"I was a let the water run guy," confessed Tyler James Williams, who's no longer so wasteful at home. "We recycle, turning off everything. We're keeping it green, just being conscious of it," said the former "Everybody Hates Chris" star, now 19 and starring in the Disney Channel movie "Let it Shine," premiering June 15. Loosely based on the "Cyrano de Bergerac" story, the modern hip-hop musical casts Williams as a talented but meek songwriter/rapper and pastor's son who allows his friend (Trevor Jackson) to take the credit, even coaches him in romancing the big star (Coco Jones) he has a major crush on. While Williams emphatically said he'd never allow someone to take credit for his work in real life, he was nevertheless drawn to the insecure, emotionally drawn character. "I think we all have a form of insecurity inside us," he reflected at the movie's premiere.
Having sung in church himself, Williams was familiar with that milieu, and had no trouble picking up the rapping, despite having never done it before. "The lyrics were so good, it made it easy. I could just spit 'em out," he said. Distancing himself from the sitcom with which he's most identified, Williams purposely "went away for a little while, really studied for about two years." He recently moved to Los Angeles, and has two upcoming projects he's excited about. This fall, he'll costar with Matthew Perry in the NBC sitcom "Go On," set in a therapy support group, and plays the younger brother of Kerry Washington in the comedy "We the Peeples," due out next May. "He's neurotic, he's stressed, he has way too much pressure on his shoulders, and he's a borderline kleptomaniac," described Williams, who's also taking "sporadic" college courses for his own enrichment and finds psychology particularly helpful "in understanding the inside of a character."
Jones ("So Random"), told us she gardens every summer with her mom and sister, growing onions, cucumbers, carrots and other veggies, but these days she's busy recording her debut for Hollywood Records. Right now her pipes are showcased as the Rihanna/Beyoncé-like star Roxie, who's not entirely comfortable with the image thrust upon her. "The message in 'Let it Shine' is no matter how many people try to drown out that light, try to put you in a box, or try to make you something you're not, stick to yourself and everything will work out fine. Find the light inside of you and let it shine no matter what," she said.
Courtney B. Vance plays Williams' strict minister father who thinks hip-hop is the devil's music and has another perspective on the movie's message as it relates to his character, whose attitude becomes more tolerant as he comes to better understand his son. "We have to open up our minds and let a different thought in." Vance, who has played a pastor before ("Joyful Noise") was drawn to the cast, story and musical milieu — he often came to set when he wasn't shooting just to watch — and related to his stern father character. "I'm the disciplinarian in the house and my dad was, as was my mom. It's in my DNA," he said.
Vance, who's awaiting the fate of a pilot he shot in which he plays the head of an FBI school and the start date for an indie film called "The Farm," which casts him as a hit man, said he and his wife Angela Bassett are "very serious" about conservation at home. "We recycle, we have water filters. We think it's very important."
Dawnn Lewis, who plays Vance's wife and Williams' mother, was drawn to the movie's depiction of a strong marriage. "Not everything is perfect but they talk about what needs to be talked about," she said. While she's not a mom, she's "Auntie Dawnn" to several nephews, nieces and grandchildren and has known the Williams family for years, having played Tyler's brother's mom in a Disney project. She's next due to appear in a series of short films about strong female characters also starring Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron. For her segment, "I got to write the music as well," noted Lewis, who conserves by limiting her paper usage. "I download instead of print." She recycles and enjoys vintage shopping, and wore a 25-year-old dress to the premiere. "I recycle my own clothes," she said. "The blessing is that it still fits!"
Photo: Tod Wawrychuk/Disney Channel