Tim Williams aka the Trivago Guy is a renaissance man. The Houston native is an actor and a musician, in town to promote his debut country album, Magnolia City. After starting as a character actor in bit roles in New York City, including The Cosby Show and The Sopranos, he got his first big break in Germany in 2001, starring in indie flicks and on a soap opera as an American rock star, naturally. It’s more impressive knowing that Williams learned German specifically to get work in the country.
But North Americans know him best for his work in commercials, most specifically for the European travel site, Trivago. Since first appearing in the early 2010s, Williams has starred in over 60 spots for the hotel search engine company, reaching the pantheon of recurring ad stars like Flo with Progressive insurance, the Most Interesting Man in the World with Dos Equis, or the Mayhem Guy with Allstate. It’s given the Robert E Lee High School (now Margaret Long Wisdom High School) grad a comfortable life, allowing him to travel back to his beloved home town a few times a year to visit his family.
But it was an auspicious start to Williams’ turn as a company spokesperson. Disheveled and looking like he had just rolled out of bed after a late-night bender, the early commercials gained notoriety among North American audiences who wondered just how an ad like that could make the air. Especially with a guy not wearing a belt.
There’s no denying Williams has the presence and voice to hawk wares on TV, but the Trivago spots and their strange production choice built a mystery and myth around the man in front of the camera, so much so that he found himself spoofed on Will Farrell comedy site, Funny or Die. Rolling Stone also did a feature on him, and a cult-like internet following grew.
We meet at a Marriott hotel near the West Loop, near his childhood home, where he’s having a few drinks in the bar with an entourage consisting of his exceedingly sweet mother, sister, manager, and bandmate, guitarist Robin Ruddy. No, Williams did not book the hotel on Trivago, which is a tad disappointing, but understandable when he gives a detailed account of his schedule. He’s been busy in New York, filming a sizzle reel for a potential comedy show he plans to shop to television through his production company, We Wax Entertainment, a name he jokes sounds like a porn site or waxing studio.
The middle-aged and handsome Williams is dressed svelte in a black sweater, black tee, and jeans with ball cap and glasses. He’s humble and generous, wearing the look of someone who’s been places with unabashed pride, secretively hiding the fact he could easily write a few volumes comprised of acquired life experiences.
Over the course of a 45-minute interview and two Stellas, he indeed waxes on various topics, like his long and varied career from serving as a roadie for one of the biggest bands in Germany, to how he established himself as an actor in a country where he didn’t know the language, why he decided to launch a music career, and of course, those pervasive commercials that made him famous.
What he misses about Houston:
“[I miss] my friends, my family. As much as I hate humidity, sometimes I miss it. I miss the food. I love Tex-Mex the way it is in Houston. I love Pappasito’s, Los Tios, La Hacienda.”
Why he is pursuing a career in country music:
“Just the stories. [The movie] Urban Cowboy struck a chord with me. Some of that stuff really hit me, the visuals in that movie. Gilley’s Club, I went out and rode the bull there after seeing that. Growing up here in Houston, I really related to that because I knew my mom was going out to some of those clubs where they were shooting that film and I felt closer to it somehow. That’s when I really started listening to the songs and the music of that movie because we had the soundtrack at the house.”
In 2002, Williams received an invitation by his future songwriting partner, Norbert Hamm, to go on tour with Herbert Grönemeyer, a huge German musician as part of the crew. The friendship would lead to Magnolia City and he’s joined them on tour each year for the next 16 years.
“I had no idea who this guy was,” Williams recalls about Grönemeyer. “Even from Das Boot, I hadn’t seen it. But I was like, ‘Yeah, what do I have to do?’ He was like, ‘You have to be the luggage driver. You have to take care of all the band’s luggage and make sure you have everything set up, stage left, stage right. A fucking roadie, but better than a roadie because I’m staying with the band at five-star hotels.”
On that first Trivago commercial, which started off as a voiceover, but then turned into something much more, filmed in a huge green screen studio in Germany. The shoot required him to pretend he was pressing buttons on a computer screen. Eventually, the production values would get better, but that first one was especially memorable for its low quality. It would make Williams a star.
“They were zero known in North America. It was going to be a test shoot to see if it works. I was doing another project at the time so I told them, ‘You can’t cut my hair.’ So, they combed it back and sprayed the hell out of it to keep it back. They didn’t have a lot of budget for shirts, wardrobe and belts. The whole belt thing came about because they only had three belts there. They wouldn’t fit in the belt loops because they were skinny jeans. Eventually they were, ‘Just use no belt, but tuck [in the shirt].’ The shirt was too big too, so they had to clip it and taper it.
It was horrible. I was like, ‘Why the fuck did that take off?’”
On being hated by strangers for being on TV:
“I was at a bar in New York, having chicken wings and watching some sports. Some guy starts talking to me, some Puerto Rican guy from New York City. We talked for 30-45 minutes. I told him I was living in Germany and he asked me why. I’m like, ‘I’m an actor, I do stuff over there that’s shown over here.’ He was like, ‘Holy shit, you’re the Trivago Guy! I fucking hated you, man! I know you now, you’re a good dude. My wife loved you, can we call my wife? We need to take a selfie.’ But he said he hated me first!”
On his legion of gay fans:
“I did this thing in New York City with this group called The Flaggots. They do the flags and march in parades. These two guys were getting married and I had to run down, I’m in a Trivago t-shirt, Trivago gave them a trip for their honeymoon. Any audience that you can get is great. You should be able to love who you want to love, and it should not bother anyone who they have feelings for.”
On being a part of the zeitgeist:
“I’m pretty proud. It puts you in a different place. Whatever people think, I just try to keep my life simple, play music, and hang out. Trivago has changed my life in the sense that I get to do other things. It’s given me other opportunities. But does any actor want to be stuck doing a commercial and be pigeonholed sometimes? No. I don’t feel stuck because of so many other things I’m doing.”
Tim Williams’ Magnolia City is now available on all streaming platforms.