‘Shrinking’ Star Jessica Williams on Grief, Therapy and Improv: ‘Anything About Being Black Is Probably Something I Added Myself’
Death, divorce and disease overwhelm the therapists at the center of “Shrinking” — and it’s not just their clients’.
Co-creators Jason Segel, Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein wrote the role of upbeat Gaby for Jessica Williams, knowing that the “Love Life” star and former “Daily Show” correspondent would inject some much-needed vigor to the show and offset the gloom and crankiness of colleagues Jimmy (Segel) and Paul (Harrison Ford). When Jimmy loses his wife, Tia (Lilan Bowden), his grief spills into his work with clients to a dangerous degree, and his associates must help him untangle it despite drowning under their own problems. For Paul, that’s a Parkinson’s diagnosis. For Gaby, it’s her dysfunctional marriage.
Dressed in almost-neon pink, orange and turquoise when she arrives at Variety’s Los Angeles offices, Williams speaks on the brightness she brings to “Shrinking” while still grounding herself in the complexity of Gaby’s grief.
What did you make of Gaby’s focus on Jimmy’s grief, even while dealing with marital problems and missing Tia, who was not just Jimmy’s wife but her best friend?
Jason, Brett and Bill wanted her to be bright and colorful, so she’s always quite bubbly, but she’s got her own stuff going on and holds her inner life close. People call it “shadow grief” — a loss that doesn’t quite feel traditional. The death of a marriage is a form of grief as well. And with Tia, there is a ranking of grief. Jimmy was the partner, and sometimes, it’s the worst when you’re grieving and someone tries to make it about them instead of holding space for how devastating that loss would be to one person — even though both people are hurting. Gaby’s a therapist, so part of her understands that. It also speaks to the power of women, and Black women. Often, we feel like there’s nobody there to listen. We grit our teeth and bear it.
Did you ever picture how Gaby grieved Tia in private?
Gaby was definitely crying about it, but also throwing herself into her job. I wonder if she didn’t even take time off — I don’t think she would. Just helping patients and pushing through it.
The show is candid about Gaby’s experiences as a Black woman working with white men. How did you feel about the writing of those moments?
At the end of the day, they said they were gonna write it towards me, and I’m a Black woman. A six-foot-tall Black woman. That informs my worldview in a lot of ways. Some days, I wake up and feel really Black — I mean, I’m Black all the time, but some days I feel Blacker than others. And being six-foot-tall, I’m more inclined to hunch over and bend to people. But right before our first table read, Bill Lawrence said to all the actors, “You’re in charge of your characters. I defer to you. If you feel something’s not right, we’ll change it.” One of the first lines I improved was when Jimmy [brings a client to a boxing ring], and Gaby’s like, “You took a young Black man to go fight people in this cultural atmosphere?” Bill was like, “Please add stuff like that all the time.” So anything where I’m talking about being Black is probably something I added myself.
How have your own feelings about therapy impacted your approach to playing a therapist?
I’ve had the same therapist for many years. We’ve been through a lot. She was with me in my 20s, and now I’m 33. Even when I don’t feel like talking that day, it’s always nice to go. I walk away like I just did a good workout, or a good stretch. It’s so critical for me to hear my thoughts back to me, instead of sitting with them in my head.
Therapy helps me know how I process and chew and respond to things, and that helps me play characters more fully. Ultimately, I’m playing myself playing someone else — I’m running their emotions, their wants, their needs, through my lens. Like, “Oh, Gaby really wants Paul to send a recommendation letter. Have I ever wanted that from someone that I really respected? And did I get it or not?” Taking mental notes of my state is so critical to making me a better actor, better artist, better friend.