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Everybody Loves Tyler

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Actors don’t have an easy time portraying well-known people, since audiences already have expectations about their performances. However, that does not intimidate Tyler James Williams, who is portraying comedian Chris Rock in the fall UPN comedy “Everybody Hates Chris.”

“It’s very fun, actually,” Tyler said of playing Mr. Rock, who narrates and executive produces the show. The single-camera comedy looks back on Mr. Rock’s experiences as an adolescent living in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood who is sent to an all-white junior high school. “It’s not as hard as you think, because you get feedback from Chris Rock when he’s on the set,” Tyler added.

But in one significant way, the character Chris Rock on TV will be different from the real-life Mr. Rock-Tyler, who is 12, doesn’t like swearing. “I told them up front I wasn’t going to say any of those words,” he said, noting Mr. Rock’s language is occasionally salty. While Tyler will change offending words in the script when he delivers his lines, he said he won’t edit for the sake of laughs.

“I look at how the word is used,” he said. “If it is appropriate, if it can help the character or help someone else, I’ll use it. Or I try to come up with a word that is just as funny.”

What young Tyler does matters. Among all the shows this fall, “Everybody Hates Chris” has already built high expectations. That began with a strong positive reaction at the UPN advertiser upfront in New York in May. Tyler isn’t surprised by the hype. “I realized that when I read the script,” he said of the response. “I just knew whether I booked it or not, this show was going to be a success.”

Tyler, who was born in New York and lives in the suburb of Yonkers, N.Y., got an early education in coming up with comedic elements for his performances. A client of managers Randi and Donna Mollo of Mollo Entertainment of Hewlett, N.Y., Tyler has been a regular in commercials since the age of 4. He had a gig on PBS’s “Sesame Street” before booking roles on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” where he got to work with guest stars, including Jack Black. Though most of his work on “SNL” was limited to background work or reaction shots, the time he spent waiting on the set allowed him to observe other actors rehearsing and see how they played scenes to increase the comedy.

“I got to watch them try and make scenes funnier, and how they worked on their timing,” he said. “That kind of helped me when I auditioned for the ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ role.”

But the fact that he is starring in a comedy portraying one of the most popular comedians working today is still something of a surprise for Tyler, who has two brothers, also in the business.

“I’m the drama one out of the group,” he said, noting he did a guest spot on the sober procedural crime show “Law & Order: SVU,” playing a child in need of a kidney transplant. “My brothers are much funnier than I am.”

Tyler was clearly funny enough for the producers of “Everybody Hates Chris.” He first auditioned for the role in New York. He said getting the role was an accomplishment, considering all the bad luck he encountered with trying to send his audition tape to executives in Los Angeles. One tape arrived with no sound, while another copy had audio but no picture.

After several tries an unblemished audition tape finally made it West. Not long afterward, Tyler flew to Los Angeles for two final auditions and ultimately booked the pilot.

Mr. Rock, along with executive producer Ali LeRoi, responded immediately to Tyler, said David Stapf, president of Paramount Network Television, which is producing the series. “They were passionate about him from the minute they saw him,” Mr. Stapf said. “They saw something where others may not have.”

Mr. Stapf said it took time to cast the role of Chris because it was so important to the pilot. “The producers and Chris Rock set very high standards for what they wanted in that role,” he said. “We saw some terrific actors, but no one that nailed it like that kid did.”

What attracted the producers to Tyler, Mr. Stapf said, was his ability to tackle the script.

“What he brings to it is an authenticity, and almost an unaware awareness,” Mr. Stapf said. “You don’t feel like he’s acting at all. He felt like a very typical 12-, 13-year-old. What makes him unique and special is his relatability, and that’s where he draws his humor from.”

Understanding the role of Chris wasn’t much of a problem, Tyler said.

“When I first got the script from my manager, I read it and connected with the character,” he said. “It didn’t take much to learn. Every time I practiced, it became more part of me.”

Mr. Rock did not set up strict guidelines on how the character of Chris should be played, Tyler said, but having him on the set allowed for a unique resource.

“I would definitely go up and say ‘Am I portraying you the right way?'” Tyler said. “He would give me pointers.”

Mr. Rock allowed Tyler some latitude in creating his own voice, giving the actor the freedom to improvise at times.

Since the “Chris” pilot portrays Mr. Rock in 1982, Tyler had to dress the part, which included a pair of bulky black shoes and what is best described as a “nerdy” school outfit.

“It was a little more challenging working with that kind of wardrobe,” he said.

While the series is scheduled to begin shooting in July, Tyler said he has not yet seen any of the upcoming scripts. But he feels ready for the challenge of being a series regular on a sitcom.

“I have no clue what they are thinking up,” he said of the writers, “because it will be hard to top the first episode. As we go on, the Chris character will become more natural, and it won’t be as odd to see myself on TV in that kind of repulsive outfit.”