Posted September 18, 2018

Alumnus attributes acting career to School of Theater, Film and Media Arts

Actor Damon Erik Williams discusses Temple, the entertainment industry and his latest guest-starring role on TNT’s Animal Kingdom.

Damon Erik Williams acting in a Temple production
Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenberg
Damon Erik Williams, center, performs in "In Conflict" as a Temple student.

Damon Erik Williams, TFM ’09, didn’t know he wanted to act until taking a course titled Poetry as Performance during his first year at Temple. A decade later, Williams, now a guest star on the TNT crime series Animal Kingdom, can’t think of anything else he rather be doing.  

“I guess it was just the expression, the open and honest expression that came along with that class,” said Williams of the life-altering course, taught by Associate Professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon of the School of Theater, Film and Media Arts (TFMA). “Kimmika encouraged us to just be real, and to just be honest. That is ultimately what we try and portray on screen or on stage—to be honest with yourself and also to be honest with an audience and share yourself in that way. I think that was something that really resonated with me.”

At the end of the course, Williams declared his theater major. Starting in his sophomore year, Williams officially began acquiring the tools of the acting trade, an education that he credits for his successes. “I felt like the skills that I acquired while I was at Temple applied well to whatever role I ended up doing,” said the 31-year-old actor.

One of the tools that Williams felt drawn to was the practice of “voice and speech.” Devoted to the artform, Williams sought extra guidance from TFMA professors, such a Lynne Innerst and Diane Gaary, to hone his craft.

“Voice and speech quickly became a key factor in terms of how I approached things, in the idea of finding and developing a voice and just letting the character come out from there,” Williams said. 

Still a novice to the theater world but with noted acting chops, then-junior Williams earned a role in the Temple Theater production In Conflict. Chronicling the lives of young Iraq War veterans, the adapted play by Douglas C. Wager, TFMA’s artististic director and head of directing, was an instant success. In 2008, Williams and the rest of the cast were invited to perform In Conflict at the largest arts festival in the world—the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

“It was something that nobody expected by any means,” said Williams, a Philadelphia native. “To be a part of something that you actually care about and spent so much time doing in Europe at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it was an honor.”  

After the Festival Fringe and an East Coast tour, In Conflict landed off-Broadway in New York City, where Williams would struggle as a working actor for the next five years. While Williams had garnered attention during his New York theatrical debut, he had difficulty getting roles, was dropped by his first agent and worked on the side as a bartender. 

“That's when life and reality sets in on you,” Williams recalled. “That's when I actually became an actor, because I had to live the life of an actor … with the daily rejection that exists every time that you go on an audition and then having to go and wait tables or whatever odd job that it is that you have.”

In between agents and emotionally drained from the realities of acting, luck would come in the form of a phone call by Dan Green, KLN ’10. Working his way up at a talent agency in Los Angeles, Green was searching for potential talent to bring in and remembered Williams from his In Conflict performance. 

“He was looking to find some type of mutual benefit for his own career and he remembered me, which was very flattering,” Williams recalled. “Not a lot of people get an opportunity that way, so I count my blessings that I was able to benefit from it.”

With an agency as representation, Williams trekked to LA and slept on a friend’s floor while he auditioned and worked on television pilots. Eventually Williams would make the permanent move to LA, but it would be three and a half years before he booked his first real gig—as the guy who finds the dead body at the beginning of an episode of Criminal Minds.

“You can't predict the timeframe,” Williams said. “That's the reality of it, of pursuing a career in the arts. The question is always how do you sustain yourself.”

It would be another year before Williams landed his role in season three of Animal Kingdom, which stars acclaimed actress Ellen Barkin as Janine “Smurf” Cody, the matriarch of a wheeling-and-dealing family. Williams plays the role of Linc, a motocross athlete who forms an intimate relationship with Deran Cody, played by Jake Weary, the youngest member of the crime family.

Williams admits that he viewed his “breakout” role just as any other opportunity for a working actor. “I wish I could say that it was out of the ordinary, but it was just something that I was able to apply my skills to and just do my best,” he said.

Williams’ advice to students looking to break into the entertainment industry is to find their passion through learning. “When you're learning and you’re in a safe haven of academia, and you're in the tree of trust, it's a great state to be in,” he said. “The professional world isn't that way, because it is life at that point. If you're very clear with yourself about what you want, then the better off you will be.”

Since wrapping up Animal Kingdom, Williams hopes to parlay his recent success into other endeavors and projects. But wherever his next job takes him, happiness is his ultimate motivator. 

“The one thing that I keep coming back around to on a daily basis is that idea of happiness,” Williams said. “If you can sustain some type of happiness and fulfillment for yourself, you'll know everything else will fall in place.”

—Andrea Cantor