TV & Movies
Everybody Loves Tyler James Williams
The Abbott Elementary star spent more than two decades on television. Now, he’s showing everybody how it’s done.
Tyler James Williams somehow looks different than he did a few years ago. Now that he’s starring in ABC’s hit series Abbott Elementary as the strict but charming schoolteacher Gregory Eddie, millions of viewers have fallen in love with him. But Williams has been around long enough to know when it’s real.
“That’s the downside of what’s happening currently. People don’t see me. They see Gregory,” the 30-year-old says. Some fans might be firing off thirst tweets, but Williams hasn’t forgotten the comments that were much less kind. “I remember in the early Twitter days, there were whole threads about how ugly and unattractive I was.” (Those unflattering tweets date back to 2012 when he was 20, and social media was roasting him for battle rapping in a Disney movie.) “Now, when I’m so shockingly attractive, people talk about it.” He laughs. It’s cool, though. “In a few years, it’s going to flip back.”
It’s a day of multiple talk show tapings around Manhattan for Williams. He’s just wrapped a photo shoot for this piece, and we’re chatting over carnitas tacos at a nearby restaurant. (“Not usually the best interview food, but let’s wild out,” he says.) He’s wearing an outfit that could have been thrifted from the set of Saturday Night Fever: houndstooth flare-leg pants and a white top unbuttoned to mid-chest — both custom-made. It’s flashier than anything Gregory would wear, but then again, he isn’t Greg.
When Abbott Elementary premiered in December 2021, its mockumentary format appealed instantly to viewers still in withdrawal over defunct workplace comedies like The Office. And similar to Parks and Recreation, Abbott inhabits a unique space as a sitcom with a moral core that’s, in this case, centered around a community of predominantly Black students — proxies of the kids often neglected by the education system in real life. Weeks before Season 2 premiered in September 2022 with quadruple the ratings, creator Quinta Brunson earned her first Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series — the second Black woman to do so — while co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph won Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as the battle-tested teacher Barbara.
Williams picked up a Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nomination for his performance as Greg. And though he didn’t take home an Emmy that night, his character’s Halpertian stares at the camera have become the audience’s surrogate, giving an otherwise upbeat show an irreverent edge. Then there’s what talk show host Tamron Hall calls the “swoon factor”: his slow burn will-they-won’t-they relationship with Brunson’s character, Janine. “This show leans into the fact that less is so much more, and he’s adept at doing less,” Ralph says of Williams. “There are so many subtleties to his performance.”
Ever since landing his breakout role as a young Chris Rock on the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris at age 12, Williams has been keenly aware of the connections audiences draw between himself and his characters. After shouldering the legacy of a comedic legend for four seasons, he shuffled through cameos and supporting parts: playing zombie apocalypse survivor Noah in Season 5 of The Walking Dead and gay Ivy Leaguer Lionel in 2014’s Dear White People. He first collaborated with Brunson in 2019 for a Romeo & Juliet spoof on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, where the two played star-crossed stans — he was a Barb; she was part of the Bardigang.
Abbott’s giving me room to breathe and feel safe again. I feel much more in control than I have with anything else.
A year later, at the height of the pandemic in early 2020, Brunson DM’d Williams about her pilot for Abbott Elementary. He’d been avoiding a return to network TV for years, but with Abbott, he knew he could trust Brunson to keep the material and his character honest. “Quinta protects Gregory as much as I do, and that’s something you don’t often find in network TV, where it’s a ratings game,” he says. “People will throw a character under the bus for a joke in a heartbeat. Abbott’s giving me room to breathe and feel safe again. I feel much more in control than I have with anything else.”
A sense of control is significant to a former child actor accustomed to being told what to do. Williams booked his first gig as a regular on Sesame Street and appeared on the children’s program from age 4 through 10. His most notable role, Everybody Hates Chris, was on a set dominated by stand-up comics, who, as Williams recalls, “are known to be rather abrasive.” With Abbott, he says, “Quinta wants to build a good working atmosphere that people want to stay in and around for.”
Williams himself lends his decades of experience to his castmates, who see him as a tenured teacher of the game. “He’s been in this industry practically his whole life, and he’s really paid attention to how it works,” says Ralph. “He lets you know about the numbers, what it means, how streaming affects the Big Five, how the industry is changing. I love that he’s got that kind of knowledge.”
Talking to a former child actor is much like asking a war vet about their time in the service — it’s a group few people belong to, and even fewer survive unscathed. But Williams no longer finds it weird to reflect. “The more I talk about it, the better I feel,” he says. “For a long time, I tried to outrun it, and it made things worse.”
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, Williams attended public school until sixth grade before being home-schooled. His father, Leroy Williams, worked as an NYPD sergeant, and his mother, Angela Williams, was a gospel singer and minister who oversaw the careers of Tyler and his younger brothers, Tyrel and Tylen. At 4, Tyler told his mom he wanted to act after watching Will Smith in Men in Black with her on home video. He would ask her to rewatch the movie every day, and they made a routine of analyzing films together.
Soon after, he started auditioning for roles; within six months, he landed his first commercial for the cold and allergy medicine Dimetapp. Unlike his mother, who herself had auditioned for commercials as a child and disliked the experience, Tyler was committed to acting. Raising Tyler and his brothers while navigating the stresses of the entertainment world inspired Angela to write a book guiding other parents through the process. In My Child is Going to Be Rich and Famous: How to Successfully Balance Family, Parenting, and Entertainment, she describes Tyler as a “dry-witted, observant” kid who was wise beyond his years and “selectively social.” Like many child actors, he had trouble finding friends who could relate to him.
Years later, people still ask Williams how he’s so well-adjusted. “We’re not as chaotic as I think most child actors get the [reputation for] being, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we adjusted well,” he says of himself and his brothers. “We had a lot to work through, and a lot of therapists got a lot of money from me.” He laughs. “That was the uphill fight and what feels like the fight of my career and life. Because [acting] is the only thing that I love like this. I lost 6 inches of my intestines to that.”
At 23 and between gigs, Williams’ Crohn’s disease flare-ups hindered his ability to work and kept him hospitalized; his surgeon attributed part of his physical distress to anxiety. Williams was just making the transition into adult roles and had become obsessed with constantly working to evade the fall from grace that struck many of his child-star peers. It only stoked his anxiety that he’d briefly shared a manager with Lindsay Lohan, the industry’s textbook example of a child actor who spiraled upon hitting adulthood. “I had the stories. I knew what to attempt to avoid,” he says. “But it's kind of like telling somebody there's a bunch of land mines outside, and here’s how you avoid them.”
I knew I could fall into this trap of child actors, and I was hyperaware of that. I think I overcompensated. I was really calculated in everything I did.
Finally, he hired a therapist to help confront his fears. “As a child, it’s really weird when your audience tells you that you did such a good job at something that they don’t want you to do anything else,” he says. “I knew I could fall into this trap of child actors and [be] known for one thing and never work again and just be a nostalgia artist, and I was hyperaware of that. I think I overcompensated. I was really calculated in everything I did.”
These days, Williams knows the business better and has used that awareness to reclaim control of his career. “At first, I was coasting on raw talent and seeing what would happen,” he says. “Now, my game is refined. I know what I’m doing.”
TV is full of stories about assholes and anti-heroes, but it’s hard to resist a sitcom that genuinely makes you smile. Williams points out that creator Shonda Rhimes once said her soapy political thriller Scandal could only have thrived during the Obama years. On the opposite end, Abbott is warmth in an age of darkness. Williams asks me if I feel good after watching an episode. Yes.
“I hope so,” he says. “I was looking at a bunch of pilots at the time and was like, these are heady, and mmm, that’s smart. But it had no heart to it. And this inherently did.”
Brunson wrote Gregory with Williams in mind from the start. “He’s someone who really embodies the everyday guy I wanted Gregory to be, and also I knew he had the sense of humor to pull off certain quirks,” Brunson explains. “We both approach comedy in a similar way. For the Janine and Gregory aspect, that makes them a bit more playful than most on-screen potential love interests.”
The surplus of streaming platforms has inched Black television content closer to a percentage that reflects our daily lives. But Hollywood has always struggled to sustain and nurture a consistent number of Black stories. Williams gets backhanded compliments about Abbott all the time. “People come up to me and say, ‘The main cast is Black, but it doesn’t feel like a Black show.’ And I’m like, well, what does that mean exactly?” he says. “Usually, when people say it’s a Black show, it has to be outside of awards contention and made for a niche market. For me, it’s good TV, regardless.”
A lot has and hasn’t changed in the time between Everybody Hates Chris and Abbott Elementary — both of which feature predominantly Black actors. “Shit, you saw with Everybody Hates Chris. We got nominated for the Golden Globe with Season 1, but we were ‘the Black show’ that was nominated. We weren’t [considered] one of the elite shows at the time. We suffered after the fact because of that,” says Williams. “Sheryl’s [Emmy] win [for Abbott] validates that in a way. It’s not this old-school mentality where there’s this stuff, and then there’s your stuff. It’s all good stuff. It just so happens to have a predominantly Black cast.”
To celebrate his 30th birthday in October, Williams attended a Bad Bunny concert in Los Angeles with his brothers and friends who also work in TV and film. Over the years, he’d been so overly cautious of his image that it felt good to let loose. “I spent so much of my 20s digging my way out of that child actor hole,” he says. “I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but I was in there hollering all the lyrics like I’m Puerto Rican. We got a box, and we partied.”
Williams lives with his brother Tylen in LA and is looking for a second place in New York. He’s single and opting for meet-cutes mainly on the exclusive, celebrity-populated dating app Raya. (“We can’t move via DM. Everything is being watched,” he says.) He was FaceTiming with a woman one day when his uncle walked into the room and, after the call, asked Williams if she would have talked to him if they met on the D train.
“I highly value people who look at me, and I’ve been able to tell since I was a child,” says Williams. “So that’s my criteria. Can you actually see me, or is this because it’s trendy?”
Top Image Credits: Tommy Hilfiger X Richard Quinn jacket and pants, Buck Mason T-shirt
Photographer: Sage East
Stylist: EJ Briones
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert