After years of refining her performing chops in the theatre, Renika Williams broke out on the small screen last year in Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. Williams plays the snappy, charismatic Willow in the HBO Max dramedy series, best friend and soccer teammate of Alyah Chanelle Scott’s Whitney. Even for the most seasoned stage veteran, trading a live audience for the Hollywood camera is no easy feat – but for Williams, that challenge paled in comparison to working with a soccer ball for the first time. Luckily, Season 2 will take place in the off-season, and Williams sat down with The Untitled Magazine ahead of the November 17th premiere to talk The Sex Lives of College Girls, making the leap from stage to screen, and working with one of today’s queens of comedy. Read our interview with Renika Williams below.
You had years of stage roles on your resumé before you made the leap to television. Can you tell us about how you got into acting?
When I was a kid, I would write skits for my friends and perform them at recess or at church. Although, I didn’t play fair because I’d usually cast myself as the lead character. I don’t think my friends liked that very much (Laughs). But I fell in love with storytelling when I was super young, and it basically took off from there. I started auditioning for school plays, attending theatre camps, and taking college prep programs for acting!
How did the transition from the theatre to the screen happen for you? What challenges did you face in the process?
My transition from theatre to screen happened when I started working with my new manager. She, thankfully, was able to get me far more auditions than I had ever had prior to working with her. It was definitely a challenge learning how to juggle 3-5 auditions a week at the height of the pandemic. Self-taping was also definitely new for me on top of the quantity of auditions; I was used to going into a casting office and meeting everyone face-to-face and then the world stopped, and I had to learn how to work from home. But now, I love it! Perfectly fine with never auditioning in person ever again! (Laughs)
What was life like at home in Dayton, OH, where you grew up? Did you live in a creative household?
There’s nothing like life at home in Dayton. I grew up in the suburbs and we could ride our bikes in the streets without worrying about cars. I had a pretty great childhood. Both of my parents love to sing and would always play music around the house. My brother, Regis, is also a writer and recording artist, so it’s kind of just in my blood to express myself through art.
When did you realize you wanted to be a performer?
I was 12 years old when I made the decision to be a performer. The turning point for me was when I auditioned to attend the magnet arts school in Dayton. It felt like a grown-up decision to decide to focus on theatre in middle school!
What was your first role?
Myrtle Mae Simmons in Harvey by Mary Chase.
How did completing a BFA in Acting influence your approach to the craft?
Training in Wright State University’s Professional Acting Program really set me on a path of success. I learned different acting techniques throughout my four years there and accumulated useful tools to add to my toolbox that still aid me in my work to this day.
Tell us about your role as Willow in HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls.
Willow is a sophomore at Essex College. She is a student athlete on the women’s soccer team, one of Whitney’s best friends, Queer and proud about it!
What is it like working with Mindy Kaling on the show?
Working with Mindy has been amazing. She is so down to earth, supportive, and just an overall boss. There were a few weeks during Season 2 filming that I was really homesick, and I reached out to share that with Mindy. She replied with a sweet and understanding message that included some fun places to explore in Los Angeles that really helped her find her happy space when she was homesick after first moving there. I was really moved that she went the extra mile to help support me in that moment.
How did you prepare to play Willow? Did you see any of yourself in her?
Honestly, Willow came super easily for me. When I initially read the pilot, I thought Willow was hilarious and that excited me. Willow is definitely the girl I wished I could’ve been in college. She’s fun, bold and unapologetically herself no matter where she is or who she’s around. I feel like that person was inside of me all along, and Willow helped pull that fire out!
Willow’s character is a soccer player — had you ever played before preparing for the role? Are you active in any other sports?
Absolutely not! (Laughs) That was the biggest challenge when preparing to play Willow. Production set up soccer training sessions for me a couple of times a week during Season 1, and in the beginning, I was really hard on myself for not nailing it as quickly as I wanted to. But eventually, with support from Alyah Chanelle Scott, I was able to release a bit of my perfectionism and I actually started to enjoy the sessions so much that I added a few more on my own.
Can you share any details about what’s next for Willow in Season 2?
In Season 2, we get to see Willow outside of soccer because it’s the off-season, which is super cool.
Now that you have made the transition to TV, will we see you on stage again?
I hope so! I don’t see a world where I’m not working on both the stage and on screen. I love both.
What would be your ideal role to play?
Camae in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.
Can you share some of your favorite movies or series that you are watching right now?
I’m obsessed with Love Is Blind, I’m finishing Season 3 right now. I’m also watching Atlanta – I’m a huge Donald Glover fan.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
When I’m not working, I like to read fiction, practice yoga, play with my puppy, and ride my Peloton bike.
Tell us about your passion for philanthropy and bringing awareness to sickle cell anemia, as well as your specific interest in that cause.
Unfortunately, a few years ago, I lost one of my best friends to complications related to sickle cell anemia. It was definitely the hardest time in my life thus far. Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease that many people don’t know much about because it primarily affects African Americans. I believe if more people learned about it, there could be push for further advancements in medications, medical care, cures, and knowledge about how to live a healthy life with the disease. No one should have to lose a loved one to sickle cell anemia.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other exciting upcoming projects?
Super excited to be a part of the final season of NBC’s New Amsterdam. I’ve always thought it was a great show with an important message, and I’m really excited for the world to see me in a drama.
For more from Renika Williams, follow her socials: Instagram