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JoBeth Williams on Early Stage Roles, Brutal ‘Poltergeist’ Shoot

JoBeth Williams’ acting career includes such films as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill,” but she says her true passion remains theater. The actress credits her Brown University acting coach Jim Barnhill with helping her develop her craft. After graduating, Williams became a member of the Trinity Repertory Theater Company in Providence, R.I., where she earned her first mention in Variety in a March 27, 1974, review of the play “Creeping With Panthers.” Her theater work led to her decades-long career in film and TV. She has also been an activist within SAG-AFTRA. The 25th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards are Jan. 27, and Williams has a dual role: She’s chair of the SAG Awards committee (and as such is billed as a producer for SAG-AFTRA), and she’s president of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, with the awards supported by the Foundation’s actor assistance/education programs and public literacy programs. 

Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?

Probably there was always that little ham in me. But when I was accepted into Brown University, everybody said, “Oh, it’s wonderful that you enjoy acting, but what do you really want to do?” so I figured I couldn’t possibly be an actor. I said, “Well, I’ll be a psychologist,” and so I went to Brown thinking that would be my major, and I ended up spending all my time in the theater doing shows.

Was there anything you learned at Trinity Repertory that you still carry with you?   

I learned that my greatest joy in what I do, in being an actor, is working with other actors. It is the people who make up this sort of ragtag band of players — not that different from when, during Shakespeare’s time, they were in gypsy carts going around England — the same kind of feeling of a group of outsiders or people who aren’t quite the norm who came together to create something greater than they could do on their own. That’s the thing I’ve loved the most about being an actor.

Are there any projects you’re especially proud of?

I’m proud of “Poltergeist” because it was a brutal shoot. It was physically very hard. The director [Tobe Hooper] would say, “OK, now you’re really upset so we need you all to really be screaming.” And we said, “What are we screaming at?” And he said, “We’re not really sure yet what it’s going to be.” So I thought we all came through it not looking like people who didn’t know what they were doing. … And also I thought it turned out to be a really good movie.

Do you have a preference between film and theater?

I think in my heart of hearts I love theater more because it belongs to the actor every night, and every night I get to go through the entire arc of a character. But then, and I’ve said it before, one of the things I love about movies and TV is that they capture the happy accidents that happen. Sometimes a really wonderful, real, kind of magical moment will happen on-screen, and the director has captured it; the cinematographer has captured it. And in theater of course, it’s ephemeral; it’s gone.

Is there any advice you would give to your younger self just starting out?

I would say to myself, “Trust your instincts more.” I mean, I did to a certain extent, but don’t try to please everybody, because I think as a young actor, you feel like “I’ve got to do exactly what it is they want.” And sometimes it’s better if you kind of go “Well, this may not be exactly what they want, but it’s what I feel in the scene.” And it’s more alive, in a way. 

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