Tonya Williams 'honoured' to be recognized by WIFT-T
December 14, 2017
For the last 33 years, Women in Film & Television Toronto (WIFT-T) has been supporting the development and advancement of women in the screen-based media industry.
In 1988, the organization expanded its mandate to celebrate the achievements of the industry’s high achievers.
Tonya Williams counts herself as very privileged to join the distinguished group of women recognized by the organization in the last three decades.
She was the recipient last week of the Special Jury Award of Distinction presented to a woman who is a groundbreaker and has demonstrated a commitment to the screen-based industry.
“I have received many awards, but this one ranks at the top for me,” said Williams. “The WIFT-T has been working on my behalf and I have benefitted from all the great initiatives that they have done. There are WIFT groups around the world but the one in Toronto is one of the strongest and I am honoured to be recognized by them.”
Entertainment lawyer and WIFT-T board member Susan Karnay nominated Williams for the award.
“Tonya is a successful Canadian who “made it” in Los Angeles, but continues to give back to the Canadian industry not only in her efforts towards inclusion and diversity, but as a passionate and tenacious advocate for filmmakers of colour,” she said. “She is the real deal.”
In 2009, film and television producer Jennifer Holness nominated Williams for the same award.
“As a Black actress in the entertainment industry, she knows only too well the challenges that exist,” said Holness. “But none of that has ever stopped her achieving her dreams. Tonya believes that each and every human being is created to fulfill a specific destiny.”
Best known for her role as Dr. Olivia Hastings on the daytime drama, ‘The Young and the Restless’, which she was associated with for 23 years, Williams – who turns 60 next year – is still passionate about the industry which she views as more than acting and entertainment.
“I have always looked at it as an opportunity for voices to have some power and that never goes away,” she said. “Whatever the opportunity, whether it be acting or making movies, I am a big believer in everyone feeling their power and their strength. I sometimes am a little bit shocked that women don’t feel as powerful as they are. When I look at a lot of the television shows today, I feel like we have actually regressed as women with power.
“The movies and television shows that we are making right now where having a woman physically punch out a guy and giving as good as she gets, to me, is not a woman having her power. With a lot these men that have come to light, from Harvey Weinstein to all these other producers and people we have known, we have to remember they have been in the driver’s seat. They have been actually creating content that reflects their morality and their vision of women. So, that’s not empowering women. They just enjoy seeing sexy hot women just punch each other out. I would say that has helped to increase female violence in the last couple of decades. Young people are watching the physical abuse of women and feeling it’s OK.”
Williams isn’t surprised by the sexual harassment allegations that have rocked Hollywood recently.
“You will always find producers telling you are so wonderful for this role and maybe you can come to my hotel and we will talk about it,” she said. “There’s no need to go to anyone’s hotel room to talk about anything. I tend to deflect that request with, ‘I am so busy tonight, but I can meet you at your office tomorrow at 10 a.m. I navigate because I feel like I am a person with power. If that person isn’t going to give me that job because I didn’t go up to his hotel room, it’s not a job I would even want to do because I would have to work and be around the individual.
“Knowing that that is how he thinks of me is something I would rather shut down from the start. Maybe, I could have had a bigger career, but I am proud of the one I have had because it was on my own terms and I didn’t find it that difficult to say ‘no’. My parents are strong people who have done very well in their lives and they instilled self-respect and confidence in me to be my own person.”
Williams did some commercials in high school and spent a year in Ryerson University’s drama program in 1979 after landing the lead role in ‘Love & Politics’ which was authored and composed by Mavor Moore who died in 2006.
A Miss Junior Personality contest at age 14, she was crowned Miss Black Ontario four years later in 1977 and did comedy for 15 years before switching to drama.
Williams, who appeared in the ‘Wear-A-Moustache Milk’ campaign and co-hosted the Miss Teen Canada pageant, landed small television roles and worked in Canadian theatre for a few years before heading to Los Angeles in 1987 in search of a major acting role. She landed guest appearances in ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Matlock’, ‘Falcon Crest’, ‘What’s Happening Now’, ‘Generations’ and ‘A Very Brady Christmas’ before getting her big break on 1990 in ‘Young & the Restless’
The recipient of two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a daytime drama series, Williams hosted ‘Tonya Lee Williams: Gospel Jubilee’ on CBC Television in 2004, led a diverse cast in Vision TV’s original comedy series, ‘She’s The Mayor’ and was cast in Clement Virgo’s ‘Poor Boy’s Game’.
In the twilight of her professional career, she’s very selective about the projects she takes on now.
“My agent sends me lots of auditions, but they are really things that I have no interest being part of,” Williams noted. “I am interested in telling real-life stories, but not those that are the same old stereotyped ones that you hear all the time. I am looking for stories that are different about people doing positive and impactful things. Every time I walk into a room, people assume I come from a background of drugs and poverty. We need stories about people who come from great parents who are doing well. Every single kid is going to think that you have to be a drug addict who crawls your way out of that world to be successful.”
In 2001, Williams founded the ReelWorld Film Festival to showcase Canada’s diversity and provide a platform for visible minorities to display their artistic talent and in the process motivate audiences through film.
“It’s growing and we have a data base of 500 filmmakers that have been impacted since we started,” she said.
Last year, ReelWorld entered into an agreement with Telefilm Canada that paves the way for emerging filmmakers selected for its E20 program to qualify for Telefilm’s micro budget program that offers up to $125,000 in funding.
E20 is a ReelWorld initiative that connects some of Canada’s most talented diverse talent with industry executives and professionals in the Canadian entertainment industry.
Born in England to Jamaican parents who were divorced, Williams spent seven years in the Caribbean island with her mother who was employed at the Jubilee Maternity Hospital. In 1966, Williams and her mother went back to England for four years before migrating to Canada.
Her late father, Lloyd Williams, was a Supreme Court judge in the British Virgin Islands and St. Kitts & Nevis.
Williams was named one of Canada’s Top 25 immigrants in 2012.
Past WIFT-T award recipients include Vision TV co-founder and independent TV producer/director Rita Shelton Deverell, Cynthia Reyes who left an indelible mark at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) where she was the first Black female on-air personality in Toronto and one of the youngest executive producers, Claire Prieto who was one of the first Black filmmakers in Toronto and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television & Radio Artists (ACTRA) first visible minority president Sandi Ross who died in August 2016.