The Untold Truth Of Jesse Williams

Chances are that you have noticed how beautiful Jesse Williams is, with his gorgeous ice blue eyes, perfect bone structure, and sculpted bod. But the actor is much more than just a pretty face — and, in fact, he is also more than an actor. Williams is a social justice advocate who has done important work politically and on the front lines, as well as by way of his creative pursuits. Through his production and technology companies, Williams has ensured that his mission of increasing inclusion and equality comes across loud and clear. "I'm more comfortable around social-justice work," he told GQ when asked about how his activism pairs with his Hollywood career. "I've been doing it much longer, and it means more to me. But I need both to sustain a balanced life."

Williams began his screen career in 2006, breaking out two years later when he appeared as a hunky love interest for one of the main characters in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2." The next year, he shot to worldwide fame as Dr. Jackson Avery on "Grey's Anatomy," where he remained a series regular until 2021. After leaving the juggernaut, Williams took his talents to Broadway, broadening his horizons and, in the process, earning widespread acclaim for his work in the play "Take Me Out." While he had a relatively easy road to fame once he committed to acting, what Williams has done since become famous is truly fascinating (as is his pre-fame life). 

He experienced two very different worlds growing up

Jesse Williams has described his upbringing in many interviews, juxtaposing his earliest years in Chicago with his teenage years as a prep student in suburban Massachusetts. Williams was born in Chicago in 1981, to a White mother and an African American father, both of whom worked as teachers. Williams has discussed how his biracial identity has impacted his life, particularly because of the contrast between the two places he was raised. His earliest years were spent in a tougher community on the West side of Chicago, one that was lacking in resources and that was mostly made up of people of color. After his parents' divorce, around the time of junior high, Williams and his family moved to Massachusetts — and to a whole new way of life.

In Massachusetts, Williams attended prep school and was an athlete who played baseball, lacrosse, and soccer. His dad, formerly a factory worker, put himself through Harvard during this time period, while his mom did art and ceramics in addition to teaching. He was co-president of his high school's Black Student Union, made up of 12 students, and Williams told The New York Times that it was in this predominantly White Massachusetts bubble that he first came face-to-face with everyday racism. As an activist, Williams uses his mixed identity to move forward conversations about race. "White privilege is like being Clark Kent and never putting on your Superman suit," he told Esquire. "You can do so much! But you're just refusing to. I have white privilege, so I'll use it."

He was a teacher after graduating from Temple University

It is hard to picture Jesse Williams doing anything aside from acting, since he is so good at it and has a face made for the screen. Still, if we had to envision another profession for the star, being a teacher is one that makes sense. Not only were both of Williams' parents teachers, but he is also an articulate, passionate, and socially minded person who we think could inspire youth in a classroom. "I've always been obsessed with history and taught history. I thought there are ways that we could tell stories that could have a lot of value in communities that are constantly being told that they've come from nothing," he told Essence. Williams spent a total of six years as an educator, working mostly at the high school level, although he also had stints teaching kindergarten and seventh grade.

After he graduated from high school, Williams enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he double majored in Film and Media Arts and African-American Studies. He decided to become a teacher after graduation because he wanted to make a difference, purposefully choosing to work with at-risk youth in underserved communities like the one where he spent his earliest years. "There were a couple loaded guns in my class, police in the hallways," he told Esquire. "Without exaggeration, 30 to 40 percent of the girls had kids or were pregnant." In addition to teaching history and English, Williams also tutored at a local church on the weekends.

Though he has modeled, he doesn't love when the focus is solely on his looks

It would be hard not to notice how attractive Jesse Williams is, so we won't pretend that his looks are not a major draw. But while he has used those looks to advance his career, Williams is not a fan of instances where people reduce him to just his outer shell. Take, for example, his role on "Greek," where his character was referred to as "the hotness monster." "I remember the quote, 'hotness monster,' people talking about it and it being funny, both appreciating it was a funny play on words, while also remembering a discomfort with signing up for something that just describes my looks, which is nobody's fault," he told People. "I'm an adult and that's the job that I did, but it's not a comfort zone."

Williams began in entertainment as a model from brands like Kenzo and Kenneth Cole, but told People, "I have done modeling jobs but I am not a model." That interview was when Williams was named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive, another title he seemed reluctant to claim. We think it would be naïve to say that his looks have not helped him land roles, either — especially his breakthrough one in "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," where he plays a nude model in an art class. Even "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rimes has made public comments about Williams's good genes. "We felt that having a shirtless Jackson Avery would be a benefit to society," she told Entertainment Weekly in 2010 (via The New York Times).

He worked at a law firm before deciding on acting as his path

Most aspiring actors have to hold down one or more day jobs as a means of paying the rent, and Jesse Williams was no exception. He did your usual waiting tables and bartending, but also had a less expected job: working at a law firm. This happened after Williams moved to New York City, which he did in 2005 for a woman who would later become his wife. He then explored a variety of options before he decided on acting full-time, including his gig in law, which lasted for a year and a half. "I was overseeing huge cases, huge anti-trust, hostile takeover cases, hiring and firing attorneys and keeping up correspondence with our Tokyo and San Francisco offices," he told Stuff. "It was full on. It was 80 hours a week. I had no business doing it. I was not qualified at all."

Williams began auditioning for roles while he was in Philadelphia, and he even turned down an offer to appear as a regular on a soap opera during this time period, as he felt the role leaned into racist stereotypes. Though he had modeled in college, traveling to New York City from Philadelphia for jobs, Williams never loved doing photoshoots. He did, however, like the couple of commercials he made during that time period — and so, when he was ready to try acting for real, he called his old commercial modeling agent. Within four days, he booked a role on "Law & Order," followed quickly by a recurring role on the series "Beyond the Break."

He ships Japril just as hard as the fans do (okay, maybe not quite as hard)

Williams got attention for his roles in "Greek" and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," but it was his casting on "Grey's Anatomy" that made him a household name. He started on the show in 2009 — only three years after that fateful "Law & Order" gig that got the ball rolling on his acting career — and stayed on the series for over a decade before departing to try new things. He has since returned as a guest star and as a director, so Williams seems very open to continuing his character Jackson Avery's story. A huge part of that story is Jackson's relationship with April, with whom he shares a daughter. Fans have long been shipping the couple, who they have nicknamed "Japril," at least in part because of the undeniable chemistry between Williams and April's portrayer Sarah Drew. 

Both Williams and Drew (who has also left the show) are onboard the Japril train, and Drew has even called for a spinoff starring the two doctors, focused on Jackson's racial justice mission as he heads up his family's foundation in New York City. In a 2021 interview with TVLine, Williams was more hesitant about the spinoff idea, explaining that he was excited to take on new characters for the time being, but he definitely gets the desire to see Japril get their happy ending. "They are that popular for a reason," he said. "There's a real chemistry and vulnerability and a willingness to grow that is really appealing to me as a performer, never mind the fans."

Take Me Out wasn't his first time working in theater, but it was a game changer

Though Jesse Williams once performed in an off-Broadway production of "The Sandbox" at The Cherry Lane Theater, his theater work was rather limited before he took on the lead role in a Broadway production of "Take Me Out." He told Bare magazine, "This is my first time doing any of this, being on Broadway, in a three-act play, being a lead. So it's fun. It's full of fireworks and mistakes and terribly painful emotional collisions." Williams' debut was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the play made waves when it started previews in March 2022. "Take Me Out" officially opened in April 2022, and the majority of the cast — including Williams and "Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson — agreed to return for a second run beginning in August 2023.

The play has always been a hit with audiences and critics, and much like previous versions, Williams' production earned numerous accolades. The play itself won the Tony Award for Best Revival, and Williams was nominated at the 2022 Tony's for Best Featured Actor (the award went to his co-star, Ferguson), as well as for Distinguished Performance from the Drama League. "I've been in one pocket for the entirety of my short career, and this is something very, very new," he told Variety after the play began. "This has been a real 'pinch-me' few weeks and months, and it's a huge shift in my consciousness and in my connection between my work and what it can do in the world."

He had no problem going nude on Broadway, even after video footage leaked

In "Take Me Out," Jesse Williams plays Darren Lemming, a star baseball player who upends his team's balance when he comes out of the closet as gay. The role is a challenging one, as it deals with difficult societal issues like homophobia, racism, fragile masculinity, and celebrity worship. Another challenge is the nudity required, as many of the play's scenes take place in the locker room or the showers. Williams has said that, after contemplation, he was okay with the nudity because it felt necessary. "It makes sense in the context of this play and it invites the audience to experience some of the realities of what the characters are going through," he told WWD. "And it's really a fitting time to examine heteronormative male relationships to each other and themselves and identity and what it is to be a man."

Though the theater required phones be placed in pouches, footage from one of Williams's nude scenes leaked early into the show's run. The first leak garnered tons of attention, becoming a trending topic on social media and launching a discussion about actors' privacy. Williams handled it all with grace and professionalism, refusing to let it hinder his work. "I'm not down about it. Our job is to go out there every night, no matter what," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "Theater is a sacred space, and everybody doesn't understand that." The leak led to more stringent rules at the theater, but more videos of that scene and others appeared online in the months following.

He is a steadfast social justice activist (you may have seen his viral BET Awards speech)

Few celebrities have been more engaged in social justice activism than Jesse Williams. Not only has he done work on the front lines — for example, joining protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown — but he has also taken on corporate partnerships to promote causes he cares about. He united with Subaru for the "Subaru Loves Learning" campaign focused on education accessibility for students in need, worked with Clearasil for their "Teacher Truths" campaign, and has partnered with Crest and Oral-B on their #ClosingAmericasSmileGap initiative. "Being able to go to the dentist regularly, having that insurance, having a parent that can take off from work, being able to get you from school to go knock that out regularly, is a privilege that a lot of us don't have," he explained to New Beauty.

Williams is also the Board Vice-Chair for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, and a board member for Scholly, a platform that aims to make education more accessible by connecting students with scholarship opportunities. He wrote an op-ed for HuffPost about child hunger, and another for CNN critiquing the film "Django, Unchained" for its portrayal of slavery. But no moment has defined Williams as an activist more than his acceptance speech at the 2016 BET Awards, where he was honored with the Humanitarian Award. He took that moment to give an impassioned speech about equal rights, police brutality, and cultural appropriation — a speech so riveting that it went viral and established Williams as a key voice in the racial justice movement.

He is a big fan of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

Given how engaged he is with social justice movements, it should come as no surprise that Jesse Williams is also active in more formal political activities, like campaigns. He worked on both of President Barack Obama's campaigns, and was unbothered by the critique he faced on social media. "On the second Obama campaign I lost like 30,000 followers and got so many death threats," Williams told Essence. "Makes no difference to me—just people showing their *ss. I want to give Hollywood some credit. It's not like they're freaking out and calling me, telling me to stop. I know it does scare some people off." If anything, Williams has only gotten more vocal in the years since Obama left office.

In addition to working on his campaigns, Williams has also served as a narrator for two separate documentaries on the former President. The first, "The Obama Years: The Power of Words," was a 2017 TV special that aired on the Smithsonian Channel. The other, "Through the Fire: The Legacy of Barack Obama," also came out in 2017 and was produced as a BET News Special. Williams also appeared on BET's 2016 concert special celebrating the President and his wife Michelle, where he expressed his admiration for the couple. "I would just like to publicly thank the Obamas for being such a great and lasting source of pride for all of us," he said, later adding "We appreciate what you endure and appreciate the model that you set and the ceilings that you break."

He uses his production company to advance his social justice mission

As a creative person and an activist, it only makes sense that Jesse Williams would use his entertainment skills to promote his social justice mission. Much of what he has done in this area has been through his production company, farWord Inc., whose social media bio says is "focused on education, literature, transmedia, television & film." In 2016, Williams co-produced and appeared in "Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement," a documentary centered on the mistreatment of Black Americans and the emergence of the BLM movement. He helped produce "America Divided" that same year, a series focused on economic, social, and political inequality in the United States. "Survivors Guide to Prison" and "Random Acts of Violence" are two of his other executive producing credits.

By far, Williams's biggest behind-the-scenes undertaking has been "Question Bridge: Black Males," a transmedia art project that is on permanent display at the National Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, and the Oakland Museum of California (in addition to temporary exhibits everywhere from the Brooklyn Museum to the Milwaukee Art Museum). The three-hour, five channel art project — which centers on discussing, questioning, and redefining Black male identity — has since evolved to include community events and educational curriculum that can be integrated into high schools.

He loves whiskey, music, and self-care

Jesse Williams is a big fan of music, but most of the artists he gravitates towards are artists who use their work to discuss larger societal messages like inequality and justice. He has said that, in addition to Malcolm X, many of the inspirations for the activism he does have been musicians. "Bob Marley was an incredible activist and voice and prophet in many ways. Fela Kuti, James Brown, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan—just gods among men on this Earth," Williams explained to The Atlantic. "[Listening to them] really helped me appreciate the dependence that we have on artists and storytellers as our broadcasters, as those who dictate what is reality and what has value." In a separate interview with Rolling Stone, he added The Band, Neil Young, and Howlin' Wolf to his list of faves.

Williams also called himself a "Whiskey guy" in that same Rolling Stone article. "I enjoy the taste, obviously, but there's also this earthiness that I enjoy, both in libations, but also just in life. I'm a big nature guy so the wood and the smokiness [of whiskey] is something I connect with," he said. Despite being a big fan, Williams did not drink any alcohol whatsoever while he was starring in "Take Me Out." In fact, his whole routine became about self-care so that he could keep up with the grueling eight-shows-a-week schedule. To be at his best, Williams worked with a personal trainer, nutritionist, acupuncturist, and vocal coach. He also meditated and used voice protective drops, sprays, and honey.

He is a tech entrepreneur, making apps focused on inclusivity and access

In case you have not noticed yet, the vast majority of things Jesse Williams does — from his producing work to his corporate partnerships to the music he throws on — relate back to his core belief in social justice and equality. This is also true of his work in the technology field, where he has made it his mission to help found apps focused on inclusivity and access. In addition to working as a brand ambassador and board member for the scholarship platform Scholly, Williams has been involved in the creation of multiple apps through Visibility Media, a company he co-founded. His most recent one is Homeschooled, a trivia app about Black history that launched in March 2023. Makes sense, since the man was a history teacher once upon a time!

Another of Williams' tech endeavors is Ebroji, which he started with his ex-wife when they were still together. Ebroji is an interactive keyboard that contains GIFs and emoji targeted at Black people, who are often left out of mainstream tech. "Our shorthand, our slang, our terminology, and our alchemy around language, current events, and are the driving forces of communication and creativity," Williams said in GQ. "What if a platform was actually designed for us?" Another app he co-founded, BleBRITY, is a charades game not unlike Heads Up, but with categories such as "Celebrities Only Black Folks Know" and "HBCUs." In 2021, he once again paired with conceptual artist Glenn Kaino, who also worked on his other apps, to launch a similar trivia game for Latinx people, called Ya Tú Sabes.

He and his ex-wife had a messy custody battle that spanned years

For all his acting talent and for all of the good that he has done through his activism, Jesse Williams has received plenty of media coverage. But he has also had some less desirable coverage thanks to his very messy divorce, which has not always painted him in a positive light. The actor and Aryn Drake-Lee finalized their divorce in 2020, three years after their initial split. Drake-Lee got both spousal and child support, and the couple agreed to shared custody of their two kids, despite Drake-Lee originally requesting sole custody after they broke up in 2017. There were also allegations from both sides, and disputes over the amount of child support Drake-Lee wanted. We assumed the exes had landed on a resolution after the divorce's finalization in 2020, but they went head-to-head again many times in 2022.

After Drake-Lee filed a request for a new custody schedule in December 2021, Williams responded in February with claims she violated the existing court orders. They settled that dispute in March 2022, but things were so nasty that the judge also recommended co-parenting counseling. In April, Williams' support payments were reduced and the following month, Drake-Lee alleged bullying and harassment while Williams said his ex would not let him speak to his kids. After Drake-Lee started bashing Williams on social media in September, the court banned them both from posting derogatory statements online — and also ruled that Williams was entitled to visitation with his children while out of state for his run in "Take Me Out."

He sees more directing in his future, perhaps in place of acting

Jesse Williams has not done a lot of directing, but we have a feeling it is only a matter of time before he takes on a feature film. The actor has expressed an interest in directing more in the future, as he has found he really enjoys being behind the lens. Per his IMDb, Williams has only directed two projects — an episode of the series "Rebel" and four episodes of "Grey's Anatomy." Still, it was enough for him to know he liked being in the director's seat. "I really do love directing, and I'm really good at it. And it makes me happy," he told WWD. "It's kind of really, probably the most suited to my personality type."

Williams told Variety that he does not watch his projects anymore, as he does not really enjoy watching himself on screen. That he is unnerved by the experience of watching himself is maybe one reason Williams thinks he is better suited to being a director. He likes directing so much that he even told Vanity Fair that he could see the job replacing his acting work rather than complimenting it. "I don't know if I'll be acting in 10 years. I might just start directing. I don't know," he said in early 2023. "But now is this kind of early, fun stage where I'm just kind of playing around and saying yes to stuff, not taking things too seriously, and just trying to get better."