Jessica Williams on her Incredible rom-com role — a woman who kicks ass and isn’t defined by romance
'We wanted to make sure she wasn’t defined by who she was in love with,' Williams says. 'And we wanted to make sure she felt independent and it’s something a woman could watch and be like, "Cool!"'
At one point in The Incredible Jessica James, a new Netflix movie starring former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, the title character’s love interest, Boone (Bridesmaids‘ Chris O’Dowd) says, “Jessica, I really like you.”
“Yeah, Boone, of course you do,” she responds matter-of-factly. “Everybody does. I’m freaking dope!”
This is a good example of who Jessica James is: confident, bold, take-no-s—. She’s also going through a bit of a hard time, trying out dating after a bad breakup with Damon (Atlanta‘s LaKeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of two years, and fielding rejection letters from playwrighting programs. “She’s trying to figure out what balance is while trying to figure out the direction her life is going,” Williams told EW during an interview Monday.
After appearing in 2015’s People Places Things alongside Jemaine Clement and Regina Hall, writer and director Jim Strouse decided he wanted to give Williams — also known for her podcast with Phoebe Robinson, 2 Dope Queens — the spotlight. Together, the two built the character of Jessica James, and Strouse wrote a script that then became the wonderfully real, endlessly fun, Williams-starring The Incredible Jessica James.
Ahead, Williams talks whether or not this movie is a rom-com, explains why getting a stamp of approval from black women is important to her, teases something big happening with 2 Dope Queens in the near future, and more. The Incredible Jessica James arrives on Netflix Thursday night.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Incredible Jessica James is being described as a rom-com. Do you agree with that?
JESSICA WILLIAMS: Yeah — in a way, I think it’s a rom-com, and also I think it’s a dramedy. I think what’s great about it is it doesn’t necessarily fit into the mold of studio rom-coms. I think it really is a movie about a girl in her mid-20s in New York City. And it has romance in it. But I don’t think this character or any of the other characters are defined by romance, which I think we run into with a lot of studio rom-coms. I think she can exist happily exist without it, which is why I think it’s such a fun watch. We wanted to make sure she wasn’t defined by who she was in love with. And we wanted to make sure she felt independent and it’s something a woman could watch and be like, “Cool!”
Chris O’Dowd and LaKeith Stanfield play your two love interests. Tell me about casting and working with them on this.
We were just so excited to get them. They’re both brilliant, they’re both really talented — Noël Wells is also in this movie, and she’s amazing — I think they’re both a couple of dreamboats. Jim and I were just watching the movie and we’ve seen it a bunch of times, and we were just watching it a few weeks ago and I was watching it and I was looking at LaKeith and I was like “Wow, he’s such a smoke show.” He’s so beautiful. [Laughs] It’s like, holy cow. Even though I’m used to how they look. I’m looking at LaKeith, and I’m like, “Wow. Wow.” We were just excited to get them because of their talent and then them both being good-looking was also a cool bonus as well.
Kids play a big part in this movie — your character teaches a theater workshop and really pushes one student, Shandra, to follow her writing dreams. Why include these younger characters?
Jim usually likes to have kids in the movie just because he loves kids and I do too. I think there’s something to Shandra, the actress Taliyah Whitaker, there’s something to kind of seeing your younger self and wanting something else for somebody else’s future and projecting your ideas onto them, whether it’s valid or not. I think kids are super important. That sounds like a really stupid, bland thing, like [puts on mocking voice], “Kids are so important!” Like what beauty pageant am I in? But also, it’s true.
There are kids in the movie, but also some more R-rated scenes. Have your parents seen it yet?
Yeah. Well, my dad hasn’t. he’s actually going to see this tomorrow, so oh my gosh. I’m really stressed out about it. But the thing I was most nervous about, during the screening, is how many times I make out and do it in this movie, and so I sat next to my best friend and my boyfriend and during the screening that we did at Sundance, which is when my mom saw it, I was like, sweating bullets. Like grabbing my best friend’s arm, like, “What’s my mom saying what’s my mom doing right now.” But she loved it. My parents have always been very supportive. I always tell them, “Don’t listen to my podcast.” My mom just loves to listen to it. She’s even been on the podcast.
Speaking of 2 Dope Queens, have you ever thought about making it a TV series or a special?
Yes. Period. And that’s all I will say about that.
Anything else you can say?
2 Dope Queens has some really cool, big stuff going on that’s going to be a really cool experience for us and everyone around us. That was me doing verbal gymnastics. But, stay tuned!
Are you working on other projects right now?
I’m trying to decorate my apartment, which is the same thing. I got a Homepolish designer, and that’s been really cool. I live in Brooklyn, I live in Clinton Hill, I love it there. My theme that I’m going for since I’m from California is, like, a desert theme. I’m trying to have a desert moment in my apartment. Trying to have a lot of succulents, a lot of pink. And a lot of really cool art.
Your character in the movie has a wall dedicated to rejection letters. Have you ever had anything like that?
I feel like acting is sort of like that. You’re getting so many nos all the time. It’s just a bunch of nos and a couple of cool yeses. And especially with comedy too, when you’re up on stage, doing live shows, you get immediate yeses or nos. A lot of the time you’ll say things and people will laugh and a lot of times you’ll say things and people won’t, and you’re like, “Cool, that was a no. Gonna keep going…” It’s a bunch of rejections. That’s like life, I guess, in a way, is a series of rejections and yeses and then how you respond to them.
In the movie, Jessica asks Tony-winning playwright Sarah Jones when she knew she made it. In a similar vein, how are you feeling about your career right now?
I feel great. I feel like I’m really excited about this movie coming out, and I think that I’m really excited to see how people respond to it, I feel like my career is really starting to take off and I wake up every day excited and tired and ready to tackle the next thing. I feel good.
What’s been your favorite response to The Incredible Jessica James so far?
I’m always thinking about what a black lady would think about what I’m doing, just because I feel like they have such great taste, mostly because as black women, we’ve spent a lot of time downloading what a white male narrative is, so in my head, I’m like, if a black woman likes it, if she responds to it, then it’s probably pretty damn great. We did a few screenings in London, and there were quite a few black ladies there, and they were saying what they loved about the movie. And one of them said, they got to relax, and they felt like they could just enjoy themselves and just kind of put away the cares of the world for an hour and a half and just enjoy watching a black lady kick ass and find romance. I think that was the coolest response I’ve gotten. I’m always looking for what the response is from black women for that reason.
The Incredible Jessica James is streaming now on Netflix.