Interview: Actor EM Williams On… Empathy, Equality Monitoring, And Discovering Who Your Characters Are

EM Williams is an actor and movement director. They have worked with theatre companies across the UK playing a host of characters onstage, and are currently developing their own Arts Council-funded project.

We spoke to EM about creating a backstory for every character, the relationship between acting and empathy, and why it’s not enough just to find “the best person for the role”.

How did you first get into acting?

My parents were both working full time jobs, and they desperately needed me to be in some kind of after-school activity. Nothing really stuck, until my mum accidentally took me to the wrong night of youth theatre once, just because there was a free taster session at the Castle Youth Theatre. I was twelve at the time, and instead of going to the night for eight-to-thirteens, I went to the night for fourteens-to-twenty-ones. But it was the only night my mum could take me, so she spoke to the theatre and was kind of like, “Can we just leave them here, that’d be great?” (laughs).

As a kid I was really bubbly, and then I started being really insular – looking back on it, and thinking about it, it’s easy to see that my identity was happening. To be able to step into other people’s shoes, and not necessarily the same gender I’d been brought up as, or been assigned at birth, was very exciting to me. I thought, “I’m enjoying this, pretending to be someone else, it’s really helping me.” It was the only thing I wanted to do; I kept going every week. It breaks my heart to see so many community centres and youth theatres around the UK not getting funding and closing down now. I just loved everything about the theatre – I did onstage, offstage, a little bit of directing and writing. I knew it was the world I wanted to be in. There’s a certain level of empathy that comes with people who work in the theatre I think, because they’re dealing with a lot of stuff all the time.

“You might suddenly think, “Oh, this character really likes cherry pie!” And you’ve no idea where that came from, it wasn’t in the script, but it just feels right – that’s the magic of theatre for me.”

EM Williams

What’s your process of getting into a role?

You have to realistically figure out what someone’s perspective is – even it’s a tiny role, you still have to give all that backstory and make it work for you. I feel like every kid should go to some drama or youth theatre workshops, because it really kick-starts your empathy drive – and I think that’s missing from a lot of humans. 

I play a lot of animals and other-worldly creatures. You have your method actors who get really into a role of another human being who’s existed – but for me, because the characters I generally tend to play aren’t often human, I try to anthropomorphise them in terms of their base wants or needs. Just like with people – we all want to be safe, we all want to be loved, we all want to find a source of warmth and food. And then you get into the nitty-gritty of likes and dislikes – what are the reasons you’re drawn towards things, or pulled away from things.

EM Williams

How do you go about developing that backstory for your characters?

You know that whole trope of 90% of your brain is unconscious? Your brain is like a sponge; it’s picking up so much. So if you can get yourself to a state where you’re answering these questions about your character, but not necessarily thinking too hard about answering them, your gut reactions – your inside self – comes out. You might suddenly think, “Oh, this character really likes cherry pie!” And you’ve no idea where that came from, it wasn’t in the script, but it just feels right – that’s the magic of theatre for me.

You have to look at the text, and you do hold it in high esteem, but there’s so much more once you get into a room – which is what I’m really missing at the moment – with other bodies and the energy that they bring. A text is a text – Chekhov is always going to be Chekhov – but Chekhov with the specific people who are cast and brought into that room with that director, is something that’s never been done before. So you really have to look for those connections, and that’s what makes the performance new and fresh and exciting. Because that combination of people has never existed before in this time, with the given circumstances around them.

Are there particular roles that you look out for?

Being a transgender non-binary human, I always ask the question: if you’re telling that story, who in the cast and who behind the scenes has created that narrative, and why are they exploring it? You might have a transgender person on stage, but someone cis might have written it, and there’s so much of that going on right now because it’s become a little bit of a flavour of the month. 

I managed to play a non-binary teenager that was written by a non-binary writer, and I was so thrilled – it was directed by someone who identified as queer, and I was just like, “Yes!” It was with a writer and performer called Charlie Josephine, with a company called Theatre Centre and directed by Rob Watt (“Birds & Bees”), and it was about sex and consent for children, with a non-binary character.

EM Williams

On the subject of who gets to tell these stories – there’s been a lot of ongoing conversation around the importance of having gay roles performed by gay actors, trans roles by trans actors, etc. Why do you think it’s important that queer stories are told by queer people?

The way I look at it is that you can say, “Ok, gay people should definitely play gay roles,” and I completely agree with that statement, because the problem is at the moment that if you are gay, you’re less likely to play what is stereotypically a straight role. And the same comes in a lot with trans men and trans women – there are so many trans roles that are just played by androgynous humans, and it makes my skin crawl. And the problem is that those trans performers are never seen for cis roles. Until you’re seeing trans people for cis roles, I don’t think you should be seeing cis people for trans roles. 

“There are so many people in massive institutions who just don’t think they can be the person that they are, because the institutions haven’t done enough yet.”

EM Williams

What’s been your experience of seeing that representation – or lack of it – in the theatre world?

I remember a time when everyone was an eighteen to thirty-year-old cis female with brown hair and blue eyes – like the Zooey Deschanel effect – and everyone we saw in the media was like a carbon copy of each other. It’s just not representative of anyone’s world. It’s detrimental, because for all of the people who don’t fit into that mould, it just becomes so toxic. Often I’m sitting around these tables, and their utopian rhetoric is, “We just want the best person for the role!” But the thing is, when you look at the casting director and their breakdown on Spotlight, they’ll have ten non-Disabled skinny white cis people, and they might have one of each ethnicity.

Acronyms like BAME and LGBTQIA are on the way out, because the problem is when people who are the majority holders of power think, “Ok, I need something to represent those groups,” they’ll stick with the easiest one to grab. So the B in BAME is often represented, or the G in LGBT, maybe one in a cast of seven, but that’ll be it. And they’ve done their work – “We’ve had a Black play this year!”, or, “We’ve had a gay play this year!”

Arts Council do equality monitoring forms, which is basically a tick-box to say who you’ve auditioned, and there are some castings where you really feel you’re the one who’s been brought in to be part of that tick-box – in terms of sexual identity, gender identity, and racial identity. I’ve felt that often, and it’s a fucking hard place to be in. Those gatekeepers don’t accept that they’ve got a lived experience of inherent bias. No human being is neutral – if everyone in your office looks like you do, talks the way that you do, watches the same things on Netflix that you do – you’re going to have a similar opinion.

And you can’t just sit back and hope that representation happens naturally, because there are so many stages that someone has to go through to even reach a position where they are able to audition; and to have the opportunity to access each of those stages in the first place is a matter of privilege.

Exactly. It boils all the way back down to drama school – when you look at drama school intake. A lot of students after the BLM marches just went to town on their drama schools and started writing case study examples of the racism they experienced. And I applaud them all for it. It shouldn’t have to get to a point where the students and the young people of our country have to write out their trauma. Their voices have been squashed, and they’ve been continually oppressed by those institutions, so what can they do? Plus, only a handful of non-white students get into drama schools in the first place.

It spans right across the board of the entire production – my partner is a theatre designer, and when I hear about the lack of diversity in the design world it’s even worse, because it’s not forward-facing. I went on a massive tour of fifty different venues around the UK and Ireland, and I went backstage and into the offices, into the marketing departments, and apart from the casual front of house staff, I only saw three people of colour in the offices. That was 2018 – and two of them I knew from other jobs.

I only came out properly a couple of years ago, but something that I think will stick with me forever is when I was backstage at the National Theatre, and somebody dropped a card in my dressing room. There was this gorgeous drawing inside of all of these different things from the show, and it basically said, “It’s such an honour ro see someone who’s non-binary and out on the stage; it means the world to me. From an anonymous, not-out-yet, non-binary staff member.” It just made me think I’m in the right place. No matter what’s going on, it’s not about me. There are so many people in massive institutions who just don’t think they can be the person that they are, because the institutions haven’t done enough yet.

EM Williams

The past year has been particularly difficult for theatre – what’s the impact of lockdown been on you and your work?

I hadn’t stopped working for about three solid years, and when it happened I was just about to start a new job, which then didn’t happen for six months. So it was the first time I’d actually stopped; and in a way I’m really grateful for it, because I was on the verge of absolute burnout. My mental health was appalling. I threw myself into my work, and just kept going and going and going, until I’d probably have a breakdown. But I was grateful for the pause – for about two weeks, and then I started going mad, because I realised that I’d really defined myself in the capitalist lens of making a career and working my arse off.

I started to think about my spiritual stuff, and going a bit more creative – I started doing more creative groups with a group called KaiFlow, who are doing creative drop-ins and meditation practice. I also joined a really great Facebook group called QAF- Queer As Fuck – we did movie nights, and cook-alongs. They really saved me – I don’t know what I would have done without that group. 

And then what happened out of those things is that I started making a lot more of my own writing – because I’m a poet as well, which I wouldn’t have been able to say last year because I wouldn’t have had the confidence. Long story short, an idea in my head turned into an Arts Council grant, which I got successfully granted at the beginning of this year and will be doing this summer. So that’s what I’m doing! Usually as a freelancer, other people are in control of your income, and other people have the final say on what you’re doing design-wise. You’re answering after someone – which isn’t a bad thing, I love it. But this is my first venture into being the lead artist, and I’m going to make a show, so I’m really excited about it!

You founded Stitchin’ Fiction, a platform for creatives to come together where writers can see their work performed by actors who want to stretch their skills. What would your advice be for beginners who want to put themselves out there more?

It’s really hard to do – it’s easier right now, because you can turn your camera and mic off in a Zoom room, it’s fucking great! Of course, some days you think, “I really cannot. I just want to watch Netflix. I’m not going to go to that thing.” And by all means, if that’s what you need to do, do that. It is important self-care. But if you can try and make yourself go for at least twenty minutes to something, even just commit fifteen minutes – you’ll find someone in there, I’m sure, who’ll say a sentence, and that sentence might inspire you to be creative for the day. 

It’s all through energy – and the amount of energy bouncing around right now is so open, and vulnerable, and honest. No-one’s bullshitting about how they’re feeling at the moment. I’m sure there are enough people out there to reach out – even four people getting into a room for an evening and chatting about ideas they have, or sharing poems that they’ve written and getting some feedback. It’s scary – it’s really fricking scary, and some days it’s much scarier than others. But what have you got to lose? Somebody might say they don’t like it – cool. The end. It’s not the end of the world, it really isn’t.

“If you can try and make yourself go for at least twenty minutes to something, even just commit fifteen minutes – you’ll find someone in there who’ll say a sentence, and that sentence might inspire you to be creative for the day.”

EM Williams

What’s been your favourite acting experience so far?

One of my earliest started as an unpaid gig. It was a version of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. This company – I’m so impressed every time I think about them – they somehow managed to get a letter to (Hayao) Miyazaki’s desk to get the rights to do a non-profit stage version of Princess Mononoke. I remember hearing about it and trying to buy tickets, but the whole run sold out in less than seventy-two hours, and I was like, “I’m never going to get to see it!” And then my brother was like, “Have you seen this? They’re casting!” I remember getting it, the part of a villain – well, Miyazaki doesn’t have villains, everyone is a well-rounded person with lots of different perspectives, but a role that ostensibly seems like a baddie with their own motivations – and being thrilled, because it’s not a role I play very often.

I was doing my Masters, studying and doing all of my classes and essays Monday to Wednesday, then I would get the train to Leamington Spa to rehearse Thursday to Sunday and sleep on the director’s floor – all of my student loan went on those train tickets. And then as rehearsals went on, we got another phone call from the director, and they were like, “By the way, Studio Ghibli’s been on the phone,” – as you do – “And it’s looking like they want to take us out to do this in Japan.” So basically what ended up happening was by taking a punt on an unpaid gig in Leamington Spa where we were rehearsing under train track tunnels, by saying yes to my gut feeling, I got to go and meet Miyazaki in Japan, and do a show in a ridiculously gorgeous Tokyo theatre.

You just have to follow your nose with these things. You make your own luck – you bring your own positivity and your own energy towards you. If you take care of yourself and you believe in yourself, that energy will come back to you, and people will see it glow from you.

You can find EM on Twitter at @ThEM_Williams and on Instagram at @HelloThemWilliams.

Visit EM’s Spotlight profile here: 

You can find more details about Stitchin’ Fiction here:

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