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It’s all based on love


Lando Calrissian. For many Star Wars fans, the charismatic, clever, and too-cool-for-school space pirate is the greatest character to emerge from George Lucas’s perpetual saga, and no one is going to convince them otherwise. And Lando’s popularity has everything to do with the fact that he’s played by Mr. Colt-45 himself, Billy December Williams. Smooth and unstoppable, he’s not one to rest on his laurels, but likes to stay busy. Not only is he a renowned tv, film, and stage performer, but he’s also a singer (he sang on the group-hug track,“Voices That Care”) and an accomplished artist: when we spoke on the phone in February, he was preparing to travel to Tokyo for a gallery show of his paintings.


Born in New York City, the 64-year-old Williams has been acting since the 1950s, on soap operas (The Guiding Light), and primetime series (The Defenders, Mission Impossible, Dynasty, and recently, The Hughleys and Gideon’s Crossing, where he’s playing Dr. Boies’ father, dying of lung cancer). Still, Williams is probably best known for his movies: Brian’s Song (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars (1976), and of course, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).


Currently, Williams is talking about The Visit, Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s feature debut, about a young man (Hill Harper) dying of AIDS in prison, trying to reconcile with his father, Henry, played by Billy Dee Williams.



Cynthia Fuchs:

I saw you on Gideon’s Crossing last night.



Billy Dee Williams:

How did I look?



CF:

You look fabulous, even in a hospital bed.



BDW:

Good.



CF:

It occurs to me after seeing that role and the role in “The Visit” [as Alex Waters’ father] that you’re playing dads now.



BDW:

Well, listen, I’m at that age [laughs]. But the fathers are all fascinating people. That always makes a difference. I have two more of those “Gideon’s Crossing” episodes to do, actually. What’s fascinating about that character is that he’s been irresponsible about his life and is in self-denial. And Henry Waters [in “The Visit”], he’s from the old school, and has very strong religious values, and is dealing with the situation based on that.



CF:

So, how was it to do “The Visit,” with Jordan [Walker-Pearlman, a young, first-time writer-director-producer]?



BDW:

He’s an extraordinary young man. How we got to work together is because, well, when I read the script I thought it was really exceptional. It’s a story with a lot of highly charged emotional experience. But he had seen me when he was about ten years old, playing Martin Luther King Jr. on stage, back in the late ‘70s. And he never forgot that experience, and always wanted to work with me. I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him because he has a very interesting view of things, based on his own experiences [Walker-Pearlman was already making short films for Nickelodeon at age14, went on to Howard and George Washington Universities, focusing on Political Science and International Politics; then founded his own international foreign policy consulting company, DaWa Group; an offshoot of this company, DaWa Movies, produced “The Visit”]. These have given him a kind of a dynamic that I find interesting, his approach to the human dilemma.



CF:

It also sounds like his process of working is fairly unusual, in that you all spend a lot of time together, socially as well as professionally, and even rehearse without a script at first.



BDW:

He establishes a whole situation that really allows everyone to express themselves at least two levels, and encourages subtlety and nuance, [which] are always important. I think when people get close to each other, and become family, they begin to see each other in ways that can be very useful for putting ideas together.



CF:

So you had a lot of input in developing Henry?



BDW:

There’s no way in the world I’m going to be hired and not have a lot of input! [laughs] I’m of that generation, I’m one of those Method actors. Of course I know a lot about Henry. I used my father a lot in portraying the character, and also I used a lot of my own life, the way I approach life in terms of my family. I’m very much a family person, very concerned about the welfare of my family. And I can be a real pain in the butt when I’m laying down the law and all that. But it’s all based on love.



CF:

The film seems doubly subtle, and complicated, because so much of the emotional interplay comes across visually as well as in dialogue. So you had to convey deep feelings without talking, at times.



BDW:

That’s the most important thing, I think, to present it that way in a highly emotional work. This is what captures everybody’s imagination. The beauty of film, or the beauty of other visual art, is that it depends on how you use the situation. It’s a pastiche, a combination of the music, action, and visual composition. You put all that together, the way he [Walker-Pearlman] put it together, it really fills your whole being up.



CF:

My father is a painter, in fact, so I have some understanding of what you’re saying, not only in the viewing but in the process of making visual art. Do you have similar processes in acting and painting?



BDW:

Oh yes! There’s no difference in process, just different media, or tools. You’re really bringing a painting together when you’re a filmmaker or when you’re a writer or an actor. You just use different tools.



CF:

Do you think about how your art is received? Is it different for painting or for acting?



BDW:

I’m the kind of person who gets a kick out of displaying my art. If you’re just doing it for yourself, that’s one thing. But I want to put it out there. That’s the reason I’m doing it, to get a reaction. Otherwise, it’s just like masturbating [laughs]. The whole idea of putting it on the wall in a gallery, that’s very exciting for me. I’ve got some paintings that I’m showing in Tokyo, and I have to go over there. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, getting into the Tokyo gallery.



CF:

It sounds like you’re still a pretty cool cat, that maybe the generational differences portrayed in the film aren’t so rigid for you personally. But do you think such differences are important to show and even work through in a movie?



BDW:

Generational differences exist no matter what generation you’re in. It’s historical. But I never thought about it so much here. It’s more about love and redemption, the redemption of love, about people releasing themselves through this young man’s dilemma. As far as Henry Waters is concerned, he’s devoted his whole life to trying to keep this family together, so they can create the best opportunities for themselves. And then when something goes wrong in that equation, he can’t quite understand it, and tries to find out if there was something he didn’t say that made it clear to this boy that he had to go a certain way, to turn away from success and solidarity. But generations only exist because things change.



CF:

There’s a conversation toward the end of the film, where Alex asks his father if he thinks a “real man” can get AIDS, and it opens up pretty clearly the question of what it means to be a man. That seems a perpetual concern.



BDW:

Well, those concerns exist for us today, certainly, to a point sometimes where it seems chaotic, at least from my perspective. When I watch television, I see a kind of freedom that’s being expressed [about masculine ideals], that I hadn’t seen before. But rather than being critical about it, I spend time wondering where it’s all going to lead. Change is inevitable, but it all depends on what’s happening at the moment, how the dynamic is going to work out.



CF:

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in media representations?



BDW:

If change seems to be based purely on the status quo as we know it, that’s one thing. But it’s never only that. Something else always enters the picture, and things go in a different direction. It’s like back during the time when Dumas or Balzac and Delacroix were making art. It started with the monarchies to the empires and then the republics: when those guys came along, Dumas being a half-breed, they introduced new ideas. Before them, everything was based on classicism, someone like Dumas was at the helm of making changes, becoming sort of iconoclasts. And all of a sudden, romanticism emerged. And romanticism at that time was really a vulgarity, because something else was the norm. But then romanticism evolved into the status quo. That’s how I always look at it. It’s like the rappers or bee-bop before them, bringing edge and difference. But as soon as they start making money, they become the status quo, and lose their fervor. What it means and where it’s all going to go is always a question, but as long as there’s a sense of morality, it’s familiar. Without balance, it becomes chaotic.



CF:

Has your approach to your work changed? Do you feel like you adapt to changes in the status quo?



BDW:

I grow and I embrace everything. I’m not one of those people who, as they get older, just look at the stars and not be part of what’s happening now. I feel like I’m a very young person. I’ll always be like a little boy, exploring all the time. That’s part of me. Getting older is difficult for me only because I never see myself as an older person. I perpetually see myself as a stupid, young person, walking around and getting into trouble.



CF:

Do you prefer working on larger films or smaller projects, in terms of these different explorations?



BDW:

I’ll work wherever there’s something interesting to do, television, small films, big films, the stage. I think the most important thing is finding interesting stuff to do, and that’s hard to do, it’s always been hard to do and it still is.



CF:

What is it that makes something interesting for you?



BDW:

It’s well-delineated in terms of character and situation. So if you’re playing a villain, you want to understand why a person is a villain. That’s why I always liked Bette Davis and James Cagney. The way their characters are structured were complicated and also clear. Bette Davis was the quintessential bitch, I mean, she made “bitch” into a household word. But you always understood; she had at least two moments in every movie where you could see why she was the way she was. And of course, Cagney always had his Ma.



CF:

Top of the world.



BDW:

[laughs] Right! He created all kinds of mayhem, but as long as he had his Ma….



CF:

How have scripts that you’re looking at changed?



BDW:

They reflect changes in values and the way people approach life. People are a lot more open about things now. You see people going to the toilet now in movies; they get out of bed with their hair all mussed up. I think that sometimes they tend to show too much. I think mystery is a nice element to any presentation. But that’s something I understand because that’s something I grew up with. People today, they want to bare it all, and that’s a part of their culture.



CF:

What do you think about changes in possibilities for distribution for non-studio films?



BDW:

People are very concerned about that, because everything’s become so global now that it doesn’t always allow for people to have ways to present their products. So there have to be alternatives. Otherwise you’re just going to sit around and get drunk and feel like the world is against you. There’s a lot of rejection everywhere, and it’s not getting any better because we live in a world where there’s a lot of indifference. It used to be that business could be about family, but today it’s all corporations and lawyers. It’s a cliche, but it’s a real cliche. It’s a situation that’s faceless.



CF:

In the face of that facelessness, how do you maintain integrity in your work?



BDW:

You kind of hang in there with what you understand about this life. I think integrity is a very important thing in a person’s life. You have to be a decent person. Those are old-fashioned values, but they have great merit, I think, they’re so important in keeping things together. Like the whole idea of being polite: people are so rude today, it’s unbelievable. But it’s because everybody’s moving so fast. Our whole life is inundated with the high tech, computerized age. Essentially, we’re struggling with this whole idea of humanity, but what’s gotten in the way is this technology. And that kind of changes your personality, in a way that you’re not even aware, like out here in LA, you’re tailgating people on a Sunday afternoon, when you’re supposed to be relaxing! I’m studying martial arts. and I keep practicing this whole idea of courtesy, so that it becomes a very natural part of my life. I won’t allow negative energy to intrude. Otherwise, little tiny things escalate into enormous, ridiculous things. We have to struggle to maintain our balance.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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