April 2001
BILLY DEE WILLIAMS : The Legend Speaks on ďThe VisitĒ

Interviewed by Habiba

BILLY DEE WILLIAMS - The Legend Speaks on "The Visit"

What type of input did you have in the layout of the film?

Well Jordan Walker-Pearlman is the unique one in that situation; he is the filmmaker. And Jordan is someone I have a great love and respect for. He is an interesting young man because of the diverse life that he has lived. Who brings a kind of sensibility and a kind of dynamic to the storytelling that I think can really set a precedent and I think this film is sort of an example of that. I think that this movie, to me, is not so much about a boy in prison. The prison thing to me is more like a metaphor and I think itís really about the prison of the mind. The movie is about the redemption of love. Itís about people rediscovering this whole idea of spiritual love. Itís a deeply visceral, highly emotional experience that I think I have not seen in terms of the African American experience at least. You know usually when we talk about African American families we talk about things that revolve around food. And thatís only one certain level, but this one is more like a psychological journey. This makes it very, very interesting and compelling. I know that every time I see it, it just destroys me.

Is that what attracted you to your character?

Yeah. When I read the script I was really caught up in the emotion of the storytelling. And thatís what this movie is about. Itís a highly charged and emotional experience. And I think that as a painter, an actor and I've done some writing, I found that the best way to tell a story is to do less intellectualizing and more playing on the emotion of a situation. And this is what this movie does. I think that it will set a precedent because as I have said I've never seen an African American film that has been dealt with on that level. Itís sort of getting underneath the subtext of your life - the subtext of this boyís life bringing in all of those people into his life that mean so much to him. And the father is a guy from the old school. I use my father as a reference and much of myself in the way that I deal with my kids.

As a father would you have done things differently than your character did in this film?

Iím a little more understanding. Henry Waters is pedantic till the point where he is a pain in the ass. He just thinks that somehow he blames himself. He feels this surge of guilt. He feels like there is something he missed saying, something he didn't say. Thatís why he comes back to visit. I think that he lives with the feeling that heís got to find out what happened. Why and how did this happen? He devoted his life to the point where he tried to set everything up so that they all have the right foundations or the opportunities that they can create for their lives. And all of a sudden this one boy just suddenly goes off and does something that he accepts once the jury says that heís guilty. Heís of the mindset to accept that point of view without really truly examining. Itís just all he knows is that the boy should have never done that, and heís completely at fault - nobody else is at fault. But I donít think that he really believed that Ė thatís why he comes to visit. He's a good man - he's just hard. Heís tough. Interestingly enough, everybody who I've run into even in Europe, itís sort of transcended all of the boundaries of ethnicity and culture. And when I run into people they sayā my God this is my dad. You know everyone sort of relates to this guy. Iím glad because that means that I succeeded at creating a good character.

Billy Dee Williams on the cast

I know what it is to deal with a son so I sort of use that experience, but Hill Harper is a wonderful young actor, and we really worked well together. For me that whole cast was a great ensemble of people - even the women. I sort of make a point that these women were really portrayed as soft and strong ladies. From Phyllicia Rashad, to Marla, to Rae Dawn Chong and even Talia Shire. I like the way that they were presented, but that really has a lot to do with Jordan. I love Jordan, he's like my son - he calls me pops. I'm at that stage in my life which is cool - I can still be sexy. I think because of the diversity in his life he brings a certain sensibility and dynamic to what he does and how he presents people.

A lot of young people really love this film. We were showing it at the Urbanworld Film Festival and they kept coming back to see this film. It's a great indication to me that it's not a boring film. It's a heavy film, but it's a film that is riveting; you don't want to leave the room until you have the full and total experience of it. And it has a lot to do with the way Jordan put it together. Itís the combination of the music and the way he uses his camera and of course the dialogue and of course the performers. If I sit and talk long enough about it I get very emotional. I mean I can walk into the middle of this movie and Iím totally destroyed. I saw a guy walk out who was with the Golden Globe people, and he was in tears and it was like somebody had grabbed on to him and wouldn't let him go. And thatís the thing about this movie, it holds onto you. And the other thing that I noticed about this film is that it really generates discussion; it makes you want to talk about the whole experience. And I think thereís a great spirituality about it. It's like the redemption of love; it's like this boy is a crucifixion; his life is like a crucifixion to me. It is like his life pain relieves all the pain in everybody else and brings them to that level of spiritual love, that redeeming love that carries them on.