Welcome back to Seattle Grace hospital, home to Grey’s Anatomy and the hottest docs on the box. Donal O’Donoghue meets one of them, Jesse Williams.
The other day I happened to mention I’d met one of the docs from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. This was a big mistake.
‘Ah, Greys! So which one did you interview?’
The good-looking one?
‘Can you narrow it down?’
Jesse Williams, the guy who plays Dr Jackson Avery. No reaction. He has really nice eyes!
‘So it was not McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) or McSteamy (Eric Dane) or McKidd (as in dreamy, steamy Kevin McKidd)?’
True, but if you must have a tabloid tag I give you McPrettyEyes (as 30-year-old Williams was dubbed by Entertainment Weekly when he joined the show in 2009). This barely raised an eyebrow but watch out for Williams. The word from the ward is promising and in the forthcoming eighth season the (surgical) gloves are off as Sloan (Dane) gets physical with Jackson over the matter of his, girlfriend, Lexi. You’re going to see a lot more of pretty boy Williams, and I mean that exactly how you’re thinking.
Williams used to be a male model. He looks it, walks it and talks it: from the hair on his immaculately groomed features to the threads of his chic black and white ensemble, that includes checkerboard runners. It’s an image that quietly but confidently states: ‘Man, I’m so good looking I’m scared to look in the mirror!’ Or maybe that’s just us guys being jealous because in the glittery limelight of the Monte Carlo TV Festival, women are drawn to Williams like moths to a flame.
“Signor Jesse”, asks a journalist who introduces herself with the line ‘I’m from Italy’. “Are you into fashion?” Of course he is. So he is quizzed on his favourite designers. “Paul Smith does wonderful things and I also like John Barbados but I’m learning”, he says. “I want to be adventurous in how I dress for these events. You know I didn’t like this jacket when I first tried it on.” “But it’s beautiful and fantastic”, says Miss Italia who looks as if she’d like to take the jacket home with her – ideally with Williams still inside it.
OK. So it’s unfair to paint the Chicago native as simply a clothes horse. After all he worked for six years as a teacher (English and History) at a public high school in Philadelphia long before he was known as ‘the Hotness Monster’ (seriously) in the TV series, Greek. His status as a sex symbol hangs lightly on his hunky, footballer shoulders. “I guess it just doesn’t mean that much to me”, he says. “If it means something to other people that’s fine, but I just don’t take it that seriously. Does it make me feel good about myself? Not really, it’s just part of the business. I like to take credit for the work that I have done. I didn’t put this there (he points to his very pretty face) and so I can’t take credit for it.”
In his teenage years, Williams watched hospital documentaries on late night TV – real-life surgical shows full of blood, guts and shiny steel instruments. “There are these programmes on public access channels”, he says. “It wasn’t drama and it wasn’t scripted. It was just doctors working. So at one o’clock in the morning you’d see this chest cut open with ice in it and they are fixing a heart. My brother and my mom would cringe, but I would be fascinated and thought how amazing people can save other people. So I’m not squeamish. I’ve had surgery and I have stayed awake and watched them work. I had my ankle cut open and I just watched.”
The Italian journalist stares in wonder at said ankle: perhaps expecting to catch some exposed, stitched up flesh. All she gets is a nicely turned designer loafer. But the point is made: Williams is cool with gore. “They use the organs from pigs and cows on the show but as long as they keep it cold enough so that it doesn’t smell, I don’t mind”, he says of working in the bowels of a medical drama. Of course we’ve heard such tales before – the TV doctor amping up his own courage in a tide of fake blood and how, but for a simple twist of fate, he could have been a real-life medic. So guess what, someone asks him the bleeding obvious: ‘Mister Williams, did you ever consider becoming a surgeon?’ “You know, I did”, he says, a thoughtful expression playing on his pretty face. “I thought that if acting didn’t work out I’d have done law school or medical school: probably law to be honest.” So really it was third choice then – or actually fourth, because as we know Williams served his time in the blackboard jungle. But the man is only batting what’s being pitched at him: and right now the batting is mainly of manicured eyelashes.
“I wanted to wear big clothes as a teenager but now these pants couldn’t be tighter”, says Williams, smoothing down a trouser leg. A few journalists steal a quick look and nod in agreement. But while he worked part-time as a model in high school it was never a real career option. “I didn’t think that it would satisfy my brain”, he says. “I wanted to be creative. But I did model for some time in New York with shows for Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Cole and some other people. I quit to become a teacher and worked at that for some years.”
Why teaching? “Both of my parents were teachers”, he says. “I also grew up in a very poor area with a bad educational system. Then I was lucky enough to move to a neighbourhood with a good school and I could see the disparity: some kids just got lucky, others were unlucky and that’s not fair. We should all have the opportunity to at least get a basic education and feel that you are worthy of something in life. We often grow up being told that we can do this or that but if you don’t see anybody that looks like you doing it, you don’t believe you can do it. But I had great teachers and I wanted to be a great teacher.”
Following a cameo in Law & Order and that stint as a Hotness monster, Williams wanted to be a great actor. He figures that his background as a teacher is an asset. “Having to keep the attention of a lot of young minds who don’t necessarily want to be there and making them want to come back helped me a lot”, he says. “What is interesting about TV is that in some ways you are communicating ideas to people. Like they might know that their sister has this rare disease and now it’s getting mentioned on prime-time TV, so that might generate more money for research. I think that if you are communicating new ideas to people, whether it is TV or wherever, that is interesting to me.” He doesn’t buy the TV snobbery that looks down its nose at hospital drama. “In a way, Grey’s Anatomy is between soap opera and serious drama”, he says. “In fact, I think that all TV and all theatre is soap opera. Certain genres tend to have a formula but if they break the mould in any way people watch, so they must be doing something right. My job is to entertain and to allow people to escape. It’s like you come home and your dogs love you no matter what. Grey’s Anatomy is somewhat similar. It will be there for you when you come home and I believe that our show is therapy for a lot of people.”
Did Williams hear the one about Patrick Dempsey who was on a plane when someone got sick and the rest of the passengers looked expectantly at him? “Really?” says Williams, knowing what comes next. “Yes something like that actually happened to me once, too. I was going back to work after lunch. I had my scrubs on and I walked by a car accident. This was just my third day on the show so I was very new. The car had flipped over and there was glass everywhere nobody seemed to be really hurt. The crowd just looked at me and I went, ‘No, no you don’t want me to do anything!’ Fortunately, the ambulance arrived shortly afterwards with real doctors and I ran away.” Jesse Williams is more than just a pretty face: just don’t ask him to perform any invasive surgery if you ever meet him.