Life and Lessons with 'Abbott Elementary' Star William Stanford Davis

By Olivia Johnson | March 21, 2022

As an actor and mentor for many years, William Stanford Davis has seen the ups and downs of being an actor of color in Hollywood. From humble beginnings acting in stage plays to his more seasoned roles on Ray Donovan and Apple’s Swagger. William Standford Davis continues to work in Hollywood and curate the next generation of great actors. On Abbott Elementary, Davis plays Mr. Johnson, who, like himself, spreads his custodial wisdom and provides a few laughs.

EDITION had the opportunity to catch up with Davis on life and the personal lessons he has learned as a veteran actor in Hollywood.

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What has your experience been like working with the cast of Abbott Elementary? Any highlight?

It's full of highlights. Like most jobs, particularly during COVID, all auditions were online, and all table readings were online. We didn't really meet each other until we got on stage for the pilot. No one was sure where this pilot about a grade school was going to go. We were actors trying to get a job. Once we found out the show was picked up, everybody was just so excited. Everybody's very cool. I had worked with Sheryl Lee Ralph on Ray Donovan. She was the only person that I knew, and I only knew of everyone else’s work. It was like we'd known each other forever. Once the show got picked up, oh my god, we were like a family. We just had so much fun.

In Swagger, you play Coach Max. With your history as the creator of the William Stanford Davis Masterclass, how does it feel to play someone very closely related to what you do in real life?

Well, as a coach, you’re mentoring young people. So, I took a lot from what I do in class and brought it to the character. As an actor, you make choices about how you're going to approach a role. This guy wanted to win at all costs. He had no preconceived ideas. He knew the lead character very well. He knew his father. He knew all his dark secrets and used those against him. I've never done that in class. I've challenged actors to use their dark secrets and use things they're afraid to talk about and things they're afraid to express in class. So, you push, push, push. As Coach Max, that's what I’ve tried to do as the character. I do that in class all the time.

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You’ve been an actor and the director for many stage plays. Can you tell me more about that? What led you to the theater?

I love theater. I've always acted in theater since I've been an actor. In fact, I was telling someone yesterday I can't wait until COVID is fully gone because I want to do another play. I'd like to do a play right now. It's the best place for an actor to be.

I kind of got drafted into acting. A guy who was in my acting class with me almost 30 years ago just came up to me one day and said, "Man, I gotta play that I want you to direct.” I’m like, ‘You want me to direct?’ He said, “You coach me. You teach me, and you help me all the time, and I think you can do it.” It was a play by Laurence Fishburne called Riff Raff. I had just done a play called Legends by a great director named John Bishop. All the guys in the play were really close friends of mine – really close guys I've hung out with. Not that they didn't respect me, this was just Stan, the friendly guy.

For the first week, almost ten days, I couldn't wrangle them. I couldn't bring them together because they wanted to play, and they thought I wasn't serious. So, I called John and said, ‘I can't get these guys to come together and be on time.’ He said, “Go in there tomorrow, throw a chair, and scream. He said you got to break some eggs and make an omelet.” And I've never forgotten that. You have to demand their respect, even though they're your close buddies. You've worked with them as actors in other plays. Now, this is a whole different hat that you’re putting on. So, I went up in there and threw a chair against the wall. They're like, “Damn. Oh, wow.” They got in line, and the play was a rousing success. We sold out every night, and they're still my friends.

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That's how you crack the whip.

Yeah, you have to crack the whip. Most directors don't, but it taught me a lot. Being the director, the finished product is your product, and it's going to reflect you. So, you have to crack the whip.

You are a lifetime member and mentor of The Actors Studio. What has been your experience working with the new generation of actors? Has there been anyone during your time as a mentor that stood out?

Oh my god, yeah! At The Studio, everyone is a peer. If Robert De Niro – a member of The Studio – and Al Pacino comes in The Studio, we're peers as much as I am in awe of their work. It's a safe place for actors to get up and fall on their butt to make mistakes to work on their craft. I brought some of my students from my class and introduced them to The Studio and helped them become members. I'm still doing that today. I have two people I’ve been working with. Now, The Studio's back open. I hope they can get in. I've helped several members who came out of my class get into The Studio.

Back to your original question, acting doesn't change. We can go back 1,000 years from now; it'll still be about real behavior in an imaginary circumstance. It'll be about what we ascertain from our five senses. Our five senses equal everything that we do in life, and that will never change. Some young actors think there are shortcuts, and there really aren’t any. Going back to cracking the whip, I have to remind them that there are no shortcuts. It's really about doing the work. That's all it's about. It's not about the results or anything.

We have some people that you think are overnight successes. There are no such things as that. Someone comes in, and then they make it big, and they’ve only been in town a few months. Sometimes you don't see it, or they don't understand their hard work. They go out and get in the classes. They get this on-the-job training, working on stage, or on whatever piece of work, whether it be a play, a TV show, or film. It's very, very hard work if it’s not something that you want to do. When I work with young actors, we often talk about the hard work you have to put in. You have to stick to it if this is what you love to do. It’ll pay off sooner or later. It may not pay off when you want it to pay off. It may not pay off when you think it should. It may not pay off when you're young, but it will.

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As someone with a long career as an experienced performer, you have seen the ups and downs of being an actor of color and Hollywood. If you could go back and talk to your younger self, knowing what you know now, what would you say?

One of the things I would say is don't quit. My younger self was growing up right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I'm talking about Martin Luther King Jr., part of the Civil Rights Movement. So I would say, don't let anybody turn you back. Don't take no for an answer and stick with it.

Don't let the color of your skin be an excuse or limitation. My grandmother used to say, “Stick to your horses, baby. You got a long row to hoe.” And that's the way I've always approached it. Stick to it and stay on the course. Don't let anybody turn you back for any reason – the color of your skin, you're too fat, you're too old, you're too busy, you’re too this or that, if this is something that you really love to do, do it. That's what I would tell my younger self.

I didn't have a lot of confidence when I was young, but we all have personal things that we go through. Sometimes we have to battle through it. What I would tell my younger self is that there will be a lot of bumps in the road. Don't worry about it, and keep on pushing. Listen to Curtis Mayfield and keep on pushing.

Photography by: Bobby Quillard; ABC Photos