“I Was Very Clear on How I Wanted to Be Perceived”: Tonya Williams Discusses Her Acting Career Ahead of 2023 Legacy Awards Honour
Tonya Williams will receive the Visionary Award at the 2023 Legacy Awards ceremony, which takes place this Sunday. Photo: Courtesy of CBC
Some people tend toward self-deprecation when their accomplishments are acknowledged. Award-winning actress, producer and activist Tonya Williams, best known for portraying Dr. Olivia Winters on The Young & the Restless for nearly two decades, isn’t among them.
The England-born, Ontario-raised TV veteran isn’t coy about the “exceptional leadership, contagious tenacity, innovation, activism and fierce dedication to uplifting communities of colour” that will see her lauded with the 2023 Visionary Award at the second annual Legacy Awards in Toronto this weekend.
“Oh, my God, we don’t have enough time; I’m not one of the shy people about that,” declared Williams, 65, over video chat from her Los Angeles home office, when asked to expound on her accolades. “Often, when you’re a person of colour — I’ll speak specifically, Black person — within any industry, you don’t often get recognized. And we all know that all of us are working in those trenches, 24/7, we don’t have the privilege of not. And we don’t even expect that we’ll be recognized for any of the work that we do.”
The Legacy Awards are executive produced by acclaimed actors, producers, and Scarborough-born siblings Shamier Anderson, 32, and Stephan James, 29, who founded the show’s parent company, The Black Academy, in 2020 to “showcase Black excellence.” Recipients are selected by an advisory committee comprised of industry specialists in music, film, TV and pop culture and the Academy, which aims to support Black Canadian creatives.
The initiative builds on advocacy work Williams began with the Reelworld Film Festival, which she founded in 2000 to “draw attention to the lack of racially diverse and Indigenous talent in mainstream media.”
As such, she’s thrilled to be considered “a Canadian screen industry godmother” by the millennial brothers who have also been making their mark in Hollywood films like Selma (James) and John Wick: Chapter 4 (Anderson).
“I am in awe of them. I know how hard it is to do the things that I did. And they are just on fire,” Williams explained. “And it must be the feeling that older Black people felt when I was starting out, because it’s the things that they did that allowed me to do the things that I do. And I feel like it’s the things that I and my generation did that have allowed them to be these incredible people that they are, and the things that they’re achieving. And when they’re my age, they’ll be looking back at the new generation that’s younger, who’s taking it to another level altogether.”
Williams is the only child of Jamaican immigrants — a nurse mother, and a lawyer father who rose to the judiciary. Their clever, preternaturally confident daughter studied violin, piano and ballet from childhood, and went on to model for the Eaton’s catalogue, land a milk campaign and host the popular children’s TV show Polka Dot Door, among other gigs. But when she got to L.A., she found herself turning down distasteful hooker and drug addict roles.
“I was very clear on how I wanted to be perceived and the kind of work I wanted to do, because I remember being a little kid and being embarrassed at some of the images I saw on screen — none of who I am and how my family looks is on TV,” she recalled. “Everyone is illiterate and they’re the joke of the show or the series. And they’re always in a very dismissive, negative stereotypical way. So that was upsetting for me.”
Maintaining those standards meant she almost missed out on her defining Y&R role. Only at her agents’ urging did Williams try out for the part of illiterate street urchin Drucilla, to get on the radar of the well-connected casting agents while knowing she would never take the role. However, five days later, she was called back for another character — Drucilla’s scholarly sister Dr. Olivia Winters. It was a potential six-month gig that turned into 19 years (split between 1990 and 2005, two episodes in 2007 and then 2008 and 2012).
Williams’ work on the show earned her NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series in 2000 and 2002.
“I remember getting an award from the Black women’s physician society [in the U.S.] They said two years after I started on the show, there was an uptick of 400 per cent of Black women wanting to become doctors.
“And that is what I’ve always felt and known about the screen industry: That we are a powerful force. I’ve always been obsessed with film and TV and the power that it has on an audience. You can change the world through the screen in a way that politicians can’t, in the way that scientists can’t.”
The Legacy Awards will broadcast and stream live on CBC and CBC Gem on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 at 8 p.m. EDT (9 p.m. ADT/9:30 p.m. NDT).