Michael K. Williams will always be known as Omar in the eyes of countless adoring fans. Playing the unforgettable gay stick-up kid wreaking havoc on Baltimore drug dealers, Williams rallied audiences to his character’s side over five seasons of HBO’s critically acclaimed The Wire. Earning never-ending street credentials and legions of multicolored love, the popularity has followed Williams from his born-and-raised streets of Brooklyn to the movie-star land of Hollywood.
Since recently wrapping production on the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire playing Atlantic City gangster Chalky White, Williams has Gap ads plastered across city streets and three movies in the can. Each film finds him starring opposite Oscar winners and nominees like Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) and Mark Wahlberg (The Gambler). His very next movie is this month’s political drama Kill the Messenger, with Jeremy Renner.
On an upward glittering path straight from the ’hood to Tinseltown, Michael K. Williams is a Scorpio man with a masterplan. And he’s just getting started.
EBONY: You’ve been open about how hard it was for you to let Omar go when The Wire ended. What will be the hardest thing about letting Chalky White go?
Michael K. Williams: I’m gonna miss my coworkers. The set, the crew, really great working environment. Everybody worked so hard. Everybody was professional. Just like The Wire. It was just all these adult men bringing their A-game. Seasoned actors, and we were all supportive of each other. It was like a little Brat Pack if you will. I’m gonna miss that. I’ma miss the clothes. There were some bad ass suits. And five years is long-lived on HBO. It’s the perfect time to say goodbye. Keep ’em wanting more.
EBONY: Your next film is Kill the Messenger, about a reporter who finds out about the CIA’s operation to fund war by selling crack in the Black community. You play the real Rick Ross; it’s based on a true story. But as an African-American, it’s angering to know the CIA put drugs in the community.
MKW: I was very angry. Because it effected my community too. That didn’t just happen in LA. It happened in every city across this nation. Every ’hood across the nation. And it affected my family. I was on the front lines. I lost family members. My niece. It affected me. It’s real out there.
But it fits in that genre of those questions you ask like, “Why is there a liquor store on every corner? Why is there a McDonald’s on every corner? Why are the schools overcrowded? Why are the textbooks outdated? What happened to all the community centers?” It just plays to that same note. And you start to wonder, is this a coincidence? So it pissed me off.
EBONY: We watch Boardwalk Empire and see that Chalky just busted out of jail. In Kill the Messenger, Rick Ross is in jail. Do you ever get these roles and say or feel like one day you’ll come to a point where you won’t take these types of parts?
MKW: I don’t know if I’ll get to that point or not. I’ll have to see when I get there, how I feel about it. As of right now, I definitely inject my agenda in these roles. And my agenda is bringing humanity. Letting people see that these are still human beings. I grew in a community where I saw the process of how one becomes a drug dealer or a gang banger or a stick-up kid. There’s a series of events that happen. People don’t just wake up and decide they wanna be that.
Anybody could have a job on Wall Street and make six, seven figures. Everybody wants to take care of their family. But it’s just like Jay Z said: “We selling dimes ’cause we ain’t doing fine.” So my agenda is to take people on the journey and not just look at the final outcome. Whether it’s in the script or not, I can do that with the way I portray him. I portray him with compassion and humanity for them. You know what I’m trying to say?
EBONY: I do. I saw recently that you’re working with the ACLU against mass incarceration. How did you get involved with that?
MKW: They approached me. They asked me would I be interested in taking a seat as the ambassador over mass incarceration. And that’s something that’s plagued my family also. So I was like, “Yeah, I think I can do that.” We make up the majority of the population in the penal system. So I accepted the invitation gladly.
EBONY: What will you be doing?
MKW: My goal is to end mass incarceration and change the laws to stop locking up low-level, nonviolent drug charges. Stop charging drug addicts as criminals. Addiction is a health issue, not a social issue, not a crime, not a legal issue.
And also mental health. I had a very dear friend of mine, ton of potential, and he fell ill with bipolar disorder. And he was put in the penal system. And that was just adding fuel to the fire. He got worse. He came out and he’s never been the same since. He can’t seem to get his life back. And this is a man who could have had Hollywood in the palm of his hand. A lot of my inspiration and aspirations for wanting to be an actor, I owe to him. Between the disorder and him being put in jail, it just snuffed all of that away from him.
EBONY: You’ve taken a lot of parts recently where you might just have a couple of scenes. Is that part of your career plan? Do a little of this and that…?
MKW: Actually, it is part of the plan. When I looked at my résumé, everything is television. And you would think, OK, if I had two hit TV shows, or two that people call “iconic” characters on television, that Hollywood or the film world would take notice. But that hasn’t quite been the case. There are still some powers that be that are, “Who is he?”
And it’s OK. People are working. People are in that zone. So I realize there needs to be a certain level of back-to-ground zero as far as how I approach Hollywood as a leading man in film. So it was important for me to take certain roles, small roles, in great company, great directors, great costars, great roles, small ones, just to show them my screen presence. And build to the steps to me being considered as a leading man.
A lot of people don’t watch television and they only watch films. And so I haven’t been at the game of film. Been in two shows. It seems like I been around for 50, 60 years doing this. So you have to build your box office draw. At least that’s what my goal is right now. So the more people see me and Hollywood sees me in these films with these A-listers—phenomenal thespians like Jeremy Renner, Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix—hopefully next year will be like, “OK, let’s give him a shot.”
EBONY: You’re a brother from Brooklyn that both the streets and Hollywood loves. What’s your angle to getting it all?
MKW: It’s real simple: stay focused on the work. I don’t get caught up in too much of anything, the perqs. I don’t try to get in nobody’s face. Like when I got to the set with Jeremy, I wasn’t trying to buddy up with Jeremy. ’Cause Jeremy had his own thing to do. He didn’t hire me to be his buddy. He hired me to perform and to execute this role. So I stayed focused on what in my mind he would appreciate, which is my work ethics and my work.
So I come to the job set focused, clear-minded and ready to work. And then from there, that opens up the “Man, he tore that up…” And then when I open my mouth and we speak outside of character and he cool too? [It’s like] “Man, let’s go grab something to eat!” My thing is to gain the respect as an actor, as a professional, and the friendship and everything else will happen from there.
Raqiyah Mays is a seasoned writer, TV/radio personality, and advocate. Her debut novel The Man Curse will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @RaqiyahMays.