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Jessica Williams on Her New Film and Subverting the Traditional Rom-Com

Williams describes "People, Places, Things" as "a nice dessert, or a slice of cake, and not a huge, crazy dessert spread."

Nijla Mu’min

Nijla Mu’min

Stills from 'People, Places, Things' courtesy of the Film Arcade

Jessica Williams is best known for her work as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (RIP), where she's satirically covered such hotbed issues as Florida's Stand Your Ground law, gay marriage opposition, and the Ferguson police department. But, in Jim Strouse's new romantic comedy, People, Places, Things, she plays Kat, an SVA (School of Visual Arts) graphic novel student who wants her mother, Diane (Regina Hall), to be happy and find a suitable partner. That potential partner turns out to be Kat's professor, Will (Jemaine Clement), a graphic novelist and father of twin girls, who is trying to put his life back together after catching his girlfriend cheating on him one year earlier, at their twin's fifth birthday party.

During our interview, Williams described the film as "a nice dessert, or a slice of cake, and not a huge, crazy dessert spread." She is right. This is a smart, economical film that eschews overt gimmicks around interracial romance by allowing its characters to exist freely. Kat is a burgeoning artist whose blunt demeanor and sharp wit ignites an artistic and personal awakening in her professor, Will, as he teeters on the brink of depression and pity.

I caught up with Williams by phone to discuss the film, her experience working with Strouse, and why roles like Kat and Diane are "one in a billion" for black actresses. The film opens August 14 in select cities.

VICE: Hi, Jessica. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It had really smart humor. How did you become involved with the project?
Jessica Williams: I was approached by the director and writer, Jim Strouse, to do the film. I think at that point, Jemaine Clement had been cast but that was the only name. I had a really awesome lunch with Jim, and I really vibed with him, and I liked the character of Kat, and I was really excited. That's pretty much it. I remember initially reading the script before the lunch that I had with Jim, and I remember loving it because it was very funny and delightful.

It was really refreshing to see you and Regina Hall take on characters that aren't defined by the usual stereotypes attached to black women in mainstream films. Can you talk about how this might've contributed to your wanting to be part of the film?
Oh, yeah, it definitely did. There aren't, at the moment, many characters for black women that don't involve them being—black, like it's not specifically about them being black. Of course race is so complicated and it's naturally a part of me, but I don't walk around always talking about it. It's not like something that rules my entire being, even though it's very much a part of it. And what I liked about Kat, the character that I play in the film, is that it's kind of the same thing, where she is black, but she doesn't ever mention it, they don't talk about it, it doesn't come up, it's just the fact that it's her. That was really, really exciting to see. Those parts are one in a billion for black women in the industry, so it was really, really fun to do. Even with Regina Hall and Jemaine, the story wasn't about how they are an interracial couple. It was just that they're interracial and it's fine.

How do you think that affects the story?
If you like somebody, if you're interested in them, hopefully you can date them no matter what race they are, no matter what they look like. I think it makes it more real and more rich, because it's cool for people to be able to sit in the film and process race quietly or in the back of their heads. It makes it more interesting.

Definitely. It's also interesting how the main character, played by Jemaine, is from New Zealand. I was reading that his mother is Maori, so it's like there's a lot of cultural mixing in the film that comes in, in subtle ways.
Totally, and it's not about him being from New Zealand, you know. It is very interesting.

In terms of the performances in the film, everyone was so natural and had great chemistry with each other. How did you work with the director to craft your character and your performance? Was it a process with him, or did he just have a strict idea of how he saw Kat's character?
We worked together on it. The character Kat is an SVA student, so Jemaine and I went and sat in on a couple of SVA graphic novel classes, just to see how that works, and to see what an artist carries, what an artist draws, and how they even use their hands. So we filled in on all the major things, and then I worked with Jim to figure out who Kat was. He really allowed Regina, me, Jemaine, and Stephanie Allynne to bring what we wanted to the characters, while honoring the script that he wrote.

How was your experience at the Sundance premiere of the film?
The altitude really got to me so I couldn't party, because I couldn't really breathe that well. But it was very fun being in this very cool, big vacation home and the whole town felt like Disneyland. So many actors were walking around, and people would stop you on the street to say that they really liked the film. The biggest thing I was anxious about was watching the film, because I had never seen it. So, I was sitting there in this huge theater full of people, I was just holding my breath while watching with the crew. I was so nervous. I was like ripping my boyfriend's arm the whole time.

There are a lot of romantic comedies, and it's a genre that's so popular, but I love when I come across one like yours that's so smart, and pokes fun at a lot of the tropes of the predictable rom-com. When you read the script, how did this one stick out from so many that you've probably seen?
I think it's all in Regina Hall's performance and Jemaine's performance. They're very grounded but still funny, and I think that sometimes with romantic comedies, there's a push just to have an open, broad appeal, but I think with this romantic comedy, we got to cater it to all of the actors' strengths as opposed to what would make the most money. I think it's like a nice dessert, or a slice of cake, and not a huge, crazy dessert spread. Does that make sense?

Yes. How do you see this role fitting into your body of work on TV and in your larger career goals?
I definitely want to do more film. Especially while doing The Daily Show, it was a nice break. It's different from what I do on The Daily Show, so it's nice to kind of have that part of my catalog. I just think it's the beginning of a new film career for me.

How much of the performance in the film was improv? I know with Charlie's character there's this running theme of her taking this improv class after she splits from Will, so I wondered if that was a part of the actual process of your performance.
Jim was very much into improv, which was really fun because I know I'm sort of comedy-based. So we would do the original scene that was on paper as it was written, and then after like three takes of that Jim would be like, "OK, you guys can play, feel free to improvise wherever you want." So we would just go nuts and go crazy improvising, and then we would go back to doing what was on the paper. And it was really fun to do, because it took me out of my shell and it took me out of my head, and there were a lot of things we discovered while improvising. It gave us room to add or take away in the original dialogue. So it was really collaborative, and really fun.

That definitely came through so much in the film. What would you want someone to take away from seeing it?
It was really fun to do and I hope they enjoyed it, because I loved making it.

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