When you’re 25, but have been acting since you were 8 years old, you can be both a film-industry veteran and the breakout star of a new comedy. Tyrel Jackson Williams is that unicorn in the new incarnation of Party Down.
Though he’s known to Internet Kids of the early 2010s as Leo from Disney XD’s Lab Rats, the last decade has seen the actor bounce around from Disney-adjacent movies to indie hip-hop projects, and the occasional adult-centric comedy. On Party Down, he plays Sackson, a wannabe TikTok star slinging appetizers with a crew of caterers who, once upon a time, had their own Hollywood dreams. The cast of the revival remains stacked: Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Ryan Hansen, and Martin Starr from the sitcom’s original 2009-2010 run are all back, joined in the long-awaited season 3 by heavy-hitters like Jennifer Garner, James Marsden, and The Afterparty’s Zoe Chao. Williams squeezes in, but noticeably never misses a beat, and makes what could be an eyeroll-worthy gag about superficial “kids today” into a grounded, giddy riff on the modern quest for fame.
“Sackson is not cringe,” Williams tells Polygon with a laugh. “That was a goal of mine. I feel like a lot of critique of Gen Z or modern culture is just, like, ‘It’s weird!’ But [Party Down creator John Enbom] was very much of the idea that he didn’t want the joke to just be ‘young people are strange.’ So Sackson has very clear motivations. Even if they’re not clear to the audience, they’re clear to him.”
Williams compares Sackson to Hansen’s character Kyle from the first two seasons. Twelve years ago, Kyle was, in his mind, the full package: actor, model, musician, heartthrob. He was a dolt, but he could genuinely work the screen. Sackson is sharper and savvier than Kyle ever was, but he can do it all and does, even when that means sneaking into a millionaire catering client’s bathroom to shoot selfies while his boss Ronald (Marino) takes an illegal on-hours shower. Hijinks always ensue, but the TikTok of it all is never the joke. For Williams, staving off cringe was all about keeping up with Marino and the gang.
“Ken is incredibly hilarious, but he’s also a very, very sweet person who sort of latched on to the fact that I was really nervous,” Williams says. “And he was like, ‘Look, if it ever seems like you’re slipping out of the tone of what we do, I’ll let you know. Like, we’re not gonna lie. We won’t let you be embarrassed.’ And I was like, YES. That was awesome.”
The Party Down twist on social media made perfect sense to Williams. While he has done the TikTok thing, he could understand Sackson’s hunger to hit big because of his own experience with Vine. “Can I say back in my day?” he asks with complete self-awareness. “I was high school age at the time, and I was just like… wow. Vine felt like something that was ours, mine and all the people who I was growing up with. So tapping back into that sort of mindset that anything is possible, and people can just fall in love with you being you, and that propels you and makes you the huge star, that was sort of easy to tap back into and just bring it into the modern context. I feel like the TikTok is just Vine but longer, scarier, and more chaotic.”
These days, Williams is mostly off TikTok, occasionally on Twitter and Instagram, but is all in on his “stupid, and just for me” Tumblr. (“Yes I’m still there — you can look for me, but you’re not gonna find me!”) It’s easy to see why he’s reeled away from the platforms; a quick scan of the comments on his various socials is mostly Lab Rats fans wondering when he might revive Lab Rats, which has not been on the air since 2016.
While the constant barrage might unconsciously send Williams looking for more insular spaces, the fandom doesn’t actually faze the actor. Yes, it’d be great if Lab Rats stans knew he was about to deliver comedy gold on Party Down, but frankly, he feels the same way about the shows he loved when he was a kid.
“I love Raven Simone — That’s So Raven is in my DNA,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how old I get, or how far removed from it I get, my memories with those things will live on forever, even if the people who were on it are older and doing different things. So I respect it. And it’s all love when I see it. But I’ve been able to sort of carve out my own lane in adulthood in a way that I really liked. For people saying, like, ‘bring back Lab Rats!’ I don’t have the power to do that. I wish I could do that for you!”
Williams has made the transition from child actor to formidable comedy star capable of going toe-to-toe with a legend like Ken Marino on the back of his own skills. But he admits it doesn’t hurt to have close family who can offer sound advice. He’s happy to call Tyler James Williams, who went from the young star of Everyone Hates Chris to being an Emmy-nominated pillar on the lauded sitcom Abbott Elementary, a brother and a role model.
“He’s always been sort of a champion of making the jump,” Williams says. “The one bit of advice that he gave me that I sort of find myself returning to was: The show that you did is the show that you did, and people are going to love it for what it is, but if you want newer people who aren’t familiar with you to see you a different way, keep hitting that. Don’t get upset when people see you in public and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Leo.’ That’s their relationship to that show. But understand that you aren’t that show. So if you want to be seen differently, do different things.”
Party Down season 3 premieres on Starz on Friday, Feb. 24 at 12am ET.