Summer. A time for hot romance. And a little mystery. Maybe a lot of mystery. Plus some danger. Make that straight-up lethal terror. Yes, Zelda Williams is set to have a season to remember in Dead of Summer, a Freeform horror drama about a group of young counselors at a camp that appears to be haunted by chilling, supernatural forces.
Williams (House of D, Teen Wolf) plays Drew, a not-exactly chatty, enigmatic, cool-guy counselor who was revealed to the audience to be a transgender man at the end of the June 28 premiere. And she is eager — if a bit nervous — to present her portrayal of a three-dimensional transgender person, which TV is increasingly starting to reflect (see: Orange is the New Black, Transparent, I Am Cait). The role of Drew — who finds himself in a different world than today’s, given that Summer is set in 1989 — is a special one to Williams, who points out that transgender men aren’t reflected as frequently onscreen as transgender women. During her research, she spoke with transgender men to help her accurately portray the character.
“The thing I’m most terrified about is the transgender community being insulted by him,” she says in this week’s issue of EW. “It’s great that [the public] will get to learn about a male-identifying transgender character as a lead in an ensemble show, but really, more than anything, he is for the transgender community, because they don’t ever get to see him.… I hope that they’re happy with him, because I’m proud of him…. I’m really excited for people to see who he is.”
“The transgender community deserves an honest portrayal,” she adds. “I can’t choose if they like his plot because I didn’t write it, but I can choose if they think that he’s not a stereotype, at least in how I hold myself, and that’s all I can do.”
While Williams put much care into bringing the guarded character to life, in certain ways it wasn’t difficult for her: “Drew isn’t necessarily a far stretch from who I am,” says the 26-year-old, whose father is the late comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams. “I’m not a girly girl. I never have been. I had a shaved head for six years.” And speaking of hair, the show’s co-creators — Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, and Ian Goldberg, who hail from Once Upon a Time — suggested that Williams cut off her locks to play Drew, but she had a different idea. As she told them: “Give me something to hide behind, because that’s part of why he dresses the way he does — long sleeves, multiple layers, and the hair. It’s a fine line between ‘I don’t give a f—’ and ‘I give a lot of f—s.’”
She seems to have disappeared into the role, judging alone by a couple of mistaken-identity moments on set. “I didn’t realize there were quite a few crew members that didn’t know I wasn’t the male gaffer,” she says. “Multiple times I’d be sitting, waiting for the shot, and they’d go, ‘By the way, you’re in the frame. You’re going to have to move.’ I was like ‘No, no, I’m supposed to be in the frame.’ They’re like, ‘What?’ ‘I’m one of the actors.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, oh, sorry, man.’”
The mysterious Drew will step into the spotlight in a “very emotional” episode airing July 19, and a key piece of information about his past is revealed. “You get to see the things that transpired for him to have to go to camp,” hints Williams. “It’s very much [about] his demons and the things that haunt him. I do think a lot of people will relate.”
After a decade of indie film roles and trying to score auditions, Williams is pleased to enter a new phase of her life, one in which she’s starring on a horror series. “I watch every horror film that comes out in theatres,” she gushes. “I watch every horror film that’s on Netflix.” It’s also one that she doesn’t appear to be taking for granted. “I guess I’ll keep going until they tell me not to,” she told herself during the audition process for this role, “and thus far they haven’t told me not to.”
Summer has arrived after a rough, isolating patch for the 26-year-old actress, following her father’s death in the summer of 2014. “I was really appreciative of the fact that everyone loved Dad so much, but [I] did get looked at like a butterfly that you were going to damage, and that’s in its own way sweet, but also alienating and difficult,” she says. “I had an enormous amount of time to myself.” The two appeared in a few Nintendo commercials for The Legend of Zelda (yes, she was named after Princess Zelda) and shared a scene in House of D, but their time together while she was growing up was spent playing video games and reading comic books, not talking Hollywood. “Maybe out of stubbornness, but also out of independence, I never asked him for a road map — I didn’t want the curiosity to be dampened for me,” she says. “I had to figure this out before he was gone, and now I definitely have to figure it out on my own. But I’m enjoying that process.”
“It’s interesting,” she says. “He missed out on me being proud of myself by about a year and a half, and that’s the one thing that’s really sad for me, because I know he was always proud of me. I think he would’ve loved that I was happy.”
For more on Zelda Williams and her Dead of Summer role, pick up a copy of this week’s issue of EW, on newsstands now — and available for purchase here.