All in the Game

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

Michael Kenneth WilliamsAbbot Genser/HBO

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Michael Kenneth Williams is hardly a household name, but Omar Little, his career-making character in the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, requires no further introduction. A swashbuckling ghetto fixture who earns his living robbing Baltimore drug dealers, a gangster with a strict moral code, a gay black man who sends street thugs scattering—Omar is full of surprises. Like Omar, Williams, 44, came up rough. And even though he was a “stoop kid,” not a tough-guy “corner kid,” the actor bears wicked razor-blade scars from a bar fight at age 25. But Williams still managed to parlay his dancing skills into a successful film and television career. Nowadays, he portrays Prohibition-era player Chalky White in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (season two premieres September 25), demonstrating once again his knack for creating likable bad guys. See below for the audio version of this interview, wherein Williams whistles us a nursery rhyme, Omar-style. Dig it.

Mother Jones: First off I have to apologize for Twitter-stalking you for this interview. Had to work all angles, you know?

Michael Kenneth Williams: Oh man, I’m a huge supporter of Twitter, so there’s nothing to apologize about. I’ve actually been tweeting more than anything else.

MJ: Alright, and I actually promised that everyone on our staff would wear trenchcoats around the office if you talked with us…would it be alright if we just whistle while we work instead?

MKW: Oh, you want me to whistle?

MJ: Oh…yeah! Why don’t you whistle for us?

MKW: Alright. [Whistles “Farmer in the Dell.”]

MJ: Awesome, takes us back. Okay, so you recently said on Twitter: “I’m just amazed our little show about a city by the sea named Baltimore reached around the world.” Why do you think people found The Wire so appealing?

MKW: Although The Wire‘s about a city, a story that takes place in the city of Baltimore, and it’s primarily told by black actors, it’s not a black show, it’s not a story about Baltimore, there’s a Wire in every city in every part of this world, of this globe. You can go anywhere in the world and you can find a version of The Wire. Social injustice, the breakdown of the system, those issues are universal, and David [Simon] and Ed [Burns], man, the way they put the pen to the paper, it made it very digestible and very compatible to any race, to any genre, any age bracket, it didn’t matter. If you’ve ever felt oppressed on any level, there’s something from The Wire that you can take and identify with.

MJ: What was your childhood like?

MKW: You know, my childhood was pretty colorful; I like to use the word turbulent. But it was a great time to grow up, the ’70s and ’80s in Brooklyn, East Flatbush. It was culturally diverse: You had Italian culture, American culture, the Caribbean West Indian culture, the Hasidic Jewish culture. Everything was kind of like right there in your face. A lot of violence, you know, especially toward the ’80s the neighborhood got really violent, but it made me who I am, it made me strong. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for nuthin’.

MJ: How’d you get into dancing?

MKW: My dancing came about as a way to be cool, actually. I knew early on that I was not a street kid. I didn’t have the moxie, what it took to run the streets with the dudes that I grew up wanting to emulate. But I had a huge need to be accepted, so I found that I could be the party king. I did drugs really well, and I partied really well, those were my ways of being down and cool—”Mike can hang,” that kind of thing. So dancing was a part of that. I was always learning new steps, girls always want to dance with me, and that was kind of my thing. And it wasn’t until I got older like in my 20s, when I saw the “Rhythm Nation” video by Janet Jackson, that’s when I knew that I could earn a living at this—the idea came to mind that maybe I could one day dance with Janet and earn a living at being a dancer.

MJ: And then one day Tupac spotted a Polaroid of you and cast you in your first movie, Bullet. Is there any Tupac in Omar?

MKW: There’s absolutely a lot of Tupac in Omar. I aspired to take what he started with so young in his career as an actor, and what he did in Juice in particular, build on it, and take it to the next level. I listened to a lot of Tupac getting into the character of Omar. A lot.

MJ: Do you think that Omar being gay has made any inroads within the black community?

MKW: I think so. You know, I’ve had dudes who, in any other scenario would not want to be around openly gay men, but then they see me and then they see Omar and they got their arms wrapped tight around me, and it’s, “Yo, I love you! I love you!” I think what the character Omar did for the homophobia in my community was it let people know: You can agree to disagree. I don’t have to condone what you do, but I can respect you if you carry yourself like a man. And when I say carry yourself like a man, I don’t mean whether he’s feminine or effeminate; I just mean he’s honest, he’s standup, he has a moral code that he won’t break for nobody, he’s not spineless, and your sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily give you those qualities. He is who he is, and he makes no apologies for it. You ain’t gotta guess—he puts it out there, and either take it or leave it, like it or don’t like it, but one thing’s for sure: He’ll fight for what he believes in, he’ll fight for the people that he loves, and you gotta respect that.

MJ: What do you say to kids who say they want to be like Omar?

MKW: I say, “No, you don’t. No you don’t.” Nobody wants to be like Omar. Take his good qualities. Take his heart, take his kindness, take the self-respect that he has for himself as far as what he would not do. Take those qualities and adapt them into your life. But make no mistake, Omar was definitely a man in a lot of pain, a lot of emotional pain. He was a man that woke up one morning and was like “Oh, shit.” Omar is a person that all hope was snatched from. All hope for anything better in life was snatched completely out of him, and that was what was left.

But make no error, there was the potential that this man had—he could’ve been president of the United States. We could’ve been saying President Little with no problem had he had the opportunity and the exposure.

MJ: Speaking of presidents, President Obama, back when he was a candidate, said you were his favorite character on his favorite show.

MKW: When he said that it gave me an insight into him as a human being. What it said to me, and not because I was on the show or anything like that, was that this is a man who really has his finger on the pulse of what’s really wrong in this country. Because a lot of people won’t allow The Wire in their homes because they don’t want to look at that. They don’t want to deal with those people, they don’t want to give those people a voice that the show spoke for; they’d rather act like that don’t exist. So when you have the future president of the United States not only acknowledging a show like The Wire but a character like mine, it let me know that he has his finger on the pulse of what’s wrong in this country.

MJ: And even the attorney general has publicly yearned for another season of The Wire. Any chance?

MKW: David [Simon] is a producer that doesn’t really adhere to the Hollywood game where, oh, because it’s hot, keep milkin’ it, keep milkin’ it, keep milkin’ it. He knew from the beginning he only wanted five years for this show, three years to set ’em up, two years to knock ’em down, and each season told a story about something that was broken within the system, and it’s cool because there could be many Wires because a lot of these things are still broken, but who wants to repeat themselves? You know what I mean? If he’s said it, he’s said his piece; he’s examined what he feels is wrong with this country from the most honest point that he could possibly do, and what else can he do? Anything else would be repetitive, and who wants to do that?

MJ: Yeah, like Omar said, “You’ve got me confused with a man who repeats himself.”

MKW: Yeah! [Laughs.]

MJ: You had so many unforgettable lines in The Wire and now Boardwalk Empire, but sometimes it’s just how you say things. I mean, you made the word “indeed” famous. How do those come about?

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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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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