GIRL ON TOP: Tonya Lee Williams, MLK Jr. Award Winner, Discusses Progression In Black Theatre & Gives Advice To Young Actors
I recently had the opportunity to interview one of Canada’s top influential women, Tonya Lee Williams, who has solidified her reputation as not only a successful actress, but a leader in the black community. She is best known for her roles as “Olivia Winters” on The Young & The Restless, as Maxine on Vision TV’s She’s The Mayor, as Karen in Lifetime’s Double Wedding, as Ruth in Clement Virgo’s film Poor Boys Game and many other film and TV shows. For more than 35 years she has blessed us with her talents and has illustrated that passion, hard work and dedication are the essential tools to create longevity in the entertainment industry and open a window of opportunities.
Over the past three decades, millions of viewers have witnessed Tonya Lee Williams climb the career ladder and establish herself as a multifaceted entrepreneur. In addition to her many achievements, Ms. Williams was honoured at the 26th Annual Vision Celebration Gala on January 28th, 2012 by the Black Theatre Workshop with the prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her significant contributions to the development of Black performing arts. She has played an instrumental role in advancing black communities and continually promotes much needed attention to artists of color through the ReelWorld Film Festival, in which she founded in 2001.
First of all, congratulations on your Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award. How does it feel to be recognized for your contribution to the development of Black performing Arts?
A: It feels wonderful, I’ve been working in this industry for almost 35 years now and it’s an industry that I love and I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to work in it. To not only be recognized in Toronto where I’m from but also Montreal as well, I’m looking forward to finding out more about the Black Theatre Workshop and to get to meet a lot of great black talent that’s in Montreal.
Why is progression in black theatre important now more than ever and what do you think has improved in terms of how people view this initiative?
A: If you’re a person of colour, I think being in any aspect of the media arts is important right now because we’ve been looking at a lot of stereo types and it’s really a good time for people of all different backgrounds to project a positive image so that the mainstream audience can start to get a cross section of who we really are. Black people are not just one type of person, we’re all very different and if we don’t see those variations and differences then people outside of the community won’t really understand who we are, what we stand for and all of the positive contributions that we make. Within our own community, it builds a lot of confidence for young people to see themselves reflected and to hear their stories told and it’s a great thing to be in public eye and telling these wonderful stories in the way that we’re supposed to be telling them.
In 2001, you founded the ReelWorld Film Festival, can you elaborate on the motivation behind this event and how it creates opportunities for emerging filmmakers and industry professionals?
A: When I started out in the business at age 17, I would go to film festivals all the time and I’ve done it my entire life. I think film festivals are a fantastic arena to soak up the environment, meet people, learn things and find out about the changes happening in the industry. It’s probably the easiest and most significant place to be if you’re interested in film and television. You can read the trades and talk to other people, but to be right in the throes of a film festival is like a crash course to everything you need to know. Because I have attended film festivals over so many years, I know the value of them. I often get a lot of people who are just starting out in the business asking me questions, but I think that instead of asking questions it’s better that you attend a film festival because without even asking a single question, you will get them all answered. Just by listening and observing, you can make the best decisions for yourself. Our industry isn’t like being a doctor where you’re taught step by step, we’re constantly navigating through changes, interpretations, etc. There are no hard rules, just being in the arena is the best bet to understand what you need to do next.
Let’s touch on some of the obstacles you’ve faced professionally, what are some of the invisible barriers that you endured throughout your career and how did you successfully overcome them?
A: I feel that the greatest obstacle that any of us have is whatever we believe our obstacle is. If you make it a truth for you then it’s going to be an obstacle. With the understanding of that, I was able to take the easy ones out of the way first. Yes, I might be black and female and those things are the obvious, but when you look back at history, everyone who succeeds in anyway has obstacles to overcome. You just need to illuminate those. What I like to look at in my career and when I’m approaching anything is to only focus on what is possible and less on what is not possible. I can only control what I can control.
Every obstacle to me is actually a solution.I know I need to train as an actress, stay healthy, be a certain weight, all of those things are in my power, but what I can’t control is when I go into a room and someone doesn’t like me because of the way I look or sound. So whenever I come up against an obstacle I don’t take it personally. I never see it that way, I like to look at it from a distance, almost as if it’s not happening to me, like this is one obstacle and how can I get around this. For instance, if I am in Toronto and there’s not enough work there then I don’t sit around complaining, I try to figure out where is there more work for people like me and then I get myself there.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
A: My mother is the one person I trust. She would say things like ‘Always do your best’ and make me feel like just getting a job is not a means to the end, but how you get it and how you represent yourself is more important. If there were roles or language that I didn’t think were appropriate and I may not want to add my name to or be a part of then I made a choice not based on the dollar, but based on my morality and sense of social justice. That is far more important. I’ve never been one dimensional as far as looking at myself as just an actress. I think acting is great and I love to do it, but I’m a full person and acting is only one dynamic of me, it’s not all of me. You want to make sure that whatever work you do, whether you’re an actor, writer, etc. [I believe] that every bit of integrity of who you are as a human being reflects in the quality of your work.
What is the secret to your longevity in the entertainment industry and what words of wisdom do you have for anyone who’d like to follow in your footsteps?
A: The secret to my longevity is that I’m very conservative about my ambitions and about what I consider success. I do feel like some young people, who haven’t started the business yet, want to be a huge star, whereas my level when I was starting out was, ‘this is my highest achievement to me.’ I could get an acting job and work fairly consistently and still be the happiest person in the world. I set goals, but for me, they are very realistic. My goal was never to be a massive star because my personality doesn’t suit that. I really like to go to work and then go home and walk around and just be me. When you sign up and have a desire to be at a higher level of success, you also sign up for a very different life and intuitively I knew when I was young that it wouldn’t have been the kind of life that made me happy. I’ve been working since I was 16 and now that I’m 53 I’m thinking about the next stage of my life. For instance, I’d like to explore hosting reality television because it’s far more of an easier transition from starring in a soap opera. An unrealistic goal would be to pursue a major movie career right now. I actually want to work less, I want a life that I can enjoy without worrying about my weight or the roles I will play. I want to age gracefully meanwhile consult people about how they will realistically have a career in this business. People can contact me through my website www.tonyaleewilliams.com and talk with me over the phone to gain insight about the industry and help them with realistic steps.
You can never follow in someone else’s footsteps. It’s virtually impossible. You are a unique person. Each human being has a story. I believe that you were sent from God to walk a very specific journey and your full-time job is to figure out what that journey is. The more you think about walking in someone else’s footsteps, is the more you’re distracting your own personal journey and success. Your journey is actually fairly easy to figure out because you have some inherent talents that come naturally to you. They may even be talents you’ve ignored or never seen as valuable. I believe that it was a talent that I was born black. It was a talent that I was born female. If you look at any point in history, there isn’t a more unique time that I could’ve been black and female.
What’s next for you?
A: On one hand I’m an actress and I want to act for as long as I can, but I’m a realist about the fact that I may not get as many roles as I could have at one point. On another hand I have a film festival that I run and that’s a fulltime job. I’ve also made real estate investments throughout my career because you have to do other things no matter where you are as an actress. What the term “next” means for me is existing, living and trying to stay on top of the many things that I think are a lot to handle.
Last but not least, what do you enjoy most about your career and what type of legacy would you like to leave behind?
A: What I enjoy most about my career on a personal level is the freedom that I’ve had. You can tell by my personality that I’m not someone who wants to work every single day at the same job, so it has allowed me to have variety and work in different environments, which is appealing to me.
If you navigate your life as best as you can and if you live long enough it becomes a legacy. The legacy will be longevity. I’ve always admired actors who have longevity more than I’ve admired actors who have made billions of dollars in a few short years and then you don’t hear from them again. I’ve always been in awe of the Shirley MacLaine’s, Maggie Smith’s and the Diahann Carroll’s because after many decades, they are still kicking and I respect that.