Who could forget the openly gay, shotgun toting, ethical thug that had every drug dealer in Baltimore shook on the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire? Even now as actor Michael K. Williams skillfully plays Chalky White, leader of Black Atlantic City on another HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, fans still refer to him as Omar. But Williams, 45, is nothing like his defining character on The Wire. “Growing up in the streets of Brooklyn, for all intents and purposes, I was legitimately considered soft," recalls Williams. "I was nobody’s gangster.” Still, he loves playing the tough guy on TV. This Sunday you can see Williams on the season two finale of Boardwalk Empire. When we asked him for a hint of what to expect, Williams said, “S--t is really about to hit the fan.… All bets are off. Any door that may have been open, that door has been shut tight and sealed with Gorilla Glue. Things are going to change and it’s going to get real ugly.” Read on for more of our revealing conversation with the actor.
You started out in the business as a back-up dancer what led you to act?
It was never a split decision — I was happy background dancing. But it was during the course of doing music videos and after I cut my face, they would ask me to play thug roles in videos. [Williams had his face slashed during a fight after celebrating his 25th birthday.] This one director of a George Michael video was screaming, ‘Emote! Emote! Give me pain, Michael.’ And I was like, ‘What the hell does emote mean? When I figured that out I was like, I think I could do this and if I had some lines I could probably parlay it into something bigger. So I spruced up my resume and put the word actor next to model/dancer and then I get a phone call from this production company saying that Tupac Shakur is looking for me.
Oh wow, and what happened?
Tupac was in New York at the time shooting a film called Bullet and he saw a Polaroid of mine and thought, in his words, ‘[I] looked thugged out enough to play his little brother,’ and that’s how the whole thing started.
Awesome story. Who are some of your acting inspirations?
First and foremost, Laurence Fishburne, Clarence Williams III, Robert De Niro and I love Larenz Tate. He did a lot for me. Mos Def, I think is a phenomenal actor. Sean Penn, phenomenal. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, phenomenal. In the field, we call these guys character actors and I aspire to be like that.
Describe your dream role?
I would like to portray somebody. Someone like a James Baldwin or like a... my brother Don Cheadle got it already, but I would love to have been given the opportunity to play a Miles Davis.
Your defining role was as Omar on The Wire. In many ways you redefined what homosexuality could look like, particularly for African-Americans. How were you able to pull that off?
After the excitement of having booked the job I remember being a little intimidated by his sexual orientation because I still had to go back home to the projects in Brooklyn. I didn’t want my moms to stress, so I ask her, ‘Yo, mom’s, Omar, he’s openly gay, how do you feel about that?’ And she said, “Well, son this the life you chose. Go head, do it!” That was just the push I needed. Then there were some things that made Omar very comfortable for me. Number one, he was not effeminate. So, I didn’t have to learn how to walk in high heel shoes and put on makeup. And you know so, when I got an understanding of the character, I was like I’m just gonna play his orientation the way it should be played — in a matter of fact way. What you need to be worried about is if he got that shotgun on you, not who he’s sleeping with. And I went in there with that state of mind and I approached his intimate scenes just as that, as just a dude in love. And I know what it is to be in love. So I generalized everything regarding his orientation because that’s the way it should be. The hardest part I had to make believable was Omar’s gun talk. I had to make sure that when people saw me with that shotgun, it looked real and felt real. You were frightened if he was coming for you.
Were you afraid of being typecast after The Wire, since so many people still think of you as Omar?
I was afraid of not eating. I’m on my Sam Jackson right now. I want to stay working. Early on, one of my coaches used to say to me every artist has a vehicle and as an early actor you need to hone in on your vehicle. You may always find that they want to cast you one way. Ride that muthaf---a to the wheels fall off. And so I got perceived as a thug and I felt fortunate. Because although I’m not a thug, I know thugs. I love thugs. I have friends who are gangsters, who have done things in life that I would never aspire to do. But I know their mamas. I know their sisters. We’ve broke bread together. My point is that they’re not just thugs, not just a menace to society. I know how they got that way. I know when they made the turn. I know them as a whole human being and I feel fortunate. I feel very honored that I was called to be a voice for a people who tend to be stereotyped, shunned by society or are unheard. And I’m going to say that if the writing is good quality, I have no problem playing my thug roles. I happen to think I do them very well.
Indeed. So tell me about Boardwalk Empire. How is it working with Martin Scorcese and Terrence Winter? Those are serious heavyweights.
I don’t deviate from my formula. I come to work on time. I focus on my job. I bust my scenes out and everything else kind of happens from there. As you can guess, a lot of actors were up for that role, but Terry Winter (The Sopranos) really fought to get me on the show and I didn’t want to let him down. So I went in with both guns blazing and that was my primary purpose. That’s the best way to show Marty and Terry that I appreciate being in their presence. That I’ve come with my A-game. And now I have a friendships with these men. Terry will email me every now and then and Marty walks up to me and hugs me. I’m still pinching myself like, is this real? But my main purpose was to earn their respect and not geek out.
What do you tap into for your role as Chalky White? It’s a different time period, especially with regard to how Blacks were treated and even though your character is a powerful man in Atlantic City...
He still has to know his place…
Yes. What did you call on to be able to do that?
I did something I never did before with Chalky. Omar and my other characters I would pull on my experiences growing up in my hood and different people that I looked up to or wish I had their type of strength and courage. With Chalky I knew I had to dig deeper. I channeled my ancestors. I went to my father, my uncles, my godfather, all these men who helped shaped me as a child who are no longer here in the physical, I pulled different characteristics from them. And it became an homage to what they saw growing up as a child, especially my father being from the South. I know I have family members who met their demise at the hands of the Klan, so how that must’ve shaped my father and my uncles. All that energy and those different spirits together, it became a channeling process. I almost feel like, my ancestors speak through me in that character.
How do you feel after you do these really intense scenes? Are there moments when you have to check out?
When I go deep like that it takes me a while to turn it off. At one point, I was dealing with some personal demons, so I was turning to different mind-altering substances to shake it off. But I’ve since then let that go because it was damaging me and my tool, my vehicle. Even with Omar, I’d have to get high to shake that off. Now, I just pray to God. I just say, ‘You know what God, release this. I need Mike back.’
(Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)