Code Black’s Nafessa Williams Talks Being An American, Not Just An African-American Actress
She may not be a household name, but I promise you will be hearing a lot about Nafessa Williams very soon.
More specifically, on the upcoming season of the hit medical drama “Code Black,” which is now in its sophomore year on CBS.
Earlier this week I caught up with the West Philadelphia native to talk about her role on the series as well as what it is like to be young, Black woman breaking into Hollywood.
This is what she had to say:
CB: So tell me about your character on “Code Black”?
Williams: So, I play a character by the name of Charlotte Piel who was a really famous child movie star – think Harry Potter famous. She had a change of heart growing up and wanted to get away from her famous lifestyle. And you know, she decided to become a doctor. And not a lot of people at the hospital are taking her serious because she’s a movie star. But she wants to be taken serious as a doctor. And you see me going through the motions as an actor now becoming a doctor. So yeah, this season the hospital is bringing in first-year residents and I am one of those first year residents, along with Emily Tyra and Noah Gray-Cabel. So yeah, I’m teamed with Marcia Gay Harden and Rob Lowe, so I could not ask for a better opportunity.
CB: Is “Code Black” your first major role?
Williams: On a national network? Yes.
CB: So being young and Black, how difficult was it to break into Hollywood?
Williams: This is a tough business for any ethnicity. You have to put in a lot of hard work and resilience. Plus you definitely have to have thick skin and it has to be something you really want to do. I do feel that it [the industry of Hollywood] is design for you to quit and to give up. But I think it’s about knowing your lane and not comparing yourself to anybody. That means going after what you want, getting in acting classes, taking those auditions one by one. And eventually it will stick. You’ll gain confidence from that experience and soon you’ll have other opportunities. It’s a numbers game.
And it’s about not comparing yourself to what any other actor is doing and what their timeline is like. It’s about knowing who you are, staying true to that and focusing on you.
CB: So how long did it take you to break into Hollywood? You’ve been at this for a while, right?
Williams: Yeah, I’ve been at this for eight years, full-time. I started out in Philly. I did a film called “Streets with Meek Mill.” It was produced by Charlie Mack [a Philadelphia-based promoter and business associate of Will Smith] and written and directed by Jamal Hill. I tried to take advantage of what I could in Philly. But when it was time to move on, I moved on to New York. There, I booked a series regular role on “One Life To Live.” I played a character named Deanna Forbes. She was my first big job. It was on daytime TV. And it was a great opportunity until that show got canceled. That’s when I came out here to L.A. And I have been grinding at it everyday. I’ve been here for five years now and it is just starting to pay off.
CB: So you identify yourself as an American actress as opposed to an African-American actress. As you see it, what’s the difference?
Williams: Well, I am African-American and I am a proud African-American. I just don’t like to put myself in a box and say, “I’m an African-American actress.” I am an American actress and I can do any kind of role. And I try to not to get too caught up and too focused on the whole, ‘there’s not a lot of roles out here for us,’ or the ‘only I can play this kind of character.’ I think I have proven that I can play any type of character. On “Code Black,” I’m playing a doctor. So yeah I just try to think big. And not put myself in any kind of box. Whether it is a role calling for a White woman or not. Whether it is made for a Black actress or not. I just go into things positively without that attitude.
CB: Though I have to imagine the roles being offered are pretty limited? I mean, do you get offered roles that don’t call for you to be an African-American?
Williams: Yeah. “Code Black” was open ethnicity. There were 500 girls who went out for this role and I booked it, while being a Black actress. So again, it’s about not putting yourself in that box. I try not to focus on not playing certain roles because I’m Black. I can do anything.
CB: So last year, Jada Pinkett-Smith issued a call to action asking Black actors and actresses in particular to consider boycotting the Oscars and instead put our efforts into producing and building Black film and television. Since then we’re seeing more and more people of color being offered roles and even television deals. Do you think that Hollywood is turning over a new leaf?
Williams: For sure, it is. You turn on the television and you have Taraji P. Henson. You have Viola Davis. You have Meagan Good who had a show recently. You have Morris Chestnut. So it’s like, this is our time. And I think it is a great time for us. It is a great time to be an African-American actress in Hollywood. Also, we have to be aware we have to create our own roles. Yeah, I understand that we have to make a stand and I support it. But at the same time, we have to create our role and the roles that we would like to see us cast in.
CB: Would you like to direct in the future? And are you writing anything?
Williams: Oh my God, yes! Debbie Allen and Regina King inspire me. They are directing all over the place. And actually, my best friend and I are working on a script. So you can complain about it or you can not wait for anybody to hand us anything. In the last two years or so, I’ve really been getting into doing my own writing. And learning the technical side of things. I’ve also been shadowing some of my friends who are directors like Jamal Hill. That is something that I am interested and curious about. And that is something that I want to venture off to.
CB: What kind or roles do you want to play?
Williams: So my dream role is to play Beyoncé [laughter]. Let’s pray that I am still look young enough to play her. I also want to get into some action film. I am actually doing some martial arts training, some combat training, so that I can be prepared when those opportunities present themselves. Also voice over and animation. So I’m excited about the future has for me.
CB: So what does the future hold for you?
Williams: Well I’ll be in reboot of Twin Peaks. It comes out next year on Showtime. I am really honored to work alongside the legendary David Lynch. I have a really cool character. I just wrapped a Netflix film called Burning Sands, where I play one of the leads. Everybody in Philly knows about Terri Woods “True to the Game.” Well, I play a lead character and that will come out next year. And recently I was a part of the NBA 2k 7 team, which just came out on Friday. I have a character in that. I have scenes with Michael B. Jordan, so that was amazing. So yeah, I have a lot of cool stuff coming out.
The second season of Code Black premieres on Wednesday September 28th at 10 p.m on CBS.