Chalk up another one for Michael Kenneth Williams.
He’s the Brooklyn-born actor who riveted audiences for five seasons on ‘The Wire’ in the role of Omar Little, the most-feared of all the thugs, gangsters and street toughs on that hallowed Baltimore-based HBO series.
And now, Williams is back on HBO in a series that’s shaping up to be an even bigger hit than ‘The Wire.’ It’s ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ the sprawling series from executive producers Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese about Prohibition Era gangsters in Atlantic City, N.J, at the dawn of the Roaring ’20s. The series stars Steve Buscemi as the town’s all-powerful political boss and Williams plays dapper Chalky White, also a key local figure whose power stems from his ability to marshal the African-American vote for the city’s white political machine.
In this Sunday’s episode (9 p.m.8c on HBO), Chalky has his most important scene yet, and Williams gets to deliver an unusually long monologue that reveals a harrowing and tragic episode from Chalky’s past.
Williams, 43, talked to Fancast about the scene, about Chalky, about Omar Little, and how the actor came to receive the facial scar that, for better or worse, has helped define the characters he plays.
That’s a long speech they gave you in this Sunday’s episode of ‘Boardwalk’. How many pages of material is that?
That was actually three pages. That was the longest speech I’ve had in my career thus far. There was someone I’d seen do a speech [and] I always admired her performance and it was [S.] Epatha Merkerson and she did this speech in this film we did together called ‘Lackawanna Blues.’ And I always remember saying, God, if I had the chance to rock a speech [like that] – just the way she embodied that spirit and the character in that scene, it just blew my mind.
What was the effect you were trying to achieve in the scene, particularly as it pertains to the other participant in the scene, a Ku Klux Klan leader tied to a chair and at the mercy of your character?
It’s 1920. It’s a whole different era. You know, for a black man to be in a white man’s face with that type of confidence, it was a rarity. It wasn’t like a cockiness. It was from pain, ancestral pain, if you will. I wanted that hardcore pain to come across in that scene.
Tell us more about the character of Chalky. Is he a stone-cold gangster?
He’s not a stone-cold gangster. He’s a businessman first. But he had to learn how to have a tough skin in order to [obtain] the finer things in life. He wanted the American dream and he had to learn how to deal in the water filled with sharks and he had to kind of become like that to achieve it. He’s like Omar, in a sense. He has a sense of code, he’s loyal, he’s not a backstabber – you’ll see that come out.
Watch How ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Was Created:
You pointed out how Chalky and Omar are similar. How are they different?
You know, Omar was in it for the thrill of the hunt. He didn’t care about the money or the fortune or the fancy house and the jewelry and the cars. He just did it for the love of the hunt. Chalky ain’t in it for the hunt, as long as you bring good business by his way, you ain’t got no problems outta him. But you gonna cut him in whether you like it or not. He’d rather just do business and keep the peace, where Omar just liked to stir the pot.
How did you come to get cast on ‘Boardwalk’?
I had worked with Martin [Scorsese] – Marty, as good friends call him [laughs] – back in ’98 on a film called ‘Bring Out the Dead’ with Nic Cage and Marc Anthony. So there was a familiarity there. I’m quite sure that everybody and their father was going up for this role so [there was] a lot of competition – but I think that [producer/director] Tim Van Patten was my ace in the hole.
**SPOILER ALERT** When all was said and done, the seemingly invincible Omar Little was fatally shot by a child while Omar was purchasing a pack of cigarettes in a convenience store. What did you think of the ending they wrote for the character?
I mourned Omar like I lost a best friend. He was a part of me. It was definitely a surprise that no one expected, and it spoke to [the one weakness of] Omar, his Achilles heel. Everybody who was trying to kill him couldn’t get to him and it took a little kid to catch him completely off guard.
How important is ‘The Wire’ to you?
‘The Wire’ changed my life, personally and professionally. It opened me up [to a greater awareness of society’s problems]. It made me more aware of the social issues. You know, me comin’ from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was exposed to just my ’hood, but there’s a ‘wire’ in every city in this country, it opened my eyes up to that.
Would you tell us the story behind your scar?
I was 25 – my 25th birthday. I was in Queens, N.Y. I had been drinking. I had that liquid courage in me and so some words got exchanged with some other guys and, you know, normally something I would have ignored, and I got jumped and one of the guys had a razor in his mouth, a straight razor in his mouth like they do in jail, and he pulled it out and he started slicin’ me.
Well, it doesn’t seem to have stopped you in the pursuit of your career. You just did a fashion spread in the October issue of GQ. (posing on the Atlantic City boardwalk in a series of designer suits.)
I don’t take too much credit for anything. I’m just pretty fortunate. There’s tons of talent walking around here on the streets of New York. It wasn’t like I did anything great. I’m just truly fortunate and grateful for my opportunities.