If not for the pandemic, Tenaj Williams wouldnâ€™t be playing Trey on the third season of Jann. In fact, he likely wouldnâ€™t be acting on television at all.
Until 2020, the Calgary-based actor and singer was happily ensconced in the theatre world, performing in various musicals and plays around the country. But when COVID-19 shut down theatres, he decided to make the jump to film and television, landing small parts in Wynonna Earp, Big Sky and the Hallmark movie Meet Me at Christmas.
When Williams nabbed a role in Jann, airing Mondays at 7 p.m. ET on CTV, he assumed it would be small as well. But he soon found out that Trey, Jannâ€™s (Jann Arden) new personal assistant, is no bit part. On the contrary, the calm, nurturing former nanny will be a major, season-long presence as he works to bring order to Jannâ€™s chaotic universe and develops a strong bond with her mom Nora (Deborah Grover).
â€œThe part was much larger than I thought it was going to be,â€ Williams says.
During a phone interview from Calgary, Williams told us how he approached playing Trey and explained why he loved joining Jannâ€™s Season 3 cast.
What was your audition process for Jann like?
Tenaj Williams: Typically now with COVID, itâ€™s all self-tapes, and I actually really like that. I like that I can control the environment Iâ€™m in and my level of anxiety and stress. The way Iâ€™ve devised to tell if my self-tapes are good or not is, I always watch back my self-tape before I submit it, and if I find myself distracted by things like â€˜Why do you look like that?â€™ or â€˜What are you doing with your teeth?â€™ or â€˜What are you doing with your mouth?â€™ then itâ€™s not a good take. But if at the end of the take I find that Iâ€™m just smiling the whole time, that means I was [in the moment] as a viewer and then Iâ€™m like, â€˜Oh, yeah, that must be a good take.â€™
With Jann, I sent off the tape, and I knew who Jann was, and I had seen commercials of the show, but I had never actually watched the show before. And then I got shortlisted for it, but Iâ€™d been shortlisted for things before, and I know not to get my hopes up for anything. So I continued on with my life, no big deal. I didnâ€™t tell anybody anything, because I didnâ€™t want to be like, â€˜Hey, Iâ€™m shortlisted, and then I didnâ€™t get the part. So I just pretended like life as usual, and then I got an email from my agent saying, â€˜Weâ€™re just waiting for network approval,â€™ and I didnâ€™t really know what that was. I assumed that it could still fall through, so I didnâ€™t want to get my hopes up for that either. And then I got the job, and I was super excited, but I for sure didnâ€™t understand the magnitude of what I was doing. I was like, â€˜Maybe Iâ€™ll be in one or two episodes, which will be cool,â€™ you know what I mean? And it wasnâ€™t until I got my script maybe like a week later and I did a fitting that was two and a half hours, and I was like, â€˜How many costumes do I have?â€™ and I looked through the script and Iâ€™m like, â€˜Oh, my gosh, Iâ€™m in all the scenes, Iâ€™m in every episode.â€™ And then I was invited to a table read, which thatâ€™s never happened to me before, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is actually a big part,â€™ and thatâ€™s when I got excited.
Trey is a very calm, collected guy who loves astrology. How did you approach playing him?
TW: Honestly, first I watched all the episodes of this show, all of them. And it didnâ€™t take me long to do it, either. I really enjoyed the show. When the first season ended, I thought I was like two episodes in, but Iâ€™d finished the whole season. And the same thing happened with the second season. And I kind of pieced together Trey from Jann, who has very chaotic energy, and thatâ€™s an understatement. I thought, if sheâ€™s looking for a personal assistant, Iâ€™m imagining she needs the opposite of what she is. You could play it really crazy and really high energy and matching that kind of energy, but I thought it might be more interesting if he comes in and juxtaposes that kind of energy. So I tried to bring him into a more Zen-like place. So that was my main focus, I thought thatâ€™s what she would benefit from, someone to balance her off.
And Iâ€™m not much into astrology personally, but I did look into a little bit and I talked to a few friends who are into it, and I looked into my own signâ€”Iâ€™m an Aquariusâ€”and I thought, â€˜Oh, these are actually quite accurate.â€™
As you mentioned, Jannâ€™s world is pretty chaotic. How is poor Trey going to handle that as the season goes on?
TW: Well, what I will say without giving any spoilers away is, he says in the first episode that he really likes a challenge, and I think that he finds it. I think he finds not only a challenge in Jann but in the people that live in Jannâ€™s house that heâ€™s now surrounded by. So he has a very ridiculously destroyed version of Cale [Elena Juatco], and I think he finds that very fascinating in a terrifying way, and you also have the energy of Nora. I think heâ€™s attracted to the different situations there and the different energies and what that means. I think the challenge of bringing that all together is really exciting.
When we recently spoke with Jann Arden, she told us that Trey develops a strong relationship with Nora. What can you tell us about that?
TW: Something about Nora triggers something in his past that heâ€™s dealt with himself. He sees something in Nora that he wants to nurture. He wants to take care of this person, and I think he finds a really good friend in Nora, and I really, really love their relationship. I think that Nora is looking for a friend just as much as Trey is looking to take care of this type of person. Because sheâ€™s around Jannâ€™s chaotic energy a lot, and sheâ€™s also been, not kicked out by Max, but kind of seeing that we need a change, and I think sheâ€™s looking for some stability. I think that Trey provides that for her in a way.
I imagine itâ€™s not always easy to join an established TV show. What was your first day on set like?
TW: It was crazy, honestly. It was crazy that I had binged these two seasons and then I did this Zoom reading where I got to see all the faces that I got to see on screen, where we went over the whole season. I was like, â€˜Oh, my gosh, I canâ€™t believe it.â€™ And they were all such professionals. I cannot rave highly enough about the group of actors that they have brought together, beautiful human souls who genuinely want to make the work so good. There are no egos or anything like that, everybody was so welcoming and warm.
The first day, I was wildly nervous, I didnâ€™t really know what to expect, and my first scene was a two-hander with Jann, and I was like, â€˜Of course it is. Of course, my very first day is with the star of the show in a scene thatâ€™s just the two of us.â€™ And so I freaked out and thought, â€˜OK, donâ€™t mess up any of your lines because if you mess up even one line, theyâ€™re going to kick you to the curb.â€™
And I was standing there and Jann was with meâ€”and our first time really meeting was on set, the first scene we were doingâ€”and we were just having a very casual conversation, and we just stood there for a second and it was quiet, and Jann just turns to me and is like, â€˜So, are you nervous?â€™ And I thought, â€˜How do I answer this question?â€™ and I was like, â€˜You know what? Yeah, I am. Iâ€™m very nervous.â€™ And she just looks at me and said, â€˜Oh, thank God, me, too.â€™ And that actually really helped things.
Did you ever find yourself cracking up at some of Jannâ€™s one-liners and antics while shooting?
TW: I would like to tell you that I got to the point where I was like, â€˜Oh, Iâ€™m a professional, I donâ€™t laugh anymore, I donâ€™t break,â€™ but that never was the case. I was always breaking, I was always ruining scenes. Itâ€™s [Jannâ€™s] show, and if she wants to try something completely different…sheâ€™ll just go on the most hilarious tangents, and Iâ€™m like, ‘Please donâ€™t zoom the camera into my face, please donâ€™t zoom the camera into my face.â€™ I just couldnâ€™t keep it together.
What was the best thing about joining the cast this season?
TW: The biggest thing was, honestly, it felt like I was part of something so great. I was just so proud of the work. I was laughing out loud constantly while we were doing the work. The script was so funny, everybody was so funny, we had such good chemistry as a cast, they welcomed me in so much, that it just felt like I was playing around. I mean, itâ€™s crazy to me that Iâ€™m in a sitcom with Jann Arden and a bunch of other really talented people. I got paid to just literally play with the funnest, wonderfullest people. I tried not to take that for granted.
Jann airs Mondays at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CTV, CTV.ca and CTV app.
Images courtesy of Bell Media.