Tray discusses working with Students, his experience working with Tyler Perry, the importance of providing opportunities and More.
The Empress Dee: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
Tray Williams: My name is Trayvon Williams, but I go by Tray. I am a producer, writer and director, an overall creator. I love being able to create Black content that is different and that is very hard in this space to create something that has not been done but for some reason I have been blessed to have the gift to be able to see things years before other people even see it. I create futuristic type of content. I am able to look at markets and think, man this guy is great, I see greatness in him so let me just create…without getting permission sometimes I just create or write a script and think, he is going to like this, God gave me this gift, so I just know.
Every part that I have written, I have dreamed about it, I wake up and literally remember the entire project. So, I just write it out like that…I have a real true gift. So, I am a writer, director, producer, and creator. I am from Houston, TX, the 5th ward, and I am now living in Los Angeles. I did live in Atlanta for a year in the beginning of my career and then I moved to L.A.
The Empress Dee: What inspired you to move to L.A. because Atlanta has a really good audience there?
Tray Williams: Yes, and that has a lot to do with Tyler Perry. When I worked with Tyler Perry at the time, this was about 4 years ago, he had the studio, but it had not been announced yet. He had already purchased the army base, I remember that I shot…this was what made me move to L.A., I shot the pilot with him for ‘If Loving You Is Wrong’ so that is when my agent said that people from L.A. started to call and there was a lot of interest. I think that you should go to L.A., and this was very early on in my career, but I tell you since I first started my career, I have been getting bigger opportunities and this has been without even having any real experience, it was like my purpose found me. So after I finished working with Tyler Perry, that is why I moved to L.A., to me it was not as booming as it is now and to be honest, I did not really care for Atlanta.
The Empress Dee: So what inspired you to get into film in the beginning?
Tray Williams: What inspired me to get into film was, I moved to Atlanta because I was going to a HBCU called Jarvis Christian College in Texas and I was playing basketball. So what I did was to transfer to Clark University for a semester to play basketball but when I got there, I really did not like it, I was over it and I wanted to do something different. I always wanted to do print modeling and for some reason, I thought that I was going to be the next Tyson Beckford. So, I ended up going to this modeling meeting…this casting call for a show, which turned out to be (to make the story even more interesting) when I got there a guy by the name of Robert Craven asked me if I was an actor and I said no but I’ll try, how much are they paying?
It started off as a joke and then he gave me a script and he kind of told me what to do, gave me 15 minutes and I came back and killed it and he was like…see, immediately, once he gave me those few notes, I was able to resonate with the character. I am a Gemini, so I can be a million people, so I think that is also another gift that I have. But that was how I got into film. I never grew up wanting to do it, I never thought about it, but I did do music. So in college, I used to be shy to do stuff in front of people and I knew that in order for me to be in this business, I could not be shy. So I used college as a platform to break out of my shyness. I started performing and I started off really bad. That college was like Showtime at the Apollo because they will boo you, they will talk while you were performing…it was really bad. I went through all of those stages, but I knew that I had to if I really wanted to be in this business. So, even though I do not do music right now, I used that so that I could get over the fear of doing stuff in front of people. I used what I had at the time and I conquered that and then people started to ask me to perform at everything.
The Empress Dee: That is really great! So what inspired you or did you always aspire to have your own film production company?
Tray Williams: No, what happen was I was in L.A., my friends and I… they have some shows right now like Woody McClain (The Bobby Brown Story, The New Edition Story), J.J. Green (Greenleaf, How High 2), a couple of friends and I were like we have a lot of talent but we just do not like to wait on people, me especially, I do not like to wait on anybody. I will pitch an idea to you and if you do not want to do it in the amount of time that I think that you should do it in respect for me, I will do it on my own, I will get it done with or without you, that is my mentality. So we created a show called ‘Autographs’ which ended up getting like 60 views, this was years ago before people were even doing it, so people were really interested in that show and we needed a company so that we could make it SAG (Screen Actors Guild) so that is how I started my company because we were tired of waiting on people.
So that was my first big project even though it did not come out, we put a lot of big people on that show that you would know and it is pretty incredible to see the talent and even then, I had them on the show…a lot of people it was their first show, it was Woody’s first show. I remember working with him and seeing very early on in his career…I had him in an acting class, and I said, dude you are incredible, and this was when he was dancing for Chris Brown and people were not really giving him opportunities and I saw something great in him and I said man I am working on a show and I think that you would be amazing, I will make you a lead and he was like, for real? So I ended up meeting with him and I showed him everything and I overrode everyone else’s decision because they did not think that he should be the lead because they did not really know him, they saw that he had a lot of followers but they wanted to know if he could act. I got tired of even trying to negotiate…I was paying for this and so I decided that he would be the lead.
But I believed in him and I saw this greatness in him, and he and I talk to this day, it is incredible to see how far he has come, and I am very, very proud of him. Everybody, J.J. is doing great, I do not know if you have ever heard of Isa Ivo, I am the first person that he ever auditioned for. He flew from Atlanta to audition for me and it was rough but instead of me judging him…I basically, I am not going to lie, I hand pick everybody, even in this new movie that Tamara and I are about to do, I handpicked everybody…when I write and direct, I have a vision for the people that I imagine for those roles, so I handpick people, I am very hands on. So everybody from that show is doing well.
The Empress Dee: With you being a writer, producer, actor, and director, I know that is a lot, so what does that transition look like when you wear all these different hats at one time?
Tray Williams: Oh, it is a lot, but I think that you have to take it step by step. For me, my mind is all over the place. I can be writing a script and then boom another idea will pop into my head, with the characters and everything. I am easily inspired; I try to take one step at a time but most of the time I work on the treatment and once I knock the treatment off first, everything else comes pretty quickly because I know what the characters look like and I can work right on the script and then the directing comes after you write the script. But when you write a script, I am already imagining how I can direct it, so I am putting little notes in my script.
So, I am very descriptive in my scripts which is why I think that people like the way that I write and I really write…I was never taught how to write, I do not like to wait on people, so I figure things out. To be honest with you, I write how I feel. I do not need to send my script to 50 people to get their approval. If I like it and I can get it cast, I produce it…I do not really need anybody’s approval. That is one thing that I learned with Tyler Perry; he writes what he wants to write. Everybody is going to have their own opinion but as long as I am happy and content with the message that I am trying to get across, then I am cool.
The Empress Dee: Absolutely, I can definitely understand that. Does it ever become overwhelming to wear all those hats?
Tray Williams: Yes, it does. It gets overwhelming but now I have a team. The first 3 years, it was just me, I was literally doing these projects by myself. I would write but then I would not have the finances, but I am not going to make an excuse, I am just going to figure out how to do this myself. Being an actor first, I think that helped because I got to see how sets worked. I started off as an extra and I really learned everything, I did not skip any steps, so I was really able to learn everything. But I was not an extra for very long, I would get bumped up in cast almost every production that I did extra work for, I would get bumped up.
It so perfect for me to learn how to work everything. So I learned how to communicate. and I naturally have people skills and I went to school for business, so all of this stuff is not difficult, it is just about trying to manage my time. Now, I have a line producer. My hardest part, once I got a team was to allow people to do their job. I move fast…I just do not like to wait on people, but it is not always a good thing. Sometimes, I realize that I have to get this cast together and I have to get this done and I have to get that done. I have a line producer…I may negotiate a bad deal or pay somebody too much, when I did not have to do that just because I am trying to get them on by trying to throw the bank at them when you do not have to do that.
Sometimes, you just have to slow down, so I let my Line Producer do that. I let my Assistant do their job, I really have people in place now so that it is not overwhelming. But it definitely will get overwhelming to me, I probably would do like 7 interviews, I do a lot of different stuff throughout the day, but I figure out time to really be able to pull it together.
The Empress Dee: What would you say is your favorite part, being behind the scenes or in front of the camera?
Tray Williams: I like being behind the scenes because first of all I like to write my own checks. I think that everybody would love to be able to do that. I write my own checks, so I get to dictate my schedule, I get to literally move as I please. I am able to space out things the way that I need to…I could say okay, I am not doing this for 2 months or that I am going to go work on this script, I am going to go to the cabin for a week and work on this, I am able to do all of that and that freedom is the best.
I also love to give opportunities, that is my number one thing and also be able to work my own schedule. I love being able to say, I am going to give you a chance even though you probably have not had the role, I want to be the one to give you the opportunity because I see something in you, as long as you can take direction, I can see something in you. I am the type of guy that likes to practice what I preach. I hate when people always use the same people over and over again, there are so many talented people out there.
Back in the 90’s, they used to break talent and you still could still do that. So many people in our culture are hung on not losing the resources that they have that they are just willing to sacrifice…not giving people the opportunity, you do not have to have an all ensemble cast all the time. You will not always have a million-dollar budget, so you have to know what goal you have in mind. I do not care, if I like the talent and you audition and it fits, I am going to give you the opportunity. You will see in this new movie you will see a lot of new people…surrounded with a couple of social media people that can act and some that you have seen on shows before.
The Empress Dee: That is awesome and I am glad that you recognize that because I watch certain movies with my family and you definitely do see the same people in different movies and it seems like at least in the late 90’s, early 2000’s…that Black Hollywood was really small and that everybody was in the same type of movie. I am glad that is something that comes to mind and that you are willing to give people an opportunity.
Speaking of your films, what is your ultimate goal when you create them?
Tray Williams: My ultimate goal, I would like to say this first… is not to win awards. I do not create for awards and all that stuff, if it comes then that is cool. I just want to create…because I have an idea and I love seeing it from the beginning to the end. So my whole thing is being able to see a project build and really be able to see it start from scratch and getting it to the end. I want to get the story across because every movie and every project that I write, I always have a purpose and if you pay attention to the films, even if you have to watch it a couple of times, I drop a lot of gems and a lot of relatable stuff and a lot of conversational pieces that I think is almost like having therapy inside of my scripts in a way.
The Empress Dee: I am glad that you brought that up because I know that you did a film on domestic violence called, ‘February’s Pain’ and you also did a documentary on child sex trafficking. Why is it so important to you to shed light on those issues?
Tray Williams: ‘February’s Pain’ we have not shot that yet, it is in development, we already have the treatment, and the script is almost ready. We sent it to some networks, just based off the treatment because people wanted it but originally…the story went viral in 2015, so they already knew about it but the girl that it was based on was too sick to do the deal, so she ended up coming to me about bringing it to life and she is actually from my neighborhood, she went to high school with me, which is crazy. So she reconnected with me for help to get it done.
To answer the other part of your question because it is purpose. We need to be able to shed light on a lot of these different issues. I can tell you that with the sex trafficking stuff that we have been developing so far with Tamra Simmons is that it is heartbreaking…knowing all the stuff that I know now. I know way more than I thought that I knew.
The Empress Dee: What is the most difficult aspect of your profession?
Tray Williams: Being an independent film maker, you have to deal with a lot, there is a long list, but I will keep it short. The biggest problem that I would say is…I know a lot of people personally but I still want to respect their craft and their talent, so I want to do it the right way by going through their teams, some of these agencies are hard to work with, they are very hard on independent film makers. They would rather that their clients sit around and make no money than to have them be a part of the film and be a part of the craft or like make any money. That is the most difficult thing and me just saying, let me be patient, let me keep doing it the right way because I want to be able to have a long and great reputation in this career. But getting people of talent, getting people attached because they are very hard, I guess because they make a lot of money from it, like the big agencies…but they are the most difficult to work with and that is the hardest part that I hate.
The Empress Dee: So how do you typically navigate through that?
Tray Williams: You kind of have to play by their rules a little bit. You kind of have to negotiate, they ask for crazy stuff, I will give you an example. Somebody said, yeah, he needs to be put on a first class flight, he needs to have this and he needs to have that and I was like, this dude has never been put on a first class flight from a film, he only has 2 film credits, which is different from being on a show on MTV, it is not scripted, it is a different thing, it is not the same. I was like he has no real resume, but I want to give him an opportunity. Because what happens is that they do not do thorough research to figure out who you really are in my opinion, they just look at the budget that is how they try to classify who you are based on the budget of the project…you do not need to know the budget of the project. What are you…this is the offer, they have said yes already so it is not like we are low balling anybody, but they are trying to get more because naturally they get more money.
They want their client to see a superb manager and agent, but they do not need a first-class flight, we are going to put them on Delta or good flight anyway. They do not have to be in a 5-star hotel, a 4-star hotel is just fine. That is the part that is very annoying. So a lot of times, I will be like no…we are not going to do that, but we will get them a good flight like Delta. You have to put your foot down and be stern. But I end up getting it done regardless.
The Empress Dee: What is the most satisfying part of creating these films and so far, what has been your favorite film?
Tray Williams: The most satisfying thing for sure is just getting it done, as you may know 85% of the people do not get their projects finished. So for me, just getting them done. After we did ‘Autographs’ with Woody and J.J., Isa and Qimmah, I did not like how I felt. I spent over 10 thousand dollars of my own money, after which I ended up living in my car because we had this whole plan to get it picked up, I had the situation set up but we did not finish the show. I did not like how I felt so I said that I would pray so hard before I finished every project and I am going to finish it, I do not care if it takes me 6 months but it is going to get done, it is going to get finished.
Even if it is not the best or the quality that I like, because people care about whether or not you can finish…can you go through the trenches with them, can you get it done? That is the goal. So that has been the most satisfying thing and my favorite one so far…we have not even shot it yet but I would have to say the documentary on sex trafficking because it is going to shed light on a lot of information, so that for that reason but fun, it is going to be this movie that we are getting ready to do. This will probably be my favorite because it took me a year and I literally spoke it into existence.
I just created this thing, this machine, this franchise and we had to go through all of these steps to even reach him, it was just crazy, so to see where we are at right now…you will see the announcement, you are the first person to know but the announcement will probably be coming out soon. That is going to be huge, I am very, very excited about that.
The Empress Dee: I am so excited for you, congratulations!
Tray Williams: Thank you. We are already in 2022 right now at this point honestly.
The Empress Dee: So, I know that you have also trained numerous student actors, what is that experience like?
Tray Williams: That project was the second hardest project that I have done. So I will give you the run down, it is exciting. So everybody knows that I went to Jarvis and I ended up going back to Jarvis again but what I did was that I took online classes so that I could still live in L.A., but my senior year, you have to be on campus. So they were going to make an exception for me but I was like, you know what and this was crazy because during this time I am auditioning 4 or 5 times a day, everything was going so amazingly, so I made a decision to go back and finish because I could see the way that my career was going, so I am like man if I am going to start booking all of this stuff that I am auditioning for then I am not going to have time to go back and finish, the years are going to go by and I want to teach my son about finishing and completing things. So, I put it on hold, and people were like, are you crazy and I was like no, but I know that I have to get it done, I have to get it over with.
L.A. was not going anywhere, my career is not going anywhere, I am who I am. What I did was I went back my senior year and I got involved…I said to myself, I could come to this school and sit in this room and not talk to anybody and just work on school and just let it fly by or I could make a real change, a real difference. So our school does not have a film program, so I thought, you know what, I think that is it, that is what I do, it is natural. I went and had a meeting with the cabinet of the college, which was all of the staff members and I presented the idea and they had promised to give me $5,000 to help me finance it, they did not do that so I ended up financing it myself. I thought that this was a great opportunity to teach these kids something so that they will have an outlet.
So, I trained…well before we get to the training part, let us talk about the auditions. I had them audition, I was auditioning people in the lobby, in their dorm rooms, in the auditorium…I really needed to cast this. So, I wrote an 8 episode script over Christmas break, when we came back, I had a meeting with them, I had to talk to the attorney…it took me 2 months, so they never approved me to do the show but it took me a month to do it with inexperienced people. It was crazy and what we did was if you look at my Instagram you will see, I actually shot a documentary at the same time that I shot the show. So I have a lot of the footage and the process of what it took to get that done.
So, then I had to train them, not only did I have to cast them, I had to stay up until 5:00 a.m., training them doing one on one lessons with my lead actor and I had to do re-cast, figure out chemistry tests, I had to do all of this stuff and I really had to trust my intuition and my gift. So when you are watching the chemistry is so amazing that you would think that they had experience. For a lot of them it is their first time, it is incredible to see their talent. A lot of them quit on me…it was crazy, I spent my savings to shoot this show and I had my friend Mike, he has been in some projects with me before, he came and helped finance the project as well. without him, this project would not have gotten done because we really did not have my regular staff.
So that journey…I had to go to therapy when I finished with this show. When I graduated, I literally had to shoot another scene right after I walked the stage. I am trying to give to you this in a nutshell but they gave me a dorm building that had been closed down for 10 years and when you walked in, there was furniture stacked to the ceiling, like you could barely walk through the building. All of this footage is on Instagram, (Condemn TV Series), I was thinking of doing an actual documentary, like what I shot it for, but I was not sure if people were going to be inspired to want to watch it but I am thinking about putting it together because I think that it might inspire people after all.
My whole goal was to tell them…they never knew what a table read was, never knew what a vision board party was, so I created all of this stuff and had some of my celebrity friends send videos to encourage them, saying hey, I’m looking forward to seeing the project and Tray is a good guy, because I wanted them to take it seriously. A lot of us come from the inner city and they see and have access to you, they do not really value you the way that the industry values you because they do not know the industry. So they just look at me like I am a regular student, and I am like, no…there is a reason why I am able to navigate through the school and do what I want to do.
While we were shooting that show, I revamped the athletics department, I shot all the interviews, revamped the website for them, I tried to really leave a mark at the school, and I was still a senior. I was doing all that I could to manage this all, but I had a goal. I am a workaholic and when I have a vision, I want to just do it and I do not need people’s money to do it, I am going to figure it out.
The Empress Dee: That is amazing! I am speechless, that is a lot of work for a senior.
Tray Williams: Yes, it definitely was a lot of work and I got A’s and B’s, I got a C in math but that is not my strong suit, but I passed.
The Empress Dee: What is your ultimate vision for yourself in The Pioneer’s Collective?
Tray Williams: First look deal. Two years ago, I came back to Houston for a year and I sat in my sister’s garage. I was out of money at this point and I sat in the garage the entire year, I did not break, or fold and I wrote and created so much content. I created over 30 projects and not only that, but I have people attached to the projects to each one. Content is key, so I said that my overall goal is to get a first look deal for our company, you go and see networks and they will ask you what you have…oh I got this and I know your demographic and just because it might be interesting based on the character development, you might like this. So I am going into these networks and I am overly prepared. I have so much content that it is crazy, and I am still creating content.
I am doing all of this without an agent, I do all of this purely off of relationships that I have and the resources that I have. Everybody always says the same thing, that they love my energy, and we want to work with you. People want to work with me because they see how hard I work. I am going to get it done, especially where I come from, we are already written off, so I have that chip on my shoulder to just get it done, God gave me this vision and a lot of times when God gives you a vision, people do not see it. So as long as I see it, everything that I have created, I have a whole plan for it, from the cast to the network that I want to go to…our connection at this network, I am very calculated and I think that it is a God given gift.
The Empress Dee: What would you say are 3 essential things that a person would need in order to be a great actor?
Tray Williams: I am not even going to lie; I am not an amazing actor. I am cool because I got the look and so I try to give advice on what I know. People say that I am talented but that is not my strong suit…I do it but directing and producing…producing being the number one thing because I am really good at putting things together because I know what I want to see. But as far as acting goes, I would never tell someone what makes them a great actor because I do not have the expertise to do so. I can tell you that I think that you should be you, I think that you should make the characters your own, people love character development and I can tell you to work on your craft. You can only be you, who is to say what makes a great actor because really the only thing that separates actors between chances is opportunity.
So a lot of times if you do not get a role it is not really because of your talent. It could be because maybe you do not fit well with the lead actor, with regard to the chemistry test, you could be too tall for the role, but your acting is amazing. So there are a lot of things that come into play with that, so I will never tell anybody like…you do what you do as long as you are happy with what you do, and you are content with what you do. I always want to get better and keep training, but I do not want to give any advice on being an amazing actor because I am not an amazing actor. I do feel like I am a phenomenal producer. I feel like I am a great writer in my own right, so I can give my advice on that. As far as acting goes, I cannot really give you a solid answer, I can offer a few notes like I just did.
The Empress Dee: That is understandable. So then what advice would you give young people who would like to get into film production?
Tray Williams: True mentors that really want to teach you and want to see you win, are very hard to come by. I would say to do a lot of research, I spent 3 months researching the business before I got into it. There are a lot of things that you cannot find on google, so find people on social media that you think has great energy that you can reach out to, a lot of times, people are so busy that it is hard to find them. So you got to get everything that you can find on-line and really take the time to understand the business that you are in, that is my true advice. You have to know the business because it will save you a lot of headaches. They will know that you are a professional when they can see that you know what you are talking about.
The Empress Dee: Do you think that it would be a good thing for writers to have an agent and if so, why?
Tray Williams: Literary agents are great because a lot of times you cannot reach out to these agents or these networks by yourself, you have to some representation, either that or have an entertainment attorney. If you have an attorney that can be paid on the backend as you sign your deals that would be great. Literary agents are helpful, but you need to have a good one. You do not want to get someone just because they are a Literary agent, you want to have somebody that really believes in you because if they believe in you then they are going to work harder for you. People feel like if you need them then they will not go as hard for you but if they come to you…oh they look at you like you are this amazing client but yes, you definitely need a Literary agent or you can get with a production company that has everything that you need. You can go in and attach yourself to the project, maybe as a writer, you may not get your own project first, but it will help to get your foot in the door. When you get with these production companies, not every director or producer writes, so that can be a good way for you to get in and if they have the relationships then that is the perfect opportunity.
The Empress Dee: Thank you so much for that information because I did not know any of that. What inspired the name “Pioneers Collective?”
Tray Williams: That is a great question. My parents are always on me about going to church. I think that I am one of those millennials that strayed away from church, but I am very spiritual, and I got it from church. I went to Atlanta one time and the pastor was talking about pioneers and settlers. Pioneers always search for greatness and settlers are content, so they never mix. I am not about titles in my company, we all know our jobs and our positions, so I do not throw that CEO title around, we all have jobs and we come together, work together to get where we want to be, we have one goal, that is where the collective came and pioneers are always searching for greatness, we all want to be great…we all are great. So that was the mentality behind “Pioneers Collective.”
The Empress Dee: I love that! Once you come out with a new project, we will definitely have to reconnect and get another interview in, because I have really enjoyed this interview and it has been very informative. I appreciate you.
Tray Williams: I always knew once I got a good P.R. team that people would want to talk with me because I have done a lot of interesting things that most people would not be able to pull off or would not have the bandwidth to pull. Everything that I am telling you…nobody taught me any of this. I have learned all of this by trial and error because it is very hard to come across mentors but now, I have a lot of them, like Flex is a mentor…he is the one who showed me how to be in the business. when I was filming with them, I saw that they were nice to everybody, I can see why they have worked for 20 years. I see why they are always going to work because they do not act like divas and stars, they are just good people. I realized that I had to change who I was in this business to be successful. I was determined to have a Black publicist because I did not feel that we had to go to another race to be what we need to be. I was my own publicist for a while and then I went through 2 or 3 before I found the right one.
The Empress Dee: Especially when you start off as a one man show, this is stuff that you have to do.
Tray Williams: What happens when you do that, you know what to expect from the people that you hire, you know what you are looking for because you were in that space. I am very hands on, I will email you 30 times a day just anticipating the type of things that they, my team may run into. I am very particular, and I follow my intuition and I have not missed yet.
The Empress Dee: I can appreciate that. Please tell us where we can find you, what your website is because I checked it out and it is beautiful?
Tray Williams: It is the Pioneers Collective, www.pioneerscollective.com and there is this one last thing that I will tell you when you look you will see the whole team pulling the wagon and it goes to a bridge and what that symbolizes is no matter what we have gone through as a team, we have made it to the destination and it is all water under the bridge now, we got to the final goal. So when you watch that, it just shows that it takes a team to get to that final goal. We have the sex trafficking documentary coming with Tamra.
We have a movie that is coming, we are working on locking down the financier right now and that will probably be a 3 million budget, we have already been talking to a lot of people and we have a distribution deal already in place with a huge company…I am not sure if they are going to put it in the write up but I will just tell you that it is Lionsgate…they offered us a deal but we have to put the financing up for the movie. I have a TV series called, “Happy Wife, Happy Life” and that is a sitcom and then there is one called, “Person of the Year” which is teaching Black people about financial literacy, but it is a comedy.
The Empress Dee: Well see that now that you have mentioned all of this, I definitely have a lot more questions and we will need to reconnect again so that we can see where you are at with things at that time.
Tray Williams: This was great, and you did an amazing job, I really appreciate this. Thank you so much, I really enjoyed this.
The Empress Dee: I appreciate you for working with me through all of the technical difficulties. Thank you again and you have a wonderful day.