Acting was not on Tonya Lee Williams’ radar when she and her mother, Korah Williams-Harrison, moved to Oshawa from England in 1970.
The product of parents with legal and medical backgrounds, Williams didn’t view acting as a job in her early teens.
“I did some commercials in high school which was fun,” she said. “It was not until I met someone who was passionate about acting that I did start to think about it as a career option. That individual made me realize what the industry was all about.”
Williams spent a year in Ryerson University’s drama program.
“I checked out York University and the University of Toronto, but they were too academic,” she said. “For me, they were not about the process of being an actor. Ryerson, at the time, was in the tradition of what drama schools were like in London. Instead of being at desks, we spent our days on stage doing either voice or movement-related activities.”
After completing the first year in 1979, Williams left Ryerson when she landed the lead role in Love & Politics, which was authored and composed by Mavor Moore, who died in 2006.
“In university, we were encouraged to audition for a theatre during the summer,” she said. “Love & Politics was a success at the Brock Theatre in St. Catharines and it continued for a second season which meant I couldn’t return to Ryerson because I had a full-time job.”
Despite not graduating, Williams – who resides in California – was invited to deliver the keynote address at last Saturday’s alumni dinner at the Mattamy Centre.
“I have been to a few alumni gatherings over the years in Los Angeles and met some interesting people including Canadian entertainer Alan Hamel, but I never knew there was an alumni dinner,” said Williams who won a Miss Junior Personality contest at age 14, was crowned Miss Black Ontario four years later in 1977 and did comedy for 15 years before switching to drama. “So to be asked to speak to alumni during alumni weekend is quite an honour.”
Like Williams, Hamel spent a year at Ryerson in 1954 and lives in California with his wife, actress Suzanne Somers.
Williams, who appeared in the “Wear-A-Moustache Milk” campaign and co-hosted the Miss Teen Canada pageant, said she gained a wealth of knowledge in the short time she was at Ryerson.
“The drama course was very competitive,” she said. “About 40 of us started the first year and 20 were cut after the first semester. That year taught me to be very serious about my craft and what it means to be an actor. I can’t really say I learned about the business of acting at Ryerson because that was not what they were teaching at the time. That was a good thing looking back because I might not have appreciated the business aspect if I didn’t respect the work itself.”
She said Ryerson has had a lasting impact on her professional career.
“This university hardened me,” she told alumni. “It taught me that soft people don’t last in this business.”
Williams landed small television roles and worked in Canadian theatre for a few years before heading to Los Angeles 27 years ago in search of a major acting role. She’s best known for her role as Dr. Olivia Hastings on the daytime drama, “The Young and the Restless”, which she was associated with for 23 years.
In 2001, Williams founded the ReelWorld Film Festival to showcase Canada’s diversity and provide a platform for visible minorities to display their artistic talent and in the process motivate audiences through film.