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Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment's video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.
He's only 29, but actor Tyler James Williams, one of the stars of ABC's freshman hit sitcom Abbott Elementary, is a veteran of the entertainment biz. He was on Sesame Street by the time he was 7, and, within a few years, thanks to his starring role in the late aughts sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, inspired by Chris Rock's childhood, he was inescapable.
"They put my face on literally every bus in New York City. Like, literally every single one," Williams tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I was just one of the faces in this crowd, beating the block like everybody else was, and now, yeah, they know exactly who I am, whether they want to or not… It was kind of traumatic in the sense of, like, I just wasn't used to that many eyeballs. And at 12 you just feel that as you're walking through a crowd."
But not everything he remembers from that experience was negative.
"There was also something about it that prepared me for what was to come. I would say my teens is where it really started to change. I had to really decide what kind of actor I wanted to be, and I was like 17, and that's when I learned, never take the roles that you're offered. Only take the ones you gotta fight for. Never, never, because the ones that you’re offered, they’re gonna keep you in a box. There's a lot of noise, particularly around child actors. Everyone's saying that you should do this or you should do that."
Inspired by Will Smith, Williams got his own start in acting after an actress who worked at his aunt's church reported that her manager was looking for children to represent. He was cast in a few small parts right away and then, boom, he found Everybody Hates Chris, although he nearly didn't land that project.
"I was on my way into the city to go read for it," says Williams, who's from New York's Westchester County, "and then they called me to tell me that the audition was canceled."
Turned out that Williams was thought to be too good looking for the role of the younger version of the comedian.
"And then a year later, they came back. I read six times," Williams says. "And that was the first time I, like, really understood what it took to, like, go get it. Like, if you want this, you have to be able to deliver take after take. You know, I think to this day, it's still how I work."
But immediately after Williams's audition, he thought he'd missed his chance.
"I was on the plane [to go home] and, before my mother can turn her phone off, my manager calls. 'He got it, he got it. Get off the plane!'" he says. "So they were like, 'No! You're not getting off the plane.' So I still had to fly back home just to turn around and come back."
Everybody Hates Chris ended up airing for four seasons, from 2005 to 2009, and earned three Emmy nominations, as well as accolades from BET, AFI, the NAACP and more.
Still, Williams says his parents always treated acting like an extracurricular activity, which meant that he had a "fairly normal" childhood, at least until those high-profile ads. His family — many members of which had also gone into acting — helped him stay grounded.
"There was a lot of conversation at home about how we showed up when we were on camera, that we had an opportunity, particularly as Black men, to represent Black men everywhere who looked like us, and how we showed up was important," Williams recalls. "We had an opportunity to show people sides of things and realities that they wouldn't have normally seen in a way where they can kind of, you know, digest it easily and also fall in love with it."
He managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that befell other child stars and went on to appear on TV shows such as The Walking Dead (2014-2015) and Whiskey Cavalier (2019), and in movies like 2014's Dear White People and Lee Daniels's Oscar-nominated The United States vs. Billie Holiday in 2021. That was the same year he began playing substitute teacher Gregory Eddie on the critically acclaimed Abbott Elementary. Last month, Williams was nominated for an Emmy in the category of supporting actor in a comedy series.
He had decided a long time before that exactly what he wanted to do with his career. With Gregory, a socially awkward and dry humored aspiring principal, he's checking all the boxes.
"I wanted to represent people who looked like me, to tell stories of, you know, the average Black man experience with, like, supreme amounts of empathy and emotional range," Williams says. "And I didn't want to be an actor who made a lot of money but didn't do any work that actually moved the needle societally. There has been a narrative that Black men were not able to control over the deadbeat dad, of somebody who wasn't, you know, concerned about the rearing of the next generation. And, like, that's a stereotype that was put on us, so when I saw Gregory, I saw this opportunity to show the heart of a Black man for his next generation, to see how it pulls on his heartstrings."
— Video produced by Olivia Schneider and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick