Treasure

Could Connor Williams be the next Aaron Paul? He's already won three best actor awards.

Connor Williams’ former bedroom at at his family’s home in Eagle has since been given to his brother but he still gets to sleep there when he visits.
Connor Williams’ former bedroom at at his family’s home in Eagle has since been given to his brother but he still gets to sleep there when he visits. jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

When home, Connor Williams keeps a low profile. He hangs with his family and his buddies from Eagle High School, plays poker — he’s really good at poker — and doesn’t talk much about himself or his work.

His Instagram and website are “The Connor Williams,” so you know that it’s not the football player and that he can have an actor’s ego. But that doesn’t fly around his family’s Eagle homestead.

“No one would let me get away with it,” Williams says. “I’d be like, ‘I’m Connor Williams, don’t you know who I am?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re mowing the lawn.’ 

This young Idaho actor is the lead in an award-winning indie film, with “Regionrat” earning him accolades and attention at festivals around the globe. The film made its world premiere at Arizona’s Chandler Film Festival last month, winning the Best Feature award. So far, Williams has earned three best actor awards at online festivals, including the London Independent Film Awards.

He also is in two films streaming on Netflix — faith-based “The UnMiracle,” with Kevin Sorbo and Stephen Baldwin, and the horror action-flick “Happy Hunting,” directed by Louie Gibson, Mel’s son.

At 20, he finds himself in a place he never imagined. He is following his dreams, “living the L.A lifestyle,” he says, and he is three semesters away graduating college from the New York Film Academy Los Angeles, where he’s been studying on a hefty scholarship that seemed to fall from the sky.

For a kid from Eagle who planned to skip college, work at Pizza Hut full time and slog it out in the Hollywood trenches, this has been one of several fortuitous turn of events.

His first day in L.A. in 2015, he booked “Happy Hunting.” The second day he got his manager David Dean. A few months later he was cast in “Aaah, Roach,” a campy sci-fi film starring Barry Bostwick about roaches taking over the world. Then came “Regionrat,” which he shot in the summer of 2016.

Things are falling into place. His life is now kind of like a movie plot where the kid from Idaho heads to Hollywood to get his big break, and it often begs comparison to another Idahoan who headed to Hollywood after high school.

“People are always like, ‘So you want to be like Aaron Paul?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah I would,’ but not really,” he says. “I’m just trying to do my own thing, but I’d love to meet him.”

Paul won three Emmys for his role in “Breaking Bad” and now has a string of film credits.

Williams is a different style of actor than the intense Paul. His on-screen presence is subtle and naturally nuanced. He’s good at being thoughtful and quiet, letting his emotions evolve before the audience. He has an angular face that allows for light and shadow to play — perfect for film.

That quality mixed with an Idaho work ethic is a powerful combination, says Javier Reyna, who wrote and directed “Regionrat,” a coming-of-age drama about a young man who returns to his depressed hometown after living in the big city only to find himself with the same problems he tried to escape. It’s based on Richard Laskowski’s memoir about his own youth in Gary, Indiana.

“I first didn’t see (Williams) as the role, but he kept saying he could do it. Eventually a good actor will make you believe it,” Reyna says. “And he did. He was very easy to direct. We really had a rapport. And I knew he would work hard because he was not here for the paycheck. He was so professional. He was an hour early every day. To see a kid his age so committed, it’s impressive.”

He’s often cast as a troubled youth finding his way, a stoner with self-esteem and identity issues.

And that’s good for now, and maybe later, he says.

“I’m OK with being typecast,” he says. “If I get a series and 4 or 5 years of playing one character, that would be cool. Then if you get big, you can do your own stuff.”

He’s had some great gets but more than a few losses, such as the audition he did for Netflix’s teen drama “13 Reasons Why.”

He rehearsed with one of his mentors at NYFA, bought a new outfit – Converse shoes and ragged jeans – “and I even pierced my ears because I thought that’s what the character would do,” he says. “I really wanted it.”

He made it past the first cut and was one of four to audition for the producers, but he didn’t get the role.

He was cast in an episode of the Netflix series “Glow,” about female professional wrestlers, but he wasn’t eligible to belong to the Screen Actors Guild at the time, and there wasn’t enough time to do the paperwork before they needed him to shoot. He now is SAG eligible.

He was driving to the studio to film when he got the call from his manager that it was a no-go.

You can really get depressed. Your hopes are high. Your life will change if you get that part, but you learn to turn that off at auditions and not take it personally.

Connor Williams

“I’ve been doing this since I was 7, so I’ve learned that it’s great to get parts, but the audition is just part of the work.”

An early start

Williams started acting before he knew it. His family was living in California, and when he was 9 months old, a casting agent approached his parents, Matt and Patti, at San Francisco’s Pier 49. She liked their son’s look and was casting for a commercial for a restaurant in New York. His parents took him to the audition, and he got the gig.

In the months that followed, Matt took his son to a few auditions, but he realized that “Connor was not deciding this. It was me pushing him, and I never wanted to do that. So we stopped.”

Then, when Williams was 7, his parents showed him the commercial, and he was stunned.

“Seeing myself on screen was really weird, but I liked it,” he says. “I told my parents that I always wanted to be in movies.”

Taken aback, Matt decided to help him make it happen.

“I started networking for my son,” Matt Williams says. “He’s 7, he can’t do it.” So he started submitting Connor for projects, and the next year the whole family participated in Boise’s i48 Film Competition and Festival. The annual event features teams making short films — from script to screen — in just 48 hours.

When Williams was 14, he took over submitting himself for auditions. His dad would drive him to Salt Lake City or L.A. As a freshman, Williams worked with “Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Rockwell. He flew to Chicago to film “The UnMiracle,” wrote and directed shorts for i48 and H48 (part of the Idaho Horror Film Festival), worked a part-time job at Pizza Hut and kept his grades up at school.

‘Spoilers’

When he was a senior in high school, Williams made a feature film, “Spoilers.” The “Breakfast Club”-like story is updated with characters that include a Muslim girl and a white supremacist, played by Williams, who also directed.

He decided to make his own film, he says, because it was so difficult to get work as a teenager. Most filmmakers and studios will hire adults to play teen characters because there are restrictions when you cast an actor who is not 18, such as how many hours they can work in a day.

Williams broke the piggy bank to fund “Spoilers,” using money he had earned by acting and from his Pizza Hut job, about $10,000. He hired a screenwriter and five other teen actors from across the country and filmed it at Eagle High over 17 days in the summer of 2015.

It screened at the Victoria TX International Film Festival in Victoria, Texas, shortly after. Williams won that festival’s first-time filmmaker award and $60,000 to use to shoot his next feature in Victoria. He had just graduated from high school.

When that was done, I decided I was going to L.A. and just go for it.

Connor Williams

But his award got the attention of recruiters at two film schools in L.A., and after a summerlong bidding war, Williams received a near-full ride at the New York Film Academy.

“It’s cool,” he says. “Actually, being in (NYFA) has helped me a lot. It’s helped my confidence because I’m always in front of a camera and an audience. It’s made me more comfortable. When I’m on set, I know what to do, I know the lingo. For auditions, I know how to prepare.”

Fickle fate

Williams could make it big — or not. That’s showbiz.

“Acting is a tough world. You never know what’s coming next,” Williams says. “It’s as much of a gamble as poker sometimes. I can go in and nail an audition and not get it, or get close and not get it. Sometimes I get cast just from my head shot.”

It makes his family nervous, Matt Williams says.

“Is ‘Regionrat’ going to be the last thing he books? As a parent, I wonder, ‘Is this it?’ But then something else happens. He’s supporting himself and never asks for money. For going down there with zero contacts and zero understanding about how the industry works, I’m shocked at how well he’s done.”

Williams takes it all in stride. For now he’s “vibing” with the industry, working hard to follow through on each audition and focusing on finishing his degree.

“I can’t believe I’m going to graduate with a degree,” Williams says. “Who knows what I’m going to do after. There are so many plans in my head.”

“Regionrat” will screen at the upcoming First Glance Film Festival March 8-11 in Los Angeles. Williams is nominated for Best Actor and Breakout Performance. It’s also been accepted at the Victoria TX Indie Film Festival in Victoria, Texas, where “Spoilers” made its premiere.

“That’s pretty much where this chain of events all started,” Williams says. “I’m looking forward to going back to Texas.”

Dana Oland: 208-377-6442, @DanaOland

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