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Cress Williams Reflects on Collegiate Theater Roots and Television Road to ‘Black Lightning’

Cress Williams grew up primarily watching television and deciding he wanted to be an actor “like one of those guys” he saw on-screen. After attending Fullerton College, where he trained in the theater, and then UCLA, he embarked upon a career of film and television that has included memorable roles in “Living Single,” “ER,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Black Lightning.”

When did you first realize you wanted to be an actor?

I was a poor kid. I grew up watching film and television but primarily television. And I graduated high school and I knew I wanted to go to college because nobody in my family had. So I was like, “I’ll go and be a theater major.” I went to this little junior college — Fullerton College — and it was a two-year college so I thought I’d go there, figure out how talented I was and go to Hollywood. I got there, and I just felt really behind. All of the kids had come from these really rich backgrounds where they had done a lot of acting, and I had done very little. The faculty there really taught all about theater — how to paint sets, how to direct, how to stage manage, all of it. They really instilled a passion in me. I really felt like I had a lot to learn, and they really shaped my passion for acting — not the end result but the actual craft. So I ended up staying at the two-year college for four years because I didn’t want to leave until I felt ready.

How did you find the transition from theater training to on-screen work?

My first job was television. I got to where I wanted to go, but through a little bit of a detour. When I first started working in film and television I hated myself — I didn’t like what I was doing at all. All I could think of was, “I’m overacting. Be smaller.” I started to do that, but that was not fun. I felt confined doing film and TV.

When did that change and make you want to stick with the medium?

I got this very small independent film called “The Dogwalker” where this guy had a wife but sleeps around like crazy and is frequently kicked out of his house so he sleeps in this guy’s car and promises he’s going to fix the car but never does so he has to push the car places. He’s kind of like a street guy, but the writer-director was this white guy who lived in Hollywood, and he let me play where I could improvise and add lines or take them away. And at the end of the whole thing, he was like, “Thank you for coming up with some of my best lines.” And I was like, “Wow, thank you.” I realized it wasn’t that I had to be smaller, I just had to really be specific because being general just looks bad. There’s play in this. When you’re doing a published play, that is the bible — you’re not allowed to change it. Early on I was treating film and television scripts like that. It took me a little while to realize this is more movable [and] you can play with it more to really find the character. Once I realized that it became a lot more fun.

A number of your roles, on projects from “Providence” to “ER” to “Hart of Dixie” and “Black Lightning” have had you in roles where justice and social order come into play. How important to you are characters and projects that have something more to say about issues we’re facing in the real world?

I think it was Edward R. Murrow who said — and I think he was talking more about news media but that its purpose should be to entertain, illuminate, educate and inspire. I’ve kind of taken that as what I do, it should [do all of those things]. A lot of time I look back on my career and it’s 90% entertainment. So I was really excited to read [“Black Lightning”] because it checked off all of those other boxes, too.

Was it intentional that you kept taking on such characters?

Now there’s more intentionality about shaping my career. Early on I was just a working actor who got auditions. I will say that even from a very early standpoint I found myself saying no a lot more than actors at my level. A lot of times people believe that until you’re a certain list actor you say yes to everything, you’re not allowed to say no. But early on, something went off in me, and if something didn’t ring true for a myriad of reasons, I would say no and was fortunate enough to have people around me that were OK with that.

With such a diverse range of projects, is there one that you look back on now as particularly personally or career-defining?

The first one that comes to mind is “Friday Night Lights.” Prior to [“Black Lightning”], that was the one that was the best job I had as an actor. It taught me a lot of things because I had auditioned for it probably a year before and nothing had happened from it. And it had come in a season where I was auditioning for a lot of things and the audition would go well and they’d say, “They love you, you’re their first choice” and there’d always be a “but” at the end of it. “They loved you, but they’re going to try to find a local hire” was what had come back, so I kind of moved on. But then I got another call, and they didn’t say it was the same character, but I started reading it and recognized Ornette and discovered it was the same guy and they wanted to see if it could still fit. I had kind of changed how I audition. A lot of times actors go in and the judge of whether they did well or not is by the person watching and not by themselves — not even process if they liked it or not. If the people in front of them are like, “That was amazing, great job” then they leave going, ‘I did a great job” [and] if they go “Eh,” then they leave and think they blew it. I had an experience in an audition with what I saw as a really flat character, so I did it, and they said, “Let’s move on,” but I said, “How did you like that? Did you need anything else?” And by me asking, suddenly they were like, “Well, it’s kind of flat, so any personality you want to bring to it, bring to it.” A light went off, and I just was like, “Let’s do that first scene again.” And I was playing, and it came to life — so much so that before they even said anything, I said, “Let’s do that second scene.” It changed how I went into rooms — I didn’t want to leave until I was happy. So when I went into “Friday Night Lights,” we were just playing. Whether they said anything or not, I would say whether it was good or whether I wanted to go back— I was taking the power.

And it worked. You got the job.

And then I got the job, and they said, “This set’s a little different. There’s no marks. It’s spontaneous. It’s like a play.” And I was like, “Yeah OK.” I didn’t believe it. And then I got there and it was really like that. And it was amazing. As actors we were just mining. If it meant throwing the lines out, we threw the lines out. If it meant changing from take to take to take, we changed — we didn’t have to match. We just tried to make it the best we possibly could. Sometimes you didn’t know where the camera were. They shot with four cameras, and I could see one and two — I had no idea where three and four were — but let’s just go! It was huge. They entrusted me with so much, character-wise, to do. I was recurring, but they gave me so much plot and story, it felt like I was a regular.

How much did you need to know about Black Lightning’s backstory before signing onto the role?

As an actor I like to know as much as I can, but then also as a superhero fan or aficionado, those things were very, very important to me. I didn’t really know of “Black Lightning” until I got the script and started to investigate — it wasn’t a hero that I grew up with. So I didn’t know if his powers were natural or if it was the suit, but those things are, for me, very important. I really like the idea that his powers are his — that whether he has the suit or not, he has them.

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