This story is part of GQ’s Modern Lovers issue.
“I couldn’t make this up if I tried,” says Taylour Paige. She and Jesse Williams have just finished recounting the night they met, a story with enough perspective changes and twists to be the meet-cute of the next Shonda Rhimes pilot. Which is to say, it does sound too cinematic to be true. But Willams and Paige are coming up on their third year together now, so whatever it is that brought them together, real or not, seems to be working. This despite the fact that they are, in Williams’s words, “on opposite sides of the spectrum,” even in their approaches to their craft. Both are actors—he as a longtime star of Grey’s Anatomy, she in the upcoming Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo ﬁlm Zola—and their differences are congruous, a true embodiment of opposites attracting. “We get satisfaction from being fed,” he explains of their dynamic. “If you like to feel full in new ways, it’s a fun learning process.”
But back to that first night, which Williams describes as “this rom-com effect,” and about which Paige warns, “After he tells the story, I can give you the spiritual backstory.”
So, the scene. It’s September 2018. Our leading man stands aloof at his own Emmys party. Suddenly, he’s electrified by an alluring woman walking by. Everything slows to half speed, all other faces surrounding her fall out of focus, and the background desaturates to black and white as she cuts a swath in her vibrant red dress. “I parted the red seas in my red dress. I looked like the emoji,” Paige interjects. “You said you were going to let me tell the story,” Williams chides, continuing on. He has no idea who she is, and he’s compelled to fix that, immediately. “I was in the middle of a conversation with a very close friend, and she walked by. Everything got quiet. I stopped that conversation and said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ I just zoomed in on her. The rest of the night, we were this close to each other, talking, laughing, dancing, and ended up together in conversation until six in the morning.”
Now, the freeze-frame and rewind: “Little did he know,” Paige reveals dramatically, “I had spotted him first.” From Paige’s perspective, the story isn’t the standard boy-sees-girl. At the center is a woman down on her luck, fresh out of a relationship, with “everything falling apart.” Frequent visits to a healer promised better times ahead, including a mysterious “J” figure, an older man in the same industry who will approach her in a dark, crowded space. “I’m like, ‘Coachella?’ ” she says. Months go by, invitations to events Jesse Williams will be at are floated but rebuffed, until after the second or third time. Then Paige remembers the healer’s words, and soon after, she says, “I had a dream that I was sleeping next to him.” Williams clarifies: “The night before we met.” When she went to the Emmys party, in a borrowed red dress, and Williams finally arrived, a calm washed over Paige: “It was just like, ‘There he is.’ Almost like, ‘Where have you been?’ ”
So how did you first tell him about all of this, I ask, without coming off… After all, healers, premonitions, signs like Paige receiving 111 texts and having 11,111 emails the morning after her dream—these are not the kinds of things that Jesse Williams buys into. At least they didn’t used to be. “Jesse can be very literal—facts, facts, facts,” Paige says. “We came from very different worlds,” Williams explains. “She’s very feminine and into spiritual planes, astrology. I’m very practical, fact-based, and masculine.” Still, after a certain point, Williams realized he had to loosen his grip a little. “I was having a wild, unfamiliar, uncomfortable experience, because it was all just happening in a very spiritual way—a way that’s not how I usually arrange things in my life. But I’d been going through a lot of transitions in life, and I had deliberately positioned myself to be open to saying yes, to be available to whatever, more than I had in the past,” he continues. “I don’t often let things happen to me. But because I had decided I was going to be open, I didn’t pull the brake like I normally would. I didn’t try to control, or position, or take a breath, and I just went along for the ride, as scary as that was and has been. She blew in—” “Like a wrecking ball,” Paige finishes, belting out the Miley Cyrus lyric.
After that fateful first night, the couple, both in the middle of transitional periods in life, decided to go through their respective “metamorphoses,” as Williams describes it, together. There was no formal first date or tentative courtship. “We skipped to the deep end of the pool,” he says. They spent months cocooned away from the prying eyes of gossip media as they began to figure their new relationship, and each other, out.
“Let’s be honest, I have a lot of press around my personal life,” Williams says wearily. “To go out is very likely to be photographed and declare something between me and another person who I’m just getting to know. I was very protective of not putting her through that and putting myself through that.”
Fast-forward two and a half years: As both of their careers continue to surge, Williams and Paige have become one of the industry’s most low-key goals-worthy couples. (Adorable Instagram posts abound—last summer a video Paige posted of Williams dutifully taking her braids out earned swoons from Black women especially.)
The pandemic delayed Williams’s Broadway debut in a revival of Take Me Out, but he’s still holding it down on Grey’s Anatomy (Paige coincidentally guest-starred on the show during his tenure, but their paths never crossed) and starred in one of last year’s most talked-about shows, Little Fires Everywhere. As for Paige, her healer may have downplayed the good career fortune that she promised—she ended 2020 with a scene-stealing role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; next she’ll appear as the romantic lead in Eddie Huang’s directorial debut, Boogie; and she plays the titular role in A24’s Zola, a film based off the title character’s viral Twitter tale of strippers, cons, and murder. “She’s blowing up,” Williams says proudly.
They’re navigating Hollywood together, supporting and challenging each other’s work, down to the audition practices. “We did a tape for him until 4 a.m. a couple weeks ago,” Paige says with a laugh. “At first he was super resistant, like, ‘I’m not doing it like that.’ It was funny, because you could see his ego fighting, then him surrendering, realizing, ‘You want me to win.’ We’re both really honest with one another. Jesse will be like, ‘This is boring.’ Or I’ll tell him, ‘I don’t believe anything you’re saying. Stop with that breath that you’re doing, it’s so actor-y.’ ”
The unflinching honesty and willingness to adapt also extends to their respective closets. At home Paige is quick to throw on Williams’s hoodies or sweats, but when it’s time to step out, they’re not afraid to push each other. “I don’t really respond to trends,” Williams admits, as Paige says she nudges him to simplify his closet. “He has things from literally like 2002, like, ‘Well, I loved this…,’ and I’m like, ‘No.’ ” Left to his own devices, Williams is most focused on a vintage watch or his signature gold chains. “He definitely dresses like a 1986 drug dealer,” Paige says, laughing. “Jesse will be like, ‘You’re wearing that?’ or I’ll say, ‘That’s wack. Take it off.’ ” Williams adds, “It’s not a meek interaction,” but Paige says ultimately they know it’s coming from a place of support—they’ve got each other’s backs, even when it comes to what’s on them.
As important as these constructive lessons are, the couple are also focused on helping each other “allow light.” Receiving positive news, affirmations—“that performance was great”—and accepting them as genuine is something they’re both wary of. Ever since his fiery BET Awards speech in 2016, Williams has arguably been known as much for his intense commitment to activism as for his acting. “Jesse has helped me shape and articulate my language, and how I see myself in the world as a Black woman, having agency and not apologizing for my space,” Paige says. But in turn, being with her has also helped him find a middle ground between fighting the good fight and prioritizing his own peace. “We’ve had really large conversations where I ask Jesse, ‘What would it look like if you weren’t resisting? What would this look like if you also prioritized your joy? You don’t get these days back. There is a fight to be fought, but there is also a life to be lived and loved.’ ”
When asked about the back half of 2020 and the surge in protests, activism, and police-brutality awareness that occurred after George Floyd’s murder, Williams says he’s inspired and unusually optimistic, while noting that it’s ultimately a long game. “I’ve been holding pretty tight my whole life to Black liberation and the work,” he says. “I’ve said it many times, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
The challenge of opening themselves up to learn from each other is, as Williams describes it, also about “preserving their individuality.” As it was for most couples, that was put to the test under quarantine. But ultimately, instead of buckling, the duo saw this period as a “high-concentration hyper boost” for their understanding of each other. And it’s still going. They’re discovering new ways that they complement each other, while also learning how they can adapt to be better together. “We make up where the other lacks,” Paige says. “So where Jesse is structured and organized—although he still can be more organized…” Williams follows with a perfectly timed “See what I’m dealing with here?” and it feels like talking to a couple who’ve been together for 10 years instead of three. “I think being in a relationship is almost impossible,” the Zola star admits. Together they almost make it look easy.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue with the title “Big Love and Huge Fits.”
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Photographs by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Hair by Cynthia Alveraz
Makeup by Cherish Brooke Hill for Dior