Tyler James Williams Takes on Racism, Zombies, Homophobia + More

If there's one thing more terrifying than surviving a zombie apocalypse, it's going off to college.

Scarier still: heading to a predominately white university and trying to make your way as a black gay kid with a giant afro and a Star Trek infatuation. Over the last year, Tyler James Williams has experienced all of the above—just not in real life, thankfully. Williams recently joined the cast of The Walking Dead, playing the mysterious young Noah, and on the big screen, he's earning raves for his portrayal of Lionel Higgins in Dear White People, director Justin Simien's topical comedy about race relations among undergrads.
Williams has certainly come a long way since making his name as the title character on the TV series Everybody Hates Chris, and in a phone interview with NYLON Guys, the 22-year-old reflected on his breakout year. In particular, he talked about racism, same-sex kissing, the metaphorical underpinnings of zombie stories, and whether he'd like to do more rapping.
How did you first come to Dear White People?
My manager sent me over the script and said, “This is something you should read." After I read it, I closed it and said, “I need to do this." I called everybody and said, “What is this? Who is this [Justin Simien] guy? I need to do it.” Then I started doing the research, and I realized [the initial trailer] had gone viral a year ago, and I was like, “How did I miss this? How did this go crazy, and I’m in love with this, but I didn’t know back then?” Then I met with Justin, an we talked about it, and I told him, "I have to do this project. I don’t care what happens. I don’t care if you pay me" [laughs].
Were you immediately drawn to the character of Lionel, or had you thought about playing someone else?
I’d always considered Lionel, because me and my friends had just had a conversation right before I read the script about how each minority group seems to go through a period in Hollywood where the characters are stereotypical. I think right now, one of the things that’s happening is that homosexual characters are always being played really stereotypically. I know these [types of] guys, but I also know people are not that way. When am I going to see an accurate portrayal of an everyday, regular gay guy? When I read it, it was like, “This is the right place to do that." When I talked to Justin, that was his interest, too.
You don’t know in the beginning whether Lionel is gay.
It’s unclear until later on in the film, with the kiss, that he actually is. I think that was the way to do it. Nowadays, in the world we live in, it’s so diverse. You can’t just say, “That’s the way you are.”
Were you drawn to other parts of his characters—his nerdish tendencies and love of Star Trek?
For some reason, I like, as far as roles go, introverts, just because I find them so much more interesting. Stuff like that, I always find interesting to play. He loves Star Trek. That’s a whole other problem in itself—a typical stereotype is that people of color don’t necessarily get into Star Trek, which is completely untrue. I thought that was an accurate thing as well, making him more well rounded as a character.
You attended college for a couple of months and then left, but if you were one of the students in this movie, which crew do you think you’d fall in with? Which house would you want to live in?
When I first read the script, I was like, I’d definitely be in the black student union with [rabble-rousing DJ] Sam’s crew. Absolutely, that’s who I’d be. When I saw the movie, I realized I would actually be Troy, because I do that. I modulate blackness to a sense of whatever makes people comfortable. I realized, “This is me. I’ve lived this before.”

The cool thing about this movie is that there really are no heroes or villains. Each group has its pros and cons.
It’s honest. That’s the thing I love about it. I think for some reason, cinema these days feels like it needs to be clear: He’s your good guy; he’s your bad guy. Even with Kurt. Kyle Gallner, I love how he plays [that character]. Kurt’s not a racist. He just likes to push buttons. It doesn’t matter what group he’s talking to. He just likes to push buttons, and he thinks that's funny. So that’s what I thought was great: It made everybody dirty and real. In real society, no one is all the way heroic or all the way terrible. It depends what your perception is of that person, and this film gave you all different sides of the coin, in each character.
And then on top of all the racial stuff, you’ve got the homophobia issue. In a way, that seems to bring everyone together at the end—they're all uncomfortable with a certain kiss that takes place.
I think it’s great Justin wrote this, because he can write it from a different perspective. Yeah, the black student union is talking about these civil rights issues and not addressing the fact that that's also a civil rights issue. I think we associate civil rights with just the black community and not the fact it’s civil rights for all people. It was very interesting. We show that, yeah, there are still a lot of issues; we have a long way to go with race relations, but there’s a lot of other issues we’re not addressing, and that’s one of them.
Have you noticed different reactions from different groups of people? When I saw it here in New York City, it was a mixed audience, in terms of race, and everyone laughed at the same parts.
Everyone takes away what they want to take away from it. Some have a difficult time dealing with it, because it kind of reads your book a little bit. But that doesn’t have to do with race. I didn’t find one race taking anything different from it. What I think it did was take the tension down. Like you said, everyone laughs at the same spots, and then you’re open to take in information afterwards. And that’s what we wanted to do. If it was some poignant, opinionated film, no one would want to see or hear that. But because it made everyone laugh and brought everyone to a common place, it got through.
Have you gotten a lot of questions about filming your character's same-sex kisses?
I have. I’ve gotten a lot, which is so interesting to me. It’s one of the main questions I get: “How did you prepare to do that? That must have been incredibly hard.” Or, "How do you brace that now?" The one thing I say to everybody is had I played the Joker, you wouldn’t automatically assume I’m a psychopath. I don’t understand why [people] can’t make that compute. But I do find it very interesting that got stuck on some people’s minds. Had it been with a female character, they’d have been like, “Oh, yeah, sure.” No one would talk about that. It shows how many people still aren’t ready for that, still aren't used to it. Which is something Justin does very well: putting it in your face in an “I’m not going to put this in your face” way. It was a very normal setting, in the way you would have seen it with anyone else.
It’s not there for shock value.
No, it wasn’t, although it did shock people, which should make you question yourself: Why was I shocked by this?
It seems like maybe the party scene, where everyone is in blackface and wearing Obama masks and stuff, would have been harder to shoot.
Those were the hard days. Those were the days we had to take a step outside and just breathe and bring our own personal emotions down so the characters’ emotions would shine through.
Moving on to The Walking Dead, you really like zombie movies and TV shows—and that show in particular—right?
Yes, I do. It’s interesting, when you’re a fan of something in that way, to not freak out when you get to set and you see the thing you’ve been a fan of actually happening in real life. I remember the first time Norman [Reedus] picked up his crossbow. I was like, “He’s doing that thing!” Just knowing I’m in this world is pretty jarring.
One thing with zombie movies and TV shows is that people tend to read them as allegories for bigger issues, whether it's our fears about the environment or disease or general lawlessness. What do you think The Walking Dead says about our society?
I actually don’t see any of those things, honestly. I did an interview the other day and someone was talking about how it’s a commentary on slavery in the U.S. I was like, “What? I don’t get that at all." But I think it does speak to who people really are, if put in the right situations. And that’s what I think it does really well. It puts everyone in this really interesting place. If you look at Rick’s arc—who do you really become if you’re put into the right mixture of things?
I read that when you initially auditioned, you thought Noah was much more of a villain than he’s turned out to be. How much do you know about your character at this point?
I got more information around the time of the last episode that was just aired, that everybody saw, episode six, "Consumed." That’s when I started getting information from [showrunner] Scott M. Gimple about who [Noah] is and what he’s trying to do, which is ultimately getting Beth and saving her.
Do you know how many episodes your arc will last?
Oh yeah, I know. Nobody else knows, really [laughs].
We won’t press you for spoilers.
I can’t tell you, but I know for sure [laughs].
Between Dear White People and The Walking Dead, it seems like you’ve taken major steps this year to distance yourself from the child-star thing and become an adult actor. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. That’s why I've tried to pick roles carefully—especially after that, so I didn’t get stuck in a rut. I think [The Walking Dead] does that really well. At the end of the day, I just want to be a good working actor. That’s really it. Somebody who’s a contributor—that’s my focus right now. I’ve done the whole “really successful, in the public eye” thing. It’s not my first rodeo. So I’m good on that. I’m OK with that now. Now, the goal is just being really good with other really good actors.
Are there other types of roles you really want to play? You mentioned the Joker—would you be into playing a psychopath, or a really hardcore villain?
Yeah, absolutely. That's my thing right now. If I read the script and instantly go, "This is going to be hard. I don't know if I can do this," I want to do it. Anything that would be so challenging that it would scare me, I'd be interested in doing. That's what growth is.
You did some rapping on the Let It Shine soundtrack. Is that something you'd be interested in doing again?
I was actually talking about that over at Shade 45. Eventually, I do want to get back around to it, but as with anything, I want to take my time and do it properly and not put something out that's poor or mediocre. I'm not going to do anything just to make money. [Acting] is my bread and butter right now, which is not treating me too poorly. [laughs] I'm going to take my time with it and do it the way I want to.
Are there any rappers you're checking out right now that you'd recommend?
The Shady Records cypher they just released is probably one of the best things I've seen in the last two years—with Slaughterhouse, Roce da 5'9", Joe Budden. J. Cole just announced he's releasing his album at the end of the year, which I can't wait for. I'm really into Hopsin, who actually has songs on the Dear White People soundtrack, which I had no idea until just the other day. I've been listening to all his stuff. Tech N9ne. Kendrick. There's a lot of good people out there, but they're not necessarily crazy mainstream right now, but if you look, you'll find them.

Words by Kenneth Partridge; photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images