Alumni Spotlight: Leighton Alexander Williams
Posted: Feb 5, 2024
Posted: Feb 5, 2024
Jamaican-Canadian creator Leighton Alexander Williams caught the acting bug after he was cast in the school musical A Bug’s Life. As his passion for drama grew throughout his adolescence, Leighton made the decision to enroll at York University with the intent of a career in teaching drama and English. However, his peers recognized his natural talent and charisma on stage and urged him to audition for the university’s Actors Conservatory. After getting into the exclusive program, Leighton’s fate was sealed; he took the plunge into the acting world and never looked back.
In 2021, Leighton completed the CBC Actors Conservatory program at the CFC. During his residency, Leighton wrote and starred in the short film Queenie & Alpha, which premiered at the 2021/22 CBC Actors Conservatory Showcase. Recently, Leighton completed filming for the indie feature Morningside, along with fellow alum Zahra Bentham, Lovell Adams-Gray, Brandon McKnight, and Ryan Rosery. The film follows the intertwining lives within Scarborough’s Morningside community and charts the personal struggles, relationships, and societal challenges of the neighbourhood.
In addition to acting, Leighton has expanded his portfolio by expressing his love for storytelling through writing, directing, and producing. He is the co-founder of BDB Productions Inc. and has been producing thought-provoking work that has been well received.
We recently caught up with Leighton to discover how he, along with a new generation of Black creators, are championing representation and reshaping narratives through their unique storytelling. Read more in the spotlight.
How did you first get involved in acting, and what inspired you to pursue a career in the film industry?
When I was in Grade 2, I was cast as an army ant in the school musical A Bug’s Life. I had so much fun learning the songs and dances, and I couldn’t believe that “playing” was a profession! I had one line in the entire production, and while I delivered my line on stage, I saw my mother sitting out in the audience with the biggest smile on her face. I knew at that moment that I wanted to recreate the same expression on her face while doing this. As I grew older, my fascination with film and television deepened, solidifying my desire to be a part of the world of movies. However, the path to entering the industry felt distant and uncertain. In Grade 12, my teacher, Mrs. Kim Thomas, invited a professional actress, Olunike Adeliyi (a former student of hers), to share her journey with our class. Hearing her story and learning about the steps she took to break into the business made me realize that my dream was achievable and within reach.
Can you share a memorable experience from your days as a CFC resident in the CBC Actors Conservatory?
My most memorable experience during my time in the CBC Actors Conservatory would have to be our industry showcase at the TIFF Lightbox! I starred in a film that I wrote called Queenie & Alpha, and I have never been more proud of my work! Watching myself embody two fully realized characters on screen while making a poignant social commentary about the negative effects of gatekeeping in our industry reminded me of the excellence I’m capable of. I have a background in live theatre, so I am used to being on the receiving end of the audience’s reaction; however, in my film premiere, I was seated right in the middle of audience interaction, engulfed in their collective laughter, gasps, tears, and thunderous applause—it was intoxicating. For the first time in my film career, I felt seen. I will cherish this memory forever.
How has your experience at the CBC Actors Conservatory shaped your perspective on acting and the screen industry?
During my time at the CFC, I was able to deepen my on-camera work through a rigorous and versatile curriculum; however, most of my learning came from watching and being inspired daily by my fellow cohorts: Katherine Fogler, Izad Etemadi, Blessing Adedijo, Zara Jestadt, Janet-Rose Nguyen, and Christef Desir. A highlight that changed my perspective on acting was having the privilege to work with Lindy Davies in a transformative 3-week workshop. I still use a handful of tools from the intensive in my work today. In regards to the screen industry, I’ve learned that you can go from being overlooked to overbooked within the blink of an eye; stay ready.
In what ways has your experience at the CFC shaped your film journey
The pandemic really took the wind out of my sails, and I found myself lost in still waters. Being inducted in the CBC Actors Conservatory came at the perfect time in my life, as it gave me the second wind I needed to “unstuck” myself. Over the course of six months, I was able to rediscover my artistry, forge stronger relationships with some of the biggest casting directors in Canada, sharpen my skills, and create art that I’m incredibly proud of! My final CFC film, Queenie & Alpha was a beautiful reintroduction to the industry and has opened new doors for me, from gaining attention from U.S. representation to being offered my first series regular role!
What benefits do you see in continuing to champion and invest in the development of Canadian talent and content here in Canada and around the world?
For several years, many Canadian artists have found themselves compelled to migrate to the United States in pursuit of greater success. However, I firmly believe that Canada has the potential to build a robust star system and significantly enhance its support for homegrown talent. Valuing and championing Canadian talent is essential for dispelling any misconception that our artists are any less capable than their American counterparts. Toronto (in particular) is home to a plethora of exceptionally talented individuals who, with the right backing, can truly shine on a global stage. I can readily name ten actors from Toronto alone who possess the potential to be nominated for Academy Awards. The talent is undoubtedly here; we just need the “powers that be” to invest in our artists by prioritizing us. This starts in the negotiation rooms. Hugely successful American productions reap the financial benefits of shooting in our country, but they exclude our local talent from being cast in major roles! This needs to change!
Leighton Alexander Williams in Morningside
You just finished filming your latest film, Morningside, with CFC alum Lovell Adams-Gray, Brandon McKnight, Ryan Rosery and Zahra Bentham. Can you tell us how this project came to be and your experience collaborating with fellow alum?
I had the pleasure of playing Mark Johnson in director/writer Ron Dias’ debut film, Bite of a Mango. His feature film played in multiple film festivals across Canada and the United States, and its success helped him secure financing for his next project, Morningside. Ron reached out to me around TIFF and said that he had a role for me in his next feature, and I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again—especially after hearing the cast he had in mind! Lovell Adams-Gray, Brandon Mcknight, and Ryan Rosery are three of my best friends on the planet. They (along with Franckie Francois, Adrian Walters, and Emmanuel Ofori) inspire me to be a better artist and person, and whenever we collaborate, magic and growth take place. We’ve co-starred and co-produced multiple short films, most notably my play Judas Noir, which gave us all our first Dora Mavor Moore nomination for Best Ensemble. Doing what you love with people that you admire is a salubrious experience.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your profession, and what challenges have you encountered along the way?
There is a myriad of rewarding aspects that come with being an actor. People go to theaters to sit in the dark with hopes of seeing themselves in the light; when you’re able to reflect humanity truthfully, people will be affected. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of some impactful stories, and one of the most heartwarming feelings is hearing a viewer share what my work meant to them. In addition, I really enjoy watching a ‘semi-recognizable’ version of myself on screen. Playing characters that are vastly different from my day-to-day life provides a unique challenge and allows me to explore different facets of myself. I vividly remember feeling immense gratification when I watched my portrayal of Dave at the Avocado Toast Season 2 premiere. Watching myself bring that character to life on screen was a moment of accomplishment, highlighting the transformative power of acting.
I think the most challenging part of being an actor is surviving abundant rejection and not letting it diminish your worth. A lot of the “nos” are out of your control; you could deliver the strongest audition casting has seen, and there can be a dozen reasons why they still book someone else for the part. You can spend 4 years getting your bachelor’s degree, complete a prestigious program like the CFC, win multiple awards, and do all the things on the checklist to better yourself… and still experience unemployment. Nothing is promised. This is a tough pill to swallow, especially since I was raised with the belief that hard work will always be rewarded. However, if you’re willing to wade through 1000 painful “nos” to receive a “yes,” then you may just have what it takes to be an actor.
Leighton Alexander Williams in Morningside
Could you share an instance where you felt a particular responsibility to represent the Black community positively through your work?
When I graduated theater school in 2014, I was stepping into an industry that had far fewer depictions of what Black men looked like in the media. I played a lot of pimps, gangsters, and street criminals at the start of my career, and I always attempted to find ways to humanize these tropes as best I could. As I began to create my own work, I seized the opportunity to change the narrative and present fresh perspectives on Black masculinity. It wasn’t about portraying perfect Black saints; rather, it was about showcasing a wider spectrum of the Black male experience. This meant exploring vulnerability and depicting platonic love between Black men—something rarely seen in mainstream media. It was crucial to shine a light on the joy, messiness, and lovability within Black characters, even those cast as villains.
BDB Productions Inc. (From left to right: Lovell Adams-Gray, Leighton Alexander Williams, Adrian Walters, Ryan Rosery, Brandon McKnight, Franckie Francois, Emmanuel Ofori). Photo by: Lane Dorsey.
What advice do you have for emerging Black creators who are navigating the challenges of breaking into the industry?
Learn how to write grants so you don’t have to wait on anyone. This skill can liberate you from the waiting game and provide the financial autonomy needed to bring your creative visions to life! Also, it’s incredibly important to find like-minded, ambitious artists (with varying skill sets) to collaborate with; your network is your net worth. One of the most impactful decisions I made was starting a production company with my best friends. BDB Productions Inc. not only served as a platform for us to showcase our talents, but it also became a ladder that allowed us to grow, tell meaningful stories, gain recognition, and build community. Find your flock, and fly.
What are your aspirations for the future of Black representation in the screen industry?
My hope is that we continue to showcase diversity within Blackness. I want to see more stories involving multi-dimensional Black characters who embody various intersections of identity, including those who are queer, disabled, deaf, mentally ill, and trans. I hope for the continued exploration of Black-led horror thrillers, akin to groundbreaking works like Get Out and Us, and the continuation of Afro-futuristic action blockbusters like “Black Panther.” I very selfishly would like to see a season of The White Lotus set in Jamaica– imagining the cultural dynamics and humour in that context is something I find irresistibly intriguing (Mike White, I believe in you!). Furthermore, I am eager to see more Black characters that are part of the upper echelon! And on a personal note, I yearn for the creation of original Black-led children’s stories instead of “blackifying” existing ones. Let me be clear: this is no shade of “The Little Mermaid” or “Annie.” I just think there is great value in crafting our own narratives that reflect our culture and creativity.
And finally, I leave you with a vision that Angela Bassett so eloquently painted: “And my prayer is that we leave this industry more enriched, forward-thinking, and inclusive than we found it. A future where there won’t be a first or an only, or suspense around whether history will be made with a nomination or a win. I have faith that one day, someday, the celebration and recognition will be solely on the performance and the performer. Because at the end of the day, we all just want the opportunity to do great, meaningful work.”
Leighton Alexander Williams attends the 2023 Canadian Screen Awards
What can fans expect from you this year?
I am very grateful to share that I have a handful of projects lined up for 2024! Currently, I am about to shoot my first series regular role for an upcoming TV series called Settle Down (Border2Border Entertainment)! I’m particularly excited for this role because my character, Jarod, will invite me to showcase a side of myself that I haven’t yet shared on camera. I also get to co-star with the multi-talented Alexander Nunez, who is also the writer of the show!!!
Later this year, you can expect to see me share the screen with Kiana Madeira, Alex Mallari Jr., and a handful of talented juggernauts in the upcoming feature film Morningside (Ron & Aussie Films). This film centers on the gentrification happening in Scarborough, and it uses heart and humour to share an impactful message. It was a much-needed artistic challenge to be a part of this piece and bring “Carl” to life.
I grew up watching a show called Life With Derek, and I recently got to work with the star of that show, Ashley Leggat, in Farid Yazdani’s new TV series “Day Players”! It’s an edgy comedy that follows the lives of six actors who are down on their luck and attend an acting class with a very questionable instructor. I guest star in a couple episodes towards the end of the series, and my character’s name is “Handsome Dave,” and all I can say is that he is more than just a pretty face. Stay woke.
Lastly, I play Chloe Madison’s love interest in her upcoming thriller, Ophelia. A film about sex, addiction, and perseverance.
Feel free to follow me on Instagram at @livingwithlaw to stay updated!
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