“I’m a strong believer in staying in my lane and not being focused on what other people are doing. Just staying focused on what I do… Everything is in time. I believe in focusing on the next step and by that step-by-step, I’ll get there.” From having it all to losing it in the blink of an eye, Michael K. Williams hides no skeletons in his closet. This year, Michael will appear alongside Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler. He stars in The Purge: Anarchy, a role which he calls nothing short of “revolutionary.” He is slated to play a detective in The Captive, which chronicles the true story of a young man named Brian Nichols, who escaped from prison in Atlanta and took a woman hostage for seven hours. Williams’ film, Kill the Messenger, will be releasing on October 10th, which is based the true story of journalist Gary Webb, who uncovered the CIA’s role in importing drugs into the U.S. to raise money for the Nicaraguan Contras rebel army. He is featured with a cameo in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hugely anticipated film Inherent Vice, which will hit U.S. theaters on December 14th, 2014. Acting alongside a glittering cast of actors, including Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, and Sasha Pieterse, Inherent Vice made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 4th, 2014. Lastly, let’s not forget his reoccurring role in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Despite the rolling credits to his name, Michael K. Williams hasn’t had an easy journey to get to where he is now. From drugs, delusion, and homelessness, the highs and lows of success and failure, he has managed to weather his own storm.
Check out our Q&A with Michael below and make sure to pick up a copy of The Untitled Magazine‘s “Legendary” Issue 7 here to read the full story or download the free “Legendary” Issue App on iTunes now!
Indira Cesarine: I would love to start from the beginning.. tell me about the early days and how you got started out performing?
Michael K Williams: I started out as a background dancer. I started out by doing parts and extra roles in music videos. I started getting jobs as a dance choreographer to go on tour with various recording artists. Shortly thereafter, I got my scar on my face and it kind of put a little light on me. I started getting work with crazy photographers like Dave LaChapelle, and I kind of just went on my way going on tour.
IC: I understand that you were actually homeless for a while. You were pretty young. How old were you?
MW: The homeless thing came from me not wanting to live with my mom early on. I was about 23.
IC: Your family wasn’t very supportive of your choice to be a dancer?
MW: No. My mom was really upset and it wasn’t like I never had a place to go. My mom always let me in, but I was going to BMCC [Borough of Manhattan Community College].
IC: You were kind of couch surfing for a while?
MW: Oh yeah, big time.
MW: I did music videos for them. My tours were with artists like Crystal Waters and Maya. I was in Madonna’s “Secret” video and George Michael’s “Killer” video. I didn’t even know if I wanted to dance, it was just that when I saw the Janet Jackson video “Rhythm Nation,” it kind of shook a chord in me. I always liked to dance. I didn’t have any formal training. I didn’t study tap or anything of that nature. I just had natural rhythm. If I saw something I liked, I followed it. It was in George Michael’s video that I thought ‘Wow, I could possibly act’ and I realized that I kind of liked acting things out.
Shortly thereafter, a bunch of guys took a picture of me in the production of this video shoot and I got called to an audition for Bullet. I was on the set thinking they weren’t going to pick me, and then they said something about the scar on my face. The director had it written in for the character to had lost an eye and had an eye patch. My second film was called Mugshot, which was an independent film directed in Britain by a photographer named Matt Mahurin. This was my first role that wasn’t an extra role. I was scheduled to go on tour for three weeks and my manager at the time sent me in earlier that week for the audition for the Madonna video. When I got to the audition, I saw all of these buff dudes with great heads of hair and everybody was wearing wife beaters. I was like, I don’t belong here. I’m a skinny dark-haired kid with buck teeth — I’m getting out of there. I left the audition before I got the chance to go on tape. The casting director called my manager and said ‘I see that Mike signed in but we don’t have him on tape.’ My manager called me and told me, ‘You don’t know if you don’t try.’ So I went back there and a lot of the video was shot on the same day I was scheduled to tour as an artist… I asked if it’d be okay if I left one day later to shoot the Madonna video and she was like, ‘Mike it’s going to be too much to try to do all of that at once.’ I opted out and shot the Madonna video. I did it because the time when I was home doing nothing — that’s when I got the phone call to come in for the film Mugshot. They wanted me to photograph a poster for the movie. I went in for this photo shoot and I was telling him I was an actor. He went to his casting director and poster boy for the movie and ironically, they both knew me. The casting director and the AV guy both knew me and had worked with me before. He called me back in, read me for the film, and I booked my role for the film, and it was opposite Robert Knepper.
I kept dancing and going on tour and it was now 1998, I think. I was in L.A. and was just about to go on stage, but said, ‘Let me just call my manager in New York to see what’s poppin.’ She said, ‘Mike, where are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m in Cali.’ And she said, ‘You better have your butt back in New York on Monday morning.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Martin Scorsese wants to meet you.’ I was like, are you kidding me? Needless to say, I left the tour with Maya and they were furious with me for leaving. They fired me and I came home. I was in the room with Martin Scorsese and he read with me alongside the casting director, and he tells me to my face, ‘You’re a damn good actor.’ He turned to the casting director and said ‘Give him the part!’ I was like, wait a minute, Martin Scorsese is telling me to my face that I’m a damn good actor — I think I need to let go of this dancing thing. I told people I was going to stop dancing. At this time, I was hanging around a lot of young actors in New York City, and I was always hearing about how people were going to L.A. for ‘pilot season.’ I found out what ‘pilot season’ was. You’re going to tell me that you’re going to pick up, fly across the country without knowing anybody, and scour the streets looking for a possible acting gig? That’s frightening. I got on my Frank Sinatra shit and I said, you know what, this is New York City — if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. There was a lot of work in New York at the time. You had your Law & Order, your NYPD, you had New York Undercover — all of these shows were starting to pop up all over the place in New York City and it was a great place to get my feet wet. I thought, when I go to L.A. I’m going to be requested — they’re going to request for me personally. I’m not just going to hop on a plane on a whim.
By 1999, I had a featured role in Bringing Out the Dead, the Scorsese film. I had a featured role in Law & Order and I had a featured role on The Sopranos. At the end of ’98, I was like okay, I got all cocky. I was like, any day now, my phone is going to ring and I’m going to get called out to California. But the phones were absolutely dead. My mother was paying my bills, and at the end of ’99, we flew to the Bahamas and we had our New Year’s there. She said, ‘Come 2000, why don’t you come work at my daycare.’ I came home in 2000, and all of 2000 and 2001, I worked at the daycare. So thank god for her. I didn’t audition or send any head-shots out. I left the business and I did that primarily because something inside of me went bitter. I got angry and desperate and I was going into auditions with the wrong energy. When you’re going into the business, you have this pressure and it breaks you down. I dived in headfirst to my mother’s daycare center. Was I happy? Hell no. I was miserable. I was getting high a lot and being reckless and partying – my spirit wasn’t happy. I did that for all of 2000 and 2001. Around November of 2001, I was sitting around, smoking and drinking, and my episode of The Sopranos came on. I was like, well this is weird, I’m on the TV and I’m sitting here with a bunch of losers drinking and smoking. I thought, I should give this entertainment thing one more shot. If it doesn’t work, it’s baby Pampers forever. So my mom said, ‘What do you need.’ I said, ‘I need some money to reinvent my package.’ She lent me ten grand and I went and bought a computer. I hired a director and we put together a gaudy, unnecessary reel and a headshot. I sent them out for Christmas. I had a hit list of two people who I wanted to hit. Anyone that I could get an address to, I sent a reel in a Tiffany’s box as Christmas presents. I thought that the second week of January, I would be getting calls — nothing happened. By February, things got really dark for me and I slipped into a depression. The walls were closing in on me and imploding my dreams. I was in a rut and I still had the stench of 9/11 on me and I was bugging out. In March, my mom called me and she said, ‘Come downstairs you have a fax.’ We all lived in the same building, so I went downstairs and got the fax, and boom — it was the breakdown for Omar from The Wire. I went in one time, one audition, read for the character, and the next thing I know, they’re telling me to report to Baltimore and boom — I shot The Wire.
IC: Was that like a breakthrough moment?
MW: Yeah, it was a huge breakthrough. I thought that would make me happy but I had a lot of personal issues I was dealing with, in regards to drugs and alcohol. It was really taking a toll on me, and that was pretty much my life for the rest of the season. I did ten episodes and fell in love with the city of Baltimore. I loved the show and my coworkers. I was like, this is it, this is great. Season two, when they made me a series regular, I packed up and moved to Baltimore because I fell in love with the city… it was the best quality of life that I had lived as an adult on my own. I rented this two bedroom, two bath place with a back yard for $1,100.
IC: Wow! Baltimore is cheap!
MW: Yeah, at least it was back then. It was a great neighborhood, and I was so happy. By the end of season two, I was back on drugs, getting high, partying, and I ran through my money. I had very bad money management. I thought I would be used as much as I had been in season one, so when season two came around, I over-calculated the episodes that I would be doing. I was introduced to the world of David Simon [creator and head writer of The Wire] – extremely unpredictable. Season two was about the docks, and my character wasn’t used that much. He was setting up another storyline. I ended up getting angry and bitter.
IC: So you were there in Baltimore but you weren’t working as much?
MW: Yeah, I wasn’t working as much, so I did what I knew best: party. One thing that I did do was pay my project apartment for the year and I bought all of this new furniture. By the end of season two, I was broke and I couldn’t afford anything because I kept my New York apartment. I couldn’t keep up the Baltimore apartment, so I left and went back to New York. By the end of season two, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in Brooklyn. At the end of season two, I was slamming my face. Everyone was saying, ‘Mike, you gotta get it together, you gotta go to rehab.’ My kid’s mom took me in and pretty much took care of me. I took a one-way ticket and went to California.
IC: I heard that you had an identity crisis with your character Omar Little from The Wire, and you used to go out and tell people that was your name.
MW: I never told people my name was Omar. People called me Omar and I just went with it. When I booked that character, it was so cathartic for me. I was in such a sad, lonely place that Omar became like a real light for me; in all of this darkness I found light. I identified with him a lot, so our realities kind of paralleled and merged. I’ve never had an experience like that with a character since Omar. I felt very comfortable in that suit where I was at mentally. It was like my Superman. He became my alter ego and he still is. He marched to the beat of his own drum and I was the opposite. When I lived as Omar, everybody loved him. If you want to call me Omar, I’m going to go with it! He became a fastball for me to exercise a lot of my inner demons and issues. The sad thing about it was that I didn’t use that character as I should’ve for my personal gain. I just took all of my issues and lived in the character and I just forgot who I was. I was okay with that though; I was okay with getting that unrealistic love that people were giving Omar.
IC: I heard that even Obama said that was his favorite character on TV.
MW: Yeah that was pretty awesome! (laughs) It’s a lot of pressure to live up to. I was like, screw Mike just live as Omar. When president Obama shouted me out, that put a tremendous amount of pressure on me as Michael. That kind of jolted me into reality a little bit. This the president of The United States and it kind of made me want to get my shit together. I have the president watching me; it’s time to clean up. It was frightening because I knew I wasn’t living my best quality of life, personally, and that was the first time that I wanted to do that.
IC: Do What? Quit drinking and drugs?
MW: Yeah, just be a better person. I didn’t give a shit about politics and all that stuff, but it made me want to be a better human being, a better citizen. It really jolted me into reality. It was like, Mike you’re a grown ass man, you need to get your shit together and live this life… if you keep up like this, you’ll end up dead or you’ll screw things up. It was the first time I had that huge wake up call. I still struggle back and forth. That trip to L.A. was just during the hiatus of season two. When I left New York, when I came home, I was living on the mattress on the floor and I got evicted from that apartment in Brooklyn. My kid’s mom took me in and she took care of me. Then I went to L.A. on this one way ticket to try to lock a role for an HBO movie Lackawanna Blues, which I did. I also booked another film called Doing Hard Time, so those two films kept me in L.A. for the remainder of the hiatus. I blossomed in L.A. I don’t even think the Obama thing happened yet. I went back to Baltimore and was living out of a suitcase, bouncing around from job to job, everywhere I went I found bad company. I was literally a gypsy. I went to South Africa and lived in Cape Town for a show on NBC with the same destructive behavior. It was there that I really made myself get my head together. I just wasn’t really happy with the show I was working on. I loved my coworkers, I loved the quality of live in Cape Town. It was an amazing experience but I was miserable. I wasn’t being creatively challenged and I was bored. I called my agent and said. ‘I think I want to be let out of this contract, my heart is telling me to go home, I don’t feel happy with this job.’ The next week my agent called and said, ‘Martin Scorsese wants you on tape for this little show called Boardwalk Empire. If you don’t send a tape in by the end of this week you will lose the opportunity to be considered.’ I said alright I’ll shoot for it. I put myself on tape and sent it in, and they booked me from a tape from half way across the world for Chalky White.
IC: It’s an amazing show, Boardwalk Empire. Your character has been a reoccurring role for quite some time, right? Can you tell me a bit about that?
MW: Chalky White is a role that has become very dear to my heart. I was clueless as to how to play him at first. My first instinct was to play him as subservient because I realized the time and the era of which he existed. Marty was like, ‘Oh hell no, this is not that dude.’ The first line Chalky says [on the show] is, “Tell Nutsy not to waste my time.” I said, ‘Marty this sounds a little aggressive.’ He said, ‘No that’s his tone. He don’t play and he don’t take crap from anyone.’ And I was like, ‘Okay Marty I can do that.’ I set the the tone and the next thing I had to find out was my expiration for Chalky. Unlike The Wire, I didn’t have any time to pull from. I decided to use the men in my life, who were all deceased who I knew lived in that time. My father, my three uncles, and my godfather. All of them were born in the early 1900s and I gathered what I could from their energies and how they carried themselves. I fused all of their spirits and all of the things that I could remember about their personalities and created Chalky White. I paid my homage to these five men. It was a pretty awesome experience and I’m very grateful that I had the experience to have done that.
IC: Tell me about some of these amazing film roles you’ve been doing. You were in the Oscar winning film 12 Years a Slave. Can you tell me about that experience?
MW: Roberts was a very instinct character. He represented the slaves that revolted and wasn’t going to go easily. He had a lot of fight in him. Like, I would rather die than deal with this and go out fighting. That was what he represented. My experience on that was amazing. I felt like I time traveled in a scene but unfortunately, it didn’t make the movie. But there was a scene when they brought him to the slave ship and he was just not having it. He fought back at the slave masters and they beat him with bats and everything. They threw him down the hole of the ship. We had shot this like five or six times. Steve McQueen always called cut. And we shot this scene, and around the fourth or fifth time, something came over me and my knees buckled. I fell to the ground and could not stop screaming and crying. I was balled up in the fetal position — I just couldn’t stop it. It was creepy and eerie. The stunt coordinator (who was a white man) got on his knees and he cradled me in his arms. He kept rocking me and saying, ‘It’s okay Mike, let it out.’ In about fifteen or twenty seconds, I got up and it was like a cloud had passed over my head. The only way I can explain it is that I must’ve gotten a glimpse of what my ancestors must’ve endured for 400 years. It broke me like a twig. I had no concept of that type of anguish and pain — it broke me down. I’m sad it didn’t make the film and I’m sure that Steve had his reasons, but I have that experience in my heart forever.
IC: It must’ve been an extremely intense experience! How was it working with Steve McQueen?
MW: Amazing. He’s a dope director. He knows what he wants and he’s very fast. He’s crystal clear and it was a really good experience. He commands respect in a way that I really like. There was a time during one scene, where he was like, ‘Quiet on MY set. MY actors need to be ready. MY actors need to be prepared.’ There was one other scene where I was emotional — which didn’t make the movie either — and he looked at the monitor and heard that there was talking on set, so he told everyone to be quiet. I thought that was really cool. He’s really awesome to work with.
IC: Is it common for people to be talking on set while you’re trying to perform?
MW: No, no, what it was is they were setting up the shot, but I don’t wait for them to lock it up to get into character. It was an intense scene and I got myself there. I was ready to go and he [McQueen] got up and was like, ‘Working actor here! Quiet please!’
IC: You have a lot of new movies coming out, can you tell me about the roles that stand out to you the most?
MW: We have The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg, it’s a remake and it was dope. It was a dope director. It’s just a great story about these two people whose lives are different, but they’re parallel at the same time, and how one needs the other for different reasons. I’m really grateful that Mark and I did that. The Purge is another instinct film. I’m one of the leads. I play a revolutionary who is trying to save people, who are being hunted. It’s a really cool character, who says a lot of really cool things — really good dialogue; just revolutionary. I have Kill the Messenger, which is based on a true story. I’m opposite of Jeremy Renner. It’s based on the Gary Webb story on the theory that the government was selling crack cocaine to fund the Cold War. It’s just a really cool story and I can’t wait for that to come out. I have another movie called The Captive, which is about a young man who escaped from a prison in Atlanta and took a woman hostage for seven hours. I play the detective that is hunting him down. The Brian Nicols case, yeah. In Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, opposite Joaquin Phoenix, I play a Black Panther-esque character.
IC: What do you feel was the character that cemented you? Obviously The Wire and Boardwalk Empire were massive. Do you feel like Boardwalk Empire leveled everything out where you felt like you didn’t have to go back to Brooklyn?
MW: Boardwalk has definitely been that role where there is no turning back. I feel like I had range where nobody could say that I was a one hit wonder from The Wire. I got blessed and lightening struck twice between the two characters. I got to show a different type of emotion for Chalky. I think that character really let everybody know that this guy is serious about his acting, his career, and his craft.
IC: Looking back at everything is there anything that you would’ve done differently?
MW: Yeah, I would’ve stopped using drugs earlier. (laughs) I managed to muster up four years of being alcohol and drug free, which I’m grateful for. Looking back, I wish I would’ve stopped hurting myself a lot sooner.
IC: Are there any directors that you would love to collaborate with?
MW: The Coen brothers – I would love to work with them one day. I would love to work with David O. Russell. I would love to work with Marty again – Martin Scorsese. I would love to get his blessing — there are a ton of them. Right now my mind goes to those three.
IC: Looking back, what do you feel was the most difficult performance of your career?
MW: I would say The Road — that was a very difficult part for me to play. The vulnerability that the character had to display – there was one scene that I had to film where he was stripped naked and left in the street. I had to choose between going to a very difficult funeral and working, which broke my heart. It was a very painful place to be. Then to have to allow myself to literally be stripped naked, emotionally and physically, in front of the camera and be in so much pain…it was a very difficult place to go.It’s an apocalyptic film. I play the thief, who just wants to survive. Viggo Mortensen’s character is trying to find food for his son and I take advantage of the fact that his son is sleeping. While he’s out looking for days, I steal their belongings. To show what it’s like to be stolen from, they steal all of my things. It’s a beautiful scene, very hard to get into the vulnerability that the character had to display, but it was about humanity.
IC: Do you have a personal motto or words of wisdom that you live by to get you through those difficult performances or those difficult days?
MW: You know, I’m a strong believer in staying in my lane and not being focused on what other people are doing. Just staying focused on what I do. When I start to look outside of my parameters to see what other people are doing, it tends to weaken my strength. I can only do what I can do–and I can do that the best–so I stay focused on what I do. Would I love to one day lead a film and be nominated for an Oscar? Of course. Would I love to have my production company be productive, flourish, and to have projects lined up? Sure I would. But everything is in time. I believe in focusing on the next step, and that step-by-step, I’ll get there. I never give up and always try to be prepared for what’s in front of me. It’s so hard to be unfocused in this business; there are so many distractions. I just try to stay in the now and focus on what’s in front of me, so that it’s the best possible me people are getting, and just move on.
IC: This is our legendary issue – when you hear the word legendary what does that make you think of?
MW: Legendary is what your legacy is, what you’re known for, the other dash. They say you have two numbers and a dash between the numbers and that dash is your life. I believe that everybody is a legend. Everybody is known for something, but to me it’s what you want to be known for — that’s your legacy. In the words of the great Nelson Mandela, “I want my legacy to be known as a sinner who did his best.”
IC: You have an amazingly visual impact with your words – it’s very intense.
MW: I come from a lot of banging my head against a brick wall (laughs). A lot of trial and error.
I’m not giving up. Anyone who loves my work or who has touched a mark with my characters, just know that I’m not giving up. Every day is a struggle, and I don’t feel like I’m there yet or I’ve made it. It’s all a work in progress and I’m still very humbled to be in this position. I’m not giving up.IC: What legendary artists inspire you?
MW: Jay-Z inspires me a lot; I love his story. Mike Tyson, Spike Lee, Lou Gossett Jr., Rosie Perez. There are so many people that inspire me!
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Photography by Carter B Smith for The Untitled Magazine
Grooming by Cooper @ Exclusive Artists
Photographed at James Goldstein Residence
All looks by BlüRoZ