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Abbott Elementary Stars Talk The Struggle Of Breaking Acting Rules To Look Right Into The Camera

Gregory in schoolyard on Abbott Elementary
(Image credit: ABC)

Following in the footsteps of such beloved TV comedies as The Office and What We Do in the Shadows, ABC’s Abbott Elementary follows its loveable and hilarious characters through its creator-preferred mockumentary format, allowing the titular establishment’s staff members plenty of deadpan moments to heighten with quick looks directly into the cameras. Those, along with the interview-esque “talking head” segments, are a staple of the sub-genre, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all the actors are instantly comfortable with committing one of acting’s biggest no-nos over and over again. 

Ahead of Abbott Elementary’s return for its super-sized second season, the stellar cast members spoke with CinemaBlend and other outlets, teasing all the excellence fans can expect to see from some of TV’s most inspirational educators. When speaking with stars Tyler James Williams and William Stanford Davis, I asked if it was (or still is) hard for them to get used to defying their professional instincts to peer right into the camera lens. The Everybody Hates Chris vet answered first, calling attention to his acting roots, saying:

Yeah. Initially, yes, yes. It goes against [what you're taught]. Particularly as a child actor, that gets drilled into you, because the first thing you want to do is just look directly down the lens, and people remind you over and over again to the point where it becomes a habit. But what got me out of that was seeing the cameras as characters. They were characters in this world, and I'm not looking at a camera, I'm looking at a person that I have a very unique relationship with.

Had Tyler James Williams been the central star of Malcolm in the Middle, as opposed to Everybody Hates Chris, he would have started off his career by being allowed to do what child actors are steered away from the hardest. But while there were examples of such moments within the comedy based on comedian Chris Rock’s early life — which is getting an animated reboot — it certainly wasn’t a common acting technique for the young actor.

But I think it’s an impressively smart technique to mentally picture Abbott Elementary’s unseen camera operators as characters themselves, as a way to build up a wordless rapport with them, so to speak. Williams continued, explaining how the Emmy-winning comedy’s very first episode was art imitating life when it came to eyeballing the cameras.

Also, when we shot the pilot, which was nice, Randall had it scheduled so that the first scene that I shot was Gregory's introduction into the school. So it does feel foreign, and it's supposed to feel weird. It's supposed to feel odd, and looking to the camera, you're not really quite sure what this is or what's happening. So it was a nice transition. But yeah, that's what got me out of that headspace was I had to see them as characters. Otherwise, I just wouldn't be able to do it.

After hearing that, I think it almost makes every other character in a TV mockumentary that much more bizarre for not initially behaving more strangely and uncomfortably about all the cameras being around in the earliest episodes. 

Mr. Johnson in a classroom in Abbott Elementary

(Image credit: ABC)

As difficult as it may be at times, it sounds like Tyler James Williams hasn’t had a wild amount of trouble hitting the marks when it comes to mugging into the camera. William Stanford Davis, on the other hand, wasn’t so quick to boast about his own comfort levels, saying:

The talking heads are good for me, but looking in the camera is still a problem for me. Because, you know, as an actor, you just don't do that. And they'll point, 'Look here, look here.' Oh yeah, gotta look at the camera. [Laughs.] But, you know, it still goes against [instinct]. As Tyler said, everything you learn as an actor is to look down the barrel specifically, but it's for brief little brief spurts; you look in and you look away. And I'm learning to treat the camera as another character. It's still tough. It still looks like a camera to me.

Clearly what needs to happen now is for Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson to add some kind of masks atop the various cameras used for filming, so that Davis can get all the more comfortable with the mockumentary format. Considering Brunson winningly convinced star Sheryl Lee Ralph to play the queenly Barbara, as opposed to Ralph’s initial intention to play principal Ava, I trust in her judgment for what kinds of masks should be used. Personally, I’d opt for using hyper-realistic versions of Davis’ own face, but that might just complicate things. Whatever happens, William Stanford Davis’ janitor Mr. Johnson is a scene-stealing highlight, and that’ll no doubt continue throughout the 22-episode sophomore season. 

Abbott Elementary Season 2 is set to hit ABC’s primetime schedule with its new time slot on Wednesday, September 21, at 9:00 p.m. ET, with new episodes available the next day with a Hulu subscription. Check out our 2022 TV schedule to see when all the other anticipated fall debuts will arrive.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.