(The Root) — Given the dramatic scar that runs from mid-brow down across his right cheek, Michael K. Williams, 45, seems destined to play bad guys. His breakthrough role as Omar, a gay, gun-toting street hustler who robbed drug dealers on HBO's The Wire, proved he had the acting chops and the looks to pull off being a stone-cold menace and a guy with morals. Now, as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, which is now in its third season, Williams mines a similar type of callousness. But his icy-cool character is a self-made man who provides the good life for his family (often via illegal hustles) and takes no crap from whites despite the de facto color line in 1920s-era Atlantic City.
However, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native is scheduled to show he can do more than play dark as Robert, a rebel slave in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave, and as the late rapper Ol Dirty Bastard in Dirty White Boy. He called The Root in between shooting scenes for the upcoming Robocop — in which he'll also play against type as police officer Jack Lewis — to chat about how he's glad to be working, how he once took his Omar role too seriously and what he wants fans to get about his character on Boardwalk Empire.
The Root: Omar is the role most people associate you with. With Robocop, are you thankful that you're getting roles that are so different from the Omar character?
Michael K. Williams: At this level, I'm thankful to be consistently working. Of course, I always want opportunities that are going to stretch me as an actor. I still have a soft space in my heart for my gangsta character, but I do welcome the different opportunities, and this is my first action movie. I play a cop, and we shoot up [things] so I'm looking forward to having fun with it.
TR: I read that when you played Omar, you blurred the line between the character and your real life. How true is that?
MKW: Yeah, there's a lot of truth to that. As an actor, it's my understanding that you have to breathe life into the character. One aspect is that you do research on the backstory, and then you have to bring your own personal experiences to bring life into the emotion. Omar is a very dark, conflicted character, and at that time of my life, I was kind of dealing with my own demons, and it just seemed like a great place to exorcise what I was going through or where I was at personally. What happened is, you just kind of cross lines and lines get blurred. I identify with a lot of how he felt as a human being.
Being the black man in America, having options is limited. Feeling like there's no way out. Feeling like he has to accept what is being given to him. Those are the things that I identified with him. Being in the character who played those emotions, even though I was on a successful television show, there were still times I felt like that even while I was filming it.
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.