Tonya Williams: Trailblazing Actress, Producer, and Entrepreneur

Tonya Williams is an award-winning actress, best known for her long-running role on the iconic soap opera The Young and the Restless. In addition to her on-screen career, she’s a successful producer, director, and businesswoman, and also founded the popular Reelworld Film Festival, which aims to spotlight diverse and underrepresented voices, and is still thriving today. She spoke with The Edge about her life and career, and this is an excerpt from that interview.

Were there any experiences you’ve encountered as an actress that aided you in becoming a successful businesswoman?

Watching older actresses was the greatest lesson for me in wanting to diversify myself not only as an artist, but as a businesswoman. Watching many of those actresses having so little power in their lives, because they were totally reliant on the next job, made me want to make sure that I didn’t follow that path. Having grown up watching my mother and father, who had solid careers (my father was a barrister, then Supreme Court justice), they never just relied on those jobs – they had income properties, other financial investments, savings. My mother is a big saver. All these things showed me that if I wanted more power and control in my life, I couldn’t rely on any one thing; since life is unpredictable, we have to hedge our bets.

Over the years I’ve had a great deal of investment properties in countries like France, Canada, the US, Jamaica. I liked the idea of making Euros, Canadian dollars, US dollars, so that whatever currency might be lower, I would make that up on another currency going up. I bought not only residential properties, but commercial too, since you can’t rely on just one kind of property. And then starting the Reelworld Film Festival in 2001 created yet another avenue of control for me.

One thing is constant in all my investments, that I don’t just look at the bottom line. I think that’s a very male way of doing things, thinking of the bottom line all the time. Women are more emotional in their choices, and I chose my investments from a place of passion first. I see a property and I fall in love with it, not even thinking of it as an investment, and as I renovate it, I get attached to it and want the best for it. The same with Reelworld. Reelworld is an extension of something I believe passionately in. I believe young people are inspired to greatness, and when they see racially diverse people who look like them being reflected in positive ways on our screens, that is the ultimate power.

You founded the Reelworld Film Festival so underrepresented voices could be heard. Do you see any changes in the entertainment world from when you first started the festival?

Yes, in 2001 when I started Reelworld, I was criticized a great deal. All the reporters would ask me the same question, “Why do we need a festival that focuses on racial diversity?” In their eyes, this was not necessary. In fact, all the grants and sponsors I approached were uncomfortable with even using the word “racial” diversity, they wanted me to use a more palatable word “cultural” diversity, which, to me, is something very different. You can be any colour and culturally Canadian. There is an assumption that if you are of a different race, you must then somehow identify “culturally” with that race, but that is not true. For example, we have blacks in Canada who are 10 generations here, and we have mainstream white immigrants who came to this country two generations ago. Their children are considered culturally Canadian, but the blacks who have been here for many more generations, their children are constantly asked who they are culturally. Well, they are Canadian culturally.

Reelworld has been instrumental in pointing out the inequities in the entertainment industry for people of colour in Canada. It was and continues to be instrumental in saying the uncomfortable things, that can only become more comfortable when we can feel the freedom to speak honestly about them.

When I started my career in front of the camera in 1977, I was considered the first black person to work steadily in mainstream television. Now we have many more faces on screen, not just black faces, but South Asian, Asian, Aboriginal, Middle Eastern. It’s wonderful, but we still have to be careful to recognize that quantity is not always quality and having more racial diversity that might portray negative stereotypes creates more problems than solutions.

I used to be disheartened to see white filmmakers and producers creating content that was just so negative to racially diverse communities. What breaks my heart now is watching racially diverse content creators do the same things; they are creating negatively stereotypical characters themselves. That is something I’m now pushing against through Reelworld. 

Your career path has shown your entrepreneurial spirit for years… When did you first get inspired to expand your focus beyond acting?

Basically, my parents and the actors I saw when I was young always made me aware that being a good actor was not always relying on that as my only source of income. Freedom is the most precious gift to an actor, and the freedom to pick and choose your work is only available if you can sustain yourself in another way, and I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s in my genetic make-up. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, were entrepreneurs. I never knew another way of being. 

How important is it for you to give back to the community and help elevate others?

For me, giving back is not something you do later in life. I was taught to give back from when I was a small child. I loved to give my friends any toys of mine they liked. My mother gave me coins to give to beggars when I was a small child. When I was only 3 or 4 years old, my mother had a part-time job in Jamaica as a nurse, where she went into poorer areas and helped teach women how to take care of their babies, and she took me with her and I saw her kindness and how much she helped them. My father would take me to his law offices and I saw people in all walks of life, poor and wealthy, come to him for help, and how he helped them. This sense of helping those less able to help themselves is something parents must teach their children – they’re not born with this sense. So, all my life, in all things I did, I automatically helped to elevate others.

Jennifer M. Williams | Editor-in-Chief



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