Jesse Williams weighs in on being a straight man playing a gay character in Broadway's Take Me Out
Jesse Williams is never one to avoid a hot-button issue.
The former Grey's Anatomy star is an outspoken activist and advocate, but he's wading into a new debate with his latest role starring in a buzzy Broadway revival of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out.
EW has an exclusive first look at the production, which opens April 4, and stars Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Suits' Patrick J. Adams alongside Williams.
Williams stars as mixed-race center fielder Darren Lemming, who rocks the baseball world when he becomes the first active player to publicly come out. His decision to open up about his sexuality sparks a firestorm of homophobia and racism in the sport, particularly in his own locker room.
But Williams is also engaging with another prominent topic of discussion — whether straight actors should play gay characters. As a straight actor himself, he's well aware of the thorny debates around this subject that have sprung up in Hollywood the last several years.
"It should generate conversation," he tells EW. "Look, I'm Black. We've had white people playing our roles ad nauseam for centuries. Women weren't even allowed to be on the stage until this last century. Men played all the roles. We have a white Prince of Persia and Last Samurai and every other role, so I get that underrepresentation. And people want to be able to be counted and be included."
Still, in spite of these complexities, he also points to the need for art to create space to explore perspectives beyond one's own limited experiences. "This is a play that's written by a Jewish man about a Black character," he reflects. "Everybody's involved in trying to make art and we have to have the ability to speak and express our interest and explore ideas beyond the limits of our own singular lives."
Williams hopes his performance and decision to take on this role will be met with the good faith of his own work as an ally and advocate, which he says he's brought to his rehearsals and preparation. "I've absolutely clearly established myself as a proponent of advocacy and accountability and for the underrepresented to have a space to explore," he says. "That applies all around and Darren is somebody who is some somewhat unique in that he's biracial and straight presenting. He doesn't consider himself part of the gay community, and he's struggling with his own identity and sense of awareness there. I don't claim to have a solve for all of it. I'm deeply sensitive to it. And I'm asking all the questions I possibly can and figuring out the best way to be in service to the material."
Taking a look at these first production photos, we spoke to Williams further about his interest in the material, why he chose it to be his first post Grey's Anatomy project, and how having the production postponed by two years due to the pandemic has helped him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What appealed to you about this project and why is now the right time for the first Broadway revival of this material?
JESSE WILLIAMS: The material is incredible. There's a couple of things at play. One is, I was leaving a job that I'd been at and been comfortable in for some time. I didn't want to be too comfortable. I wanted to do something very different. If I'm going to a make a shift, I want to make a shift with purpose. I wanted to do something that was really going to challenge me and scare me. Where I would have a really high learning curve, I only got a small taste of doing theater with an Off Broadway play with Edward Albee, I don't know, fifteen years ago. It just looked like a really incredible opportunity and a challenge, and the material is something that really consistently moves me.
Baseball played a really integral part in my life — in my childhood and my upbringing and my connection to my father and my siblings — with metaphorical learnings about the game and life as a whole. But the issues around identity and self-realization and discrimination and purpose, all of these themes were relevant. They not only strike a nerve with me as a human being, but are important and compelling for society to wrestle with. It's smart, fast, intellectually and spiritually and emotionally stimulating and challenging. It's funny as hell. The cast is incredible. Our director Scott Ellis really won me over in our first conversation when I was deciding whether or not to accept the opportunity. It's just a total gift from the gods that came down from the heavens and is exactly what I should be doing.
You were talking about the identity issues that the play wrestles with, and your character, Darren, has two big things that he's dealing with in terms as a biracial baseball player who comes out as gay. Dealing with intolerance and and the racism and homophobia that come up in the play, do you have to parse the nuances between those two things or is it all one big melting pot of horrible people?
The former. Every moment, every word, every feeling, every relationship is its own thing. I don't put them all into a murky pot together. Obviously, there are overarching elements and themes to discrimination and abuse of power period. Of course there's something similar between sexism and equal pay and racism. There's a venn diagram with shared space. But in the realities of how this human being's character operates, he juggles with that consistently. Why are you responding to me this way? Why does my opinion not have value here? Is it because of this, is it because of that, is it just because of my attitude? Is it just because of my performance, is it because of my race? Is it because of what I announce in terms of my orientation? This is part of the snow blindness created by oppression in this country by a dominant group. Male dominated white power creates a lot of issues.
I've definitely been discriminated against many, many times because of my race. That doesn't mean that's always why it happened. But it's a reasonable hypothesis that it could be. But one of the things that is sometimes more tricky than overt discrimination is guessing wrong. That person gets a license to kill forever because they're like, "Nope, that wasn't racism, and you just accused me of doing something that I didn't intend to do, which now makes me ironclad against it and it makes you somebody who's hysterical for no reason." It falls right into the trap. It creates a different form of gaslighting, which has become too trendy a word, in opinion but it serves its purpose here. Darren, while things start to spiral out of control, he's trying to find a grip and trying to find standing. Why is this happening? This never happened to me before? It was incomprehensible; I couldn't imagine. it Now I'm trying to pin something to the wall, so I can at least get a chance to examine it.
You were originally supposed to mount this production in spring 2020. How has the pandemic delay shifted or changed your relationship to the material?
Yeah, it's actually a gift. For me. I can't speak for anybody else, but two elements have shifted. One is I'm changed. I'm more emotionally mature, I'm more evolved and I have more access to elements of myself in my consciousness than I have before. Probably just by way of growing and changing. It's been a really meaningful last few years [with] a lot changes in my life. I'm better equipped to have more tools in my toolbox and more access to myself. So that's one end.
The other is we've seen a few ingredients to a sea change in society with public conversations, advances from technology and the ability to share ideas, and public conversations around identity and race and pronouns and people being able to find safety and demanding space to be themselves in public — to dictate and determine how they're referred to and how they're seen and whether they have a right to speak up or they don't have to shut the hell up for another generation. How much s-- they're gonna allow to be shoveled into them. Society at large has shifted since a worldwide pandemic, George Floyd and the movement for Black lives, and public spectacle with folks demanding to be able to breathe the air. All of that just tunes our frequencies a little bit differently. And makes the audience — I won't say more better or worse in terms of their receptiveness — but they have more access. Our follicles are more ready to receive and possibly consider positions and experiences outside of our own. We're all better for it.
It was announced you were working on a TV adaptation of the play. Is that still a possibility?
It's still in the works.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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