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All in the Game

Actor Michael Kenneth Williams on being Omar, "ear-hustling," and connecting with Mike Tyson.

MKW: The "indeed," the "I ain't building no bookcase," that's all on the paper. I can't take credit for what David Simon and Terry Winter and Tim Van Patton do. They do what they do, and I do what I do. You put me around talented writers like that, I'm going to rise to the occasion and I'm gonna Barry Bonds it every time. I respond very well to incredible writing. It's a marriage.

MJ: How do you go about researching dialects when you play a character like Chalky White, who exists in the Prohibition era?

MKW: I just go to the streets. I know what I want when I hear it, and I've pulled people aside, I've taken people to lunch, and just, you absorb the energy. With Omar, I would sit at the Lexington Market for hours, for days on end, and just listen to the comings and goings of people, just ear-hustled for hours. With Chalky, I took it more personal and took it to my roots on my father's side. Chalky reminds me a lot of my uncles, on my father's side, my father's brothers. He reminds me of my godfather. So with Chalky, those are variations of different men that I grew up seeing.

MJ: Omar Little or Chalky White, who wins in a showdown?

MKW: There's an old saying that we have in the hood: Real recognize real. These men don't need to go at each other because neither one of them goes outside of their moral code. Both of them are way too smart for that. You know, Omar does what he does, Chalky does what Chalky does.

MJ: Your scar is just about as famous as you are. How do you think you managed to turn something that was a horrific experience into something so positive?

MKW: You know, I just let it go. To be blunt, I had the opportunity to give the order to have someone removed off this earth—the gentleman that put this mark on my face—and I opted out because mu mother didn't raise me that way. Instead I took that as an opportunity to look at what's wrong in my life. What is God trying to tell me. 'cause obviously I'm doing something wrong. I got cut on my face, almost got my neck slit open, and I got two grand theft auto charges hanging over my head—all in like a month and a half. So I was like, "Okay, Mike, you need to regroup." I looked at that opportunity as a chance not to react in a vengeful manner but to do some introspection. I think that that freed me from any type of negative karma. Had I done the revenge thing, I think this would've become a mark of anger, and it would've looked ugly.

MJ: Strangers must still constantly call you Omar, even after all these years. How do you feel about that?

MKW: I've been called a lot worse. It took me a minute though to digest that properly, because at one point I was losing myself—there was some soul-searching that had to be done after The Wire where I had to get back to Mike. So now that I'm on that path, I can handle people calling me Omar because I'm still pinching myself. The fact that there's this show, the box sets all over the world, people on Twitter hitting me from different parts, different countries—I'm still like, "What!?" So I don't get tired of people calling me Omar. The Wire is still growing legs, I'm still working, I'm still eating, I'm still getting auditions and meetings based on the work on The Wire—why would I be tired of that?

MJ: What are parts of his personality that you identify with, that you have in common.

MKW: The sensitivity and the vulnerability—and also that moral code. Omar has a big heart. He has a very big heart and is genuine. His sensitivities, his vulnerabilities are what make him so volatile, and I share the vulnerability part. My volatileness, it's turned inward. I'm more liable to hurt myself than someone else.

MJ: You narrated Animal Planet's "Taking on Tyson," about Mike Tyson. What drew you to that project?

MKW: I loved that project! Not only did it give me an insight into Mike, it let me the rest of the world know who he is as a man today. On a personal level I got to identify with Mike. We're the same age. We walked the same streets at the same time, inflicting the same type of wounds—or being inflicted with the same type of pain, I should say. And to hear his story and to see the tools he used to overcome his demons, they were pretty much the same tools that I had to use. And the things he let go were the same things I had to let go. And what he replaced it with, same things I had to replace it with—those void spots—spirituality. I was just like, "Wow this dude is like a mirror of me in so many ways."

MJ: And you're in an upcoming movie, Bayou Black, in which you're a single dad trying to make it in the Deep South. How did you prepare for that role?

MKW: I lock in with the culture. I eat the food, I commune with the people, I get in. Because the bayou is different from New Orleans. It's different dialect, totally different dialect, a different culture. So I had to erase everything—all my notes of what it is to be in New Orleans and really hone in on what it is to live in a bayou, and I got exposed to a really, really unique culture that's actually dying. Cajun culture is dying. It was a lot. I'm very happy with the final outcome.

MJ: And you were in an all-rap movie a couple years ago, A Day in the Life, directed by Sticky Fingaz. What was that like?

MKW: Sticky Fingaz, I love that guy. He's like a brother to me. He wrote an entire script to music, and all the lines are rapped. All the dialogue was rapped. And he got all these actors who are not musicians to come in and rap and dialogue in character. I thought it was the most unique, most creative thing I've seen in a long time, and I was grateful he called me to be a part of it. I can look back at that and say, "Wow, hip-hopera!"

MJ: You've said before that you don't mind being typecast. What is it about "thug life," getting back to Tupac, that you find the most challenging, or exciting, to represent on screen?

MKW: I always go on record saying once and clear that I am by far no thug. I was not allowed to bring that mentality into my house. My mother was the thug in my household growing up. But I grew with thugs. I grew with dudes who were corner kids. I remained the stoop kid, and they loved me and I loved them like brothers. I never tried to be the tough guy because I know the streets would've chewed me up and spit me out. So now I'm a man, [and] I become an actor, and I get called to play these roles I know I was not capable of doing growing up on the streets of Brooklyn. I get to act it out. I feel grateful, blessed that I've been chosen to be the voice that would normally be stereotyped as dangerous, or you know, like, before I first started out doing my thug roles, they were bit parts: They'd be like Punk No. 1, Thug No. 2, or Street Kid No. 3. The Wire opened up and showed you how these mentalities were born, what pushed their backs against the wall to make them feel like this was the only way out. It humanized people. It made people that did not come from that understand what are the pitfalls, what is the lack of opportunity, the types of lacks of opportunity that make people act a certain way. And it made people whole. So I don't look at it as typecasting. I am a dark-skinned, nappy-headed, scar-faced dude from the streets of Brooklyn. Who else is gonna play these voices? I can't hide from being who I am. It's all over my face.

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