By Curt Wagner
5:20 PM CDT, September 23, 2011
Michael Kenneth Williams is making a habit of creating unforgettable characters in HBO series.
Williams is probably best known for his turn as gay stickup artist Omar Little on “The Wire.” But he’s currently burning up the small screen in “Boardwalk Empire” as Chalky White, the sharply dressed bootlegger who, in Season 1, delivered a show-stealing monologue as he confronted the main suspect in the lynching of of his driver. (Check out the video at the bottom of this post.)
The 45-year-old actor gets equally intense in Season 2 (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO; 4 stars). Williams was in Chicago Tuesday for a special screening of scenes from “Boardwalk Empire" and stopped by RedEye to talk about the new season, in which Chalky’s fortunes are tied more closely to those of crooked political boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who becomes the target of a federal investigation of former cronies he considered his closest allies. We couldn't not talk about Omar, too.
First of all, everyone I know freaked out when they heard I would be interviewing “Omar Little.”
Yeah, it’s a lot of love, a lot of admiration for the character. I’m very grateful.
Why has the popularity of the character endured so long after the show ended?
Who’da thunk it? I think it’s a combination of things, but the main thing that I would venture to say is Omar [has] his honesty, his lack of respect for material things, the whole thing of him being a man with a code and how strongly he adheres to it. You might not agree with everything he’s about, but at the end of the day, you got to respect him, because he pretty much wears his life on his sleeves.
And how would you compare him to Chalky White?
Ah, that is how I would compare them. They both are stand-up dudes; they both have a moral code that they live strongly to. Where they differ is what Omar did, he did for the thrill of the hunt. [He] didn’t care about anything, … he just wants to hear you squeal. Whereas Chalky’s a businessman, he’s more calculated in a different sense. We see that when they find his driver swinging from the light fixture [in Season 1]. Omar would’ve been, “All bets are off; I want blood.” Chalky’s like, “Remember that 30 percent deal we had, I want it to be 50 now, and I want blood.” So, that’s where they differ.
Do you feel Chalky reacts emotionally a little bit?
Absolutely, Chalky definitely has an emotional connection to his community, knowing his people and to his family that you’re going to see in this new season. We’re going to see a crack in his armor in this new season. He’s not as smooth and as ice cold as he would like you to perceive him. He has some issues that are going to come to light in Season 2.
I watched the first two episodes. The show dives right into that, no warm-up, doesn’t it?
Nope. No grease. [Just] bend over!
Why don’t you give us a little preview of what we can expect?
Season 2 is pretty much what the catch phrase says, “Know who’s behind you.” And pretty much that speaks to loyalty. Who can you trust? Who’s really in your corner? You’d be surprised the turn of events: Who you thought was your friend is actually your enemy and who you thought was your enemy is actually your friend.
Chalky finds out that he is in the crosshairs of someone who is gunning for Nucky, and it’s a very awkward position because No. 1, it has nothing to do with him. He doesn’t want to be involved with this; he just wants to make his money and keep it moving. But because of the events that happened, he’s forced to realign himself with Nucky and decide, "Do I still want to work with you? Do I still trust you? Can I trust you?” And they find that they have more in common with each other than they did with their own separate communities.
Chalky has another run in with the KKK this season. That’s the only time I kind of see in him actually look a bit scared.
It’s kind of hard to smile with a [shotgun] barrel in your mouth. [Laughs.] His life is in jeopardy right now, his life is in the hands of someone else holding a gun in his face. At that point it’s like, “Oh, well;” you got to make your peace, you know?
Right. Let’s talk about showing the Klan on the show. Some people don’t like it, but it is part of our history. How do you feel about that?
Absolutely [it’s part of history]. It’d be silly not to [show it]; it would the era a disservice. That is part of our story as a country, as a nation—the ugliness of racial divide. You have to show it, and I applaud Terry Winter for being as brave as he is to not even dance around it, but to dive into it and just show it. I’m a firm believer in those who forget are doomed to repeat.
Do you find similarities in the worlds of “The Wire” and of “Boardwalk Empire”?
It’s more like the worlds of [“Wire” creator] David Simon’s mind and [“Boardwalk” creator] Terry Winter’s mind. Those guys, in my opinion, set the bar so high for writers and how you tell stories and how rich your characters need to be and how much research has to be done. They definitely share similarities with that. And me, being so blessed to come from “The Wire” and go into “Boardwalk Empire,” it’s spoiled me. I can’t go back to hamburger, I’ve been eating filet mignon too long, you know?
So you’re feeling pretty good about your opportunities and career?
I feel very blessed. Very, very, very fortunate.
Was it difficult after finishing “The Wire” to sort of find something that you felt sort of lived up to that experience? Or were you worried about escaping Omar a little bit?
No, those things don’t cross my mind. I just wanted to continue working. That was my main objective leaving “The Wire.” The hardships that I did feel leaving “The Wire” behind was not professional, but personal. I miss Baltimore. I miss my coworkers; I miss that camaraderie we had … I miss that more than anything else. But as far as finding more work or quality work, I think—knock on wood—I’ve been fortunate with that as well. You got “The Road,” “Life During Wartime,” “Wonderful World,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Miracle at St. Anna”—I’ve been blessed.
The future president has said that “The Wire” was his favorite TV show. How did you feel about that?
I was like, “I did something that warranted the attention of the future president of the United States and I was not facing fed time!” I was like, “There is a God!” You know what I’m saying? That was crazy. That instilled a sense of pride in me. Actually, I was very proud of what I had accomplished as an actor when I got the shout-out from President Obama. And it made me pay more attention politically to what was going on in the country. I campaigned for him—not that I was trying to brown nose him or anything. But if you come from where I come from the president of the United States doesn’t [normally] give you any shout-outs, you know what I’m saying? So it made me want to be a better citizen, I guess, at the risk of sounding cheesy.
You don’t. “The Wire” was overlooked for awards a lot, which was so wrong. Does this sort of make up for that a little bit?
I would venture to say, although “The Wire” never got the accolades of the awards or whatever, the respect and the admiration I’ve gotten from the critics, that we’ve gotten from the critics, and press and just everyday people on the street, man, I’m still riding the wave. I’m still like getting a lot of mileage off “The Wire” in this country and abroad, man. This thing’s viral and it’s worldwide and the Tweets and the hits I get on Facebook from New Zealand and Spain and Japan. If you gave me a choice of, “OK Mike, would you want a Golden Globe right now in your hand for something else or having been known for Omar from ‘The Wire’?” I’d take Omar from “The Wire” any day.
And it seems like people are still discovering and loving it.
The mileage is crazy right now. It’s like “Thriller” for Michael Jackson, you know what I’m saying? Like this thing is growing a whole new pair of legs that no one, that none of us in our wildest mind could’ve perceived.
Is it fun to now be in this really different 1920s world?
Yeah, it’s a whole ’nother world, primarily because they’ve just been throwing a crap-load of money at this show. I’m around the money for a change. And that feels good, you know? It also really helps that I got an awesome group of people to work with. I’m surrounded by great company, man. I have no complaints about my coworkers.
I share that same feeling for my “Wire” family. I’ve been really blessed and fortunate to just be constantly put around quality, quality people creatively and personally. But the money makes a huge difference, and the amount of detail that’s going into the sets and the wardrobe. You put those clothes on, man, you walk on the set, it’s like you’re in the 1920s. You don’t have to pretend, you know what I’m saying?
So the wardrobe helps a lot with the character?
Man, I have a whole lot of respect for women and what they go through to prepare themselves just to look pretty for us. I’m putting garters on my socks, because men didn’t have socks with the elastic in it back in the day. And those shoes, I cry; my feet, my poor feet, they look pretty, but oh, my God … You got to put the suspenders on and the button fly—don’t have to go to the bathroom, you know?
You just get a whole new respect. When you put those clothes on, you have to put your collar and then you have to tie the bow tie—when I get dressed, man, I walk different, I talk different. My swagger just, it moves to a different rhythm in me, so it’s fun.
Did you do a lot of research for Chalky?
I did. I got a lot of help from Terry when I got to the set the first day. He just gave me a stack of papers, of research, including a picture of what Chalky White looked like, because he’s a real person. I had to read the book, “Boardwalk Empire,” and I found out that Chalky White was a real person. He was a boxer. He goes down in history as one of the 100 greatest hitters of our time. Mike Tyson, I got to speak with him about him and Mike informed me that he’s from California. So I infused all of those as a back story for Chalky.
But what I use primarily are my ancestors. You know, he walks like my godfather, Junior. He has the murder instinct of my mother’s brother, my Uncle Par. He has that sarcastic, “You know I’m about to kill you, right?” look I get that from my father’s brother, Uncle Tommy. His flare for fashion comes from my father. These are all people that are deceased. I pull on that, you know?
And then the fact that he’s a boxer. What it must have been like to be a boxer in 1920 as a black man. There wasn’t no Mayweathers and Mike Tysons; you didn’t get the key to the Rolls Royce and all the flashy jewelry and the big house. You were fighting for your life, literally. Everything depended on you winning back then just to get a piece of the American pie, just to be alive, you know? So that intensity is what I put all together to get Chalky.
That’s amazing. We’re going to meet his family, so we get to see a softer side this season?
Softer, I would not say. I would say we get a look into his psyche, his insecurities, is more accurate.
Well, we should probably let you go. Anything else you want to add?
I just got to put it out there, I’m producing right now, I have my production company, Freedom Productions, and I have a lot of things in development I’m very excited about. And if anybody wants to know more about it, you can reach me on Twitter at @BKBMG. And that stands for Brooklyn Boy Makes Good, so holler at me.
And you have your blog, too, www.michaelkennethwilliams.com
Absolutely. Absolutely. But I’m most prominent on that Twitter.
Speaking of Twitter, what was the deal with the Emmys, Sunday? I saw you Tweet something about—
Yeah, the red carpet, that’s a whole other world for me. I’m just a dude from Brooklyn, man, that’s all I am. And that was my first time to the party and it was very intimidating, very awkward for me. You got to respect people who are able to sell themselves like that, because you have to have a thick skin. And it was an introduction to a whole other world of having to sell yourself and having to fight for a camera or two. So I actually kind of like went into my shell a little bit. I want to just work. As long as I’m working and my bills are paid, I got food in the fridge, that’s pretty much all I need.
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