“God don’t make no junk; none of you are accidents,” was just one of many inspirational thoughts shared on life and acting by Mykelti Williamson at the May meeting of the LA chapter of Veterans in Film and Television (VFT). Williamson (Forrest Gump, Boomtown, Justified) shared his thoughts with vets and friends at the historic Hollywood American Legion Post. VFT is a volunteer group which promotes and advances veteran involvement within film, television and other entertainment specialties.
Williamson, known for his iconic role as Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump and currently featured on Designated Survivor as Admiral Chernow, discussed his life and career with VFT-LA Director of Programs Jack Kennedy. He then took questions from the audience.
Kennedy asked Williamson how he became interested in acting.
Williamson smiled and shared how as a little kid he spent a lot of time watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver. “I mimicked what I saw. Everything the Beav did, I did to,” Williamson recalled. “When my older brother saw what I was doing, he told me that acting was the stupidest thing in the world. That kind of depressed me.”
A lucky circumstance kept Williamson in the acting game.
“When I was nine years old,” he said, “a stage mom pulled her child out of a school play on Friday morning that was scheduled to go on Saturday. My mom volunteered me and I learned the lines overnight. After the play, I got a standing ovation.”
It was at that point Williamson knew he was an actor.
Kennedy wondered if Williamson recalled when he felt he had made it and was going to stick around in the acting business.
“Your value comes from your family and your friends,” Williamson said, “not from what Hollywood thinks of you. You never know when you are here to stay. Be humble.”
The interview paused as Williamson acknowledged the entry into the back of the hall of producer/writer Graham Yost (The Americans, Speed, Broken Arrow). Yost and Williamson had worked together on Justified and Boomtown.
With Yost there, the conversation turned to the importance of script.
“To me the script is the star,” Williamson said. “You’ve got to elevate the script. Graham is one of the greatest writers of all time, so you don’t want to change the script, you want to elevate it.”
He explained his approach to reading a script. “It’s not a character that you are asked to play,” Williamson said. “It’s a human being. Be respectful. The script is always the star.”
Kennedy asked Williamson if he was aware of any of his roles having an influence on people who watched the movies.
“Recently,” Williamson said, “because of the role I played in Fences, people have come up to me on the street and shaken my hand. The character reminds them of someone in their family. On the other hand, years ago after I was in Waiting to Exhale, a little sister about this tall came up and punched me in the neck. It gets very real to people.”
Kennedy brought up Williamson’s theatrical experience. “I’ve done a lot of things in the theater,” Williamson recalled. “It’s the best training for an actor because you get immediate feedback. You sharpen your skills on the boards”
Williamson then took questions from the VFT members in the audience.
He was asked about how to find representation.
“The most important thing to remember,” he said, “is that they will find you. I’ve talked to people at William Morris. They told me, ‘We don’t groom people. We wait until they are ready and then we pick them off.’
“Just do your best work all the time. If you are on a hundred-thousand-dollar micro-budget film and you act like it, then you are in the wrong business. Always do your best and keep working.”
Another member of the audience asked Williamson about the tendency of some actors to politicize their work.
“Art is human,” he said. “I never, ever, politicize my art. If you humanize your character, it lands on everybody, no matter what their politics are. And I hardly ever use the word ‘character’, it’s ‘people’.”
A VFT member asked Williamson how he wanted to be remembered.
“I just want to know that I added value,” he said. “Whatever I write on your heart, that’s what I want you to remember.”
Williamson also spoke about the projects upon which he, his wife, and daughter were working. These included helping the homeless and making parents aware of the dangers of human trafficking. “If I haven’t helped someone,” he said, “then I haven’t lived life, I’ve just walked through it.”
Before mingling with the VFT audience, Williamson promised to return and teach an acting class for VFT members.
The guest speaker at the VFT-LA June meeting will be Gary Sinise.