Zelda Williams Interview: Robin Williams' Daughter Reveals, "Dad Wanted People to Be Happy"
Image attributed to Zelda Williams
Zelda Williams, daughter of the late comedian Robin Williams, stars in her latest feature film Never produced by the team behind Sex, Lies and Videotape. Never also features Zachary Booth, Nicole Gale Anderson and Angela Sarafyan. Indican Pictures is releasing the film theatrically on August 19, 2016, and expanding to additional markets. The film has garnered accolades throughout the festival circuit.
Williams is currently on the supernatural horror TV series Dead of Summer, created by Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Ian Goldberg for the Freeform channel. The show is about a group of young counselors at a camp that appears to be haunted by chilling, supernatural forces. Williams plays Drew who was revealed to the audience to be a transgender man. She also stars in the new Lifetime thriller, Girl in the Box, which chronicles the life of Colleen Stan who was kidnapped and kept in a box by Cameron and Janice Hooker in 1977. Girl in the Box premieres September 10, 2016.
"I grew up on a lot of sets. We lived in San Francisco. Throughout my childhood, my dad was very good friends with Chris Columbus. Chris would film a lot of those movies in San Francisco because both he and my dad had kids and they wanted to be around them and not displace their families, as opposed to being gone eight months of the year."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Zelda, did you become interested in Never when you first read the script?
Zelda Williams: Yes, it was brought to me by its creator, and I just took an interest in what the story was about. Never is primarily about my character (Nikki) being a lesbian singer/songwriter in Seattle. She becomes very close friends with a straight guy. Through no fault of his own, he falls very much in love with her. There’s no part of her that will ever be able to give him what he wants no matter how much she loves him as a friend and how hard that is. This is very much about that kind of reality, that there’s no kind of happy medium in that relationship.
I found a lot of that to be really fascinating because we had not really seen that before. I had such a blast shooting that movie. I’d never really been to Seattle as well, so it was a combination of things. I think it was one of those things where everything kind of lined up well, and you’re involved in something you’re really not going to see again in a script. I certainly have not seen anything like it since.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is this your first starring dramatic role in a feature film?
Zelda Williams: I suppose it would be, yeah. I’ve done a couple of horror films and did a couple of comedies and quite a few shorts, but this is the only one where I wasn’t the best friend or the love interest, the girlfriend or wife or the killer ghost in a horror film (laughs). It was really a great experience getting to be a lead. It didn’t involve a lot of singing. There was a bit of performing on stage, which will always terrify me (laughs). I am so afraid of stages. But, it was a blast.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a singer in real life?
Zelda Williams: I directed my friend’s music video, but I’ve never done any videos for me. I’m not a professional singer. I’ve only done it for fun. But, I do love it. I always grew up around music, and many of my mom and dad’s friends were musicians. I just have never, and arguably, with my stage fright, will ever do it professionally (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You play sort of a mysterious, loner and transgender man (who is born female and whose gender identity is that of a man) in Dead of Summer. This takes place in 1989, so mainstream awareness was practically nonexistent. How did you prepare for the role?
Zelda Williams: Because it’s still a supernatural show, I don’t think the focus necessarily is on historical accuracy as much as it is on wanting the portrayal to be honest, to approach a lot of the issues that the transgender kids face now. I don’t think that Drew would’ve necessarily been able to exist in real life back then in 1989. Coming out to his mother doesn’t really end well for him in that sense, but I don’t think he would’ve been able to get that far. They are very true to the fact that Drew at 18 is not able to have any sort of surgery or hormones so he, while living as a guy, is still anatomically female. We do approach some of the difficulties of that on the show and the fact that he has to hide that.
These are all discussions I had with people that I sought out that were male identifying and who would speak to me about what it was like, especially if they were older and transgender during that time period. None of them I spoke to were out, to be honest, at that time. But, they spoke to a lot of what it was to exist and be a trans at that time and that they just couldn’t be completely open then. All of it’s hard. Drew was very wonderful and very challenging to play. I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to that community, and I still do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve got Girl in the Box on Lifetime coming up, which is based on the true story of the kidnapping of Colleen Stan who was held as a sex slave by Cameron and Janice Hooker in Red Bluff, California. You play Janice Hooker.
Zelda Williams: Yes. That comes out September 10. We’re playing real people, but this is obviously a fictionalized movie version of such. I never got to meet Janice. I think she’s in witness protection. So, a lot of what we had to incur was how we were going to portray her for television, especially because she was also abused by her husband, so he abused her and the woman who was kidnapped. I think it’s almost like a kind of Stockholm syndrome dedication to him that she wasn’t aware as well of all the ways he ended up hurting her. It was really interesting to approach.
I play a mother in this as well. She ended up having kids in the duration of the captivity of Colleen Stan, and it was very interesting and very different for me. I’m 27, but they primarily still had me play 18 because that’s the roles you get. But, it’s always been very strange to me to play a high schooler when I didn’t even feel like a high schooler when I was one (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Looking young isn’t necessarily a bad thing (laughs).
Zelda Williams: No, not at all. But, there are times when people say, “Why the hell is Zelda still playing a high schooler when she’s almost 30?” I kind of want to say, “I’m with you, man. I would happily play a lawyer or FBI agent. They just won’t hire me for that yet.” (laughs). Janice was in her early 20s when we started and was probably almost 30 when we finished.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why and how did you develop an interest in acting, Zelda?
Zelda Williams: I think it was a pretty natural progression for me. I grew up on a lot of sets. We lived in San Francisco. Throughout my childhood, my dad was very good friends with Chris Columbus. Chris would film a lot of those movies in San Francisco because both he and my dad had kids and they wanted to be around them and not displace their families, as opposed to being gone eight months of the year.
So Dad was actually home a lot, and that allowed for it to be a bit easier than I imagine some kids and their actor parents have it. I do feel bad for them because I can actually understand where they come from and some actors wanting to bring them on the road, but then that would displace them from having a home base. It’s not easy.
Instead of what people might think, the choices that are made are not that easy. I grew up watching that and getting to visit sets, lots of sets that don’t really exist anymore. I got to be on sets where there were no green screens. Mermaids were actually models that were sitting in a pool with mermaid tails on. When you’re a child, that’s the most amazing thing because you’re literally seeing and being able to touch these incredible, fantastical stories that otherwise you’d only get to read.
I was someone who loved books. I loved fantasy books growing up. It taught me the only way I was going to get to be in one of those fantasy books or live that fairy tale was to do this. So I loved it from a very young age. I found my way to it mainly from books, as opposed to some kind of firsthand knowledge on set, because I was a child. I didn’t know what the director did, and I didn’t know what Dad really did. I would just go, “Oh, he’s a robot. Okay.” You learn about it as you become older.
I’m glad my parents also told me “hell, no!” until I was done with high school. They wouldn’t let me do acting or audition or even come to LA and take part in it until I was about 17. That was great because I still had to go through school even though I didn’t like it because that’s part of it. That’s part of life. I’ll always be grateful for that. I didn’t have to jump into it at 10 or 11 because I was demanding it, and my parents said, “No.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What advice did your dad give you?
Zelda Williams: My parents just wanted me to try and be happy and work hard. That was what Dad always told me. He said for me to be early to set and the last person to leave if I have to and that even if you’re having a really hard day and everything is falling apart, actors can’t usually fix the stuff that’s falling apart. Usually it’s a number of things like scheduling or things that have gone awry. He said that it’s an actor’s place to not become part of that problem. You have to step back and find help or offer to help and make people happy if you can.
He was so good at that even when everything was falling apart. Dad would make everyone happy again. The actor has to try and not be a part of the problem. As funny and as simple as that sounds, you’d be shocked how hard it is for some people (laughs). My dad was, and my mom is someone that tries to help people. He wanted people to be happy. As naive as that sounds, that’s very much what I took from him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your other projects and your future goals as an actor?
Zelda Williams: I do a lot of voiceover work, so I do cartoons for kids and fun stuff. That actually makes me very happy. I wrote a bunch of scripts, so I get to direct my first short version of one of the scripts in October. I’m excited about that. That will be my first directing narrative. As for goals, I just hope to keep getting to work because it’s wonderful. It makes me happy.
Truthfully, I’m not one of those people who have to set out goals to leave behind a legacy or win an award. Dad will always have that in people’s minds, and that’s great. He should. For me, I love it because it’s a job that I love and that I feel I’m best suited for. I just want to continue to do it.
I think many people want to have a perfect resume, and I respect that absolutely. But I was very much raised on the idea that you are responsible for what you put into anything. You work hard and do what you are asked to do. I just hope to keep doing that. It has served me well so far.
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