Cress Williams on 90210, Friday Night Lights, and more of his memorable roles
From Beverly Hills, 90210 to Black Lightning
Ahead of Black Lightning's return (Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. on The CW), star Cress Williams, 48, tackles a lightning round about his career, reflecting on Living Single, Lois & Clark, Grey's Anatomy, and more.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1993-1994)
Williams' first day of work as cocky basketball player D'Shawn Hardell was also the first time he ever set foot on a professional TV set. Looking back on it now, he mostly remembers how inexperienced and broke he was at the time. "I was still finishing my last couple of quarters of college. I didn't know anything," says the UCLA graduate. "I didn't even know how I was going to eat."
When he got to set that day, he saw that they had a food truck, but wasn't sure how he was going order something since he didn't have any money. "I’m looking at the menu and I’m just seeing all of this stuff and thinking about the fact I had no money, and then I see something that says, 'Background breakfast.' I didn’t even know that was the word for extras — background. So, the cook he looks at me and he’s like, What do you want?' And I just kind of sheepishly said, 'I guess I’ll take the background breakfast.' He must have sensed something, and he’s like, 'What do you do here?' I’m like, 'I’m an actor?' He kind of shook his head and said 'You can have whatever you want.' I was like, 'Really, for free? Oh my goodness! In that case…'"
And the day only improved from there. "We were filming on the court and I had to slam-dunk; that was probably the most fun."
Living Single (1993-1998)
Recurring as Khadijah's (Queen Latifah) best friend-turned-love interest Scooter was an intimidating experience for Williams, who shot the sitcom concurrently with his 90210 gig. "I was trained, but the actual ins and outs of show business and being on a show were brand-new to me. I had to swallow that insecurity and push forward," he says, adding that Latifah gave him a lot of tips, including insight into what constitutes proper onscreen kissing etiquette: "I learned that you don't necessarily use tongue. There's a way to show a passionate kiss without using tongue. I learned that trying to use tongue is looked on as unprofessional unless you've cleared it with your scene partner."
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1996)
Williams' first foray into the comic book world wasn't as the hero, but as a villain in the TNT drama's season 3 episode "Never on Sunday." He played Baron Sunday, a magician hellbent on getting revenge on Clark Kent (Dean Cain), and unlike most of the Man of Steel's foes, the bad Baron actually evades capture at the end of the episode.
"It was just like being a kid," he says. "It wasn't lost on me that I was one of the few guys who fought Superman and almost got the best of him for a period of time. I just kind of put a feather in my cap that I was one of the people that got away from Superman."
However, this role does come with another "poor actor story," to borrow Williams' words: On the day they shot the climactic airplane fight, which took 16 to 17 hours, Williams found himself stuck at work becuase his car wouldn't start. "After that long of a day, I had to then call a friend and get a ride home," he says. But, it wasn't all bad, because once he wrapped on the role, they let him keep a device that it look like fire was coming out of his hands.
Grey's Anatomy (2006-2008)
The actor landed the role of Dr. Miranda Bailey's (Chandra Wilson) husband, Tucker, right around the same time he first became a father. The timing was fortuitous because it was the first time in Williams' career that playing a father came naturally to him. When Tucker and Bailey's son got injured in a season 4 episode, Williams imagined it was his daughter. "I was very proud of the work I did, but it was extremely challenging, exhausting, hard work to do — to be sitting in that place for hours, picturing your own child possibly dying."
Prison Break (2008)
Because he was typically cast as good or noble characters, Williams jumped at the opportunity to play the silent and emotionless assassin Wyatt in the Fox drama's fourth season. But by the end of his run, "I was ready to feel again," he says. "I was the biggest champion of him dying a horrible death once he killed a kid."
Friday Night Lights (2010-2011)
To this day, this remains Williams' favorite job ever (excluding Black Lightning), not only because he loved the character of Ornette Howard, the ex-con father of Michael B. Jordan's character, but also because of the football drama's unique shooting style and use of improvisation.
"It was an actor's dream because the goal was just to do the best you could to bring your character to life, bring the scenes to life. If that meant changing lines, it meant changing lines. If that meant cutting half your lines, it meant cutting half your lines." he says, pointing to a specific scene he shared with Kyle Chandler in season 5's "Fracture." "It was kind of a big scene where I let him know that I'm in charge. He came up to me and he cut out well over half his lines. He's like, 'I'm not gonna say these. This scene is not about me saying these things. This scene is about you telling me these things you need to tell me.'"
Williams found Chandler's lack of ego incredibly inspiring and educational. "He's the lead actor on the show, and so I knew I was in a good place because it wasn't a show ruled by ego. It was a show ruled by what is the best thing for the scene, best thing for these characters, best thing for the show," he says. ""It formed how I act to this day, [and] how I conduct myself on Black Lightning."
Hart of Dixie (2011-2015)
Starring on this small-town CW series for four seasons brought some welcome stability to Williams' life. "As an actor, so much of life is out of your control and it's really not solid," he says. "It was great to know that you had a job to come back to." Portraying ex--football player-turned-mayor Lavon Hayes gave him a chance to flex another acting muscle: "I hadn't gotten a chance to do a lot of comedy, so Hart of Dixie was a great place where I got a chance to do that and play."
Black Lightning (2018-present)
After working solidly for many years, Williams' name is finally at the top of the call sheet; however, as The CW's comic-book show enters its second season, he admits that "it's tough just because it never stops. There's always something going on, between fight sequences [and] being in the suit." In season 2, his character's life becomes even more complicated as he and his family deal with the consequences of the drug Green Light spreading through the city, superherodom, and more. "There are some real wrinkles that the writers have put in for Jefferson so that his life is not easy," Williams says of his character. "From an acting standpoint, those are the things you want to play, those are the things that create struggle and conflict — and they're just the most fun to play!"