Activist actress speaks at Dunning

Tonya Lee Williams delivered two lectures in Dunning Auditorium last Friday.
Tonya Lee Williams delivered two lectures in Dunning Auditorium last Friday.
Williams is known for her role on The Young and the Restless.
Williams is known for her role on The Young and the Restless.

Interview: Tonya Lee Williams, actress/filmmaker/activist

On behalf of the department of Spanish and Italian, Prof. Donato Santeramo invited Tonya Lee Williams—actress, filmmaker and activist—to campus last Friday to deliver two lectures: “Acting: A Social-Political Perspective” and “Reel World: Promoting the Importance of Diversity in Canadian Filmmaking.” Toronto film festival Reel World, which Williams herself founded, is now in its sixth year.

Williams is best known for her Emmy-nominated role as Dr. Olivia Winters on The Young and the Restless, for which she won two National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People Image Awards, or as host of the classic kids show The Polka Dot Door. During her visit, Williams spoke to the Journal about her experiences in film and television and her role as a social activist.

JOURNAL: The first thing I would have known you for was The Polka Dot Door. Can you tell me something about that?

Tonya Lee Williams: What I liked about The Polka Dot Door is you got to get kids [when they are] young. You have to be projecting those [positive] images [of varying races or ethnicities] when they are, like, one and two and three. You know it’s too late, almost, when they are 15 and 16 seeing them for the first time ... so I feel when I see someone your age now, I feel a great pride to know that I could have been that person who you were seeing on television. And here you were singing along and dancing with me and whatever.

Oh, I know the Polka Dot Door Song!

Yeah, and so you were connecting with someone and you weren’t thinking that I was black or whatever because it was just dancing and singing.

How do you feel about the image that you have created for yourself?

I feel very positive about the images from day one that I started out. There was a really synergetic thing that happened at that time and I loved that [producers] wanted to do some positive imagery ... I’ve been very happy, that’s the reason I stayed at Y and R as long as I did.

It was great to show a black woman—a single mother—you know, being a professional, a doctor. And a lot of the stories they gave me didn’t focus on [my character] being black, which was most important.

Do you feel that you’ve been positioned as a role model?

I believe that anyone of colour [who is successful] is immediately positioned as a role model, whether it’s the entertainment industry, whether you’re a sports person, no matter who you are ... Everyone immediately will have a perception that what you do is what everybody within your race does.

You said that you were the only person of colour at Ryerson, and you [have] given examples of being the only person of colour at other times. Do you feel that it had a role in how you got to where you are now?

Oh absolutely! I use everything. I think everyone has obstacles. If you [noticed], there was a girl right here with cerebral palsy who wants to be a filmmaker and she feels that her family is not supporting it.

She said three things: “My family really doesn’t support me, I have absolutely no money, and they say it’s impossible.’’ And I say those three things are what everyone in the entertainment industry is told ... so I told her, if you focus on what you think is your disability in any way—whether it’s your skin colour or whether it’s a language barrier or whether you might have cerebral palsy—you will actually think that that’s the thing stopping you.

I personally might have seen The Young and the Restless in passing. I’ve never watched it, and I personally don’t like soap operas.

I actually like watching movies. Movies are the things that I love to watch. I like the complete story, and I like all the levels and the colours.

I like to go away and I like to ponder and think it. I don’t like this kind of, like it’s being fed to you and it’s being shoved down your throat whether you’re hungry or not.

How do you feel about the fact that the audience the world over knows your face? Do you like it?

I don’t like it. It’s actually upsetting to me. It’s one of the reasons I took some time off from the show and that I’m not pursuing anything else right now. I feel like nobody cares what Tonya is doing. That nobody cares that Tonya had a bad day or that Tonya is sad, or that Tonya’s boyfriend, you know, they broke up, or Tonya had a medical thing. I feel people see me, and immediately start asking me about this character that’s not real.

I feel one day I will die, and that they’ll put me in a grave and they’ll put on the tombstone, you know, Olivia Winters lays here. And that I’m actually being snuffed out. I am being erased ... . And I find that personally disturbing, because every relationship and every person that sees me or comes to me immediately thinks I am this character.

You said it’s all about selling merchandise, which in turn totally reflects a consumer society, and that you’re envious of other actors ... do you like your job?

I did, but I don’t right now! I did because I had the naivete of “Oh, it’s social change,” because I didn’t want to think that we’re just selling stuff.

As I said when [the late Y and R creator] Bill Bell was there, that was his focus. So yeah, we were selling things, but he wanted that the show was doing things, making huge social change. He brought physical abuse and he brought things that were on the front pages of family social issues.

My storyline, a married woman whose husband has been cheating on her, brings the risk of HIV to her. I mean, these were things that were changing and shaping the world. And then, when he was gone, all of a sudden, the stories now just shifted into really just selling.

And so when that happened I didn’t feel good anymore ... . The character was the voice, and the voice wasn’t saying anything relevant or important and now it was thin and shallow and I was now contributing to the brainwashing of shallowness. And it upset me.

Could you describe why the film festival is so important to you?

Well, right away everyone thought I would start a black film festival, and my sensibility has never been that. My sensibility is like I really want to see this whole melting pot, all people together and movies and stories of all the similarities that we are ... .

You know, a lot of times you’ll see an initiative where it’s for people of colour, but all the people behind the initiative are white, in some way helping the people of colour.

But what was important to me that on every level, the young people saw that the people pulling the strings were people of colour ... . So, that’s another component to it, but I love the idea that through image we can bring people together.

What do you expect to accomplish with the Reel World Film Festival?

First of all, it’s a lot of emerging filmmakers who never usually get any kind of exposure in any other film festival because a lot of film festivals don’t program enough programming of colour.

I’m hoping that when black filmmakers and Asian filmmakers and South Asian filmmakers and aboriginal, once they get together, they’ll actually start working together and the stories are going to shift ... .

I’m hoping its going to be a black actor starring opposite an Asian love interest with an aboriginal director and the producer is South Asian and it’s going to infuse as very different, infusion is the word really ... .

It won’t be unusual that it’s a black guy with and Asian. It won’t be unusual it will be the norm and that’s something that we can do ... .

There is a huge Asian and South Asian population, huge, in America that gets no representation whatsoever. At least here, we are completely infusing that right now, and so that audience in America will gravitate to our programming more.

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