Michael K. Williams on Playing Stand-Up Dudes

From The Wire's Omar to Boardwalk Empire's Chalky, he's played dark characters with high morals.

Macall B. Polay/HBO

TR: How is playing Chalky White different?

MKW: This is a different process putting together Chalky. As opposed to pulling from personal experiences in my life, what I did was pull from people who were in my life: my father, my godfather, three uncles who are all deceased but who all lived in that era. I morphed together different aspects of what I can remember when I was young … I remember my father had a flair for clothes. Chalky reminds me of my dad. The way he walks and that snarl that he has reminds me of my godfather. The way he is ready to kill you reminds me of my mom’s brothers — the sarcastic, coy way about him where he says things kind of off the cuff. My father’s brother, Uncle Tommy, he had that gentle side of him. I tap into them.

TR: Chalky’s a black man in the 1920s but has the respect — and fear — of his white peers. Are you glad he’s able to exhibit strength in an era when blacks were largely subjugated?

MKW: The thing I wanted people to come away with is not to see an angry black man. I wanted you to see a black man not fighting for his due, not feeling like anything is owed to him per se. I want you to see a black man who’s taken some bumps and some bruises but has seen some hardships, but made a promise that no one is going to take advantage of him ever in life. He set up a better way of life for his children; all men share that. I don’t want people to look at Chalky like, oh that’s a black man’s plight. Anybody who’s been oppressed, anybody who’s had issues coming to America making their way can look at Chalky and say, I like that dude, he’s a stand-up dude. He’s like an American underdog, who speaks to all men.

I always tell people between Chalky and Omar: Omar was into the thrill of the hunt, whereas Chalky will always recognize a good business opportunity … get a come-up for himself. But they’re both very loyal. And both march to a moral code.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this interview said Boardwalk Empire is in its second season. This is the show’s third season. We regret the error.

Brett Johnson is The Root‘s associate editor.