JoBeth Williams has been captivating audiences for decades in the words of film, television and on stage. After she was cast in the Academy Award-winning film Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), JoBeth Williams quickly became a familiar face. From Poltergeist (1982) to The Big Chill (1983) and with recurring television roles in shows like ‘Frasier,’ ‘Dexter’ and ‘Private Practice,’ Williams has enjoyed a thriving multi-dimensional career in a competitive industry. Never one to slow down, this multifaceted performer currently stars in the new hit NBC series ‘Marry Me,’ opposite Casey Wilson and Ken Marino. She also co-stars opposite Richard Dreyfus in the new TBS series ‘Your Family Or Mine’ to air next year. She is anticipating her return to the big screen, with the completion of two films, Harris Goldberg’s ‘The List,’ co-starring Karen Gillan and Jennifer Morrison, and Linda Yellen’s comedy ‘The Last Film Festival,’ starring Dennis Hopper and Jacqueline Bisset. One of the most fascinating parts of JoBeth Williams ever-evolving career is her work with The Screen Actors Guild Foundation; an amazing organization of which she is currently serves as president. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with JoBeth Williams to get a look inside her amazing career, her creative process for bringing characters to life, her upcoming projects, giving back to her fellow actors as President of The Screen Actors Guild Foundation and more.
You became a familiar face in both film and television through the years. Jumping back to the beginning, how did you get started on your career in the entertainment industry?
I was kind of a ham at an early age. My father was an opera singer, so I was raised to sing a little bit. I wasn’t a serious singer but I did sing in all the school programs and the church choir. My dad was always very careful with my voice. I knew that I loved the feeling of going out and being in front of an audience at an early age but I never took it that seriously. When I was in junior high and high school, I started doing musicals because they were looking for people who could sing. It was then I found I loved the acting part as well. That is when I became more interested in doing plays, more so than musicals. I was a good student and my teachers said, “It’s all well and good that you like to do this thing on stage, honey, but what do you really want to do with your life?” I happened to get into Brown University and I got a scholarship. I decided I would not do acting anymore and would be very serious and become a psychologist. I got to Brown and I was there about six weeks, when someone talked me into auditioning for a play. I wound up spending most of my time in the theater, even though I wasn’t a theater major. Finally, my senior year, I had to admit that what I really wanted to do was be an actor.
It happened that there was a wonderful professional repertory company in Providence, where Brown is located. I think I knew that when I applied to Brown, so subconsciously that may have been in the back of my head. I auditioned for a brilliant director named Adrian Hall, who was running Trinity Rep at that time. I got into the company! An actor named Richard Jenkins, who I’m sure you have heard of, and I were acting fellows but essentially we were apprentices at this professional repertory company, Trinity Square Repertory Company. We made $75 a week. Our first glamorous job was to clean rotted meat out of an old freezer! [laughs] That was my introduction to the glamour of showbiz! It was during the summertime and it smelled hideous! We would take turns running in, getting some of the meat out and then back out into the air and retching! [laughs] I remember one of the members of the company walking through and saying, “What is that horrible smell? Get rid of it!” I thought, “I’m going to kill him! When I start working on stage with him, I’m going to kill him!” [laughs] It turned out that they needed young actors, so Richard and I got parts very quickly. That was my beginning and suddenly I was a professional actor!
Then I went to New York and started doing theater there. I did a soap, Summer Set, and then I got a role in a film called “Kramer vs. Kramer.” It was a small part but it was memorable because I had a nude scene with Dustin Hoffman’s 5-year-old son. It was a funny scene where he runs into me in the hallway after I’ve spent the night with Dustin. It was a very cute scene but it was very hard for me to do, since it was my first scene in a movie and I had to be naked. It was a memorable scene and I got noticed, so suddenly I started getting offered roles in films and that is how my film career began.
Who were some of the people who impacted you early in your career and are responsible for the actor you became?
I had a wonderful acting teacher at Brown University named James Barnhill, who is much beloved and still living in his 90s. I certainly admired him. There was an actress at Trinity Rep when I was in college and I would watch her work. Her name is Katherine Helmond and she was went on to do movies like “Brazil,” as well as many television series. Dustin [Hoffman], of course, was my first leading man, if you will. He was amazing to watch because he was so experienced. It was interesting because “Kramer vs. Kramer” was my first movie and Dustin knew that but, at one point, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know JoBeth. Do you think this movie is going to be a hit? Do you think it’s going to work?” I thought, “My God! This experienced actor is asking me?” [laughs] I thought, “Wow! No matter what point or height you reach in your career, I guess you are still insecure!” Certainly, Dustin had a big impact on me. Meryl Streep was in the movie, as well. I didn’t have any scenes with Meryl but I did get to know her a little bit and watch her work. I greatly admire her work. I always loved Gena Rowlands and I got to know her a bit later in life and I think she is an extraordinary actress! Robert Duvall, I don’t know him but I have always been a great admirer of the subtlety and simplicity of his work. Robert Benton, who was the director of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” was a great mentor to me. He really took time and care with me. We would do takes of scenes his way and then he would say, “OK. We have 15 takes my way. What would you like to try?” I thought, “Wow! This is so exciting! You can experiment, fool around and play!” They catch the happy accidents on film unlike theater where it is ephemeral and no matter how brilliant you are one night, it’s gone. Film is different. I thought every director would be as generous, take the time and be as wonderful as Bob Benton. I was wrong but I was very inspired! [laughs] The very next movie I did was a movie called “Stir Crazy” where I played Gene Wilder’s girlfriend and Sidney Poitier was the director. I was extraordinarily lucky earlier on to work with Gene Wilder and see his comic timing. Richard Pryor was in the movie and to watch him with Gene was amazing. They are comedic geniuses. Sidney Poitier is the kindest man in the world. He said things to me like, “You are such a professional at such a young age. It is a pleasure to work with you. I remember Hepburn and Tracy and they were always on top of their game. You have that same kind of work ethic.” To have someone like Sidney Poitier say that to you is extraordinary. It’s mind-blowing! He inspired me to continue being professional and it worked! I got to do a comedy called “Switch” with the brilliant Blake Edwards. Blake would sit and look at the set sometimes before we even had been called to the set. I would come and stand next to him. He would look at the set and I could see he was coming up with comic ideas for blocking or business. Even without the actors there, he was looking at the situation and the space to see what the possibilities were. He was a creative genius, so it was thrilling to work with him. He would let us try anything that we thought might work, even goofy or silly things. That is how comedy happens, through fooling around with it and seeing what will happen. He also was very kind to me. We would sometimes sit and talk and he said, “You know, you have an overview of the story of the whole picture that not every actor has. Have you ever thought about directing?” I said, “Well, I am married to a director. I have certainly thought about it but I am intimidated because I am married to a really good director!” He said, “You should seriously think about doing it!” Some years later, I ended up directing a short film that got nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film. I went on to do some other television stuff and it was partly because of Blake’s confidence in me and support of me that I went on to try that.
You have been a part of so many wonderful projects through the years. Looking back, how have you evolved as an actor along the way?
I have gotten older! [laughs] I think with age comes a certain life experience that you just can’t have in your 20s or 30s. I remember hearing Diane Keaton say that Sanford Meisner once said to their class, when she was studying with him, “Men and women can’t even become a great actor until you are in your 50s because you don’t have the wisdom and life experience.” Diane went on to say that what Sandy didn’t say for the women is that there wouldn’t be any parts for you when you’re in your 50s but you would be ready to take them on! [laughs] I think there is a certain amount of wisdom in there. Not that you can’t be a terrific actor in your earlier years but simply going through life and experiencing heartbreak, happiness, ups, downs, relationships with people and change makes you more vulnerable, which is good for an actor. It makes you more emotionally responsive, I think. It also allows you to have a certain wisdom about your career and the fact that careers cover a lifetime. The fact that you may have great fame and excitement at some point in your 30s and then you are a woman in your 40s and suddenly the roles aren’t there or as good for you. You have to roll with that and develop a sort of philosophical acceptance and decide what it is you want. I think early on I knew what I wanted to do was work all of my life because I love the work of being an actor. I mean, I complain about it when the hours are long on the set and you are getting up at 4:30 a.m. because you are the actress and you have to have makeup for two hours before the crew even gets there. We all complain about it but I love doing the actual work of acting, the play within the scene and the creating of the character. I have always felt I wanted to be able to continue to do it all of my life. I look at someone like Betty White or Ernest Borgnine and I am in awe of their careers and how they have continued to do it. Ernest Borgnine was still working at 94 years old when he passed away. Betty White is still working in her 90s and doing brilliant work! Katherine Hepburn continued to work until late in her life. These people are inspirational to me because I want to be able to continue to work. It is my hope, even though I am not a woman in her 40s or 50 anymore, I will be able to continue to work. So far, I am knocking on wood, I have been able to do that. I think age and experience helps give you a perspective on the kinds of careers that there are and there are all kinds of careers. There are the shooting star careers and there is Meryl Streep’s career, which is one of a kind. [laughs] I love Tina Fey’s line, ” … and the fact is there will always be roles for women in their 60s, if they are Meryl Streep!” [laughs] There are also people like me who continue to work and I am very happy to continue to work. Knocking on wood, that is something I hope I will be able to continue to do.
Your career spans a very progressive time period in film and television when it comes to technological change. Of those changes, what had the biggest impact on you?
What has been fascinating to me is how digital has changed the kinds of cameras that can be used in filmmaking. Certainly, HD has affected me because now you can see every wrinkle and pore! [laughs] It’s the bane of an actresses existence! [laughs] Frankly, I miss the look of the old 35mm. I grew up looking at those movies and there was always a kind of golden glow to them, if you will. There was a depth and a softness to me that created a sense of magic in the movies. On the other hand, we can now have tiny digital cameras that can be taken into small spaces and have continuous shots that go on for minutes and minutes and minutes in ways you couldn’t in the old days, which is brilliant and fascinating. Now, I am really happy to see that smaller independent films are getting as much attention with awards and nominations as the larger films. That is very exciting to me. I mean, the big blockbusters have always been the meat and potatoes of the studios but it seems like, in the last 15 years, those have become the only kinds of movies that the big studios make. For an actor, that is not necessarily the kind of work that we want to do. Of course, it is wonderful to be a part of some of them. I loved being part of “Poltergeist” but working against green screen is not an actors ideal situation. The smaller independent movies become more about the characters, which is the actor’s realm and the actor’s juice or life-blood. That is very exciting to me.
What can you tell us about your process bringing a character to life and how that changed through the years, if at all?
I studied in New York with a teacher named Robert Patterson, who had been a student of Sandy Meisner’s, so I was taught very early on the Meisner technique. That is basically working from the inside out from the emotional life of the character. I think that has continued to be my approach, although I have found that, ultimately, every actor finds their own technique. It is whatever will help with a certain character. I did a character recently on stage and quite early on, the second day of rehearsal, I realized I was walking a certain way. It was a kind of rolling walk, almost like I was on a ship. I found that very interesting. The more I played with it, the more that fed the inner-life and the more it revealed of the character. Even though I do first go to the script and as I work on the script find the inner emotional life of the character and what they need and what their point of view is, I find now that an exterior physical approach can feed that process very well. I remember Christopher Walken, who I did a movie with many years ago called “Dogs of War.” I believe it was my second movie and because of that movie that Steven Spielberg cast me in “Poltergeist.” Anyway, I worked with Chris Walken and I remember him saying that once he figured out what kind of shoes his character wore, then he knew who that person was. Chris had been a dancer, of course, so he came from a certain physical approach. I’ve found over the years that many different things help me. Listening to particular kinds of music is a great example. An iPod with some ear buds can help me in a rehearsal process or an emotional preparation for a character. Certainly, technology has fed the way I work on characters now. Observing people and saving up behavior I see in people I see in everyday situations is another thing that helps me.
You manage to stay very busy, not only with acting, but behind the scenes as well. What can you tell us about your work with the Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation?
Over the years, in doing movies and television, I began to realize how our union is. It helps ensure we have 12-hour turnaround between finishing one day because the fact is actors are exploited. They will ring as many hours out of us actors or the crews in order to save a nickel or a dime. I started to become aware that, thank God, we have our union to help protect us up to a certain extent. A friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in running for the Screen Actor’s Guild Board and I thought, “Oh, no. I would never be interested in that!” Anyway, I got talked into it! I did that for a few years and I didn’t much like being on the board because it was very political. However, I was introduced to the Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation, which is a charity that helps our fellow actors in need when they have catastrophic health issues and can’t work or have emergency issues and can’t pay rent or can’t afford to pay their light bill or whatever. All actors know that our careers and lives are roller coasters. You will be up one day and down the next! I discovered there was this foundation that was there to support actors in their time of need. I got involved with them and I love the work we do. I am now president of the Board of the SAG Foundation. We also have international children’s literacy programs. We have programs where actors can give back by going into schools and reading to school kids. We have so many wonderful programs and I am so happy to have been involved with them for the past eight years. I just love what we do, particularly for our older actors. There are some very well-known names that I obviously can’t say due to anonymity issues but there are many older actors who we all know and respect who, perhaps, can’t get hired because of their age. There aren’t that many roles written for people their age and may have emergency needs. We are there to help them. I love getting the word out to our fellow actors, so that everybody knows about the programs we do in case they need them and also so they can contribute money to it so we can continue to do this work. The few years I was on the SAG Board, I was also asked to join the Screen Actor’s Guild Award Show Committee, which I am now chairman of. We basically produce the SAG Awards. That is a lot of fun and very interesting! There is a lot of work right now as the nominations just came out and we are preparing for the show in January! Because actors are near and dear to my heart and always have been, The Screen Actors Guild Foundation is a very easy charity for me to be involved with because I feel strongly about it.
You always seem to have several irons in the fire. What projects have you most excited these days?
The first one I want to talk about is the NBC half-hour comedy, “Marry Me.” I have a recurring role on the show and I play Ken Marino’s mother and Casey Wilson’s mother-in-law. We just got nominated for a People’s Choice Award! We are one of the five nominees for Best New Comedy. I want to urge every one to go online to www.thepeopleschoiceawards.org and vote for “Marry Me” because it is a terrific new show. The young people on it are just hilarious! It is very original. It is a one-camera, half-hour comedy. I am so excited and thrilled for the show being nominated. The other show we just finished shooting our first season of is a half-hour multi-cam show called “Your Family Or Mine.” It will start airing on TBS in April of 2015. It is based on an Israeli series. The concept of it is that every other show takes place at one set of in-laws house or the other. Richard Dreyfuss and I play one set of in-laws and Ed Begley Jr. and Cynthia Stevenson play the other set. We are two families that are as different as we could possibly be. Then our lead couple is Kat Foster and Kyle Howard. It is very funny and it’s about families, which is something everybody can relate to. I am a regular on that show and it will start airing in April. It’s exciting!
You continue to diversify in your career and can serve as a tremendous inspiration to young actors. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young actors looking to pursue a career in today’s climate?
I would say, hang in there and just do the work. If you are not getting the jobs you need, then do classes. Keep doing the work because that ultimately is what will satisfy you. It is great to be in a hit show, hit movie or hit play but that won’t happen all the time. Sometimes it won’t happen for years! You have to love doing the work! Focus on that and try to be philosophical about it. If you have real problems, come to the Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation and maybe we can help you!
Giving back is clearly a theme in your life. What other charity work are you involved with that we can shine a light on?
For a number of years, I have been a mentor to a young Native American guy named Ryan Roanhorse, through an organization called Futures For Children. It is a wonderful organization out of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico that gets people involved in a mentor relationship, usually through letters and checks during the year to help support their education. I have been working with this boy since he was about 9 years old and now he is 22. He has had two years of college and he just finished doing his National Guard training. He is just a wonderful guy! He and his mom live on the Navajo reservation. He is just incredible! To see how he has grown up and changed is wonderful! I would say getting involved with Futures For Children and mentoring a Native American kid can be such a rewarding experience and enlightening for both people.
We are rapidly approaching a brand new year. What are you most excited for when you look to 2015?
Well, I certainly hope “Marry Me” and “My Family Or Yours” both continue in the year because I am having such a great time shooting them and I love doing comedy. I have done both comedy and drama over the years but I think I have always had a reputation as a dramatic actress, even though “Kramer vs. Kramer” was certainly a comedy role. I think “Poltergeist” made people think that I only did drama. I love doing comedy! My husband, John Pasquin, is a director. He directed “The Santa Clause” with Tim Allen, “Jungle 2 Jungle” and “Miss Congeniality 2” and a bunch of television stuff but we are looking for scripts to do a small independent feature together. Career-wise, that is something on the horizon that I am very excited about! I also have my two grown sons and I always look forward to seeing what is going to happen with their futures! I am just happy to still be going!
Thank you so much for your time today! You have been a pleasure and we will continue to look forward to everything you bring our way!
Thank you so much, Jason! Happy holidays!