Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
When long-time “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart announced his intention to leave his popular Comedy Central program in February 2015, Jessica Williams received plenty of buzz as a potential replacement that could lead the show into the next era of smart, amusing reporting. Williams, however, had different ideas.
Just weeks earlier, the budding actress and comedian had been bouncing around the Sundance Film Festival, happily hawking her first big movie role in James Strouse’s “People Places Things.” That happiness was definitely earned, because Williams’ work in the film — as a super-smart art student who plays matchmaker for her recently divorced teacher (Jemaine Clement) and her single mother (Regina Hall) — proved that her comedic chops could translate to an entirely new medium.
Williams, already a star on the rise, suddenly had a brand new career to pursue, and it’s one that didn’t include taking the hosting reins of “The Daily Show,” no matter how flattered she was by those who thought she was tailor-made for the gig. For her next step, she wanted a leading role — and Strouse delivered that in the form of “The Incredible Jessica James,” which bowed at Sundance two years after Williams made her first appearance at the festival.
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The funny and flinty rom-com follows Williams as the eponymous Jessica James, a struggling Brooklyn playwright attempting to get her professional career off the ground while also dealing with a remarkably complicated dating life. It’s a familiar story, but Williams’ persistent charm sets it apart from similar offerings. It’s also the movie she ultimately left “The Daily Show” for, a big change she doesn’t regret in the slightest, and not just because she’s worried that, in the alternate universe in which she is hosting the show, she’s gone totally crazy.
“My hair would be falling out,” Williams said when asked what it would have been like if she was hosting “The Daily Show” during such a tumultuous time in American history. “I would have like no time to do anything for me. I just couldn’t imagine, no. Because this, right now, is so bizarre and so upsetting, that I’m really — I loved my time at the show, but I left the show to do this movie. And so, I really have no regrets.”
Williams credits the first inklings of “Jessica James” to her strong relationship with Strouse, a bond built during the creation of “People Places Things.”
“Jim was like, ‘I loved working with you, I cannot wait until somebody writes a movie for you,'” she remembered. “And then he said he was thinking, ‘Oh, my God! I can write that movie for her!’ Then he emailed me, and we met a bunch of times and figured out who this character was, and then Jim would write a draft and send it to me, and then we’d meet again, we just went back and forth a lot to figure out the funnest way to figure out this character.”
Despite the fact that Williams shares the same first name and a whipsmart creative spirit with her character, she says that “movie Jessica” and “real Jessica” are still two very different people.
“The main thing is that movie Jessica is very forthright, and I think she’s really upfront,” she said. “For example, there’s the opening scene, and she’s on a Tinder date with this guy, and she’s like, ‘I’m going to stop this conversation right now, because this is horrible.’ And I think, if it was me, I would have just let the date continue to happen and then gone home and would have just played The Sims and texted my friends about it.”
That was always a part of Strouse’s aims for the role, and one that Williams was down for — especially when she realized exactly who they were writing the movie for.
“Jim always had a vision for how he wanted Jessica to be,” she said. “He said he wanted to be like something he wanted his daughter to watch, where a woman was not being like, ‘Sorry I’m alive!’ We wanted to see someone who was like, ‘No, I’m good, I’m great. And I’m searching for something,’ and having that be okay.”
Placing that sort of character inside the traditional tropes of the romantic comedy also appealed to Williams, who is a fan of the genre and the kind of new stories it’s helping create (a recent rom-com she loved that did the same thing? “The Big Sick”).
“I really like when different stories are represented, it’s not just the same kind of person, and when there’s humor in it and there’s relationships. I love relationships, they fascinate me,” Williams said. “I feel like now is great time for a rom-com, because the genre is sort of being opened up to being told by people that look different from each other or who have different orientations.”
Williams may, however, be a touch more forthright than she realizes, and she was Jessica James-style honest when asked about how she’s personally dealing with the world, post-Donald Trump election.
“Therapy!,” she said. “I go to therapy. I think I’m like taking time for self-care. I’m being active, while honoring the time that I need to myself, whether that be alone or spending time with my boyfriend or spending time with my friends, or having a good meal or seeing a play, it’s really just doing the self-love, self-care thing.”
She added, “It’s so critical now, especially when I feel like things feel out of my control. I think what I can control is how I take care of myself.”
Despite her renewed desire to care for herself, Williams has remained active on social media, where she mixes her own humor with posts on pressing political issues (in a recent sample of retweets, a fun observation about her appearance on “Fresh Air” lived beside a tweet from Senator Kamala Harris, asking concerned citizens to call their reps about the health care repeal vote).
“I feel like, what’s the point of having a lot of followers on social media or occupying somebody’s time if you’re not going to try to do good with it?,” she said. “To not do good with it feels not characteristic of me.”
“The Incredible Jessica James” is available to stream on Netflix today.