Max Williams

Former Badger hockey star Max Williams is making a name as an actor in Los Angeles.

Max Williams was talking to himself in the bathroom mirror when his brother's roommate walked by, overheard and changed his life.

Williams' life, not the roommate's.

This was maybe 15 years ago in Anchorage, Alaska.

Williams — Wisconsin sports fans remember him as a stellar Badger hockey player in the 1990s — was living with his brother, Karl Williams, an assistant coach with the University of Alaska-Anchorage hockey team.

Max was supposed to get on a plane to Finland the next day for another shot at professional hockey. But the face staring back from the mirror that day in Anchorage didn't want to go. In his heart, Williams was done with hockey.

"I want to be an actor," he said.

It was at that fateful moment his brother's roommate walked by. The roommate — clearly not motivated by reclaiming the bathroom, since Williams planned to leave the next day — weighed in.

"If that's what you want to do, then do it."

Good advice, it turned out.

These years on, Williams, 38, is in a very good place as an actor. He lives in the Los Angeles area, but it's more than that.

After some ups and downs, Williams cast aside a few personal demons and, as a result, his professional life is in full flower.

This week, Williams stars in a new play, "Lost Limbs," that's having its world premiere Friday at The Elephant Studio Theatre in Hollywood.

Come summer, Williams figures to command a larger audience when he plays the lead in "Bullet in the Face," a new six-part comedy-thriller that will air on the IFC network.

"I play a sociopathic assassin," Williams said last week by phone from Los Angeles.

Williams' character, who is shot in the face during a botched jewel heist, wakes in the hospital with his face covered in bandages. The bed is surrounded by cops. When his bandages come off, he has a new face — and an order from the cops to go undercover and bring down crime lords played by well-known actors Eddie Izzard and Eric Roberts.

Williams was at the gym in the summer of 2011 — he worked as a personal trainer since moving to California in 1998 — when his agent tracked him down with an offer to read for the part.

Williams was excited. "You've played this guy," he told himself, and indeed he played a similar role in 2009 in a decorated Elephant Theatre production called "Block Nine."

When he read for "Bullet in the Face," the casting director, Ivy Isenberg, said, "You've got this guy." After a few more tests, Williams was cast, also having hit it off with show creator Alan Spencer. Williams called shooting the series "the experience of a lifetime."

It was, in any case, an experience he spent a lifetime anticipating. "Since kindergarten," Williams said, when asked how long he thought about becoming an actor.

At that young age he played in a school musical production called "Billy Boy." But the expectation — his and everyone else's — was that Williams would make his name in hockey.

"Hockey was in my blood," Williams said. Max learned to skate at the fabled Montreal Forum, where his dad was a trainer for the Canadiens. By the time Max was in school, they moved to Denver, where his dad worked with the Denver University hockey program.

That was Max's first exposure to the Wisconsin Badgers and their rabid supporters. "All those fans in red for a road game," he said.

Recruited by coach Jeff Sauer, Williams came to Madison and had an outstanding career, twice leading the Badgers in goals scored and serving as captain his senior year — "my most fun years of hockey," he said.

He said Sauer gave him some advice — Williams was pressing on the ice — that he's since applied to other areas of his life. "You've got to let the game come to you," Sauer said.

Being prepared, doing your best, accepting the results — letting the game come to you — is a philosophy Williams has embraced since getting sober four years ago.

He always found joy in acting — from school plays to the classes he began in Anchorage — and that joy is evident in his voice today when he speaks of the underrated Los Angeles theater scene and the thrill of getting his big break with "Bullet in the Face."

The face in the mirror, meanwhile, is smiling.


Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

 

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