She wrinkles her brow and studies the rows of treasures in front of her. “It’s always hard to tell what section she would be in,” Zelda Williams says.
Williams has pilgrimaged to Counterpoint Records & Books, a vinyl store in Los Angeles — one of many visited over the past year — in search of Tracy Chapman’s self-titled 1988 debut record. “I’ve been all over the world and no one ever has it,” she says, sifting through relic after relic. “I think because it’s so loved as an album, no one ever gives it up. I have it on CD and obviously I can download it on iTunes. But I just wanted the vinyl, because that’s what my mom had.”
The daughter of producer-turned-philanthropist Marsha Garces Williams and the late, legendary comedian Robin Williams scours the C’s. Peruses the T’s. Scopes out Folk, visits Blues. The mission yields two John Cale albums for her British boyfriend, a Mary Poppins original-cast soundtrack for herself, and a moment to ponder an orchestral album set to whale sounds. But nowhere is Ms. Chapman to be found. “I’m sure I could go on eBay and get it, but there’s no fun in that,” she says with a slight, sly smile. “There’s actually a lot of joy in finding it.”
Williams is also finding joy in putting a different kind of spin on the late ’80s. She stars on the new Freeform horror drama Dead of Summer (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), a series from the Once Upon a Time producers about a group of teen counselors who discover that they are in way over their still-attached-for-now heads at a camp plagued by creepy, lethal supernatural forces. Williams plays a mysterious, laconic loner named Drew, who, as we learned at the end of the show’s first episode, is a transgender man.
While multidimensional transgender characters are starting to emerge on TV (see: Orange Is the New Black, Transparent), the majority have identified as women, giving Williams a chance to reflect an underrepresented segment of the LGBT community. And Summer takes place in 1989, a time when mainstream awareness was virtually nonexistent.
It’s a special role that could help break out the 26-year-old Williams, and an opportunity that she doesn’t take lightly. “The thing I’m most terrified about is the transgender community being insulted by him,” she says of Drew. “It’s great that [the public] will get to learn about a male-identifying transgender character as a lead in an ensemble show, but really, more than anything, he is for the transgender community, because they don’t ever get to see him…. I hope that they’re happy with him, because I’m proud of him…. I’m really excited for people to see who he is.” And now, it’s time for America to see who Zelda is.
This is what you probably know about Zelda Williams: She was named by her parents after Princess Zelda of Nintendo fame — and, yes, one of those parents was an Oscar-winning actor. Spend any time with her, though, and you’ll realize that Hollywood-royal lineage is maybe the 12th-most-interesting thing about her. She’s fluent in Murakami and Majora’s Mask. She invests in paintings of women by emerging artists. She took a nonspeaking role in the horror flick Don’t Look Up, which required hours in the makeup chair every day, because prosthetic transformations fascinate her. She’s highly skilled at riflery — archery, too — but doesn’t believe in private gun ownership.
Growing up in San Francisco with two brothers, Williams appeared in grade-school musicals, not because she loved to act — in fact, she suffered from stage fright — but because it was an outlet for singing. The time spent with her dad revolved around comic books and video games, not Hollywood. “It was never really explicitly discussed in my house,” she says. “It was just kind of there.” What propelled her into the family business was a passion for books. “More than anything, I wanted to be Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, and I wanted to be Lirael in the Sabriel trilogy,” she says. “The only way I was ever going to get to do that was act, so I tried.”
She made her first movie, 2005’s House of D (also featuring her father), during her freshman year of high school, but her parents wanted her to continue her education before going Hollywood. She left school early, took some college courses, and moved to L.A. at age 17, though she found it hard to break through the audition circuit. “I was always seen as a bit of an outsider,” she says. “I had a shaved head for half of that decade.” She appeared in some indies, and two episodes of Teen Wolf, and lent her voice to The Legend of Korra.
But life slammed to a halt in 2014 when her father, who had been battling depression, took his own life. (He was posthumously diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.) “Whether by my own volition or otherwise, I was given a year-and-a-half break after Dad passed,” she says gently. “It was kind of like an elephant in the room, and everyone was giving me space, whether I wanted it or not…. I was really appreciative of the fact that everyone loved Dad so much, but [I] did get looked at like a butterfly that you were going to damage, and that’s in its own way sweet, but also alienating and difficult. I had an enormous amount of time to myself.” Williams used that period to focus on writing…and ended up with 12 scripts. An obsessive sci-fi horror fan — “I’ve always wanted to be Ripley [from Alien], that survivor who gets to have the last laugh and kill the monster”—she’s set to direct a horror short she wrote (and aiming to helm a full-length version) and she’s shopping a pilot about dominatrices.
Late last year, out of the blue, a Summer adventure beckoned, as two of the show’s creators, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, had remembered her from a 2014 Once Upon a Time audition for the role of Dorothy. “It wasn’t the right match,” says Horowitz. “But we were like, ‘We found someone special, we need to do something for her.'” But when they brought her in to read for Drew, Williams had concerns: Was this going to be merely a novelty stunt? Were they only auditioning cisgender actors? (No and no.) She discovered that the producers shared her care; Kitsis says that the character was inspired by “someone very close” to him.
In fleshing out Drew, Williams spoke with transgender men and reverted to her naturally low-register voice, for which she was bullied in school. “Drew isn’t necessarily a far stretch from who I am,” she says. “I’m not a girly girl.” The producers did want Williams to cut off her hair, but, as she told them: “‘Give me something to hide behind,’ because that’s part of why he dresses the way he does — long sleeves, multiple layers, and the hair. It’s a fine line between ‘I don’t give a f—‘ and ‘I give a lot of f—s.'” That attention to detail is paying off; multiple crew members have asked her to step out of the scene, mistaking her for a random guy on set.
Identity is an important topic to this actress, who grew into hers more recently. “I was always comfortable with my sexuality,” says Williams, who is bisexual. “I finally feel confident in how I present myself.” She quit social media after being bullied following her father’s death but has returned: “I knew people said terrible things about me…. By the time I was 24, I didn’t grow a thick skin — I just didn’t care anymore. I’m not one of these new supermodel girls on Instagram in bikinis. I’m different, but that’s okay. Both need to exist.”
The woman with few filters has bigger goals than likes. As she sets out to make her own name in Hollywood, what advice from her father does she hold on to? Little wisdoms echo, like “Don’t wear your mic pack to the bathroom” and “Be kind to everyone.” However, “maybe out of stubbornness, but also out of independence, I never asked him for a road map — I didn’t want the curiosity to be dampened for me,” she says. “I had to figure this out before he was gone, and now I definitely have to figure it out on my own. But I’m enjoying that process.” A nod, a warm smile. “It’s interesting,” she adds. “He missed out on me being proud of myself by about a year and a half, and that’s the one thing that’s really sad for me, because I know he was always proud of me. I think he would’ve loved that I was happy.”
(This story appears in the July 15 issue of EW.)