Tonya Lee Williams Talks to Soaps.com!
Over the weekend, Tonya Lee William’s (ex-Olivia Winters) ReelWorld Foundation held the first of what they hope will become an annual event. The Park Hyatt in Toronto hosted the High Tea and Celebrity Handbag Auction to raise funds to support Tonya Lee’s ReelWorld Film Festival, which this year runs from April 2nd through April 6th, also in Toronto.
Tonya established ReelWorld Foundation and Film Festival as a means of providing Canadians, particularly those of Aboriginal, Asian, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, South Asian and multi-racial descents, with opportunities to demonstrate their diverse talents both in front of, and behind the cameras. The ReelWorld Film Festival has become the leading portal for these emerging filmmakers to showcase their work. At the High Tea, Tonya was approached by many people, who had been supported by ReelWorld, who wished to offer her their thanks.
The fabulous handbags, over 100 of them, included several donated by celebrities such as recording artists Deborah Cox, Hillary Duff, and Fergie (of the Black Eyed Peas). Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight), and Y&R’s own former cast members, Lauralee Bell (Christine Williams), and Victoria Rowell (Drucilla Winters) also had donated handbags for the cause.
Soaps.com attended the High Tea and was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak with Tonya Lee, who, unlike the slightly uptight Doctor Olivia Winters she played on Y&R, was the picture of laid-back cool as she strolled into the event.
Soaps.com: You started the ReelWorld Film Festival in 2001. Was the ReelWorld Foundation started at the same time?
Tonya Lee: We started work in October 1999, I remember it well, and we finally got to have our first Film Festival in 2001. The Foundation began in 2002 because it really needed to work hand-in-hand. The Festival was a great opportunity to present the work and to have panels, but the Foundation continued ongoing workshops and screens a lot of the films in schools and community centers. It’s really about giving exposure through the year.
Soaps.com: Have you achieved the goals that you set at the beginning?
Tonya Lee: Oh my Lord, I’m so not that way, how I work. I throw myself in the middle of something and I keep swimming like salmon! We’ve achieved so many goals, I don’t even know if they are ones we set at that specific time, but I know I have major goals still to achieve and I never have a timeline on them – I just know we’ll get there. We may get there next year, we may get there in twenty years, but we’re going to get there.
Soaps.com: How did the idea of this fundraising event come about and how will the funds be used?
Tonya Lee: The Board of Directors wanted to put fundraisers on and I thought it was a great idea, but I was already exhausted working on the Festival, so I told them you, then, will have to take it completely, whatever fundraisers you do. So one of the Board member’s daughters, Sasha Stoltz, started brainstorming ideas and came up with this. She did the whole thing herself, I think she worked on it for nine months. She got over one hundred designer handbags here and all the money that’s raised here from the sponsorship she got and at the auction goes to ReelWorld Film Festival. Not only to put toward the Film Festival happening, but to year-round projects that are happening as well. So from that we have a staff , through the year, of a minimum of five full-time people, an office, you know, all these things need to be sustained through the year. And what we find with the Festival in particular, it’s like the funding is just enough for the Festival and then it stops, and everyone works for free for five months, so it’s not easy and we need to keep funding going all year.
Soaps.com: Will this be an annual event?
Tonya Lee: It would be wonderful if it was an annual event! I guess it depends on whether Sasha has the energy!
Soaps.com: Toronto Mayor, David Miller, has appointed you to the Toronto Film Board. Can you tell us about the work this board will do?
Tonya Lee: We’re hoping to do some pretty amazing things. It’s about creating some new indigenous work for Toronto. There is a part of the board that’s focused on bringing in more work from outside, but there’s another part of the board that’s really interested in creating opportunities for filmmakers that live here to create films here with each other. One can’t always rely on Americans coming in and shooting in the city, we really have to provide more opportunities for our filmmakers here, so it really is perfect for me, because the thing I’m always pushing is opportunities for diverse filmmakers, and any kind of indigenous work is good work as far as I’m concerned.
Soaps.com: Do you live here in Toronto?
Tonya Lee: No, I live in L.A., but I’m here quite often. Like, for this event, I flew in for two days, I go back to L.A., I’ll be back presenting at the Aboriginal Achievement Awards, so I’ll come back for two days, and I’ll leave again. I’ll be back for our press conference (to launch the ReelWorld Film Festival) on March 19th, I’ll go again, then I’ll come back for the Festival in April. But I live in Los Angeles. Remember Phil Donahue? He used to fly in for work every week on the Phil Donahue Show, then fly home for weekends. I thought, “What a crazy person!” But now I understand! The entertainment industry takes you every which way and you just have to flow with it! That’s just the way it is!
Soaps.com: In “Poor Boy’s Game” you had the opportunity to work with Danny Glover. What was that like?
Tonya Lee: It was like a dream come true! I’ve watched his work for years, and never in a million years did I think I’d have the opportunity to work with Danny on something, so I was really excited, and he’s such a master at what he does, and so humble – I mean, really giving, really a giving actor. It’s great to work with people who appreciate the craft, and he was one of those people, so it made it a joy. When I left Y&R, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do, and that opportunity presented itself, and now I’ve had the perfect film experience and I’m going to be very disappointed if I have another film experience and it’s not equally as wonderful. Especially since the film moved from the Berlin Film Festival to the Toronto Film Festival, so I traveled all over the world. In December I was at the Bahamas Film Festival with the film, so it’s just been a joy working with this film.
Soaps.com: Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share with us?
Tonya Lee: I’m hoping to have a lot of projects coming up because that writer’s strike has really hurt all of us in Los Angeles, and now that it’s all over, we’re really nervous about the actor’s strike that could be coming around the corner, so, I hope things really pick up! I think if the actor’s strike doesn’t happen there will be an avalanche of work. It’ll be like a dam that’s been backed up. We’re all waiting for that, I’m hoping it will just break and burst all over me!
Soaps.com: We miss Olivia on The Young and the Restless. Do you miss Olivia as well?
Tonya Lee: I do! I totally miss Olivia, you know, when I left the show I really needed a break. It was fifteen years, but now it's been almost three years, and they know that every once in a while I like to come back. I don't know that I'd be interested in signing a three-year contract, but I really love the idea of not having the character disappear, and of me being able to come on every once in a while. I think the last time they had me on was last March, so they really need to up that! I would really love to do more on the show because it's a great character, and you know, when you put that much time and effort into giving birth to a character, you never want to see that character disappear. And I think I'd be traumatized to see that character played by anybody else, so I wouldn't want that either!
Soaps.com: Do you keep in touch with anyone from the show? Obviously, you keep in touch with Christian (LeBlanc, Michael Baldwin, who is in attendance), anyone else?
Tonya Lee: Well, yeah, Christian was so easy! I said, "Christian, come on down!" and here he is! So, Christian and Michelle Stafford and I share the same agent, so we see each other sometimes through that, but honestly, I've spent so little time in Los Angeles in the past three years, it's actually scary and frightening. I want to spend more time there now, so this is the year I'm going to be spending more time there.
It was such a treat to spend time with Tonya Lee who was so down-to-earth and sweet. She introduced us to everyone passing by and even to her lovely mother, who put a beautiful inscription in the event program for her daughter:
No mother has ever had a kinder, more compassionate daughter. I feel very blessed to be your mother. One of the things I love best about you is your dedication to duty and thoughtfulness for others. I love you dearly and wish you great happiness and prosperity.
Your loving mother"
Tonya's mother told us that she wrote this first thing in the morning, as every morning she writes down the first thing that comes to her mind after she awakens. Watch for more on Tonya and her mom in Soaps.com Mother's Day feature in May!
Y&R News Writer