Zelda Williams on 'Never,' 'Dead of Summer' and comic books
After premiering at Cinequest two years ago, writer-director Brett Allen Smith's indie feature Never has finally found its home on the big screen in Los Angeles. They intend to next have it available in New York and Seattle before its release on VOD. The film centers on graphic designer Denim (Zachary Booth), a recent east coast transplant, who develops a fondness for gay singer-songwriter Nikki (Zelda Williams). Smith, who was only 23 at the time the first trailer was cut, wrote the film as a vehicle for the culmination of his joys, fears and questions on what it means to be a twenty-something of our generation.
Things get messy. As Denim vies for Nikki's affection, she's dealing with the mental blow of a fresh breakup. They each are struggling to find themselves: him in a new home and her with her future path. The film received support while in production via their kickstarter campaign, which garnered attention from film-centric outlet IndieWire, Filmmaker Magazine, Neil Gaiman, Screen Crave and more. We caught up with Zelda Williams to learn more about her experience on Never, her latest project Dead of Summer, which has its finale airing August 30th, and her longtime comic book obsession.
How did you first get involved with Never?
I think the script was sent to my team and I auditioned and we went from there. It was interesting too because at that point [I hadn't done very many] things. So the prospect of being a) a lead and b) filming in Seattle was all very intense, but part of what drew me to it was the challenge I'd not been faced with yet.
One thing I liked about the film was that it's very rooted in reality: unrequited love and the situation of loving someone but not being able to give them what they want. It's not an overblown, movie-only scenario. I'm curious to know what kind of preparation you did to get into that mindset.
I'm not much of a method actor in the sense of what some people will do [like] studying various different things, but for me, I am one of those girls who's either in a serious relationship or very, very single and kind of heartbroken. This movie was almost like that. In that sense, she just lost someone that I think she had assumed she was gonna wind up with. It's melodramatic but that's what breakups are, it's what it feels like. It was mainly having to inhabit a headspace of what most people have been through, especially when they're young, of investing the enormous amount of time and energy and your heart into something that then ends up crapping on your existence for a while. I can't speak for Zach in terms of how he prepared but he was so lovely to work opposite in that sense. Fascinatingly enough as well, with him being this character who's in love with me when I'm supposed to have no kind of chemistry with him in that sense was really odd. [It was] very interesting to have to actively try not to because I'm supposed to not have any interest in him whatsoever so that was new.
It was also your first time being directed in a larger capacity and having to essentially carry a film. How has your time spent working with directors influenced the time you spent in the director's chair, such as with the music video you did with JoJo and when thinking of future projects down the line?
Every director that you work with is very different. [Smith] was very different than anyone I'd ever had and I certainly direct differently than he does so I think to each their own. Every set I'm on, I go through and I try and figure out what they're going to direct like and thus what I want to do. He wrote the script and this was his first directing project. They get very personal about what they're showing whereas I find that I'm much more removed personally from what I want to direct because I love horror films and science fiction. I want people to connect to it emotionally, of course, but through their own emotions, not through me telling them about my own experiences.
Everybody works differently and, even if I don't see something the same way as someone else, it's nice to see the different perspectives.
Every single director I've worked with has been completely different, every single one. On Dead of Summer, we have a different director every episode which can be jarring because you're playing the same character but it's suddenly a different directing style. It's still really cool to be able to have to learn how to navigate what essentially becomes their world because it is the director's world. Everyone thinks that the actors have all this power but 99.9% of them don't get to dictate anything. We have to show up and do what we're told so you have to get used to it, like suddenly having a new president. Every different episode and every movie you do, you are suddenly under someone else's rule.
My favorite moments of the film were definitely the music parts where you're performing. Did they come to you with original music, did you bring something in, how did that come to be?
Initially, they wanted to embark upon me writing stuff. I write poetry and I write scripts but I've never written music. I tried writing lyrics but usually you have to have a music and lyrics partnership, so someone that you can really write with and who does the music for your lyrics. I didn't have that and I'm certainly no professional musician so they actually ended up finding this wonderful, wonderful music lyricist [Nora Kirkpatrick] who wrote all of Nikki's songs. It was really interesting too because some of them we did perform live. Usually with music in movies, they will have it pre-recorded and you lip sync to it and they match it up. A couple of the ones we did were live performance which was incredibly daunting for me because I have terrible stage fright in spite of what I do.
What about karaoke?
Oh, karaoke too. I will only do private room karaoke because then I'm not terrified. You know, the ones in Koreatown where you have the little room that you can go into with just your friends. That's me! I have so much respect for people who can do it but I can't.
To expand on the fact you're a writer, what drives you to write? Are you the kind that writes when inspiration strikes or are you more disciplined?
write every day. I think it's why so much happened when everyone was leaving me alone for a while. I wrote 12 scripts last year because I just kept writing. It's a bit like my meditation if I'm being honest, usually when everyone else is asleep. Everyone will go curl up and go to bed and I'll be up writing because it's the one time where no one interrupts you. You're left to your own devices. I have so many friends who are writers and mentors of mine who are like, "What do you mean you write multiple scripts at once?" But I like it because if I get stuck on one that's a particular genre, I can switch genre and then not be stuck because it's so different than the one I got completely and utterly caught [on]. It's like a palette cleanser and so I'll do that. I often will have three or four scripts going at once and they'll be completely different and it keeps me kind of sane if I'm being honest. It keeps me stress free in a lot of ways, as funny as that sounds.
I understand that. We cover multiple areas. Once you get too much into one hole, it's time to switch to something else for a minute to keep from getting burned out.
Yeah, you have to. You have to keep your brain working because it's very easy to get stuck in one thing. I have a lot of respect for people who can do that but when I get stuck on a script it's the most frustrating thing in the world to try and sit there and push through that. It literally hurts my soul so having multiple options makes me not go through that anymore. I don't feel as in pain.
Since you were filming in Seattle, did you get time to explore the city and culture? Did it have any impact on the film itself?
[Our director] was very adamant [that] he wanted [Seattle] to feel like another character in the film. We shot at Pike Place, we shot at a bunch of very famous Seattle landmarks in very guerilla ways. I mean, they had permits to do it but the people that are there, you know, no one ever reads those signs that say 'filming up ahead' so you have to be sneaky so that they don't look in the camera. Seattle was really fun. We were there when it had the biggest snowfall ever in the history of Seattle I think. That was insane. We were stuck inside on a day we were supposed to be filming and they had one snow plow in the entire city of Seattle apparently because it's Seattle. Why do you expect there to be massive snowfall? So it was not something that they were prepared for but it was still cool to see, especially being from San Francisco. That shit doesn't happen where I'm from.
Let's switch over to Dead of Summer real quick. You play a female to male transgender character, a voice you don't see represented very often. What was the casting process like for your character, Drew? You've mentioned it was longer than everyone else's.
I can't speak to the exact length of everyone because it's not really something we compared and contrasted but I do know that I was on the hook, so to speak, for quite a while longer because they went back and did multiple rounds of casting trying to find transgender actors for the part. One of the issues with that, I think, was that Drew is also, because this was in 1989, he would not have had any kind of access to hormones or to surgery. So he still technically, unfortunately, has to live anatomically female and that's part of the character's struggle. And I think it was part of their struggle finding a trans actor to play it because, especially the ones who were courageous enough to now be pursuing an acting career, which I think is incredible, they are usually, at least the ones I have spoken to upon getting the part, a lot of them were in transition so they would not have been able to have Drew's flashbacks in the way that they had been speaking about it. It was a very tricky thing that I think Eddy and Adam tried to do and I had a blast doing it. I hope that, looking back at it, I continue to feel that way because, truthfully, I got to meet so many incredible people in researching it. It's one of the first roles [where] I did have to do proper research [and] I wanted to. I wanted to make sure that I approached it from the most knowledgable and honest place.
How were you able to connect with and meet others to learn about their experiences?
I initially tried to find organizations but usually organizations are also counseling so those are people who are in potentially tricky emotional spots and so I didn't want to kind of come in and potentially put any of that in flux for them. That was kind of the reactions I had seemed to get when I would ask, "Hey, do you have anyone that would want to talk to me while researching this role?" And they were like, "It's a very delicate time." But I did have a lot of friends who were female identifying trans and so I would talk to them. A lot of my girls in SF did have friends who were male identifying trans and I asked if they could ask their friends. You know, "Hey would you get on the phone with me or when I come back to SF would you sit down and speak with me," and quite a few were happy to, especially the ones who were older because they were alive and obviously were still trans. Even if they could not outwardly exist as their proper self yet, they were trans in 1989, the ones who are now 40/45. They talked to me about what that was like and they talked to me about the difficulties of it. I know that a couple people were very upset about the fact that in my episode, in the flashbacks of Drew, there's things that are triggering for them like misgendering and this sort of transphobia that was very true back then and is still very true now. But I think that as sad as I am that that hurt them in having to see it again, because I'm sure quite a few of them have suffered through it, I'm still grateful that they're trying to tell a story that people who are not trans and have never been around it don't know what that's like and maybe it will allow for some people to learn some things and have a bit more sympathy because it's really screwed up what I have seen, even in my life, of people reacting to friends of mine who are trans.
Even just talking about things gets it out in the open.
Yeah. I mean, look, there's plenty of people who go, well, "Oh, this is wrong," or, "Oh, why does this need to be all up in my face?" I don't know why people still feel the need to deny people their existence. It's a much more complicated topic for another time but I have had really long conversations and I'm really grateful for how much I got to see in taking part in this.
This is also your first time to be a main character on a tv series. What was it like being part of an ensemble for an extended period?
Hilarious and fun and strange. Most of my castmates were also were half a decade younger than me, which was really funny and fun. The only one who was about my age was Alberto who plays our wonderful, hot cop. It becomes a lot more like, as Adam and Eddy [have] said, it becomes like a summer camp. The dynamics of it become like a band. You spend a lot of weird hours together, sixteen hour days or nights. We primarily shot nights. You're delirious sitting in a cabin at five in the morning. You get very close. Mark and I, who plays my partner on the show, [we] lived together through the season because we got very close on the pilot. I will say that was one of the biggest benefits of it, as much as I prefer switching from character to character and doing a month movie because you get to do a crash course. It was fascinating to spend four months getting to know people, not just rushing through and then leaving.
Since it's a camp, did you have to stay somewhere more isolated or were you lucky enough to be somewhere more urban?
The stuff that's exteriors that looks like a camp is actually a camp that they built about an hour and a half outside of Vancouver. It's beautiful. Eddy and Adam, they also shoot Once Upon A Time, so they shoot in these cute, wooded areas outside of Vancouver that are really beautiful. They built cabins so there's like a camp that was built for us to be Camp Stillwater. [It's a] really beautiful location but thankfully, because it was only an hour and a half-ish out of town, we got to go home at the end of the day. We didn't have to stay there.
I understand you're also a big fan of comics. Let's say you had the opportunity to either star in or direct a comic of your choosing. Which ones would you pick and why should we check them out?
Oh god. There's a bunch of them that I've loved over the years. The one that I wanted to direct so badly because a) it's so politically relevant to right now but b) it's just one of my favorite comics is one called The DMZ which stands for demilitarized zone by Brian Wood. It was one of my favorites. I would happily direct that in a heartbeat. I know that they're making some form of it at SyFy so I look forward to seeing it, even with a little bit of bated breath. I love Saga. Saga is one of my favorites. It's just so beautiful. I don't know how they would ever be able to make it because it'd be like a $300 million dollar movie but my god is it amazing. It's so funny because a lot of the ones I grew up loving are being made right now. I mean, [it's ironic that] The Runaways [is about] to be a tv show and all of these, what used to be considered the 'outsider' comics, [are becoming mainstream]. Everyone was like, "When I think of comic books I think of Superman and Batman." All of these [are] more in-depth, strange or were written for the loners even in the comic world. They're all becoming big deals right now. It's great and strange and wonderful.
Yeah. When I think comics, I think more of Transmetropolitan and Black Hole because those are what I read growing up. I didn't read Superman or Marvel or any of that.
I've never read a Superman and I've never read a Batman. I always grew up with like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman Chronicles and you know even Cassie Hack in Hack/Slash. I looked for tough female leads because I was kind of considered scary when I was in high school because I had a shaved head. Kids didn't really understand me so I read about people that were misunderstood and I loved it. [They] still do help a lot of kids that are trying to find their hero in themselves.
Why do you think the attention to comic books has picked up more recently?
I think that everything goes through phases but I also think that comic books speak to a really broad audience for the most part. They're basically moral fairy tales but with super powers that look cool on screen. Comic books were invented in a time of war. I mean, Superman was kind of brought along to rally American pride even though he's an alien. These characters were created to, I know a lot of people say to distract from important things that are happening and difficulties, but I actually think that they're meant to really make the brain have a brief moment, no matter what you're going through, of joy. Joy is not necessarily a distraction. I think it's a wonderful thing to give people. Comics were these wonderful things that, at the time they were invented, they could not be put on screen for the most part. They were where the human brain was still just imagining things and technology and film was not there yet but now it is. I think that's why so many of them are being made now because tech is finally catching up to what we've always been imagining.