Given that she’s in town to discuss a television show about therapy, I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m barely an hour and a half into my first encounter with Jessica Williams, and we’re already on some heavy shit. On a rainy afternoon in January, Williams slouches comfortably in an armchair in Brooklyn, thinking over a line from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: “Suddenly he knew joy and sorrow felted into one fabric.” Williams hummed appreciatively. “Oh my gosh, isn’t that true?” she says, recalling a period of significant loss in her life. “I took a break from acting for a while. I was feeling a lot of things at once. I mean, I’m a Leo sun, Leo moon, Aries rising, right?” Suddenly she grinned conspiratorially and rolled her eyes, laughing at herself. “So everything is just intense. Into the fire!”
For Williams, the last few years have seen both unbridled joy and enormous sorrow. After a lauded five-year run on The Daily Show (when Jon Stewart offered her the gig, at 22, she was the youngest correspondent in the show’s history) and the massive success of her podcast turned HBO Max series, 2 Dope Queens, which she hosted alongside Phoebe Robinson, Williams’s career was surging forward with renewed energy. But then, in the fall of 2019, her longtime boyfriend Blaine Spesak passed away, and Williams receded from the public eye to tend to her grief.
Williams says that this period of mourning informed her latest project, Shrinking. The new AppleTV+ series, created by Brett Goldstein, Bill Lawrence, and Jason Segel, revolves around grief and the ways we care for each other. In Shrinking, Williams portrays Gaby, a therapist in a practice alongside Jimmy (Segel) and the sardonic and cantankerous Paul, played by Harrison Ford. Each of the three main characters is dealing with grief in their own way.
If it sounds like a bummer, it’s actually a comedy. Segel, Williams, and Ford have fantastic comedic chemistry, and the writing is tight and buoyant even as the characters tussle through emotionally fraught moments. Williams is a highlight of the show: As Gaby, she toggles between her surprising elastic humor and a brand of blunt sincerity, qualities that Williams radiates in person.
Although she currently lives in Los Angeles, Williams spent almost a decade living in New York City, and she has some favorite local haunts: a few bars in Williamsburg and a pottery studio in Park Slope. We decide to take a field trip to the latter neighborhood for a perfume-making class. Williams loves perfume; she wears Diptyque’s Eau Moheli, a floral fragrance with notes of ylang-ylang, pink peppercorn, and ginger. As we walk into the perfumer’s brownstone, I joke that it’s reminiscent of her Harry Potter years. (Williams starred in the most recent spin-off film, The Secrets of Dumbledore.) She laughs warmly. “I know, right? This is the witchiest thing ever. It’s like a potions class.”
Julianne Zaleta, the perfumer, leads us through her apartment-slash-workspace to a pair of chairs next to a heavy wood desk. Above the desk, tiny bottles, some as small as my pinky finger, sit crowded together on white shelves. We settle onto the chairs and Williams sighs. She flew in the night before and was still adjusting to New York’s January climate. “I walked outside this morning, and I was like, Double damn,” she says, gripping her coffee cup tightly. “It gets into my bones.” Though Williams has an imposing presence—she’s nearly six feet tall and favors bold fashion choices, today wearing a bright orange T-shirt, vibrant socks, and heavy rings with colorful stones on several fingers of both hands—she’s finely attuned to the people around her, often turning her entire body to you as she listens. She is disarmingly casual and upbeat as a default.
Zaleta’s apartment feels lived-in and comforting; it’s filled with squishy-looking sofas, and a nearby armoire holds fat decanters of homemade infused liquors. Zaleta is a natural perfumer, meaning she largely uses ingredients extracted from plants. She proffers a vial, which Williams turns over in her long fingers: “This one’s made from seashells,” Zaleta says.
She explains perfume’s musical terminology: We’re combing notes to make a chord, looking for harmony. Zaleta holds out bottles and Williams gamely sniffs them all, ultimately settling on three base notes: sandalwood, tolu balsam, and tobacco—a richly sweet and spicy combination. As we moved on to middle notes, which tend towards floral scents, Zaleta offers up a vial filled with the oil from a Bulgarian damask rose, the so-called gold standard of roses. We groan appreciatively. “So you guys like shit!” Zaleta exclaims happily. She goes on: “Imagine that you pick a rose from your garden and bring it in the house. It’s gorgeous, and it smells beautiful, but it’s also dying.” That’s where we get the molecule indole, the molecule of decay. It smells a little dirty and sweetly rank. Flowers are so fragile that they’re blooming and dying simultaneously, she says. “Incredible,” Williams says, nodding. “Aren’t we all, though? We’re all blooming and dying.” Therapy fodder, I suggest. “Yeah. I have an appointment that can fix that.”
When Goldstein, Lawrence, and Segel approached Williams about Shrinking, they asked whether she had personal experience with therapy. “I think that was important to them,” she says. “And I’ve done it for a long time. I just see it as maintaining the car weekly rather than waiting for the car to break down.” Williams was intrigued by the show’s premise and its central theme (grief), and she was equally curious about Gaby because the writers made it clear that they would write the role to fit the chosen actor’s energy and humor. “I signed on knowing that they were going to write to me.” (Later she elaborated: “When people approach me, they usually have a part in mind. I’m a six-foot-tall Black lady, and that doesn’t happen all the time.”)
Shrinking makes ample use of Williams’s background in improvisational comedy. While in high school in Los Angeles’s South Bay, she participated in ComedySportz, a competitive improv team putting on shows of short-form sketches similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway? In college she circled LA’s improv community, then joined a Maud team at the infamous Upright Citizen’s Brigade, which was cofounded by Amy Poehler and has served as a sort of incubator for talent such as Donald Glover, Ben Schwartz, and Aziz Ansari. Not long after, The Daily Show came calling. They’d seen an audition tape, and flew her out to New York to audition with Stewart. She got the gig. “When I met Jon, I knew my life was going to change forever,” she recalls as we shake our perfume bottles gently to mix the oils. “It was one of those moments where I was like, Wow, this is going to set me on a different track.” Williams shifted from comedic stage performer to performer on a late-night television show, and everything else snowballed from there.