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Interview

Michael Kenneth Williams Dances on the High 'Wire' to the 'Boardwalk'

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Michael Kenneth Williams Dances on the High 'Wire' to the 'Boardwalk'
Photo Source: Abbot Genser/HBO
Though fans of "The Wire" may only know him as the shotgun-toting, openly gay Omar Little, Michael Kenneth Williams has enjoyed a diverse career as a dancer, choreographer, and actor. The Brooklyn native has been featured on such television series as "Law & Order" and "The Sopranos" and in films like Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead," "Gone Baby Gone," and "The Road." His facial scar, which he received when assailants sliced him with razor blades on his 25th birthday, initially helped him find work, but over the years Williams has honed his craft and brings charisma to any role. As Chalky White in HBO's period drama "Boardwalk Empire," he plays an intimidating businessman and leader of Atlantic City's African-American community. Williams spoke to Back Stage about his critically acclaimed roles and offered advice to aspiring actors.

Back Stage: You were originally a dancer. How did you become an actor?

Michael Kenneth Williams: I had been dancing for like seven years because, honestly, I wanted to become a background dancer for Janet Jackson. All I needed was to be was behind her. I had a bunch of music videos and I floated my picture around to various production companies. Tupac Shakur happened to see a dark Polaroid of me and somehow he saw that I had a scar on my face. He said that I looked thugged out enough to play his brother, [so] he had the producers look for me to be with him in the movie "Bullet."

Back Stage: What did Tupac teach you about acting?

Williams: I learned how to make decisions. Once, the stunt coordinator and the director were having creative differences over my mark for a big shootout. So I said, "I'm going to stand here, this feels right. And if I stand here, then your special effects can go off and you can get your shot." Then I turned around and looked at Pac, and he gave me a nod like "That's how you do it."

Back Stage: Did having your scar help your career early on?

Williams: The scar started off as a vehicle and I was just being cast on it. But it was already getting old for me, so I knew that was going to wear out soon in the business. I had this bright idea: "Why don't you get some training, so you have something to back this shit up with." Shortly after my second movie, "Mugshot," I was fortunately introduced into Off-Broadway theater and that's where I got my training from, like, La MaMa Theatre, National Black Theatre.

Back Stage: What did you learn from acting in theater?

Williams: The theater world is just the sharpening of the knife. Film and television can dull your tools because you get to rely on the cut and the action process, but on stage, if you fuck up, you got to use it. [In theater] I knew all the actors' lines, because I wanted to input them into my cue and storyline. Another thing I learned from the theater world is that as an actor you're never alive; you're always a work in progress. No two performances are ever the same and you can always find a new layer to the character. I absolutely would go back to theater and am in the process of developing a one-man show, like John Leguizamo's ["Ghetto Klown"].

Back Stage: How did you come across "The Wire," and did you realize at first the series was something unique?

Williams: By around 2001, I already had a guest-starring role on "Law & Order," been on "The Sopranos," and was in Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead." It's kind of embarrassing, but I thought, "They should be calling me any day now," and that never actually happened. I remember I was with some friends and my "Sopranos" episode came on. It was then I decided to give it another shot. I put out this DVD demo, got new headshots, spent a shitload of money and sent them out as Christmas presents. I had a hit list of people I thought could help me and was sure were going to respond, but no one responded. I ended up working at my mother's day-care center in Brooklyn. In March, I got a call from [casting director] Alexa Fogel, who apparently had been looking for me and she sent the breakdown [for "The Wire."] I read it. I didn't see anything special. Omar's breakdown was like: "Gangster, robs drug dealers. Oh, by the way, he's gay." I was like, "Fuck yeah, I can do this." I embraced everything about this character and I went in the audition having made that decision. [After getting the role] I was just happy to be a working actor. It didn't hit me that I was a part of something way bigger than myself probably until like Season 3. I'm very fortunate to be a part of this family.

Back Stage: What research did you to do to portray Omar?

Williams: I visited Baltimore. It was very cool to see that the city had its own swagger. It is one of the most original black cultural or just cultural places that I've ever seen. I knew immediately that I did not want Omar to sound like a dude from Brooklyn. It was important to me that I nail the Baltimore dialect—as I call it, "country city." I wanted him to dress like a Baltimorean with local Baltimore duds. I would just sit in Lexington Market and spend hours listening to the conversations, dialects, and charisma of different characters, and Omar started to grow from there. I even went to a gay bar near the hotel I was staying at. Also, I'd walk the most desolate streets of Baltimore at night just to get that lurking that Omar does. Those that know Baltimore know I was taking my life into my own hands.

Back Stage: How was Omar's thug life different than the one you had in growing up in Brooklyn?

Williams: I was a square. I wanted to be a cool kid. I grew up in a West Indian–Caribbean neighborhood where the hardest gangsters in New York lived. We had this notorious gang called The Untouchables and they had this swagger, even in a gunfight. Omar had a lot of that, not too much talking or big drama. I never busted a gun before and I didn't want Omar to look like a TV gangster, holding his gun to the side. I don't know guns, but I don't think that's the way you hold a gun. I went to this old G in my neighborhood and I asked, "How would I hold a gun?" He said. "Depends on what type of gun you holdin'." I said, "Let's say it's a .45." He said, "It just so happens that I got one of those." He took me to the roof and he showed me how someone with my body frame would hold a gun and bust.

Back Stage: Do you think audiences perceive gangster characters differently now?

Williams: Absolutely. Series like "The Wire" and "Sopranos" show these people have names, families, emotions, and insecurities. It's not just punk number two on the corner. I really think that series like that opened the perception of how we look at gangsters. On the street, if I had told you about Omar, you would've never wanted to meet him. But through the art of television, the performances, and David Simon's writing, you have people that wouldn't have spit on Omar if he was on fire, now professing their undying love for him. People ask me, am I afraid of getting stereotyped? I say, "No, I'm scared of not eating." This is the vehicle I've been called to play. I feel honored to be a voice for people that would normally be unheard or ignored.

Back Stage: How did you come across "Boardwalk Empire"?

Williams: I was actually in Cape Town, South Africa, working on "The Philanthropist." I got this call saying, "There's a show I want to run by you with Martin Scorsese." I thought, "They're never going to cast me. It's Scorsese; he probably has actors all over the country going for this role." I figured I had nothing to lose. I put myself on tape and I sent it. Then they told me I had it and I had to accept the offer.

Back Stage: How did you prepare for the role?

Williams: They gave me the book "Boardwalk Empire" and some background story on Chalky White. I actually ran into Mike Tyson in Los Angeles in April and he's one of the only ones who knows what I know, which is Chalky White was really a person. He was a boxer and one of the hundred greatest hitters of all time. According to Mike, White came from the West, maybe California. I used those bits of backstory. I also pulled from my familial background, particularly people on my father's side. Their mindset of looking for a better way of my life, migrating from South to North, influenced the character.

Back Stage: You went from acting as a thug for years to now being a savvy businessman. How is playing Chalky White different than portraying Omar?

Williams: They have some similarities. Each has a code of morals and doesn't break it for anybody, but the difference is Chalky is a businessman and Omar is for the thrill of the hunt. This season, when Chalky's driver is lynched, he used that, even though he was hurting, as leverage to sweeten his cut with Nucky [Steve Buscemi's character]. Omar would've said, "F--- that, I'm going to kill me some crackers."

Back Stage: What can you tell me about this upcoming season?

Williams: We're on, like, Episode 8 now, but this season has surpassed my wildest dreams of what they would want to do with this character. I'm really excited.

Back Stage: Are there now more roles with substance available for African-American actors than when you started acting?

Williams: There's been a huge change: The market has shrunk for black actors from what I see, especially for quality work. I don't know if that's the recession or what have you…. So I think it's important that we write and we own material, which is why I have my production company, Freedome. Over, the next five years it's important that I don't just be work for hire, but rather I start to create venues for other black actors that I think are talented.

Back Stage: What advice would you give aspiring actors?

Williams: Be active. We can't just sit there and depend on the phone to ring. As an entertainer or an artist, you got to keep it interesting for yourself. For me, it's important that I create not just in front of the camera, but also behind it. That's why my goal is to produce and develop. As an artist, that's what we do: We create.

"Boardwalk Empire" is scheduled to air its second season this fall on HBO. Follow Michael Kenneth Williams on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/BKBMG

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