Shrinking’s star power is undeniable. The Apple TV+ series is co-created by series lead Jason Segel, Brett Goldstein, and Bill Lawrence. The latter duo already delivered the platform’s biggest hit in Ted Lasso. The cast includes Harrison Ford and established comedy mainstays Christa Miller, Michael Urie, and Ted McGinley. Amidst all these faces, however, Jessica Williams has become the show’s secret weapon.
The former Daily Show correspondent proved her acting chops in Love Life, Entergalactic, and The Incredible Jessica James. In Shrinking, her comedic timing enlivens every scene. Williams plays Gaby, a therapist who shares the office with fellow therapists Jimmy (Segel) and Paul (Ford). Jimmy is grieving the death of his wife, which forces him to act out and make questionable choices while treating patients. Gaby—who was BFF to Jimmy’s wife—becomes an anchor for Jimmy and his daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell). Gaby is also one of those people who gets along with everyone, from a grumpy Paul to Jimmy’s interfering neighbor, Liz (Miller).
The A.V. Club spoke to Williams about crafting her character, developing chemistry with her illustrious co-stars, and how a potential will-they/won’t-they with Gaby and Jimmy might play out over season one.
The A.V. Club: What roles were you hoping to land after Love Life, and how did Shrinking fit into that mold?
Jessica Williams: I like to play interesting and well-thought-out women who feel like they have a life of their own, and aren’t one- or two-dimensional. I’ve gotten to do that a bit in my career so far, including Love Life’s second season, which I loved doing. The people behind Shrinking saw me in that show and were interested in me for Gaby. Even with Gaby, they told me, “Okay, we have the first two episodes of the show written, but we want to write for you and use your comedic sensibilities and do some improv on set.” That was exciting and felt like a cool part to play.
AVC: How much were you able to help develop Gaby’s character?
JW: It was a cool and collaborative process. Gaby briefly appeared in the first two episodes, but they told me she would become more prominent as the show continued. These later episodes weren’t written yet, but I had to trust them. So as they were writing, they were watching the dailies [of filmed scenes] and how some things were cut together. They’d write Gaby in response to me. Their great writing meant there were different ways for me to play Gaby and do the line readings. I was on a set where between Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein, and Jason Segel, I was able to improvise a lot. Jason’s really good at improv. We all had a clear sense of who Gaby was by then. I had to take the first few steps blind, and I figured her out around episodes four and five.
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AVC: I’m glad you said that Gaby was written a bit around your timing because I think you have excellent chemistry with your co-stars in various projects, whether romantic or as friends. Even in Shrinking, Gaby gets along with every character by this point. Do you have a formula or a trick to find that with your scene partners?
JW: It means a lot that you said that because I work hard at making sure that the connection is real between me and whoever I’m acting opposite. I want to make people feel naturally comfortable in my day-to-day and on-set. I also find people inherently interesting. I realize empathetically, even if people are acting like assholes, it’s coming from a place of sadness, trauma, or something else I don’t understand. And if that’s the case, I will try to connect with them. That and I look into people’s eyes; I don’t blink. [Laughs].
AVC: Gaby’s evolving friendship with Paul is one of the show’s best parts. What was it like to work with Harrison Ford to find that dynamic?
JW: Well, first, I had to get used to seeing Harrison Ford’s face for some time. Once I did, then it became normal. He’s a giving and professional actor and a nice guy. There’s something that clicked for me and made it easy in terms of their friendship though. Harrison’s a legendary actor. I mean, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade came out in 1989, and I was born that year. A part of me is just honored to work with him because of how he’s made me feel about the movies. Gaby has some of that with Paul, so it was taking from that and applying it here. That made it easy, and everything fell into place. I like the dynamic of this bubbly Black lady talking to this grouchy white guy.
AVC: The car singalong to Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” is lovely. Did you rehearse together for it?
JW: We did not, but we rode around the block a bunch of times to get the timing right and riff on the notes. Oddly I was the most stressed trying to fake drive as we were attached to a car rig with Harrison Ford as my passenger.
AVC: Episode six ends with Jessica and Jimmy hooking up. Were you nervous about that storyline, and why do you think it was the right move for their characters?
JW: That was always part of the broader plan for the characters, even before I signed on. I wasn’t nervous at all because I’ve done a few rom-coms, and I love seeing people’s relationships play out on screen in all facets. Shrinking is about lines and emotions being blurred. It’s not all black-and-white. I think it’s natural for Jimmy and Gaby because they share this huge loss in Tia’s death. They both lost her—yes, Jimmy to a greater extent—and felt a void. They have that in common. For us, it was also, let’s figure out a modern take on their will-they/won’t-they, or how these two fully-formed adults can stay friends, or if they like or love each other in that way.
AVC: You recently said on The Colbert Show that you were drawn to Gaby because you wanted to play a relatable therapist. How do you feel about Gaby breaking stereotypes in that sense? Do you feel any kind of pressure?
JW: I generally like to play or sign on to things where characters have depth. If Bill Lawrence, who has done some incredible shows, wants to feature a story about a Black woman with similar depth, I want that too. Usually, everyone in charge needs to be on board because there’s only so much I’m in control of. As an actor, I can put all sorts of stuff, but it can get by executives, showrunners, or directors. So here it’s a big collaboration of wanting to show Gaby in a new way in the year 2023. Everyone has to agree on that, or it won’t happen. I just try and listen to the actors in front of me and allow new ideas to flow out depending on what my character does. I’m not thinking of the bigger picture but taking the exact scene as seriously as possible and trying to make it as special and interesting. That’s what breaks its own stereotypes in the end, I hope, because then it needs to pass through so many hands to get on Apple TV+.
AVC: I’d be remiss not to ask about Love Life season two. Everyone was disappointed when HBO Max removed it from their platform. What did you feel when all that was happening?
JW: I loved working on that show. I got to work with Paul Feig, William Jackson Harper, and many amazing people. It’s sad that it’s off the platform, but Marcus and Nia forever they’ll live on in our hearts. I’m sad this beautiful Black love story can’t be seen anymore, but I’m proud of the work we did. I’m also grateful that we made it and that it was there for as long as it was.
AVC: Do you know if you’ll be making more of Netflix’s Entergalactic?
JW: I don’t know, but that was the plan. Who knows until they announce it? I’ve read other interviews where Scott [Mescudi, a.k.a Kid Cudi, series creator of Entergalactic] has said he wants to make more. I feel lucky because I’ve recently had some great male co-stars with Will, Scott, and Jason on Shrinking.
Shrinking airs every Friday on Apple TV+. The season one finale will drop on March 24.