Williams has won several awards including the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, a Harry Jerome Award, an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Drama Series, and an International Women Achievers Award. She was also a producer and director of the TV version of Trey Anthony’s Kink in My Hair.
You have been an actress since you were a child, as a Black actress did you ever experience any kind of racism?
Yeah, I don’t even think it’s just as an actress, I think as a Black person. You are going to have it in your personal life and you’re going to have it in your work, and it’s in every job. I can’t think of a single job where you won’t find discrimination of some kind, and it’s not always blatant. I mean a lot of times we will focus on the really blatant. For example just recently with Fashion Police making comments about Zendaya wearing her hair in dreadlocks on the red carpet. There are many people who make jokes and they are jokes that most people can laugh at but they are also racist. It’s constant. It’s not even something I can say I experienced years ago. It happens right now every day to even young performers. The comments, normally I think come out of ignorance about something, which is where most jokes come from anyway. So, I think you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but it’s definitely there.
Could you tell me of one experience you had?
Wow! It's hard for me to think of any one thing because you know I've been in the business for forty years. It's just a feeling sometimes. It doesn't have to be that someone came up to my face and yelled at me but I would say from the roles I have been given in auditions. There are things that I have read that I can tell are stereotypes of what they feel Black people are normally like. I don't tend to want to go for those roles. I don't audition for them. When it comes to being paid, you can feel sometimes when you are on a show that the Black actors are being paid less. There is even a kind of reverse racism. I was just talking to a screen writer recently -- he himself is Black -- and he said when you create a show a lot of times, there is only one black person on the show and he says you have to be so concerned that you don't give that one Black character negative things to do. But of course when you are doing drama, negative things are what makes for the more interesting characters. Sometimes it can play against an actor when as the only Black character on the show, he may not get some of the juicer things to do on the show because the show is really concerned that people will think they are putting down Black people. The one character ends up representing all the Black people, that is itself is racism. The fact that one person’s actions are a reflection of an entire race is also racist.
In April 2001, you founded the ReelWorld Film Festival. What was the inspiration behind it?
I have gone to a lot of Film Festivals and I noticed that they are all very segregated in their runways. Each diverse group would have their Festival -- whether it be a Black Festival, Asian Festival or whatever -- and that turns me off because I think we are past that. I think we really need to make every effort to come together as one people on one planet and not segregate amongst ourselves when possible. So, ReelWorld really came out of that. I was tired of seeing all the segregation from every other ethnic group and not just White people but from every other group. So ReelWorld came out of that.
My parents are Jamaican, and I hear Caribbean people just squabble about other Caribbean Islands e.g. you know that Trinidadians are like this and Jamaicans are like that. It is ridiculous to me that we try to finite everything in such a way. It is a form of racism even within people who are immigrants themselves and people who do it. The reason I got to love being an actress, love story-telling and enjoy being a filmmaker is because it’s always about bringing people together. I think that’s what the stories should be about. All different socioeconomic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds and all different people can come into a room and watch one screen and share a story together. It’s about bringing us together, so that’s what I have always been passionate about. The entertainment industry has the capability and the power to do that.
What do you hope to accomplish through ReelWorld Festival?
I really hope to bring people together and not to point out our differences but really point how similar we all are and what we have in common. That’s really my reason for doing the festival. I want to give people that opportunity -- whether it’s the filmmakers themselves or the audience who come in -- to come together and understand that they are working together to share a story that is a common denominator between all people.
What advice would you give to people of colour who are pursuing a career in acting/ the film industry?
The one piece of advice I love to give people is to stay present. I don’t hold on to grudges. I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the bad things or what didn’t go right in my life. I stay very present about where I am right now and how I can move forward, because staying in a negative place is a real killer to an artist. And you can get cynical. I mean beyond the racial aspects of it, the entertainment industry is a tough and competitive industry. I have watched a lot of my friends complain about how they didn’t get this advantage and that advantage and they can’t move forward with that kind of mindset. You have to be present as to where you are right now.
During the Oscars this weekend, that’s very present in my mind because it just happened, I noticed a lot of reporters wanted to ask, especially the Black performers and directors, what they thought about Selma not getting best director nomination and about how there weren’t a lot of Black movies nominated at the Oscars. All including Common, John Legend and the cast just kept above it. I thought it was a great lesson to people in the entertainment industry. Don’t use that platform as a moment to get caught up in the negative aspects of racism because you will just drag yourself in the crap of it. They stayed above it and talked about how important the movie was, you know whether it got nominated for things or not, and the impact that the movie is having. When Common and John Legend got up on stage and sang that song, they brought that entire audience to their feet in tears. It wasn’t an audience of Black people, White people, and or Asian people but an audience of human beings together responding to something, and that’s what we need to remember, and I think all artists should remember.
First and foremost, you want to give your best and don’t spend your time sitting, complaining with the little or small groups about what’s wrong with everything but do the best you can. Make a difference. Try and find the light and push above it all. There are always people who want to sit around and talk about how unfair it is and how awful it is. I just don’t think those people move anything forward.
You do consultations, could you tell us about that?
What happened was that so many people kept emailing me not just one question but asking me how they shape their own career. They were big long questions. I am a believer that when something is important to someone if they have to pay for it, I feel they are more committed to it; however, when it is free, they take advantage of it. The minute I put a cost, I found less people asked and the people who did ask really took the advice. When I was just talking to people and they were just coming up to me they would monopolize me for hours asking the same questions over and over and over. Even though I was giving them an answer, it wasn’t the answer they wanted to hear so they would just keep on asking it again and again. I was like, why am I doing this? What is the point to this? When I meet an actor for instance and they are telling me that they want to get an agent and become an actor, I would ask them where they train and they would say they don’t train. So I would then ask them other questions. It is not that I believe every single actor/actress has to train but I do believe it would be important to train especially when you are telling me that you don’t know how to get ahead. I would think the only people who might not want to train are maybe people who are raised by an actor/actress, so maybe they grew up with an understanding of the business. However if you have turned up and don’t know anything at all, I don’t know why you would be resistant to going and learning about your craft. They want the easy road and just to ask questions because what they are telling me is that they want me to tell them one quick and easy answer of where to get an agent so that they can get famous and make a lot of money. I find that’s not what you are supposed to be thinking about if you want to become and actor/actress. You really first have to decide why you want to become an actor/actress.
You’ve won so many awards and have had such a successful career, why is it so important to you to give back via ReelWorld?
When I think about people like Oprah Winfrey, who probably have a hundred more awards than I do, the awards aren’t why you did what you did. I mean it’s lovely when your work is awarded but that’s not actually what you were trying to accomplish. So just winning an award would not let you think, Oh let me just not accomplish anything anymore. I think you are still trying to do whatever it is you are doing. If you are a writer, you don’t think about retiring. You think of the next story you are going to write and of how else you are going to share the information with the public. And I think it is the same way for an actor and or director. I don’t think you are doing these stories so that you can get an award but you are doing the story because you like me, you share that information with people. It never goes away so wanting to make a Film Festival is just me wanting more people to share their stories because I really believe in the power of storytelling. Storytelling has existed since the beginning of time. I am passionate about that and anything I do is because I am still passionate and excited about that.
How did you feel when you were asked by the City of Toronto to sit on the Toronto Film Board?
I thought it was wonderful because a lot of times when people ask me to do something, I tend to go when I don’t know what it is really about. I like learning things. None of us knew what the Toronto Film Board was really for or what it was really going to be about. The mayor decided to put it together and it was great. It was a collaboration of different people, some of which were producers and directors. I was there representing a few people who had film festivals. All of us were talking about what was important but we weren’t talking about it from a creative point of view, rather we were talking about how we could make it easier for shooting to happen in Toronto. I learnt a lot about that area of the entertainment industry during the few years on the board.
Every time you see people shooting on the street, they are not randomly shooting there, they have to get a permit from the city. They have to get their trucks parked in a certain place. There are a lot of things that go into putting a production together. We also talked about film festivals and about how we could all work together in Toronto e.g. perhaps having a centralized place where tickets could be purchased by everybody for all film festivals.
One of the things we accomplished was the creation of a Film Commissioner because if we were going to have a Film Industry in Toronto, it was important that there be a paid person with whom productions could go speak with when they needed the kinds of things we talked about e.g. permits etc.
Can any aspiring screenwriters, directors etc., get involved in ReelWorld Film Festival? If so, how can they go about doing that?
Submissions start around June and we encourage submissions from anyone all the time. Go to the website, the submissions are there. The deadline is early December. After December 5th or 6th, the programmers sift through the submissions. June 1st the submission forms will be up again and people have more than six months to submit their films.
What would you like to see more of on TV?
I want to see the same Canada I see when I walk on the streets. It is so diverse and beautiful to look at. You want your television to reflect that. There are a lot of interracial couples and they are having children and you don’t see that enough on TV and Commercials. It is so rare now that people stay within their own race and culture, so I think we should see that on TV. It would be great to see Film and television reflect some of that as well.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave once you decide to retire? What do you want people to remember about Tonya?
I live my life the way I have been taught. My parents taught me to live the life that you want other people to live. I want to be thought of as a person who is a hard worker. My mom loves to say it’s called work for a reason not called play. Hard work is important for everyone in the entertainment industry and I think every industry. I hope people will think I am an intelligent person and I don’t mean book smart but a legacy of a person who is intelligent. I love when I meet people who I call intelligent. People who have something to say, who stand for something. They mean something in the world. I want people to say I was a person who never saw the world in terms of colour and culture. I hope they think I was trying to make this planet a more livable, safe and sustainable place for all of us, and trying to make sense of the world through my work. It is what I do as an actress when I read a character or I read a story or see a film, it is helping me make sense of the world that I live in so that I will live in it as a better human being.
The 15th Annual ReelWorld Film Festival begins March 2-7, 2015.
This year there are several black directors featured:
Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China
Grandpa Was Here
Happy 1 Year
Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community
For more information on The ReelWorld Film Festival visit: www.reelworld.ca