'Shrinking' Star Jessica Williams Talks Grief, Therapy and Improv

‘Shrinking’ Star Jessica Williams Talks Grief, Therapy and Improv

Death, divorce and illness overwhelm the therapists at the center of “Contraction— and it’s not just their customers.

Co-creators Jason Segel, Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein wrote the role of optimist Gaby for Jessica Williams, knowing the “Love Life” star and former “Daily Show” correspondent would inject some much-needed vigor into the show and make up for the gloom and grumpiness of fellow castmates Jimmy (Segel) and Paul (Harrison Ford). When Jimmy loses his wife, Tia (Lilan Bowden), his grief spills dangerously into his work with his clients, and his associates must help unravel it despite drowning under their own troubles. For Paul, it’s a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. For Gaby, it’s her dysfunctional marriage.

Jessica Williams as Gaby in “Shrinking” Episode 1, “Coin Flip”.

Dressed in almost neon pink, orange and turquoise when she arrives at Variety’s Los Angeles offices, Williams talks about the brightness she brings to “Shrinking” while drawing on the complexity of Gaby’s grief.

What did you think of Gaby’s focus on Jimmy’s grief, even while dealing with marital issues and the disappearance of Tia, who was not just Jimmy’s wife but his best friend?

Jason, Brett, and Bill wanted her to be bright and colorful, so she’s still pretty bubbly, but she has her own stuff and keeps her inner life close. People call it “shadow grief” – a loss that doesn’t quite sound traditional. The death of a couple is also a form of mourning. And with Tia, there is a classification of mourning. Jimmy was the partner, and sometimes it’s the worst when you’re grieving and someone’s trying to get through it instead of making room for how devastating that loss would be for a person – even if both people suffer. Gaby is a therapist, so part of her understands that. It also speaks to the power of women and black women. Often it feels like there is no one to listen. We grit our teeth and support it.

Have you ever imagined how Gaby mourned Tia in private?

Gaby was definitely crying about it, but she was also throwing herself into her work. I wonder if she hasn’t even taken time off – I don’t think she would. It is enough to help patients and overcome them.

The show is candid about Gaby’s experiences as a black woman working with white men. How did you experience writing these moments?

At the end of the day, they said they were going to write it for me, and I’m a black woman. A six foot tall black woman. It informs my worldview in many ways. Some days I wake up feeling really black – I mean, I’m black all the time, but some days I feel blacker than others. And being 6 feet tall, I’m more prone to stooping and leaning towards people. But just before our first tableau was read, Bill Lawrence said to all the actors, “You’re in charge of your characters. I defer to you. If you feel something is wrong, we will change it. One of the first lines I improved was when Jimmy [brings a client to a boxing ring], and Gaby says, “You took a young black man to go and fight people in this cultural atmosphere?” Bill was like, “Please add stuff like this all the time.” So whatever I’m talking about being black is probably something I added myself.

How have your own feelings about therapy influenced your approach to the role of therapist?

I had the same therapist for many years. We have been through a lot. She was with me when I was 20, and now I’m 33. Even when I don’t feel like talking that day, it’s still nice to go. I walk away like I just had a good workout or a good stretch. It’s so important to me to hear my thoughts come back to me, instead of just sitting with them in my head.

Therapy helps me know how I process, chew, and react to things, and it helps me play the characters more fully. Ultimately, I’m playing myself playing someone else – I’m reviewing their emotions, their wants, their needs through my lens. Like, “Oh, Gaby really wants Paul to send a letter of recommendation. Did I ever want this from someone I really respected? And did I get it or not?” Taking mental notes on my condition is so essential to making me a better actor, a better artist, a better friend.

Jessica Williams as Gaby in “Shrinking” Episode 1, “Coin Flip”.

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