Zelda Williams has it all figured out. Or, at the very least, she has the confidence and enthusiasm to make everyone think she does.
Williams, the only daughter of the late actor Robin Williams, is forging her own path in Hollywood in the wake of the very large footsteps left by her father's legacy. She spoke candidly to E! News about her goals and the hard road it took to get to this place, and her story leaves everyone with the impression that she has a very big impression to leave on the industry. The topic of the day has been whether hurdles are larger for women in Hollywood, but she says most of her early struggles went deeper than that.
"I was just a difficult kid," she says. "It's not even the sense that it was contingent on me being a woman, I just didn't fit in. I guess even more than that, I didn't inhabit what a lot of people expected of me as a woman—for example, I had a shaved head for a time."
It was a time that was exacerbated because of her famous father, she explains: "A lot of actor's kids are really beautiful models and I wasn't that. I was really awkward and short and had this low voice. I didn't fit what they expected of me as a child of an actor."
Williams is on hand at the Microsoft Corporate Headquarters outside of Seattle to join nearly 1,000 women at the Create & Cultivate conference, which was sponsored by Microsoft, The Mine, Sorel and Express, in a day dedicated to building the career of their dreams. It's a gathering that has grown astronomically over the last few years, and not-so-ironically took over the campus of the tech giant (an industry that is notoriously hard for women) to bring together major players in the industry to share their knowledge.
The 28-year-old just wrapped an appearance on a panel dedicated to what the conference coined "radical creatives," where she spoke about her recent foray into the horror film world and shared anecdotes about her own career that had the audience simultaneously laughing and nodding their heads knowingly. Anecdotes like the fact that she tried to become an actress despite the fact that she "looks 17 and sounds 40" or that she's learned "no doesn't always mean no when it comes to creativity."
Basking in the glow of a successful stint onstage, the writer/director/actress (and more) Williams explained that she doesn't feel bitter about growing up with those expectations—she chalks it up to growing pains, pointing out that no one has an easy go of it during their teenage years, and that she's fascinated by how much she has changed since then.
"It is so interesting," she says of her evolution. "I love wearing heels now, I love wearing dresses and my favorite thing in the world is a tailored two-piece suit. If I told 16-year-old me this she would have crapped her pants."
That side of Williams is probably the same one that initially wanted to try her hand at acting. It's easy to understand why she wanted to get into the family business—you do what you know—but she says she very quickly realized that it wasn't for her. To start, she wasn't a fan of the self-consciousness that plagues so many actresses. And she also didn't like being put through constant comparisons to her father.
"I think everyone thinks that when kids want to become actors they are trying to usurp their parents," she says. "I can't speak for most of them, but in my case that was never going to happen. I had no interest in comedy. Also, if your dad was the first person on the moon, you don't go, 'I am going to be the first person on the moon a second time.' What would be the point?"
Now the 28-year-old has turned to her true passion: Writing and directing movies. And not just any movies, but horrors and psychological thrillers. She speaks passionately about her love for unsettling audiences with new ideas, and also credits one of her mentors for helping her realize that it's what she was meant to do. For years she had been convincing herself that she wasn't booking acting gigs because she wasn't talented or attractive enough (a familiar refrain of self-doubt that echoes true for many women), but he pointed out that the industry simply hadn't caught up to an idea of women that actually fit reality.
"He said, no one is going to write you or women like you, so you have to," says Williams. "That was when I finally took all my scripts—I had written about 15 at that point—to an agency and they signed me and that was that."
Of course getting signed is just the beginning of carving out a new career. Zelda realized that she would have to swallow any nerves and start reaching out to people in the industry for advice. And since she was honed in on horror films, that meant seeking out successful directors that she didn't have anything in common with.
"What I want to do there aren't women directing," she explains. "So there are no programs for women to take other women under their wing. I had to go to men and be like, hey, you're in a privileged position. Will you help me out? And thankfully none of them have said no."
One of the most surreal instances happened at a film festival—a run-in that Williams admits could be chalked up to an "only in Hollywood" situation. (Although, it's worth mentioning that she so far has refrained from reaching out to her father's friends from the business for help). Zelda was sitting in a movie theater when she realized that her idol Guillermo Del Toro was sitting right behind her, and that it was most definitely a sign. But it still took a fair amount of guts to make that first move.
"I had never shown anyone my scripts before," she explained about her nervousness. "It was after Dad died, and I think my mom was the only one to have read my work. I kind of turned around, and I never fan girl—because I have seen it around my dad and don't want to be like that, even though my dad was always so good about it—but I just said your movies meant a tremendous amount to me and I want to be a director."
Much to her delight, del Toro told Williams to get his email from his assistant and send him some of her scripts that very night. She describes running straight home and promptly tearing her hair out trying to pick a script. After all, when almost no one has read your writing, how do you decide what to send to your idol?
She decided on a movie about dominatrices, of all things ("Because what if I just send my hero something he is going to hate?") and he promptly wrote back explaining that she was entirely nuts. And he added that she loved the script and to send him anything else she ever wanted him to read. She still has the note framed next to her computer.
It's this fearlessness of going after the right people in the industry that the rest of us could all take away from Williams. While we're wracked with thoughts of what if something doesn't work out, she doesn't see a point in that kind of thinking.
"I know this comes from a privileged place of knowing that I will do something else if this doesn't work out, but I don't really have any fear," she says. "Maybe it won't work out for me, but why would anyone sit there and dwell on that? I like making emergency plans for earthquakes, not my life. There is no bag I can pack, that if directing doesn't work out, will make that better. So I might as well give it absolutely everything."
More than the opportunity to share her hard-earned wisdom, this particular day Zelda Williams is just happy to be here sharing in the good vibes of her fellow womankind. Hundreds may have lined up to hear her speak about her career, but she came to get inspired.
"It is such a rare occasion when you are surrounded by incredibly successful, incredibly creative and independent women," she marvels. "It shouldn't be. But I've spoken at different conferences and gone to Comic Con, where you're around people with similar interests, but this is far and away the most surreal thing I have ever done."