‘Shrinking’ Star Jessica Williams Wants Actors to Take Their Mental Health Seriously

Article Image
Photo Source: lev radin/Shutterstock

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

Jessica Williams found her dream job playing Gaby on the Apple TV+ dramedy “Shrinking”—and now she wants to ensure that the next generation of performers has that same opportunity. 

“When I’m acting and I’m doing a good scene and I feel like I’m ‘in my bag,’ it feels like flying,” she tells us. “I feel very comfortable when I’m acting on a really good job. I’m like, Oh, I’m so lucky; this is why I do this. But there are so many barriers to get to that. I’m a very lucky anomaly, and I think a huge majority of actors have a lot of barriers to get there.” 

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Williams dives deep into her improv background, looks back on working with Harrison Ford, and discusses the importance of mental health awareness for actors. 

Williams is actively advocating for actors to put their mental health first. 

“I’m trying to get more involved in SAG-AFTRA, especially with everything that’s been going on, [because] we don’t talk about the mental health of actors. We have this job where every day, we go out and audition or we self-tape, and we are asking for something. Maybe they’ll pass on you for whatever reason, but you’re getting these constant noes—which, [compared] to somebody else in a different field, maybe they’re not getting those direct noes as much. Sometimes you don’t get it because you’re tall; sometimes you don’t get it because of your race; sometimes you don’t get it because of your gender. That’s really hard. 

Then, also, the only way you’re gonna be a good actor is if you have access to your emotions. That’s just, in and of itself, a mental health issue. We don’t process that. Even though we get to do this gorgeous job of make-believe that’s so fun, there is this part of it where we’re doing something that literally involves our mental health, every day. So I would like to figure out more resources for actors to work through that and actually acknowledge that what we’re doing is quite strange and very vulnerable.”

For Williams, the process of getting ready for a scene is partly physical. 

“I do like the Lucid Body technique in general. That one’s really cool because I really live in my body. I try to do a modified version of that, so I’ll just meditate for five minutes to just breathe. A little [Transcendental Meditation] is great, too—but just some modified version where you’re just breathing and checking in, feeling your heartbeat with your feet on the floor. Stretching is always really good; if I get a good stretch or walk in before I act, I feel like I can move in my body. Sometimes, I just have to wake up the creaks in my bones. 

In particular for Gaby, I would sing Disney songs on the way to work a lot of the time to just get in that very childlike, playful world. But OK—now she’s feeling sexy. How do I do that? I’m going to listen to, like, something that makes me feel sexy, like ‘Juicy’ by Doja Cat. I make playlists like [I’m] hacking my brain that can convince me to get to where I need to be by the time I get to set.” 

…But it’s also personal.  

“What I learned on ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ watching really seasoned actors work, was not being afraid to hold space for what I need. So there’s a scene I did [in ‘Shrinking’] with Jason Segel, and Gaby is talking about how she misses Tia, too—his wife that passed away. And that night, I just needed to hold space for myself to be grieving. So I didn’t really talk. I was separate before my takes; I would go in this side room. Everybody understood, and I was on a really great set, and everybody held space. Now, if I was younger and in my 20s, I would be really nervous about holding space to get to where I needed to be to grieve. But nope, I held it. I like to make people feel warm and comfortable in a space, and I just didn’t. I was like, ‘OK, for this one, I hope everyone knows I love them—but I’m going to try and get here because my only job is to play the scene.’ ”

Subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Williams: