Michael K. (Kenneth) Williams is a fascinating and unforgettable actor no matter what role it was you first saw him in. For many of us, it was as the ultimate one-man thug hit squad Omar Little on HBO's "The Wire." Others were introduced to him with HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" as the only major black character Chalky White, a major Atlantic City bootlegging distributor, whose role is substantially increased in the new season that begins this Sunday night.
If you happened to watch Williams in Todd Solondz's LIFE DURING WARTIME, you saw a man who turned crying into an art form. He has also appeared in films as far ranging as Martin Scorsese' BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, Chris Rock's I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE, Ben Affleck's GONE BABY GONE, Spike Lee's MIRACLE AT ST. ANNAS, John Hillcoat's THE ROAD, and Antoine Fuqua's BROOKLYN'S FINEST. For those R. Kelly fans out there, Williams was prominently featured in the singer's episodic "Trapped in the Closet" video.
Most recently, Williams has joined the cast of "Community" as Professor Kane, a biology teacher who earned his degree in prison. And oh my goodness is he good on the show. The purpose for our interview was an appearance he was making in Chicago in conjunction with a screening of the second season premiere episode of "Boardwalk Empire." I was fortunate enough to have seen the first two episodes of this season before talking to Williams, and as I said before, he is featured in a light we've never quite seen before. There's a brutal attack on Chalky's operations by the KKK, a jailhouse standoff that does not turn out how I thought it would, and, perhaps most surprisingly, an introduction to his wife and children.
We had a lot to talk about, clearly, and loads of time to do so. Williams was a personable, funny man, but every so often, I'd catch a glimpse of that scar on his face (earned in a barroom fight when he was in his early 20s), and I'd think of Omar whistling, mostly likely carrying a shotgun. There are some slight "Boardwalk Empire" spoilers scattered throughout that part of the discussion, but nothing to drastic. Enjoy Michael K. Williams…
Capone: I've seen the first couple of episodes of the new season of "Boardwalk Empire," and it seems like you’re going to have a lot more to do this year. I’ve learned a lot more about Chalky White in these two episodes than I had in all of last season, just in terms of his motivations and how he operates. Are we going to get more of that?
Michael K. Williams: Yeah, episodes one and two of season two definitely sets the template and the groundwork for what’s to come with Chalky in this whole season. It definitely will expand. You're going to see that there are repercussions from what goes on in the first two episodes and “How does he get out of that? How does he deal with that?” It affects his relationship with Nucky and “How does it deal with that?” We are going to see his family this year, how he deals with his family, which is not always pretty. There are some insecurities there that he has to deal with with his family, that he is faced with when dealing with his family, but it’s more screen time, but more importantly it’s what [head writer and executive producer] Terry Winter has done with the screen time and writing what I have to do. I’m very excited about it.
Capone: And the stuff with the family was particularly interesting, because we didn’t see them last season at all, right?
Capone: The fact that he even has a family is sort of surprising. At first we just thought “He’s just a criminal. He dresses nice and has got some money,” but no, he’s a working man, he’s trying to support a family and give his kids a better life, and that’s a whole different level there. Before you even starting getting scripts for Season 2, did you know they were going to build up that aspect of the character?
MKW: I told Terry if he’d give me one more kid, I’m going to come for him for child support.
MKW: One more kid… It was a surprise. I was actually really shocked. I had gotten a phone call from a friend of mine, Al Thompson, and he kept texting me and emailing me pictures of this little girl and kept saying, “Wouldn’t she be an awesome daughter for you?” I was like, “I didn’t remember telling you that I was adopting. I’ve got three kids; I’m good on the kid thing right now, alright?” And he kept sending it and resending it, so I didn’t even answer. I was like “What is Al dude texting me pictures of this little girl telling me she’d be a great candidate for my daughter?”
Then I’m reading the script to prepare for the shoot, and it had the little girl’s name and then it had a number by it and then it had the word “White.” So I was like “Okay, so a white female.” Then it had another name and a number next to it and the word “White” and I was like, “What are all of these white girls doing in Chalky’s house?” Then when it hit, I was like, “Oh, shit.” So I spent 20 minutes laughing to myself saying, “Mike, you’ve got to get a little more sharper than this, dude.” [laughs]
Capone: You’ve got to remember where your steady work is coming from.
MKW: I could at least spell my character’s last name [Laughs]. I’ll start there.
Capone: When you first were sort of told about this character or read about him, what did see in him that you liked, beyond the clothes of course. What did you see in him that you were drawn to?
MKW: The first thing that grew me to Chalky was the type of man that he was in the time he lived. Even in the audition piece of monologue, you could see that he was a strong black man, and in 1920s that had to be rare. He talked to everyone the same, and I just thought that was interesting for me.
Capone: Tell me about putting those clothes on for the first time. How did that inform the way you played him?
MKW: It definitely made me walk and stand differently, because it’s like between the shirt collar and the garter for around the socks and suspenders and button flies, I was like “Jesus, this is what girls go through?” I love the clothes. I love fashion. I love style, so getting to put those clothes on everyday for work was a huge excitement for me. It just breathes life into the character. You become your character when you dress like that.
Capone: Why do you think he does dress like that?
MKW: It’s a statement. It’s definitely a statement. He knows that he pops in a red over coat, he knows that. It’s like a peacock almost, if you will. It’s to show white America that, “Although you tell me I can’t, I can,” and it’s also to instill a sense of hope and pride in his people. He hopes that if they look at him and see the life he lives, they can aspire to have the same life.
Capone: Did it make you do a double take when you read that opening scene, when the doors open and all of those guys in the hoods with guns standing there?
MKW: That was a very weird day at the office, weird day. This is my second time being on set with the klan members. Season one you know, “I ain’t building no bookcase.” Ironically, we shot that scene in Harlem, go figure. Like “You couldn’t find no place else in New York City to shoot a klan scene? Okay.”
But that whole scene in season two, that opening scene, was just bone chilling. The thing that sticks out in my mind the most is after the young lady saves Chalky’s life, and then he gets shot in the shoulder, and the bone and the meat and flesh is hanging out, I just forgot I was actually working in the scene. I’m standing there and they had to cut, because I froze, and I remember subconsciously saying to myself “Wow, this is a great movie. I’m so glad I’m not there.” Like I’m not even joking, I literally forgot I was there. My mind just transported me out of that, because it was so fearful to look at.
My innate reaction was to disconnect with it, and I just forgot I was even supposed to do any acting. I wasn’t even in the room at that point anymore. It’s bone chilling. It’s important that we go there and that we show that as a part of our American history, as ugly as it may be, it’s part of who we are, and it shows us how far we have come as a nation and as a people. The next generation, it will make them respect each other’s culture and past. I believe if you don’t remember, then you’re doomed to repeat.
Capone: I was sort of surprised that the klan had that much pull that far north. I think that’s going to be really eye-opening for some people.
MKW: Me, as well. I also didn’t know that. I just equated the klan with the south and that was it. Apparently, that is not the case.
Capone: I guess not. Another great moment from one of the first two episodes is when you give that speech about the "invisible people" of Atlantic City, and how you kind of control them--the porters the hotel workers, and how you own them. And they could just disappear literally or just in terms of support for Nucky That actually has some parallels to the immigration discussions going on in California. If those people disappeared, there would be a lot of jobs not getting done. Did you draw those connections in your mind?
MKW: This country would crumble, absolutely. I drew on that, particularly what the Mexicans are dealing with right now with the immigration, that was a prominent piece of inspiration to draw from. But in a nutshell, that’s Chalky’s power. That’s the power source you know? That’s his ace in the hole.
Capone: In the second episode, the jailhouse situation and how that plays out, which is not how I thought it was going to play out, but it really does speak to how Chalky is always two steps ahead of everybody that’s trying to get him. That’s the greatest part about the character he's smarter than just about anybody.
MKW: He has to be. It goes to the whole cliché that the black man has to be two steps ahead of everybody, “whitey” or whatever you want to say. To get the job, you can’t just be okay, you have to be better than okay. In that time, it wasn’t just about getting a job, it was about staying alive. You had to keep both eyes open and one in the back of your head just to stay alive. You could not be average. You couldn’t just be, “Oh, I’m going right there.” You’ve got to look both ways before you cross the street, because you might just get run over.
Capone: You’ve got to look at every angle, that’s right. I was a huge fan of "The Wire" from day one. I’m actually from Maryland, so I was really attached to that show. Do you still get recognized from that? Do you still get called “Omar”?
MKW: 7 out of 10 people will stop me and want to talk about "The Wire" and even the other three who mention "Boardwalk Empire," before they leave the discussion, they go “I loved 'The Wire'!”
Capone: When did you realize that Omar had a hold on the public, that he was a special part of that show?
MKW: Season 3.
Capone: What happened then?
MKW: I just opened my eyes and I stopped having tunnel vision you know. Season 1, I was just happy to have a job. It was like “Whee!” Then season 2, I went through the whole “Ah, this is messed up, as soon as you get a black TV show, they want to switch it up…”
Capone: That’s right, it totally changed to the dock storyline in season 2.
MKW: They got the switch up, and they blamed David Simon, “because it was racist” and that whole thing, so I was still very narcissistic, “It’s all about me.” Then in season 3 I don’t know what happened, when or how, but something clicked, and I just woke up and decided to look at the whole picture and I realized that “I’m a part of something a lot bigger than myself. This is not just a job, I’ve been called to be a part of something, albeit a small part, that is really great.”
One of the catch phrases on "The Wire" was “All of the pieces matter,” and I look back at the body of work, all five seasons as a whole, and personally season 2 was one of the most important seasons. We always see stories and images of what black people are doing or what's going on in the hood, whether it’s white or black or Hispanic, what we do with the drugs in the community. But season 2 is one of the few and only TV shows that dealt with the question of where the drugs are coming from. We are not growing coca leaves and poppy seeds in Harlem or in Baltimore, “Where’s it coming from?” So season 2, looking back now in retrospect, I think it’s one of the most important storylines.
Capone: Yeah, they are all great, and as a writer, the season 5 storyline with the newspaper thread was just so meaningful.
MKW: My personal favorite was 4; the kids broke my heart. I cried.
Capone: Forgot about it. If I ever met one of those kids today, I’d give them a hug, they were so good. Omar always had that sort of boogeyman appeal that like horror movie monsters, where as the myth was almost bigger than the real thing--nadthe real thing was pretty damn scary. But what did you do to cultivate that persona?
MKW: With Omar, what I drew on him for Omar were a lot of people that I grew up watching and idolizing as a kid growing up, pretty much the gangsters of projects who did not play, these iconic gangsters from East Flatbush Brooklyn, from my neighborhood that I grew up just watching. I remember when I knew I had a gun scene coming up, I had never really fired a gun before and I went to one guy, and I was like “Yo, I’ve got this role and I’ve got to shoot a gun. I think it’s a 9mm.” I said, “How would someone with my body size and my wrist size, how would they hold a gun? I don’t know, but I don’t think that sideways thing you see in the movies really plays. I want it to look realistic. I want it this dude to look like he’s really trying to kill somebody.” And he took me on a roof and he showed me.
He said, “Mike, we don’t believe in stray bullets. You get in and you get out. You hit your target.” He said, “The way to do that is you cup the gun with two hands and you slack one elbow and the other one is straight, and you one eye it and you aim at your target.” He showed me the level of how to hold a gun, you’ve got to give way for the kickback. He said, “Never hold a gun with one hand, because someone of your narrow frame, the gun will hit you in your forehead and knock you out.” He took me on a roof, and we let off a few rounds, and he showed me how to handle the power of a firearm.
Capone: One last question about Omar: How did you first find out how Omar was going to die?
Capone: What was your reaction?
MKW: Chilling on the couch, I read the script, “Oh well.” [Laughs]
Capone: You had to have some idea that he might not make beyond the end of the show.
MKW: No, I always knew. Actually, he did make it to the end. I was looking for the bullet from season one. I didn’t think he would get that far. Season 5? It’s like “Dude, we had a good run. God bless you, and rest in peace. It’s been fun. It’s been real.” There was some sadness, of course, but hey, I always knew it was going to come.
Capone: Back in July, I was at Comic Con interviewing some of the folks from "Community."
MKW: [laughs] Absolutely.
Capone: Are you there from the beginning?
MKW: Yeah, I’m in the season premiere.
Capone: The on that’s on this week?
MKW: Yeah. They are awesome. The cast of "Community," man, Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong, Yvette, Donald… I love them, but you know I’m not doing anything out of the norm, aside the fact that I play a biology professor named “Professor Kane,” and he got his degree in prison, so he’s very intense. [Laughs] A very serious kind of dude, so that is the foundation for the comedy. You have these slackers in class, and he’s like, “Do you know what I had to do to get my education?”
Capone: It seems like he’s certainly the most competent teacher they have had.
MKW: We’ll see. He goes off on his little tangents every now and then, but it’s a very nurturing environment for someone like me that does what I do to come in and be looked at as comical. The gift of comedy, I totally do not have.
Capone: How are you doing with the comedy? (Laughs)
MKW: What I do is I listen and I watch and I take direction from my coworkers. I shot a film in Miami called THE COOKOUT 2 and I was paired up with Jay Pharoah from "Saturaday Night Live," and all I did was say, “Just guide me. Guide me. Whatever you say to do, I will do.” [Laughs] I did the same thing with Chris Rock in I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE, “Guide me.” Chris was literally on the floor as I was simulating kicking him, and he was shouting out adlibs for me to say like, “Taste the crocodile, motherfucker!” “Eat the boot!” “Yeah!” He was literally telling me that as he’s doing the simulation of someone being kicked. I said, “Is anyone taping this? This is classic.” So I just follow suit, man, I just shut up and I listen, because I’m clearly not in my comfort zone.
Capone: You’ve got that disadvantage, plus you're coming into a situation where everybody has now been working together for a couple of years. What did they sort of do to make sure you didn’t feel like an outsider? Or maybe they wanted you to feel like one.
MKW: They hazed me. Joel McHale hazed me. No, I have been really fortunate to be put around some really beautiful people. I’m constantly surrounded by good company, and that cast is such a well-oiled machine. Sometimes you sit back and you watch them do a take, and their rhythm and the nuances and the way they snap on each other and the adlibs, they just open up and make a space for you at the table, man. I have a secret crush on Chevy Chase right now, actually. I’m going to ask him to marry me in the next episode that we do.
Capone: We just had a writer on the set a couple weeks ago.
MKW: Did he tell you that we were holding hands?
Capone: No, I don’t think so. He did talk to Chevy, but I don't think that interview has run yet.
MKW: We were holding hands and hugging each other. I had a ball over there.
Capone: When I interviewed some of the cast members at Comic Con and we talked about you coming on the show, I said “Does he bring his own gun, or do you give him a gun when he gets there?”
MKW: [laughs] I traded the gun for the briefcase.
Capone: I know that [showrunner/creator] Dan Harmon had said that they were trying to make this season a little more grounded in reality, and I assume bringing you onboard was sort of part of that. Did he discuss that element with you at all?
MKW: No, but I could clearly see where he was going. The episodes that I’ve shot already they tie it up with a life message, something about either friendship or growing up or not being afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” I’ve noticed the three that I have done so far have had nice tie ups. It’s kind of like what "Modern Family" does when they tie up in the end to get this real kind of grounding message, and I love that kind of stuff and I see "Community" doing that in their own way.
Capone: Are you on for the whole season?
MKW: Your lips to God’s ears. [laughs] I’m just going to treat it like Omar, as long as they are calling me for a call time, I ain’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m not running, that’s for sure. I really enjoy working with them.
Capone: Have you gotten to do any scenes with John Goodman?
MKW: John is the only one I haven’t met yet. I’ve met the entire cast except for John.
Capone: But he’s only on it for like a few episodes I think.
MKW: We shot him, and he’s dry rotting in the closet [laughs]
Capone: You’ve got a very full plate with T.V. right now, but do you have any films coming out like in the next year or so?
MKW: Well I don’t know in the next year, but my film plate is getting a little full. I recently booked a role in an upcoming film called SNITCH with The Rock and Susan Sarandon. I am in huge discussions again with QT, as I call him. [Laughs] You might know him better as Quentin Tarantino. We were talking about another role for DJANGO UNCHAINED, and I’m getting a lot of heat from this remake of an old film called SPARKLE.
Capone: Oh? I’ve heard about this remake actually. With Whitney Houston.
MKW: I’m getting a lot of heat from that. So my movie plate is starting to fill up.
Capone: So the Tarantino thing, that’s a maybe?
MKW: I’m going to dare to say it’s going to go. Not the lead role…
Capone: Well yeah, because it’s Jamie Foxx, right.
MKW: Jamie Foxx, but from what I understand, he wrote a role for me. So take that Mr. Foxx! [Laughs] Actually it came down to Jamie and I.
Capone: Did it really?
MKW: It came down to Jamie and I for Django, and he was gracious enough to call me and tell me that “Jamie was his nigger.”
MKW: (In a sad voice) “I’m not going to be your slave? I’m not going to be your house nigger?!” [laughs] What a person to lose to. I am really excited to be working with him. Yeah, and Will Smith expressed some interest, but it came down to Jamie Foxx and I, like QT told me this personally out of his mouth over lunch.
Capone: So he wrote this other part for you, because he couldn’t cast you as the lead?
MKW: I don’t know what his reasons were, but once again, I do not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Capone: Sure. Do you know anything about the part?
MKW: Absolutely not. I can’t right now. I do know, but I wont right now.
Capone: Okay. His scripts tend to get out there pretty early on in the process.
MKW: Yeah. I want to let him finish putting his tailoring touch on it, but his people are talking to my people.
Capone: Okay. That’s great. Did he give you any timeline on when shooting starts?
MKW: Yes, I’ve been given a timeline. January through April. I’ve been given some dates when he’s going to want me to work, but I haven’t gotten the official word yet.
Capone: Yeah, but still a timeline is a good sign.
MKW: We like timelines. Yes, timelines are good.
Capone: Back to "Boardwalk Empire" for a second. I was kind of curious, I had not remembered that you were in BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. Did that have anything to do with you getting cast in the show, because of the Scorsese connection?
MKW: Yeah. You know I’m quite sure Marty remembered me from BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, which I was shocked with the number of people he’s met over the years, but I would have to say I think my biggest cheerleader was [series director] Tim Van Patten.
Capone: Okay sure. He directed the first episode this season, right.
MKW: He really pushed. I know for a fact, he was waving the Mike K. Williams banner.
Capone: The only thing I know about Tim Van Patten is he does some of the best episodes of many of the HBO shows.
MKW: I’ll tell you he is a genius at what he does, but he’s also a kickass, beautiful person. I call him my “brother from another mother.”
Capone: Michael, best of luck.
MKW: Well, I was going to say if anybody wants to check me out or find out what I’m doing or where I’m at, I’m an avid Twitterer. Yeah, you can find me at @BKBMG and that that stands for “Brooklyn Boy Makes Good” Holler at your boy.
Capone: All right, cool. Thank you so much. It was great to meet you.