There’s a rugged line between actor Michael K. Williams and the roles he presents to the world. The line is as slim and distinguished as the one that runs up the middle of his forehead. It starts from the right side of his cheek, extends to the bridge of his nose, and travels straight to the top of his temple. This characteristic mark, imprinted after a bar fight at 25, seems to literally split his head in half, separating one side of the brain from the other. The scar's positioning ironically represents how Williams lives his life, constantly straddling and splitting his world between reality and fiction. Part of his days are spent in imaginary land where he portrays people like Chalky White, one of the snarling and grimacing gangster stars of Boardwalk Empire. And the other part of his days are simply spent as Mike. A 46-year-old, November born, Brooklyn boy, from East Flatbush, NY. In a candid talk with The Shadow League, Williams shares how he maneuvers through dual lifestyles and the artistic passion that keeps pulling him from one side to the next.
RAQIYAH MAYS: I was at a film festival recently where a casting director used your name to inspire actors on the come up. She explained that early in your career, people were saying that you wouldn’t get roles because of the scar on your face. But look at you now.
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: You know, in the beginning, it made me stand out. I started in the music video era and I was the guy with the scar. It was cool for the music videos. But I knew that it would wear off really quickly. I knew that if I wanted to sustain myself in this business, I was going to need some substance. And for me, that substance was training. So it doesn’t matter to me what you say anymore, I know what I’m bringing to the table now. I have foundation as an actor. I studied. So it’s not about a look for me anymore. Although, my looks may get me in the door of the audition, it’s my skill that’s going to book the job. Because everybody has a scar.
RM: You’re right about that.
MKW: The pretty white chick has a scar. That’s her scar. Everybody looks at her like a hot piece of tail. Her looks will get her in the room, but her skills are going to seal the job. Everybody has their own variation of a scar. There's might be a curse to them.
RM: It’s all about perspective.
MKW: Exactly. It’s all about the perspective.
RM: We become better when we actually embrace some of our scars or faults, however we may see them. And once we do that, particular for you as an actor, it allows you to be more truthful. Because you’ve embraced all of it.
RM: When it comes to your most popular roles to date, Omar from The Wire, and Chalky from Boardwalk Empire, which character do you feel more connected to?
MKW: I’m connected to them both in different ways. They both have parts of my personality. With Omar, I understand his darkness. I understand his heart. I understand feeling like there’s no way out. I’ve felt that way before. Understanding what it is to come from poverty. Chalky, I know what it’s like to be a victim of racism, [for] somebody to look at me, and to not like me because of the color of my skin. I know what it’s like to make it against all odds. You know, cause I’m not the most educated person in the world. I don’t make no secret out of that. I dropped out of high school. I’m not illiterate, but I’m by far no college graduate. And I think I’ve been pretty blessed to go this far in life. And Chalky’s the same way. There’s a lot of hard work and dedication and it’s him focusing and finding out what he was good at.
RM: Have you thought about going back to school?
MKW: Oh yea, I definitely got my GED. But I have thought about going to college, maybe getting a degree. I want to learn other languages like Spanish or French. I might take language as a major to help strengthen different roles. I could play a Haitian or learn Spanish to play a Dominican. Those things have definitely crossed my mind.
RM: That’s cool. How do you prepare before it’s time to shoot? Do you meditate? Do you need to walk on to set in character? Do you stay in character for days? Everyone’s got their own method. What’s yours?
MKW: Number one, I do the research and do my back story on this particular character. Number two, I definitely walk on stage. I walk on set in character. Music is a huge portal for me to find my characters. I use music to access the emotion that whatever the character’s going through for a particular scene. And I use that with his back story of who he is as a person. And I take that all to the set. So by the time I walk on and I’m in wardrobe, Michael has left the building. I’m in full character. For a season like Boardwalk, you’re doing these long shoots. I tend to keep the character around me. I don’t fully come out of it until the season is wrapped. You have to keep some of the elements there, keeps it organic, keeps it fresh, keep it right there for me. So that’s how I approach it.
RM: So if you use music, what are you listening to for Chalky?
MKW: It could be anything. I’ll go anywhere from The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” to Jay Z to Mary J. Blige to Stevie Nicks. Elton John. It depends on what the character is going through, what Chalky’s going through. I find songs that feed that emotion to me. Music is just the portal. And once I’ve accessed the emotion, then I’m in character.
RM: Wow. So if you carry Chalky until the end of the season, that’s like, 12 episodes, how do you let him go?
MKW: Family. Friends. Prayer. Working out in the gym.
RM: I ask because I know some actors have a difficult time letting go.
RM: Some actors choose drugs or alcohol, because they’re so tightly wound up in whatever character they’re playing. And they need to release and decompress. It’s intense. So you see these stories of Lindsay Lohan, and all these actors with substance abuse issues, and I believe it’s because they’re having a hard time letting go. What are your thoughts on that?
MKW: You know, I suffered that with Omar. I had a hard time letting go and it was a painful process. When the show was over I felt like I had lost a best friend. I didn’t know how to separate myself from the character. That was a painful process when [The Wire] ended. But you have to have your tools. I can say for me, my family and friends and a basic conversation about just something simple can start to bring me back into myself. Prayer and meditation is a huge part of that and working out.
RM: I read a really great story The Star Ledger did on you about some of your experiences in Newark, NJ dealing with drug addiction. And when you tell me about how you don’t let go of a character until the end of a season, and the difficulty you had saying goodbye to Omar, would you stay away from a role where you would have to play someone with a drug problem for an extended period of time?
MKW: Oh no, I would. I’m actually considering [one] right now as we speak. Funny you would ask that. Like I said, it’s about having the tools. It’s about having that anchor on your ankle. You have to anchor a part of your spirit so that you can be able to come back when it’s time to. And I have that anchor now. So absolutely I would definitely take on a role of an addict. I’m fearless when it comes to the roles that I pick. I have no inhibitions. I have no hang-ups. I don’t worry about what people think. If I survived Omar as a black man from the hood, from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I mean anything else is downhill from there.
RM: (laughter) That is interesting how when you played Omar, people, thugs, everyone loved Omar even though he was gay. And that’s a big deal in the black community. Homosexuality. The big taboo. How did East Flatbush receive you?
MKW: I had concerns about that. But I got so much love. Omar got so much love from the hood man, it was extremely humbling. I think in some way that character helped to heal the hood from homophobia. I got straight thugs, running up to me on the street confessing their undying love. You know what I mean?
RM: Right. That’s dope.
MKW: Yes. Yes.
RM: And now you’ve got a small role in 12 Years a Slave. The Oscar buzz is crazy. What did you learn from working with director Steve McQueen?
MKW: It’s amazing to watch him work. I was in such a zone and I wanted to impress him, I wanted to definitely let him know what it meant to [me] to be on that project. So I just stayed in my zone and made sure that he was pleased with what he saw on the monitor. He’s a genius. He has the ability to tap in and create this reality for the actors. I believe they even sprayed the set with like, some type of urine scented fragrance. Cause it had like a dank aroma and it was just… He never said it, but I know I wasn’t the only one down there that smelled something. There was a dankness in there that I could only imagine [that] was only a fraction of what they, of what our people must of went through or had to live with. He’s a method director in a sense.
RM: I read that you ran up on McQueen to get the role. He was in a meeting, and you waited an hour in the rain for him to come outside. And after you approached him, like a half an hour later he called to set up a dinner meeting where he offered you the role. I guess that means you’re not at a point in your career where people are just giving you scripts and you’re picking roles?
MKW: No. Not at that point yet. I’m still reading, I mean still auditioning. You know, it’s still a process. Although it may appear that way, it’s still a process. Stay hungry. Stay humble. Stay grinding. That’s my motto.
RM: Okay. So will you be showing up on anymore HBO shows? It seems as if they have a little mafia process there, where once you’re in, you’re in. And you seem to keep circulating and showing up on the network.
MKW: Let me go on the record and be clear on this: I have auditioned for everything HBO has given me, from The Sopranos to The Wire to Boardwalk Empire. They are not in the habit of giving roles out. At least with me, I had to audition, which I have no problems with doing when I know I earned my role. I don’t need tenure. I don’t mind earning my roles. I don’t know if there is a HBO Mafia. I don’t know about it, because I know every role I booked there I’ve had to go through the process just like every other actor and audition and get in line like everybody else.
RM: Well, you got a co-starring role in the upcoming Robocop movie. That’s huge.
MKW: Yea. I’m excited about that. I’m playing [Robocop’s] partner. It’s an awesome cast. Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton. And there’s a guy that’s going to be a force to be reckoned with: Joel Kinnaman plays Robocop. I’m just excited and can’t wait to see. It tested really high and it’s due out in February. It’s the same exact story. It’s just that as opposed to being female, I’m the partner now.
RM: What kind of other roles would you like to play? I mean you did some TV comedy on Community. Do you want to do more comedy? Or do you wanna…
MKW: Miles Davis.
RM: Really? Why Miles Davis?
MKW: Why not? It’s never been told. Awesome story. Classic American music artist, changed the game of the music world. You know, epic story. Plus I think I look like him a little bit. (laughter)
RM: And you’ve got the film Kill The Messenger coming up.
MKW: Kill The Messenger, I play the real Ricky Ross. It’s basically a true story about a reporter who allegedly broke this story about how the government was feeding coke, crack cocaine [to the hood]. As the story gets told, the reporter is investigating, he comes across Rick Ross. It’s really compelling.
RM: Sounds heavy. So last question: What is it that you really want people to understand and know about Michael Kenneth Williams?
MKW: What I want people to know and understand about me?
Yea, you know at the end of the day what I want people to know… I think a lot of times people put [those] that do my line of work on pedestals. And I just want people to know that I’m a human being like everybody else. I’m not perfect, I’ve made mistakes, and I have feelings and that’s basically it. I wanna just chill, just like anybody else does sometimes.
RM: See now that brings up another question. What’s been the most difficult thing about this celebrity for you?
MKW: Lack of privacy. Back in the olden days the studios protected their actors, [they] protected their actors’ private lives. And with the birth of social media and the paparazzi, it’s just the times that we are living in now, we, your private life is free game. I don’t know if it’s a combination of the reality show ways or what, but I know that I think the downside of being in the public eye as a celebrity or as an entertainer is, why does my private life have to matter so much? You know I’m a public figure. I’m completely [open] to that fact. It’s just that not everything, some things… I’m only with giving a piece of my private life, a piece of my personal life, because I want people to know me. I don’t want people to think I’m Omar or that I’m Chalky White. No, this is Mike. I want people to know that. But at a certain point, don’t cross that line with it. You have Mike the actor. Then you have Mike the public figure. And you have the Mike mind your motherfucking business. You know what I’m saying?