One on One with Michael K. Williams

On The Wire, Omar is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, he is a deadly stick-up artist who is so brash, he robs drug dealers while whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” On the other hand, he is a sensitive person who will do anything for those he cares about. In a world where homosexuality is considered a weakness, Omar is openly gay and is still one of the most feared men on the streets of Baltimore. He is such a dynamic and powerful character that USA Today named him one of “10 Reasons We Still Love TV.”

Bringing the emotion and depth necessary to portray such a complex role is Michael K. Williams, a former dancer from New York. In addition to his work on The Wire, Williams has appeared on The Sopranos, CSI, Law and Order and Alias; and in films with Nicholas Cage, Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur. We had a chance to talk with Williams about his life and career in this surprisingly candid interview.

You started out as a dancer – how did you get into that?

I always had some type of dance ability growing up as a kid, but when I was about 23 years old working for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, I went to school for business management and I saw that Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” video and it inspired me to wanna really take my dancing serious. I started focusing on that and going to the city taking classes and starting to plug myself into the dance world, the underground dance world. I did that for like two years and the next thing you know I got my first gig. I started touring as a dancer, that escalated to me getting gigs as a choreographer. My first job was Crystal Waters. I got my first job as a choreographer and that just went on and on and went on to Missy, Ginuwine, Mya. Mya was my last tour. Her first tour in 1998 was my last one.

What was it like working with Mya?

Man, she’s a sweetheart, you know what I’m saying? She taught me a lot. She’s very focused, she’s professional, she’s talented, and she studies, she works hard and I watched how she prepares herself … and it rubbed off on me a little bit. I took a lot from her – like how I conduct my business, how professional I am.

You did some music videos, right? Weren’t you in a Madonna video?

I did a bunch of music videos. That’s how I got really started acting from the dancing. The life of a dancer, New York City, it’s whatever – tour, music video, whatever you get your hands on. After I got cut in my face, a lot of music video gigs and photography jobs started coming in, so I started doing a little modeling and a lot more music videos. I guess because I had this edge, this look of a thug, I started getting calls after a while not to dance, but to portray roles in videos. That went on for a couple years and shit, I got something like 50 or 60 music videos under my belt, and then toward then end I started getting gigs with Marcus Nispel – a director, George Michael, Madonna, Shabba Ranks – Shabba Ranks was the shit back then, you know what I mean? Taylor Dane, all these big artists, they’d make characters in these videos, that was when I started getting my first glimpse as to what it is to be an actor.

Anybody who does a video, it’s a lot of hours on the set, so I started learning a lot. I learned set lingo – lock it up, action, what a frame is, how to conduct yourself, how to conserve your energy for 10 hours then look like you just got there in the 11th hour and work for four more hours. You have to learn to pace yourself and I got all that training off the music videos and I was like, damn, if I had some lines, I could do this, because Nispel’s screaming (in a German accent), “Michael emote, emote Michael, pain,” doing this George Michael video and then I worked with Madonna and got to work with Melody McDaniels and that’s when I knew I could do this.

You mentioned getting cut in your face? For those who don’t know, what happened that night?

It was my 25th birthday, I was in a bar, shit got hot, drinking, then words got exchanged and bottom line, there was more of them then there was of me, dudes had razors in their mouths and I got cut. Wrong place, wrong time basically. Wrong drink. That definitely woke me up. That definitely was a life altering experience. I almost died that night.

From music videos, you started doing movies. Your first role was in a movie called Bullet with Tupac Shakur. How did that role come about?

I was on tour with Crystal Waters in 1994 and I got the audition for a Madonna video. I did the audition and, low and behold, I got it. So I called Crystal and said, “I’ve got to fall back from the group.” The Friday the video was shooting, I was scheduled to leave to go for a three week tour of Europe and then off to Japan. So, I said, “I’m not going to fly out Friday. Let me stay, do this video, I’ll fly out Saturday, Sunday or Monday and meet you in Germany” and she could take whatever it was going to cost out of my pay, but because of the scheduling and the way we were running around, she said I had to come then because they couldn’t look for me.

So, I told her to have a safe trip basically and I fell back and shot the video. Within those three weeks that I was home after having shot the video, I got a phone call from Julien Temple, a production office. Apparently, Tupac saw a Polaroid of me in a production office and asked, “Who’s this dude?” They found me, called me, had me come in and read for the role of the little brother in Bullet and I got the part. I got my first ever acting gig.

A lot of people are probably afraid to ask, but not us – do you think Tupac is still alive?

He is. Pac is definitely still alive. He’s strong, in my heart. Fuck the flesh. That spirit is strong and kicking. He comes to me, he visits me on occasion, whenever I’m not feeling right or ain’t acting right, I turn around and his face appears in the poster, them eyes piercing, looking at me, you know what I’m saying? He’s very much alive.

What was he like to work with? What was that experience like for you?

He was electrifying, basically. I was a fan, number one. I was honored to be in his presence. I was very blessed, very humbled, to be there as an actor in his presence and I just did a lot of listening. I spoke very little and I listened to him every time he spoke, it was like E.F. Hutton. Very early on, he showed me how to command the set – to lock it down. He showed me how, on a certain level, to get things done.

I respect him a lot. I miss him. Sometimes I wonder what our relationship – or our connection, I should say – we never even had a chance to have a relationship. We never got to be friends or none of that. But I wonder what our connection would have been now, after having seen me bust my gun on The Wire and shit like that. I wonder, if he’d have been like, “Yo, that’s my son right there,” you know what I mean? I just wonder what our connection would be now today having seen me in The Wire. Had he been alive, he probably would have been Omar, he probably would have thugged that role from me. I wouldn’t have had a chance, had he been alive. I don’t know, but that’s wonderful.

From there, you went on to work with Martin Scorsese on Bringing Out the Dead.

It was then that I decided to stop dancing. I was in California, we were doing three dates in L.A. and on the second night, right before the show, I called my manager to see what was on the bulletin board, to check it. It was Friday evening, she was like geeking, “Martin Scorsese wants to meet you Monday afternoon. I don’t know where the fuck you’re at, but have your black ass here on Monday.” I was like, “Oh shit.”

I caught the Red Eye out. Monday morning I went to that meeting. I was like 27-years-old and the knees were already aching, and I’m walking up in the room with Martin Scorsese, or Marty as he tells me to call him. I’ve got Marty telling me I’m a phenomenal actor – he cast me right there in the room.

You got cast as Omar on The Wire after only one audition. Is it true that your character was only supposed to be short lived?

They kept it real, and told me, “Omar is only supposed to be in seven episodes. We’re very sorry that we wrote to kill you off.” By the end of those seven episodes, I’m waiting to see how I’m going to die. Here we are three years later and I’m talking to you about Omar.

How was the character of Omar described to you?

“He’s mid-thirties, he’s African American, he’s a mean motherfucker that doesn’t take any shit. He’s a gangsta, gun-toting motherfucka and oh, by the way, he’s openly gay.” They put in big letters: “He’s absolutely, positively non-effeminate.”

Did you have any reservations about playing an openly gay character?

I’m a character actor, I always look for challenges. I look for things that are going to make me stand out. I’m a black dude from the projects of Brooklyn with some talent. It’s like, “Get in line.” I knew I needed to stand out from all of this motherfuckin’ talent out here. When I read Omar, I didn’t look at it and say, “Why does he have to be gay?” I said, “Oh, this is it. He’s a homo. That’s what I need.” I took it as a blessing. The minute I read Omar on that paper, I embraced all of him. I never regretted any of it. I fell in love with him on the paper when I read the breakdown, before I even read a script.

What reaction have you gotten from the streets and what reaction have you gotten from the gay community?

I’ve got two words – all love. It’s remarkable. If you think about it, Omar is non-traditional. He doesn’t dress fancy, he doesn’t wear jewelry, he doesn’t drive fancy cars, he doesn’t live in a fancy place, he’s openly gay, he doesn’t use drugs, he doesn’t sell drugs – this motherfucka doesn’t even curse. Why do they love him? All I can say at the end of the day is that you might not agree with his lifestyle, methods or motives, but you’ve got to respect him. He stands up for what he believes in. He lets you know the game. He lets you know his rules, and he doesn’t switch up on those rules. I think that’s what the streets love about him.

Do you enjoy watching The Wire?

I’m in love with the show. I’m in love with the writing. David Simon writes from a code, which comes from the street. He keeps true to that. That’s what makes the show so intricate. I’m in love with the other characters, the writing and the other actors. I love that show from the inside out. My coworkers, the writers – they make me look good.

The fourth season of The Wire is in production now. What can we expect from Omar next season?

First of all, I don’t know shit. Those motherfuckas over there are tightlipped. All I do know is what they told the trades. They are delving into the school system. It’s going to deal with the kids and what is going on in the school system in Baltimore this year.

What I could guess from my point of view – when I left Omar last year, he was in major conflict. When you saw him throw his guns in the water like that, that was a big sign that something has got to change – something’s got to give. Even though Stringer had to go, that took a lot out of him. That particular murder and the way they came at his grandmother – it was ugly. Omar didn’t take pleasure in killing Stringer. He didn’t want to do it.

Omar is in his thirties. He can see that the game is changing. There’s no more code in the street, it’s all about the money now. He’s in turmoil. He threw his guns in the water. I don’t know where Omar is going, but he’s at a crossroads.

Do you ever worry about getting typecast?

I love my thug roles. I love them to death. I’m from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, if you know that area. That’s what I know, that’s what I do. Robert DeNiro didn’t have any problems, Al Pacino didn’t have any problems – these motherfuckas got awards for playing thugs. Look at Denzel Washington. Denzel had a career of playing stand up, forthright characters, but his best role [in Training Day] was a thug. Personally, I feel like I’ll get my award for playing a thug. It would be my hope to get an accolade for playing a thug – and not a thug cop, I mean a real thug.

As long as the story depicts my character as a complete and full human being, I’ll take that thug in a minute. I know these people. I’m not a thug, but I know thugs. I grew up around thugs, I can call thugs if I need my thugs.

What do you do to unwind? What kind of hobbies do you have?

I just like to party. Life’s a party. That’s my hobby. My hobby is to always have fun in whatever I’m doing. I love to cook. I love to invite people over to my crib. Making people feel sexy, that’s my hobby. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Actually, no – sex, drugs and hip hop – how about that? Sex, weed and hip hop.

Tell us something nobody knows about you.

Nobody knows how spiritual I am. I’ve got a love affair going on with Jesus Christ right now. Nobody knows, they think that this just came about, that I lucked into this shit. But a lot of prayers went into this experience. A lot of prayers, a lot of tears, a lot of blood, a lot of hard knocks, a lot of footprints in the sand. I’ve got to let that be known. I represent J.C. all day, every day.

We’ve got one last thing for you here. We are going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.

Madonna.

Fearless.

Tupac.

Prophet.

Omar.

Truth.

Baltimore.

Fun.

David Simon.

Genius.

Michael K. Williams.

Humble.

The future.

Hopeful.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, August 2005. For more information on Michael K. Williams, visit his official website. To read our follow up interview with Michael K. Williams conducted in December of 2006, click here.

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