South, North, East, West :: Following the Directions of Kit
Kit Williamson is a busy man, with a recurring role on the hit show "Mad Men," a film released this month called "Best Friends Forever," one full season completed on his web series "EastSiders," in which he writes, directs, and acts, and another set in Silverlake called "Hipsterhood" in process.
A solid, affable man, he was generous with his time, and the 45 minute conversation transcribed here is testimony to that. No complaints though; it was a delight for me to learn about his process, what he thinks about his roles on and off the camera, the new horizons in the web series movement and to be schooled in the way writing, acting and financing are changing the entertainment model.
Pay close attention folks: This is the future you are seeing and reading about. It’s bright, interesting and breaks established rules. The thing about something broken: You either get out your glue and spend copious amounts of time trying to stick what you knew back together, or you let it go and move forward into the unknown. A blind future can be terrifying for some and exciting to others, propelling new ideas and innovations.
I for one am looking forward to more invention from this one...
So tell me a little bit about where you got your start. From what I have read, it seems like you’ve been involved in arts programs since you were very young.
I was born and raised in Mississippi, and there weren’t really a lot of opportunities there for actors. There was only one repertory theatre in the entire state if you want to become an equity actor called New Stage. I was fortunate to find my way there and take classes studying Shakespeare and Moliere as a kid. From there I went up to Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan to study acting for High School.
What was it like growing up in Mississippi? Has it changed much since you were young?
I grew up in the largest city in Mississippi, in the capitol, Jackson. I felt very isolated there as a kid, there was nobody in my community or high school who was out. That definitely formed my decision to "get out of Dodge" at 16 years old. I was passionate about acting, but I was also very passionate about not being 16 in Mississippi! So those two things really went hand in hand.
It’s so interesting how common that story is for us in the LGBT community, the need to escape from that isolation.
To a certain extent it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because nobody stays in the communities where they grew up. So in a way, there is no hope for that community to evolve and change. Most people I know who have overcome bigotry in their lives, have done it because of a personal connection they have with a gay person; or for that matter an African American, a female in the workplace or whatever their individual bigotry might be. The only road to salvation is to start to think about people who are different from you as fellow human beings. It’s a great deal easier to do that if you are faced with the reality of it, rather than an abstract concept.
It’s really the only way to change someone’s perspective, if you challenge what they know. That’s pretty much impossible if you aren’t there to do it!
It’s one of the reasons that I am out professionally. It’s just another part of me, and it’s not anything that I feel the need to hide, or deliver in a palatable way. It’s just who I am and people can take it or leave it. And if it means that I might miss out on some opportunities, then so be it. What someone thinks is really not my concern.
I am curious, since we’ve been talking about both -- do you have a preference for acting or writing?
I am really enjoying the combination of the two skill sets right now. I have kept them separate up until this point in my life. I’m in an MFA program where I focus solely on writing, but professionally I am focused on acting right now. Bringing the two skills together on something like "EastSiders" was so creatively fulfilling for me, and I would definitely like to keep doing that.
Do you think that the web series concept is the entertainment future?
Absolutely. I don’t know that what it’s going to become, or if it will even be something we’re going to call a "web series," I think we’ll just call it TV. But for the time being it’s one of the few bastions of innovation and creative freedom out there. The fact that content generators are really able to create their own format for their shows and explore subject matter as they see fit is extraordinary - it reminds me of when cable first came out.
It truly is a paradigm shift, to not necessarily have the backing of a major network in order to have success - that’s mind-blowing.
The ownership that audiences have over the content is incredible as well. Take "EastSiders," for example: It exists because fans of the show insisted that it be so. Our Kickstarter campaign reached its goal in four days. People wanted to see the show, and they made it happen. The fact is, crowd funding and creative content are running hand in hand, and hopefully traditional forms of financing are paying attention to what people want to see.
To tell you the truth, I think it has them shaking in their shoes. I’m curious, how does the Kickstarter process work?
We shot the first two episodes of "EastSiders" independently, I financed them myself. We did it on a shoestring budget, and pretty much everybody volunteered his or her time and talents. We put the episodes on YouTube in December, and were so overwhelmed and exited by the response. We launched our Kickstarter campaign in January, and the way that works is that it’s an all-or-nothing process. You have 30 days to reach your fundraising goal, and if you don’t, you don’t get to keep a penny of the donations.
Producing a series is a scary thing to go into, the idea of not knowing where the money is coming from. So we were very lucky, in a way, to have it taken out of our hands. We planned for a long, slow process, but the fans really surprised us by how quickly they responded and got the word out. We ended up with twice what we set out to raise, and put every penny back into the show to make it better.
We went immediately from the Kickstarter campaign in January to shooting in February, and we were approached by Logo to have them pick up the whole season for local online while we were still putting it together.
What a wonderful thing for artists, the ability to have so much creative control and not be bound by financial/sponsorship pressures.
That was something really cool about this process. Even with Logo on board, we were a completely separate entity; we had complete freedom over what we created. I am very proud of that, the fact that we were able to make the show consistent with the quality of the first two episodes.
The idea is to pick the format for the show based on the type of story. I was trying to tell something very intimate and quiet without big sex scenes, and not really any big fight scenes - it’s not a melodrama. Culturally, it’s a darkly funny and real look at a particular type of paralysis in relationships, when you are deciding if you are moving forward or pulling out completely. That weird in-between state - I wanted to capture that.
Talk about life, you nailed that one for a lot of people. Something that many, many people will relate to.
Anybody who has been in a relationship that has fallen apart can relate to it. If you enter into intimacy with somebody, there is a connection there and something is at stake. There is something real between two people that you don’t want to lose, even when you realize that you might not be the best match for each other. That’s true of Cal and Tom, and that’s true of Jeremy and Tom, and to a lesser extent Cal and Jeremy (all characters in "EastSiders"). They all see something of value in continuing to deal with one another and can’t let it go, for better or for worse.
Do you plan to continue with a second season?
I tried to write the end of the first season so that it would be satisfying regardless of whether we had a second one. We are focused on getting those Kickstarter perks out and trying to make sure that we get the first season to as many people as possible. We want to devote all of our time and energy to the first season and make sure that we get to the very end of that journey before we take on a second season. But I definitely have an idea of what I want to do for a second... (Laughs)
So tell me a little about your character and experiences on "Mad Men."
I play Ed Gifford. He is a copywriter who works for Peggy (Elizabeth Moss’ character). She is so great, and Elizabeth is so kind and welcoming and just wonderful. I have learned a lot by just watching her. Every day is like a master class in acting there.
Is your role continuing on the series?
Yes, I can’t talk about what’s happening because of confidentiality, but I am hoping that it will continue. I’m not sure, but I still work there now, and regardless I am so grateful for the experience.
Do you have a preference between live performance and television?
If you had asked me that question two years ago I would have said live performance. I have found a lot of freedom in the limitations of film and TV acting. When you’re acting in a play you have about a month to discover and explore the role. Then you kind of set what you are going to do. You have to find a way to keep the same blocking and to keep the show consistent throughout, keep it interesting and exciting for eight shows a week.
In film, however, and to a lesser extent TV, it’s all about the spontaneity and delivering on your first couple of takes. When I was directing "EastSiders," because we were moving so quickly and time was so short, it was important to me that we find variety and spontaneity, so finding that playfulness on the set was vital.
I can’t wait to see the rest of the shows in the "EastSiders" series.
Check out episode six, it’s my favorite so far - it’s about abortion.
I will go online right after we hang up and do exactly that. Thanks, Kit.
For more information on all things Kit Williamson, go to kitwilliamson.com or follow him on twitter @kitwilliamson. "Best Friends Forever" is currently available on iTunes. For more information go to bestfriendsforeverfilm.com. Web episodes for both his projects can be found at hipsterhoodseries.com or eastsiderstheseries.com. Look for AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men on amctv.com.