying to make her feel fresh and youthful and lively… I learned a lot about crafting a character for a movie. I also executive-produced it.

How close is Jessica James to Jessica Williams?
Jessica James has more chutzpah, you know? She’s a bit more outspoken, but there are shades of me in Jessica James. We both love to dance, we both abbreviate our words — we both hit the words with abbrevs. We both are complicated.

Speaking of dancing, you show off some serious moves over the opening credits. Is that an homage to Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing?
Oh yeah, totally! Absolutely. It was definitely something that Jim mentioned, a nice little nod to that opening. Absolutely, it’s such an iconic opening. It’s like so disrespectful to compare my dancing to hers… The dancing is nowhere near Rosie Perez’s dancing [laughs].

As you said you had some clear input to the character, but Jim is a white male writing from the perspective of a black female. How do you know when that’s going to work?
Jim’s a very gentle writer. He writes jokes and punchlines and things that pack punch, but he’s very respectful of gender and race and issues that surround that. He’s very sensitive to that, which is crucial to making this movie, otherwise it probably wouldn’t have happened or we would’ve had a few snags.

But he said he wanted to make a movie that his young daughter could watch. He wanted something where a woman was unapologetically herself and spoke her mind. The romantic relationships are nice, but they don’t define her. I think that really helped with her being a woman. And also there’s not really a discussion about race in the movie… She is a black woman, I am a black woman, therefore this character is black, but that’s not necessarily the crux of the film.

Jessica Williams in Nov. 2016 (Getty Images)

As an aspiring playwright, Jessica constantly has to deal with is rejection. How do you deal with it?
Oh man, so much rejection, especially before I got The Daily Show. Still, even after I got The Daily Show. Just so many “No’s.” If it’s not a right fit you can’t force it, so the “No” needs to come. Because then an even better opportunity will come, and the “Yes’s” are way better.

That’s surprising to hear, since it seems from the outside that you became successful at such a young age on The Daily Show.
Yeah, I would get a lot of “You’re really interesting, but I don’t know what to do with you.” I’d get that a lot at auditions. It took Jon Stewart going, “OK, you’re hired,” and giving me a chance, because I was 22. It was a gamble but I grew from there.

That’s not to say you didn’t pay your dues. I noticed on your IMDb profile you played “African-American Spa Worker” in the Vince Vaughn comedy Delivery Man (2003). Was that really the character’s name?
No. She had a name. [Throws up her arms.] I have no comment on that. But you know I’ve logged it. You know I logged it. But no comment.

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How have you enjoyed life post-Daily Show. Are you glad you left the show?
I miss the show everyday because it was such a big part of my life. I love the people there. We had dogs in the office, I loved the dogs there. I miss everyone. But I’m really happy with what I’m doing now. I quit the show to do the movie, because I needed to start immediately. But I’m really happy and proud of making a hard choice — it was a hard choice to leave — and continuing to do what I want to do. I’m really happy that people are responding to [the movie].

I know for a while there were fans campaigning for you to take over as host after Jon Stewart announced he was leaving. Were you ever in the running?
No, no, I don’t think so. It was very flattering. But it’s not necessarily what I want to do. But maybe in the future? It doesn’t mean it will never happen in my life, but it’s not what I want to do right now.

So has acting always been the goal then?
Definitely. That’s why I’m so excited about The Incredible Jessica James because it’s my dream. I got to do a freaking movie. I want to do more of them.

What surprised you about the experience?
Oh my gosh, that I can work in the early morning. Like sometimes I had to get up at like 5:15, and I was like, “There’s no way on this planet.” But I did it! We had 27 shoot days and I did it every day. I’m like, “Damn, I killed it!” [laughs] I am not a morning person. So I’m really proud of myself.

What’s your dream movie role?
Hmm, when I was a kid I wanted to play Lara Croft: Tomb Raider really bad. And I want to be in the Star Wars movies.

Who would you want to play?
Oh, I don’t know. Make something up. It’s literally fiction, so it could be anything. Oh, though my dream is to work with J.J. Abrams, and another is to work with Joss Whedon.

So you’re a big fangirl?
Not particularly of Star Wars. But I love them… I love the way they make me feel. But I don’t know what the Death Star is made of. I’m not that deep into it… But I love the new ones. I love women kicking ass, which is why I’m such a fan of Joss Whedon because I love the way he writes female characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s like my favorite show of all time.

Finally, The Daily Show caters to an audience that obviously is none-too-thrilled about President Trump. Since you’re no longer on the show, what is your advice to them over the next four years?
Don’t talk about it, do something about it. And if you feel disenfranchised, [know] that your thoughts and opinions are valid. Love trumps hate every time. Love wins.