The former “Grey’s Anatomy” star is making his Broadway debut in “Take Me Out.” For that, he said, “I needed to go into a very unknown place.”
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Jesse Williams will be the first tell you — certainly, he was the first to tell me — that he has no formal theater training and little practice. There’s an Edward Albee play in the hazy past and a one-act opposite Zosia Mamet. That’s pretty much it.
When I met him, on a recent weekday afternoon at Spring Place, a ritzy club and co-working space in TriBeCa, he joked that he was probably the least experienced theater actor I had ever interviewed.
But on April 4, the Broadway revival of Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” will open at Second Stage’s Hayes Theater with Williams, a familiar TV presence from his decade-plus run on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Which means that he is learning on the job: what “upstage” means, whether to hold for a laugh, how to use his whole body in a scene and not just the torso on up, as is the norm on television.
“I’m not even wearing pants in half of those scenes,” he said of his time on “Grey’s.” (I think he was kidding?)
In “Take Me Out,” which is set in the mid-1990s, Williams, 40, plays Darren Lemming, a superstar baseball player who comes out as gay. It’s a play about race, class, sexuality, sport and living a life in the public eye. Williams’s Darren stands — in batter’s crouch — at the intersection of these competing themes. “I’m here to just learn and get my butt kicked,” he said, using a stronger word than “butt.”
Williams grew up in Chicago, the eldest child of a white mother, a potter, and a Black father, a factory worker who later became a teacher. When Williams hit junior high school, his parents, now divorced, moved the family to a majority white neighborhood in suburban Massachusetts, where he experienced casual, and less casual, racism. Baseball, which he played on school teams and with his father, remained a constant.
He graduated from prep school — he had moved on to soccer and lacrosse by then — and enrolled at Temple University, double majoring in African American studies and film and media arts. School, like most things, came easy to him. He would often write his papers the night before, high on marijuana, just to see if he could get away with it. Still, he excelled.
Scouted as a model, he shot some commercials during college. But he never took that too seriously. The artists in his family were visual artists, not performers. And acting didn’t seem as creative, as generative, as stimulating. In 2006, having worked as a teacher, a paralegal and a political organizer and an activist with several grassroots organizations, he decided to apply to law school. Or maybe film school. But first he reached out to his old commercial agent, a move he chalked up to a “quarter-life crisis.”
Four days later, in an example of the effortlessness that has defined his professional life, he booked an episode of “Law & Order.” He appeared in a few movies and shows, including a brief arc on the teen comedy “Greek” as a character aptly nicknamed the Hotness Monster. Then, in 2009, he was hired onto the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” where he spent 12 years as Jackson Avery, the dynamic, gym-ripped plastic surgeon.
Here is the comment that Shonda Rhimes, who created “Grey’s,” gave about a key scene: “We felt that having a shirtless Jackson Avery would be a benefit to society.”
What he lacked in formal training, he made up for in his eagerness to master the craft. “He was always watching everybody’s artistry and learning from it,” said Krista Vernoff, a “Grey’s” showrunner.
His colleague Sarah Drew, who played his longtime love interest, echoed that. “There’s nobody that worked as hard as he did,” she said. “Nobody.”
Ellen Pompeo, another co-star, who said that she lived to mess with him, added: “He’s handsome. Girls always like that.”
Fair enough. Williams, whom I watched first in rehearsal and then a few days later across that Spring Place table, is good-looking in a way that seems almost uncanny, with a grin that could melt permafrost. In person, he projects confidence — cockiness, almost — shot through with self-scrutiny and the occasional flash of humility. Colleagues described his keen intellect, instantly legible in the quickness and charm of his conversation.
“Yes, he really does look like that,” Vernoff told me. “And yes, he is really smart. And really, really talented.”
Which explains why, a few years ago, the director Scott Ellis offered him the role of Darren. Ellis had wanted to revive “Take Me Out,” which received the Tony Award for best play in 2003. But first he had to find a biracial leading man (Darren’s race is a crucial element of the play) of overwhelming charisma who could also pass as a Hall-of-Fame-level player. Having seen Williams on “Grey’s,” Ellis suspected that he could command a Broadway stage.
“It’s always that question,” Ellis said, speaking on a rehearsal break. “Can an actor cross the footlights? I thought, I bet he can.”
Williams turned Ellis down. His schedule on “Grey’s” — as an actor and occasional director — didn’t allow a Broadway run. The play itself, with its rhythmic, cerebral dialogue and its nude scene, scared him. But the offer nagged at him. And as his work on “Grey’s” began to feel, in his words, “increasingly safe, protected, insulated,” that fear became part of the appeal.
“I knew that as I designed my exit, the next thing I did had to be terrifying. I needed to get out of my comfort zone, I needed to go into a very unknown place,” he said. “Take Me Out” provided it.
REHEARSALS BEGAN in February 2020 and halted, as all Broadway did, that March. Williams spent the intervening months at home in Los Angeles, teaching the rudiments of baseball to his two children — he shares custody with his former wife, Aryn Drake-Lee — and intensifying his activism, particularly his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Williams sits on the board of the Advancement Project, an advocacy group devoted to civil rights. “He is deeply committed to racial justice,” said Judith Browne Dianis, its executive director. “He’s not one of the celebs or influencers that does things for his brand purposes. It’s deep in his soul.”
Williams does little for brand purposes. And he doesn’t seem to know how to phone it in. “I swing through the ball,” he said, describing his approach to each new project. He didn’t seem to register the sports metaphor.
When rehearsals began again, almost two years later, he swung through, supplementing run-throughs with voice lessons; personal training; breath work, where he learned about the diaphragm; physical therapy, to heal several torn ligaments in his foot. (Mini golf has its dangers.)
“I’m taking the preparation really seriously, because every single syllable is totally brand-new,” he said.
Because he lacks training — “I’m not really an actor,” he reminded me, “I didn’t go to acting school” — he fills his characters out with lived experience. In some ways, his experiences paralleled Darren’s.
For example, they share a similar focus and drive. “I win,” he said, using more sports metaphors. “I hustle hard. I jump way bigger than I am. And I figure it out.”
And he relates to the frictionless way that Darren has moved through his life. The play describes Darren as “something special: A Black man who you could imagine had never suffered.” And that isn’t true of Williams personally, but it’s true enough professionally.
“I’ve related to a self-awareness of ease in my life, a self-awareness that the way I look or perform, based on the standards in our society, grants me access,” he said. “I can relate to how it can lull you to sleep, ease.”
He has asked himself why Darren chooses to come out as gay. Is it an act of self-determination or a kind of self-sabotage, a way to complicate that ease?
Of course, those same questions also apply to a TV actor choosing to lead a Broadway play. “There’s a lot of spillage,” Williams said. “A lot of overlap.” Which means that the role is also a way for Williams to explore some of his own contradictions, like what it means to be a deep thinker admired for his body, to be a Black celebrity in majority white spaces, to live both a public life and a private one.
He is trying to embrace those contradictions fully and candidly, which also means embracing the play’s locker room nude scenes. He was somewhat resistant at first, asking Ellis about alternatives — a towel bar, maybe? But he has since committed to it, although when he spoke, he admitted that he had yet to try it.
“I’m here to do things I’ve never done before,” he said. “I have got one life, as far as I know. It’ll be fine.”
But of course his life is not exactly Darren’s, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Darren is gay. And Williams, as a number of tabloids will happily tell you, is straight. While Broadway has largely decided against racial impersonation, when it comes to matters of sexuality, gender and disability conversations around which actors should play which roles remain ongoing.
Ellis, who is openly gay, said that an actor’s sexuality pertains less than other factors. “Do they have empathy?” he said rhetorically. “Do I feel that they can understand what this character is going through? That’s all that matters.”
That isn’t exactly all that matters to Williams, who has taken these questions to heart. “If there’s anybody in the gay community that thinks that role should be played by a gay person, they have an argument,” he said. “They absolutely have an argument.”
And still, he wanted his at-bat. “I really wanted the challenge of trying to do my best at the role,” he said.
For Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”), the openly gay actor who plays opposite Williams, that’s enough. “He’s asking very thoughtful questions in the process and doing the work that truly great actors do,” Ferguson said. “I’ve completely fallen in love with his version of Darren.”
I watched a scene of that Darren — the shower scene, rehearsed clothed — on a recent weekday morning. Williams looked like a ballplayer, rubbing pain cream into his ankle, swinging a bat like he’d been born with it. He looked like a stage actor, too, communicating danger and an almost feline grace as Darren approached another character.
Patrick J. Adams (“Suits”), a longtime stage actor, described how quickly Williams had adapted to the rhythms of theater. “He’s just taking it in kind of instantly, almost frustratingly, to be perfectly honest,” Adams said. “Like, How is this so easy for you?”
Williams makes it look easy. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t working hard.
“The last thing I want is to be the shiny rich TV guy that thinks he can just show up and do something, because that’s just absolutely not how I feel,” he said. “I’m just here to learn.”
After ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Jesse Williams Takes the Stage – The New York Times