One of the best mentions on Emmy nomination morning was the inclusion of Tyler James Williams for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Abbott Elementary. The actor has been a sitcom staple since he was a kid, but this is his first Emmy nomination. As Gregory Eddie, Williams looks to the audience for guidance and help, and he serves as a guide through the halls of Abbott.
When I had the pleasure of speaking with fellow Emmy nominee and Abbott co-star, Sheryl Lee Ralph, she revealed that her “Hank has two turkeys” math problem was in the script and she decided to sing it. Gregory’s response, however, was equally hilarious, especially because he is so aware of the camera crew around him. I had to ask Williams if his response was also made up on the fly.
“It was lightly built in that she would figure out something and I would respond. We didn’t really work that out until we got there on the day for rehearsal. She did the dance and I responded how I think Gregory would feel in that moment. With the cameras around, there’s an extra layer that adds a layer of self-awareness. He has that what he is doing will be recorded and end up on TV at some point.”
There has been a lot of emphasis on how the teachers and staff of Abbott react to the camera’s presence since they are there to see the teachers at work. Gregory’s interaction, because he is the new teacher on the block, plays with them in a different way. Director Randall Einhorn (“He’s brilliant, is he not?” Williams asked) expressed how each character acted with the cameras differently, but Williams revealed how that relationship evolved over the course of the first season.
“In the pilot, Gregory has an introduction to the camera in a very similar introduction that I had with the crew. We were still in COVID protocols, and we didn’t have a table read together. When Gregory walks into the school for the first time, Randall set it up so that was the first scene that I shot. I am seeing everybody and everything for the first time. Over the course of the season, Gregory would throw an exhausted look to B camera, and I had developed personal relationships with each of the people in our camera department. They could become characters in the world. There are certain looks that I throw to certain camera people that I don’t throw to others. I would make a look of exasperation to Jeremiah [Smith] on A camera, because we have a different relationship. If Gregory is feeling vulnerable, I would look at Brenda on C [camera]. It’s very unique and lends himself to the natural process on the show. As I got to know people better, the looks became more specific and tied to those individual people. I wish we could show the cameras, because they are active in this world. Even the Janine and Gregory moments are caught by specific people.
Williams extended more praise to Abbott‘s camera crew, and he hope that they also gain recognition.
“Jeremiah figured out my timing out quickly. I tried to approach each scene as if I am listening for the first time. The natural reactions go to him, and he felt it coming. That’s a different type of cameraman. That’s improvisational camerawork. People think it’s the cast doing it, but they have to feel us as performers and know when we are feeling a particular thing. They aren’t just shooting the show–they are active participants. The camera crew deserves a lot of recognition. The way the camera snaps in is something they find. They see us living authentically as the character, and that’s a heavy lift for a camera person. They are using their instruments in an improvisational way. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In Williams’ submitted episode, “Work Family,” Gregory has a discouraging chat with his father via FaceTime where he criticizes his son’s line of work. Gregory feels especially stuck because he has to go into work every day and see how Janelle James’ Ava doesn’t appreciate the position she is in as principal. Williams was afraid to film the episode.
“That episode scared the shit out of me. I was pacing all night long the night before, because it has so many hairpin turns. It was so critical to Gregory’s story arc. You have 22 minutes, and I wasn’t sure I could make it work. But that’s the great thing about the showrunner being a friend of yours. Quinta [Brunson] told me that she had more trust in me than I had in myself. I have to give a lot of credit to her and director Jay Karas, because they really grounded me in that episode. That episode is a perfect example of what Gregory needs to learn. A lot of people want to lead, and they think they can do things much better. In order to fully understand how to lead, you have to do the work on the ground to know what’s necessarily. As an actor, I feel like I am putting in that practice currently. I know what it takes to lead a show, and that’s very hard. Quinta has a mountain on her shoulders, so it makes it easier to support her both on camera and off. I’ve been there, and I think that’s what Gregory is feeling right now. He knows how to support his teachers as a principal, and he has to build that first. You can’t just get into a situation and restructure it–you have to be on the ground first.”
Gregory feels practical pressure from his father, but he is also worried about the perception of success. He didn’t land the job he trained for, so he is initially concerned that he will get stuck in a job that he didn’t want in the first place.
“He’s grappling with the idea of hyper-success. What people consider success or successful has grown so wide that people in their early twenties feel pressured to carve that success out. In season one, and ultimately what probably will end up being a three season arc, Gregory is trying to find that success for himself. Having that conversation with his father is leaning on him. Everyone wants to make their parents proud–that’s universal. Not having that is pressing on him as a man and as an educator, and that’s why I love that episode so much. It’s so loaded with so many things that so many people are dealing with at the moment. I felt a supreme amount of responsibility to hit all of those nuanced notes. And there were a lot of them.”
At the end of “Work Friends,” Chris Perfetti’s Jacob sees Gregory dancing with students and remarks, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him experience joy before. It’s weird.” How thrilling it is to see someone realize they can find a new passion in a place they were reluctant to inhabit in the first place. It was as much of a joy to Williams as it was for his character.
“I circled that line, because it was the first time that I got to experience joy as Gregory. Up until that point, we haven’t seen that. You do things on camera in character for the first time, and then you realize, ‘Oh, this is the first time I am in this body experiencing this emotion.’ My body has never moved like that…and I don’t know how to get it to move like that again.”
Abbott Elementary is streaming now on Hulu. Season two premieres on September 22.