If you’ve ever listened to SZA’s “20 Something” from her debut album Ctrl on repeat— you might have a slight understanding of the magic of Jessica Williams’ Netflix rom-com, The Incredible Jessica James.
In the film, Williams stars as Jessica James a Brooklynite and struggling playwright who is desperately trying to get over a bad breakup with her ex-boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Standfield). It was a dream role written specifically for the 27-year old. “I worked with Jim Strouse in another movie called People Places Things and I was a supporting character in that,” Williams explains. “Jim was really nice about it and after that he was like, ‘I loved working with you. I can’t wait until someone writes a movie for you.’ Then he said he was thinking and was like, ‘Wait, I can write a movie for her.'”
Jessica James is young, stunning, brilliant and Black, but more than anything, she’s simply allowed to be human. “There was no mention of race, and that wasn’t necessarily what the movie was about,” the wunderkind says. “I think the movie can be seen as progressive, I think it’s progressive to talk about race, and I think it can be progressive to have the characters not really discuss it and just allow them to exist.”
These days, Williams is doing way more than simply existing. Snagging a dream job on The Daily Show at just 22-years old (which led to a four-year stint), the comedian is well on her way to becoming a full-fledged movie star. But, don’t get it twisted, Williams refuses to be confined. Her strong opinions and ideas helped her snag an executive producer credit on James. “I was very opinionated from the beginning, and Jim was really nice, he kept me involved,” she explained, “Then I found out, maybe before we were filming, ‘Oh, they want to make you an executive producer.’ It was nice. I always felt like my opinions were valued and had some sort of respect. There needs to be, both in front and behind the camera—different perspectives represented in film and television. There needs to be more LGBTQ people in front and behind the camera and people of color and women of color. There needs to be everything. I think it just makes [things] better because you’re not creating something in a vacuum.”
Just because Williams is standing in the spotlight now doesn’t mean she hasn’t had doors slammed in her face or felt the same sort of gut wrenching rejection that her character feels in James. “I’ve been six foot tall since I was 13 years old and I got a lot of rejection, and I still get a lot of rejection,” she reflects. “I can relate to just getting a lot of no’s. It’s all a part of the process. Sometimes I confuse no’s with not achieving, and that’s not what it is. I think maybe the idea that even creating and having the courage to make art and put it out there is a part of the process as well.”
Hollywood politics are not the only the only things Williams has had to learn to navigate. Social media has birthed an entirely different kind of firestorm. “It’s practicing self-care, I think. I make sure I go to therapy. I have a wonderful therapist,” the 2 Dope Queens co-host says of dealing with the negativity. “I think as long as you’re staying true to who you are then it doesn’t matter what people think. But again that to me seems like a journey and not a destination. It’s way easier said than done. I just know for me it’s like I really just make sure that like, ‘Okay, I’m not being evil to other people, my best friends love me, my family loves me.’ At the end of the day, I did something that I can be proud of, and that young me would be proud of, so I’m okay.”
Sisterhood has also inspired the Los Angeles native to keep speaking up. “My favorite thing is when women come up to me and say that they love my work and that they listen to me, that they like listening to my podcasts or watching what I do ’cause it feels like they’re hanging out with their best friends. That to me feels really, really good,” she states wistfully. “That’s why I do it; I’m like ‘Cool. Do you feel a little better watching or listening to something I did? Great. Do you feel like you can have a discussion with your friend about it? Awesome.’ Then hell yeah, like I feel really good about that.”
The perks of the job aren’t too shabby either. Williams recently met her childhood idol, Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling and she still seems to be in total disbelief about it. “I will just say it was amazing and surreal and my childhood-self was doing backflips,” she says. At a time when Girls Trip and The Incredible Jessica James exist in the same moment, Williams has never been more excited for Black women, and she’s determined to continue taking up space. “Now people are asking to see more of us together and separately,” she expresses gleefully. “There’s just so many, and it’s great that they’re shining, and then other shows are shining, and we’re just all allowed to exist. I think there’s kind of this false idea of scarcity when really we all compliment each other and the success of women and then the success of Black women does help more Black women.”
The Incredible Jessica James is now streaming on Netflix.
Photo Credit: Getty/ Erika Goldring