My Interview with Billy Dee Williams
Friday, July 20, 2012
As a lifestyle and entertainment writer, I interview a lot of people. Almost every story needs quotes. You get quotes by interviewing people. That’s just the way it goes.
I’ve only been writing professionally for three years and in that short time span, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some pretty famous people.
I’ve talked men’s style and fashion with John Legend; waxed poetic with Common about performing on stage versus on camera; listened to Ledisi (who is a super-duper sweetheart, by the way) reflect on how friends and family lifted her up during rough times. Two years ago, I sat across from Faith Evans in a hotel room in Boston where she raved about how Aliya S. King’s smokin’ hot debut novel, Platinum, was a spot-on depiction of what it means to be the wife of a hip-hop superstar. And then there was the time Angie Stone threw some very mild shade in the direction of her baby daddy, D’Angelo, during a quick backstage interview I conducted with her at the Tobago Jazz Festival in April.
Typically, when I’m asked to interview someone (famous or not), I don’t squeal and get all groupie-ish. The first thing I do is study the assignment letter carefully and then Google the hell out of the person to see what they’ve got coming down the pike. (New album? Book? Movie? Nothing?) And then when interview time rolls around, I ask questions based on my research that I hope will provide me with solid quotes to tell the best story that I possibly can. And that’s that.
But in February, when one of my editors at Upscale asked me to interview Billy Dee Williams…well, I squealed and got all groupie-ish.
Billy Dee Williams?! Really?! Man, listen…
He’s a legend!
I grew up watching him guest star on shows like Dynastyand 227. I remember those Colt 45 commercials and magazine adverts like it was yesterday.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on Brian’s Song—which came out a decade before I was born for all of you trying to guess my age—and his iconic work opposite Diana Ross in classic Black cinema staples like Mahogany and Lady Sings The Blues. Perfection.
And, if you grew up around a bunch of women like I did, I’m sure you’ve got a boatload of mommas, grandmas and aunties who were very vocal about their desire to give Billy Dee Williams the drawls.
After a few hours of thorough fact-finding, which included studying his IMDB and Wikipedia pages, and reading old interviews he did over the last 40 years, I was ready to talk to Mr. Williams—that’s what I called him during the interview. The man is 75-years-old, I was not about to address him as Billy Dee. (The “Dee” stands for December, by the way).
When I spoke to Mr. Williams’ publicist, he didn’t grill me about the questions I planned to ask during my interview. In fact, unlike most celebrity reps that ask me to phone into a conference call service or insist that their client call me (the number usually comes up as blocked), Mr. Williams’ rep emailed me his esteemed client’s number directly and told me to simply call him up when I was ready.
Mr. Williams was a delight from the moment he answered the phone. He was beyond excited to talk to me. He went on and on and on about his artistic upbringing and hurried existence in Harlem at the height of its cultural renaissance. His voice was still as smooth as ever. His cadence was stern and authoritative, backed by decades of rare, one-of-a-kind experiences he was more than happy to share. When I asked him about his celebrated personality and killer good looks, without skipping a beat, the cat-daddy replied, “I don’t try to be suave; it just comes natural.”
At 75-years-old, Mr. Williams has more cool in his pinky toe than I’ll ever have. Period.
To dovetail with Upscale’s annual travel issue, the story needed to be about Mr. Williams’ sci-fi space travel role of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars. The piece only needed to be 250 words. But I gleefully let the living legend talk my ears all the way off about any and everything else. He talked to me about the artwork he has on display inside the Smithsonian and The Schomburg Museum; the women who used to chase him around back in the day (OW!); and how his favorite pastime is chilling out with his grandchildren.
After close to an hour on the phone, Mr. Williams thanked me for my time and told me to feel free to call him anytime to talk.
The next afternoon, I had a missed call and voice message. Yes, Louis McKay from Lady Sings The Blues left me a voice message! He called me back to add an “edict” to his interview. He wanted me to know that he lives his life with “patience, courtesy and civility.”
Of course I used that as an excuse to call him back and talk some more. We talked for another 20 minutes about his leisurely lifestyle in Beverly Hills and his upcoming trip to promote his epic Star Warscharacter at Comic Con.
After hanging up with him for a second time, I realized why I was/am so beguiled by him. Sure, he’s a celebrated actor who’s been around forever and blah blah blah. But you want to know what it really is? He reminds me so much of my late grandfather: spunky, suave, snarky and full of humor. And the verbal exchange was authentic and fun to boot. It wasn’t one of those interviews where I just run through a list of questions like a robot and the person answers me with just as much listlessness. We engaged each other and had a real conversation—and that’s rare.
To read my entire interview with Mr. Williams, pick up the July issue of Upscale magazine. The story is in the back of the book in the Legends section…right where it belongs.