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Renaissance Man

Alumnus takes lessons learned from acting and turns his writing into gold

As a writer, Jason Odell Williams (Col ’96) is rarely at a loss for words. But this past July, just seven months after becoming a writer-producer for National Geographic’s hit television show Brain Games, Williams was awe-struck to learn that he had received an Emmy nomination. Being recognized alongside industry greats such as Oprah Winfrey and James Lipton was “wild, surreal and amazing,” he recalls.

The show, nominated this year for Outstanding Informational Series or Special, explores topics such as fear, persuasion and time through interactive “brain games” designed to reveal how the body’s most complex organ functions in different situations. Some games test the autonomic responses of the senses, while others probe complex processes including perception, memory and impulse. Yet all of these games illuminate the fact that the brain, a three-and-a-half-pound mass comprising a hundred billion neurons, is preprogrammed with both sophisticated and involuntary responses. For example, the game in the sidebar offers insight into how the brain makes decisions when offered a limited number of choices.

Working on the show has deepened Williams’ own understanding of neuroscience and psychology. To create each episode, he and his co-writers consult scientific publications and experts to educate themselves about the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Williams says learning more about how the brain works has changed how he writes. “The games are about words,” he says. “Everything has to be crafted so that people understand what we’re saying. That’s what acting is. It’s like, ‘I have an emotion. How can I convey that to you?’”

Williams believes his decision to follow in his family’s footsteps and attend UVA shaped his career path indelibly. After an impromptu tour of Culbreth Theatre with Professor Bob Chapel, he enrolled in a drama class in the fall of 1992. Soon he was a theater major studying acting and playwriting and earning lead roles in school productions. His talents led him to graduate a semester early and move to New York, where he attended the famed Actor’s Studio.

Jason Odell Williams
After years of small acting jobs that didn’t that yield his big break, Williams was offered a job scriptwriting for Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, a television show about a real-life homicide detective. The chance to move into full-time writing came as a surprise to Williams, who still thought of himself as an actor. Yet he also felt prepared for the challenge. “It’s really about being ready when opportunity presents itself,” he says. “Storytelling is storytelling.”

Those stories led UVA alumnae Carey Albertine (Col ’96) and Saira Rao (Col ’96) to approach Williams with an idea for a book for their publishing company, which Williams developed into his first novel, Personal Statement. Published in August, Personal Statement offers a humorous look at the hypercompetitive atmosphere of today’s college admissions process. The book was recently optioned as part of a three-movie deal.

With all that has happened, Williams now sees himself as a writer, but one who is inextricably tied to the world of acting. “I grew up loving theater, television, and movies,” he says. “I can’t help but write in a visual and vaguely cinematic way.”

This, he knows, is just the way his brain works.