It's press day for Nafessa Williams, and xoNecole is her last stop on the press run. If she's low on energy after fielding back-to-back interviews, the movie star is keeping it well under wraps. She hops on our call with good vibes and a level of enthusiasm that is the epitome of gratitude begets success.
And truth be told, she worked hard to get where she is today and prayed even harder. Just a few years ago, she was interning at the district attorney's office daydreaming about a more fulfilling life in Hollywood. No longer willing to work a job that didn't align with her purpose, Williams began auditioning for roles, not realizing that her leap of faith would cost her a steady paycheck when the company ultimately decided to let her go.
"I felt like I became my own superhero that day when I took it upon myself to just do what I felt like I needed to do for me. That was the first day of the rest of my life."
Over the next few years, Williams built an impressive resume of television and movie roles before receiving a call that would lead her to be crowned network television's first Black lesbian superhero on CW's Black Lightning. Keeping with the trend of being a part of history-making projects, she hit the big screen this fall alongside Naomie Harris, Mike Colter, and Tyrese for her role as Missy in Black and Blue—the first film to feature a Black woman lead as a police officer.
And if you think the flashing lights and red carpet appearances have her feeling herself, she's quick to remind you that she's the same ol' Nafessa, just a Philly jawn going for gold with no intention of slowing down. We catch Williams as she continues to level up on and off the screen for some good girl talk about the importance of trading fear for faith, bringing her girl tribe with her as she elevates, and why she's choosing selfishness as a form of self-love.
xoNecole: What drew you to the script for 'Black and Blue'?
Nafessa Williams: I like to take on projects that I feel are going to help shape the culture and have a message that serves us as a society. It was really unique with this group because it was a film about a rookie cop who witnesses a murder, but it's led by a female, which is very unique in and of its kind. We don't typically see a female leading a movie based around the police department. Also, the fact that the script mirrored what we're going through right now in our country with racial injustice and the judicial system and the injustices that are within, that really caught my attention.
xoNecole: You've previously talked about your interest in television and film, even as a child, but then you pursued a career in law. What initially made you decide not to dive into television and film?
Nafessa: You know, it felt like a hoop dream. It felt like something far-fetched. I didn't have anyone really in the industry or my family or close friends that could help guide me towards it, so I went with something a little bit more practical like most people do. I went to college and I was like, "I'm going to go be a lawyer." I interned at the DA's office and I soon learned that it was not for me. I had to do what spoke to my soul and what spoke to my heart, which was acting. No matter how difficult it was going to be, no matter if it took me 20 years to get the first "yes", I knew that it will happen eventually if I stuck with it.
xoNecole: At what point did you realize working in that law office really didn’t align with your purpose and how did you overcome the fear of taking a leap?
Nafessa: I used to dread going to work every day. Some moments I would cry that I had to do it and I was like, "OK, you can't do this anymore. You gotta be happy. You got to really get aligned with your purpose." I'm really grateful for my insight because I saw it all so clear and for the faith that I have and the drive to do it all. I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices. I couldn't travel for a while. I couldn't do certain things some of my other friends were doing because I decided to follow my dreams, which can be very tough and [there] can be a lot of ups and downs. But I just made a promise to myself that if you start, you gotta really go full throttle, and I did that from the very first day.
"I was sitting in the office and realized that this would be my life 30 years from now if I made the decision to stay, or I had the option to start from scratch and make a lot of sacrifices."
xoNecole: How long did it take for you to start seeing success in television and film?
Nafessa: I was 22 going on 23 [when I got fired], and then I booked my first regular series two years later. It was on One Life to Live, and at the time you could not tell me nothing. I was able to pay my rent. I was able to work on my craft every day, and I knew that would only strengthen my skills and help me get to the next level. So, it was about two and a half years into it, which was fairly quick. That was confirmation that I was on the right track, and it gave me hope to keep going.
xoNecole: What were you doing in between that time since you weren't working a 9 to 5?
Nafessa: I had saved money so I was living off of savings and I was auditioning like crazy. I was in acting class, but I wasn't technically working on the books yet. I was going on auditions and I would tell everybody I'm a working actress even though I hadn't booked anything, but I was just really trying to manifest that and do everything in my power to make it become real.
xoNecole: Did you ever experience Imposter Syndrome?
Nafessa: Oh, of course. Especially when you get to LA because I had started to make a name for myself in New York with being on One Life to Live and just hanging out in the acting community. But when you go to LA it's like starting all over, so it can make you feel really small. I told myself you will hear no and to just get comfortable with that rejection because eventually, you're going to get a "yes" that's going to change your life.
xoNecole: Did you get that kind of character from your family or is that just something you developed as you went along in this business?
Nafessa: I think that's something that's within you, but there are influences that can inspire that. Also, growing up in Philly and wanting to get out of the environment and wanting to just be different from what I saw. Again, it goes back to Black and Blue where you could become a product of your environment or you could want something completely different, and whatever your choice is, your friends are going to reflect that and your environment is going to reflect it. So I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want.
"I think it's about the environment that you choose. We don't have a choice at first, but after a while, you can make a choice to decide what it is that you want."
xoNecole: So, I know set life is crazy, and it can obviously take a lot of toll on your body. Are there certain things you do to maintain your self-care and wellness? Because you look good, girl!
Nafessa: Oh my gosh, the hardest thing is to stay away from all the badness and crappy food. I work out a good bit. Meditation is really, really important to me. My spirituality is very important to me. I think that's what keeps me centered and grounded throughout all the chaos and the strict schedules. What else? Oh, massages. I treat myself very often, especially with all the fighting that I have to do on set. It's very important to me. I love Deepak Chopra; I listen to him a lot. I've learned how to meditate through Deepak. So, whatever podcast he's on, I have those on my phone.
xoNecole: Being young and in Hollywood, what has your dating experience been like?
Nafessa: I can't say that I haven't dated here and there, but the last five years, my main focus has been my career and I've been really gung-ho on that. It's literally my boyfriend. I feel like that's been a priority to me; it's been about laying my foundation. I'm still a baby in this industry and I'm just starting out. The blessings of Black Lightning and Black and Blue, I take very seriously. So it's really all about work for me right now.
xoNecole: Do you feel like you're sacrificing your love life in lieu of your career?
Nafessa: You know, I realized that I chose a different path. If I had stayed home in Philly, my life may look a little different. But I'm still young; I feel like I have time. And again, I'm just getting started. I believe in coming into a relationship whole and knowing who you are and setting the foundation of your career so that you don't need anything from anybody else. And I believe you attract who and what you are. So to me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish [laughs].
"I believe you attract who and what you are. To me, it's really about laying the foundation with myself and my career, and self-healing and self-care is high on my list. It's really all about me right now though, I'm so selfish."
xoNecole: Oh, tell me more about this selfishness!
Nafessa: I was in long-term relationships really young, so I felt going into my 30s, it was really important to find out who I am as an individual and by myself and to learn what it is I really want, and then link up with somebody else.
xoNecole: Have you figured out what that is yet or are you still in the process of figuring it out?
Nafessa: I'm definitely still on a journey of that. And I think soon, starting a family is ideal for me. But again, I'm still in the thick of having and enjoying where I am in my career. You don't want to break that. I guess I'm just riding this wave right now.
xoNecole: As you should be. So when the cameras are turned off, who would you say you are at your core?
Nafessa: Just a real simple, down to earth, funny girl. Somebody who you feel like is your cousin. Somebody who likes to have fun. Somebody likes to dance and just always tries to remain true to who I am and at my core who I was when I left Philly. I posted me dancing on my InstaStory and somebody who I went to college with was like, "Damn, you really are the same person. You still like to have fun; you didn't change." To me, that's a compliment because you always want to remember who you are and remember what got you here.
xoNecole: So what’s next for you?
Nafessa: I really want to do comedy. I love to have fun. I love to make people laugh, and I think it's going to be interesting for people to see a different side of me. A lot of what I've done so far has been a lot of drama. Even the superhero show, it's still very dramatic and I'm really excited to dive into the comedy realm. My ultimate comedy job would be SNL.
Keep up with Nafessa on Instagram by following her at @NafessaWilliams on Instagram!
Featured image by Instagram/@nafessawilliams.
Originally published November 11, 2019.