TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. As one of Michael K. Williams’ many fans, I was so sorry to learn on Monday that he’d been found dead in his home earlier that day. This morning, as I record this, his death is being investigated as a possible drug overdose. Like so many of his fans, I first saw him on the HBO series “The Wire” in which he gave a riveting and charismatic performance as Omar Little, a stick-up man who robbed drug dealers who were in no position to complain to the police. He often walked through the streets in a long coat carrying a shotgun. He was feared because he was fearless. What Omar wasn’t respected for in the hood was being gay.
Williams also co-starred in HBO’s series “Boardwalk Empire” as Chalky White, a powerful bootlegger in Atlantic City during Prohibition, and in “The Night Of” as an inmate who controlled a prison block on Rikers Island. In “When They See Us,” he played Bobby McCray, the father of Antron McCray, one of five youths wrongfully convicted on charges related to the rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. Williams is currently nominated for an Emmy for his performance in “Lovecraft Country.” In a tweet paying tribute to him, his co-star on “The Wire,” Wendell Pierce, wrote, he shared with me his secret fears, then stepped out into his acting with true courage.
Later, we’ll hear the interview I recorded with Michael K. Williams in 2016. We’ll start with the interview we recorded in 2008 during the final season of “The Wire,” which followed the intertwining stories of Baltimore politicians, cops, drug dealers and the teenagers who sold the drugs on the corners. One turning point in the series was when Omar’s boyfriend was murdered, setting off a cycle of retribution. In this scene, Omar, with a gun in each hand, crashes through the door of a card game run by Marlo, the most powerful drug dealer in West Baltimore.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE WIRE”)
MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) All right. Let me see them hands, yo. Hands. Ay (ph) yo, big man, back up. I don’t know about cards, but I think these .45s beat a full house. Ayo, banker, cash me out, yo. Boy, you want a hit on that body? You best hop to.
JAMIE HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) That’s my money.
WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Man, money ain’t got no owners, only spenders. I tell you something else. I like that ring, too. Boy, you got me confused with a man who repeats himself.
HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) This ain’t over.
WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Well, that’s how you carrying it, shorty, huh? Because I could find your peoples a whole lot easier than they could find me.
HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) Wear it in health.
WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) No doubt.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Michael Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, people in the neighborhood are really afraid of Omar because they know what you do. And when the neighborhood kids see Omar coming, they run away screaming, Omar coming. How does it feel to have that reaction to you, even if it’s only in fiction?
WILLIAMS: Well, the first time, I couldn’t get through without laughing. I couldn’t fathom anybody would, you know, run away from me in total fear. You know, anybody that really knows me growing up, you know, in Brooklyn, you know, that’s very far from my character. So I just had a hard time finding a believable state of mind to execute the character. I just kept going to laughter. But, you know, I like to think that people are not scared of him is why they do that. I think it’s more of a respect thing.
Like, they know that when this dude surfaces, you know, there’s going to be gunfire. And I don’t think it’s necessarily like, oh, my God, Omar is going to kill me. It’s like, OK, it’s high noon. Showdown about to happen. Let’s get out the way because, you know, stray bullets are, you know, can come this way. So I don’t think they’re running from him, they’re just – they’re scared of what what he represents when he comes and want to get out the way of that.
GROSS: Right. So you said that anyone who knew you growing up would know that you weren’t the kind of person who inspired fear. So how did you find that place in yourself so that you could portray that kind of power?
WILLIAMS: I play Omar from a very painful place. You know, it’s a very dark state of mind to be in, a very painful state of mind. And that’s – I identify a lot with him on that level, you know, having overcome a lot of pain in life and stuff. So, you know, Omar in my book and my eyes, I don’t play Omar as a alpha male, not one to beat on his chest. And he’s a very, very sensitive dude. He comes from a very humble place. You know, growing up in the hood, we always knew the quiet one, the one that would kind of go inside. That’s the one you kind of – you watch out for. You know, so I play it from that aspect.
GROSS: What’s one of the most fearless things that you had to portray Omar doing up until this point in the series? Don’t tell us about anything that hasn’t happened yet.
WILLIAMS: I would say the most fearless thing that I was able to pull off and portray as Omar on television was his openness with his sexuality and not have that go over the top. It meant a lot to me that this character be taken seriously by my peers and by my community. And I didn’t want this topic of his sexual orientation to hinder his seriousness. And I didn’t want to disrespect anybody in the gay community, either. So it was like I was – I think in a strange way, it was OK when it’s Omar. You feel me? Kind of like it was interesting to see that happen. I think that was one of the most challenging parts of his character.
GROSS: Now, Ed Burns, one of the main writers on the show, told me that Omar’s first onscreen kiss wasn’t in the script and that you actually improvised it. Would you describe the scene and tell us why you decided to add that kiss?
WILLIAMS: So this particular scene was when – it was in Season 1. And Omar and Brandon and Bailey, they were waiting for Bailey to come back so they can go, you know, hunting, basically. And he never shows up and he’s late. And Omar’s a stickler for time. So, you know, if you remember, Omar doesn’t curse. Brandon was – you know, used a lot of profanity to express himself. And Omar told him – expressed to him, you know, how ignorant that looks and how much he didn’t, you know, like those words coming from such a beautiful mouth. And it was just, you know, ironic. They’re waiting for their other buddy to go robbing, and they’re having this, like, lover’s conversation over, you know, all these guns and whatnot. So I was just like, this would be a good time to just, you know, throw that in there, you know.
And so I go to the other actor, you know, Michael Darnell. And I say, Mike, let’s put the kiss in the scene. He goes, you know, what? I’m like, I think it needs to happen now. You know, let’s just get it out there. I go to tell him, and he’s like, you know what, Mike? Just don’t even tell me. Just surprise me because I just want it to flow. So, yeah, and it just – that scene that you saw was pretty much just – we just kind of got into these characters, man, and got into their minds and went with it. And, you know, to me, to, you know, to have these two dudes kiss, and then for him to pick up his shotgun to put his bullets in and click, click, let’s go hunting, it just was the ultimate contrast to me. That’s why I decided to put it.
GROSS: One of my favorite Omar scenes is like – as I remember – he doesn’t have, like, the breakfast cereal that he wants, so he goes out wearing only his robe. I don’t think you were even wearing slippers or shoes, goes to the neighborhood store to get it and kind of, you know, brings it back. But it’s such a sign of power that he could just like, do that in these, like, really mean streets. He’s just going to walk out in his robe and go to the store.
WILLIAMS: You know, that could easily be perceived as ignorant as for a person who lives, you know, on the edge, the way Omar does. But, like, I, you know, I said earlier, Omar doesn’t – he doesn’t operate from a you better fear me, you know, and I’m the bad – the big, bad wolf, and I’ll kill everybody. That’s not his mindset. He walks out there because he knows that, OK, I’m not – I’m off right now. I don’t just run around – just kill people at random. I’m calculated. You know, he’s going for cereal. There’s no need to carry my gun right now, really, you know? In his mind, he thinks people are running because they think that he’s working. He’s like, don’t you fools know I’m off right now?
WILLIAMS: You know what I mean? You know, because everybody knows he would not run in that corner store that he was going to to rob nobody. That’s – you know, that’s just – they know Omar doesn’t do that. So they know that, you know, he ain’t coming to rob them. He just – like I said before, they running just to get – out of respect for…
WILLIAMS: It’s high noon. Time to get out the way. Omar’s here. Some bullets going to fly.
GROSS: Tell us how you got the part of Omar. Did your agent send them a picture? Like, why were you being considered?
WILLIAMS: What agent?
WILLIAMS: I was working in my mom’s day care back in Flatbush. You know, I got a call from Alexa Fogel. She faxed over the breakdown, who decides…
GROSS: Who’s she?
WILLIAMS: Alexa Fogel is the casting director. You know, before “The Wire,” I, you know, did several “Law & Orders,” did a film with Nicolas Cage, Martin Scorsese, “Bringing Out The Dead.” I had “Sopranos” under my belt. You know, I had a few spots, things that I had done. But I took a break for, like, two years to work in my mom’s day care in the projects where she raised me at, and I did it for, like, a – about a year and nine months. And decided I wanted to get back in the business. And by November, I was, you know, putting my stuff back out there. I had a new reel I cut, put it back out there. By March, I got the call for “The Wire.”
GROSS: We’re listening to the interview I recorded with Michael K. Williams in 2008. He died Monday at the age of 54. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Michael K. Williams, recorded in 2008, during the final season of the HBO series “The Wire” and the role that made him famous – Omar Little, a stick-up man who robbed drug dealers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You have a beautiful face, but you also have a scar running down most of the length of your face. How did you get the scar?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. And fighting. It was a barroom brawl, you know, typical New York City story. wrong place, wrong time. One drink too many (laughter). And, yeah, just…
GROSS: What was it about? What was it about?
WILLIAMS: I was in a bar, and a friend of mine from Brooklyn was surrounded by a group of guys who – they wanted to jump him. And I kind of stuck my nose in it. You know, Brooklyn’s in the house. You’re not going to get jumped by – me and my people is out here. So, you know, he ended up getting home – going home safe. Nothing happened to him. But I guess the crew gentlemen didn’t take too kindly to me, you know, I guess sticking my nose in their business. So kind of diverted the energy towards me, and, you know, some words were exchanged and tempers got hot. And, you know, some razor blades came out of some mouths. The rest is history (laughter).
GROSS: So initially, how did it change your life? Your life had to change by something as major as that?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it definitely was a wakeup call. I almost died that night, though. The scar that most people see is not the one that endangered my life. There’s one that goes from my ear lobe to my jugular, and that’s the one that scared me. I was like, you know, a lot of things have happened. I was – I had two grand theft auto charges, cases that were open, I was going to court for, and then this pops up. You know, I was seeing that I was being given an opportunity. You know, I was dancing. I was, you know, modeling and working, getting my little gigs and stuff. And I was happy in the direction that, you know, the universe was taking me as far as, you know, the business was concerned.
But I had these little, like, these little dark situations that would just come up and bite me in my behind. And I think that me getting jumped that night was definitely the pinnacle of that wakeup call. And I just, like, you know, I just didn’t think I was going to be living very much longer. It was just too many things happening too fast at one time.
GROSS: So you were already doing acting and modeling when you got cut?
WILLIAMS: I was – yeah, I was dancing more so. I was background dancing a lot.
GROSS: Like on videos.
WILLIAMS: Music videos, going on tours and stuff. And I’d – I had did a – I did a spread for this company called Rock Embassy, and they made all the tour jackets for recording artists like, you know, Queen Latifah, Janet Jackson, Madonna, had all those tour jackets, you know. There was a huge spread that me and a good friend of mine, Charles Malik Whitfield – he and I did this spread for this company, and it hit all the magazines, all the hip-hop magazines like Right On! and Word Up! – those publications at the time. And that was – they hit the newsstand November 19, and I got cut November 22, you know.
WILLIAMS: So all my friends had this little joke that they called me the male Marla Gibbs.
GROSS: Well, did you think your career was over?
WILLIAMS: I never even locked into that. You know, I was pretty much, how am I going to hide this buck fifty down my face, you know? Because I was – you know, I was, you know, club kid era. So I was, like, you know, I always had the flattop and, you know, the loud, trendy shirts. And, you know, I mean, I was a dancer. So that was my MO. So when this happened, I was like, damn, I got to switch it up. So, you know, I just – you know, Seal was really big at the time and, you know, he had just had all the media for putting his tribal marks on his face. And I was like, that’s a great, great angle. I’m going to rock with that. So I bald my head, cut off all my hair, and I was like, I’m the new Seal.
GROSS: So how did you get into doing music videos? Like, what was your first break there? How did you start dancing in the first place?
WILLIAMS: I always loved dance. I always, you know, was the life of the party, growing up stuff, as far as dance was concerned. But, oh, I was – I got into a lot of trouble in my teenage years – you know, messing around in the streets, you know, drugs and stuff like that. And I had to go, you know, clear my head for a couple of months upstate and…
GROSS: You mean, like, rehab or something?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. So when I came back from that, like…
GROSS: From prison? (Laughter) I’m not sure when…
WILLIAMS: (Laughter) It was mandatory, so…
GROSS: Right, OK.
WILLIAMS: We’ll leave it at that, but…
WILLIAMS: But yeah. And I came back from that, and I was like, you know – I said, I’m going to get my life together, and I was – I went to school. I went to BMCC, which is Borough of Manhattan Community College. I was taking up business there and got a good job at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. They was about to make me – I got, like, a temp situation. They were about to make me permanent. And, man, here goes Janet Jackson dancing her big old butt across my screen, talking about “Rhythm Nation.” I just lost my mind. I just quit school. I quit my job. And I was like, this is it; I’m going to become a Janet Jackson dancer (laughter). And I was really serious about that. And, you know, I got – you know, ended up homeless for about a year, so…
GROSS: Homeless? How come?
WILLIAMS: My family’s not really big on that entertainment stuff. You know, I was a big boy, right? I was, like, 23 by this time. And yeah, I mean, it’s just, like – my family was really fed up. They was like, as soon as – they see, like, he’s starting to get his life together, he goes left again. Yet again (laughter), he makes another left turn. What do you mean you’re going to quit school and your good job to become a dancer? Are you crazy? So just trying to escape hearing all the – you know, just to downplay on what I wanted to do, I just kind of stayed away. And you know, kind of – you know, I had to sleep on a few couches, few trains. You know what I mean? But it wasn’t long. Gave it about a year. It wasn’t long before I started making money as a dancer and…
GROSS: How did you do it? I mean, how did – if you’re sleeping on trains, how did you get to the point where you’re getting cast in a music video?
WILLIAMS: Oh, don’t get it twisted. Oh, I stayed in the mix. I – backstage was my best friend. That was, like, my Bible, Backstage newspaper. I stayed in areas like Broadway Dance Center. I was always up there bothering somebody or – you know, Stepping Out Studios. I – you know, I packed my backpack with a bunch of PJ sandwiches and – you know what I mean? I would literally just pound that pavement up and down Broadway, running up in record companies, finding out who the new artist – you need new dancers, man? And going to the clubs, I stayed in the clubs. You know, I just – I was hungry. And before long, I wasn’t – about a year I’d give it, I started getting gigs. My first gig was Kym Sims. She had this record called “Too Blind To See It.” She’s from Chi-town – big ups to Chi-town. And that was my first gig, and I ain’t looked back yet.
GROSS: Well, your mother must be proud of you. She didn’t think it was a realistic ambition, and look what you’ve done.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, she’s very proud of me. And I’m just proud of the fact that she even, you know, loves me and hasn’t, like, kicked me out of her life for the crap I put her through.
WILLIAMS: But, you know, she – I must say, though, she does not watch “The Wire.” She’s not, you know – my mother’s – the relationship that she and I have has been tested many, many times. And the friendship that we have today and how we – you know, how we vibe is – like, it’s not because I’m in show business, you know? She clearly does not watch “The Wire” at all.
GROSS: Why not? Is it not her kind of…
WILLIAMS: Just not her cup of tea.
GROSS: Too violent?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s like, you know, – it’s just, you know – yeah, we’ll leave it at that. It’s just – yeah. You know what I mean? She’d rather laugh. You know what I mean? She’s seen enough dark days herself, you know? So we be kicking it now on a whole other different level. It’s just – I think she’s just happy to see me alive and happy doing something I like to do.
GROSS: You know, when I interviewed Clark Johnson, who plays the character of Gus, the city editor on “The Wire” and who directed the first two episodes and the final episode of the series, I said to him, what should I ask Michael Williams (laughter) when I talk with him? And the one question he suggested to me is, ask him how he’s going to shake off the character of Omar.
WILLIAMS: You know, big ups to Clark Johnson. That man has a beautiful mind. That’s a hella fine question. You know, I don’t know if that’s going to ever happen. And what’s even scarier is I don’t even know if I want to shake it. I – you know, Omar, like I said, is a real – it’s a dark state of mind. And sometimes I scare myself when I – and I get comfortable there. And so I don’t know if I – I’m still kind of like – it’s weird. It’s weird. I was – it was a real experience. It was very cathartic having been given the opportunity to play Omar. I don’t know that I really have embraced everything that’s happened. You know, having played a character like this, I would have never have thunk that what we did as a family down in Baltimore would have created this type of response and admiration that we’ve gotten. And I don’t know if I ever really want to let that feeling go. I don’t think I’ll ever get it that intensely again in this business. So I don’t know if I want to ever really let that go. I’m going to hold on to that for as long as I can, I think. But I know with that comes that dark side, you know? It’s a sad place, but I like being there, oddly.
GROSS: My interview with Michael K. Williams was recorded in 2008 during the final season of “The Wire.” Williams died Monday. We’ll continue our tribute to him after a break and hear an excerpt of my 2016 interview with him. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT’S “FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We’re remembering actor Michael K. Williams. He died Monday. He was 54. He became famous for his first major role on “The Wire” as Omar Little, a stick-up man who robbed drug dealers. He went on to co-star in “Boardwalk Empire” as Chalky White, a powerful bootlegger in Atlantic City during prohibition. In “When They See Us,” he played Bobby McCray, the father of Antron McCray, 1 of 5 youths wrongly convicted on charges related to the rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989. Williams is currently nominated for an Emmy for his performance in “Lovecraft Country.” We’re going to hear an excerpt of the second interview I recorded with him in 2016, when he was co-starring in the HBO series “The Night Of” as Freddy, an inmate in Rikers Island, the notorious jail in New York City. In this scene, Naz, a college student whose parents are immigrants from Pakistan, has been accused of murder and is sent to Rikers, where Naz is clueless and Freddy basically controls the prison block. Freddy takes an interest in Naz and summons Naz to his cell. Naz is played by Riz Ahmed. Michael K. Williams, as Freddy, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE NIGHT OF”)
WILLIAMS: (As Freddy Knight) You see, us in the guards, we often the same hood. Some of us even grew up together. You know, our families, we know theirs. Family is everything, right? It isn’t a Muslim family.
RIZ AHMED: (As Naz Khan) Yeah.
WILLIAMS: (As Freddy Knight) Let me tell you something, man. See those brothers you pray with, the Nation of Islam? They’re not your friends. In fact, they hate your ass because you’re a natural-born Muslim, and they’re just phony jailhouse opportunists looking for better food, don’t know the difference between Cairo, Egypt or Cairo, Ill.
AHMED: (As Naz Khan) I’m Pakistani, not Egyptian.
WILLIAMS: (As Freddy Knight) Yeah, well, my ancestors came from Doheny and not the Congo. Who gives a [expletive], man? See, you’re a celebrity in here, and I’m not talking the good king. Dude kills four guys over some dope? OK. But murder a girl? Rape a girl?
AHMED: (As Naz Khan) I didn’t.
WILLIAMS: (As Freddy Knight) Doesn’t matter. Makes no difference. See, there’s a whole separate judicial system in here. And you’ve just been charged and juried. It didn’t come out good for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Michael K. Williams, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
GROSS: I really like your performance in this series. What did you want to know about your character when you took the role?
WILLIAMS: You know, when I first got the part, it wasn’t really nothing I wanted to know about them. I’m so familiar with people like Freddy, you know, from my childhood and from my personal life. You know, I have family members that remind me of Freddy, you know, just all this potential, all this raw potential that just got misguided and led to bad decisions, and those bad decisions came with consequences. I know that all too well. And so it wasn’t something where I needed to do research to understand that world. I still visit my family that’s incarcerated. And I see the good days. I see the bad days. I see the growth. I see what they lost by being incarcerated. And I saw the gains. I just dove into that.
GROSS: So your character is in jail in Rikers Island, which is a very notorious jail in New York City. Did you know people in Rikers Island when you were growing up? Did you hear a lot of Rikers Island stories when you were…
WILLIAMS: Yeah, D-Block, yeah, House of Pain, One Main, House of Pain. You know, and I just want to take a moment to just say – to give a shout-out to all my brothers and sisters who may be incarcerated on the island from New York City. Just keep your head up, man. And just keep striving to be the best you you could be. You know, they could lock your body up, but they can’t like your mind up. Let’s just – let’s keep striving. Tomorrow’s a better day.
GROSS: We’re listening to my 2016 interview with Michael K. Williams. He died Monday at age 54. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We’re listening to my 2016 interview with Michael K. Williams. When we spoke, he was also hosting a documentary series on Viceland called “Black Market” about underground economies. The first episode was about carjacking in Newark, N.J. You interview a minister, Reverend Ronald Christian, who ran the Christian Love Baptist Church, a church that bordered Newark in Irvington, N.J.
GROSS: And this is a church that was really important to you during a difficult period of your life. The episode is dedicated to the memory of this reverend. So in between the time that you recorded the interview and last November, when he actually died, I don’t know how much time elapsed, but you must have been really shocked. He was found dead on the floor of the church. Does anyone know what happened?
WILLIAMS: His heart just gave out, man. He got tired. You know, this was a man that, you know, I’ve never seen someone give so much of themself 100% night and day. He just never stopped. He was always there in the community. If you’re familiar with Essex County and particularly Irvington and, you know, certain parts of The Oranges and especially Newark, you know that there’s a lot of violence that goes on there, a lot of death. Life is very cheap on those streets. And he was always there.
GROSS: What did he do for you? You came to him during a difficult part of your life.
WILLIAMS: When I came around, I was broken. I came through those doors, I was broken.
GROSS: When was this?
WILLIAMS: This was, I would say, around the second, more like third season of “The Wire.” I was doing (ph) drugs, basically, you know, long story short. And I was in jeopardy of destroying everything that I had worked so hard for. And I came in those doors. And I met a man who had never even heard of “The Wire,” much less watched it. He was somewhere else in the Bronx preaching at another church when I first went there. And he stopped everything he was doing, ran back to New Jersey just because his team at the church told him that some, you know, some guy named Omar was in trouble and needed to speak to him. And he came in his office. And he says, write your full name down and your email, said, I’m going to go get you a Bible, man. You could keep that. And we going to spend the rest of this day. I was like, bet.
So I wrote my full name down, Michael Kenneth Williams. As he’s leaving the office, he turns around. He says, so what do you want to be called, man? I said, well, you know, my name is Michael, but, you know, I could do Mike, you know. He said, well, why everyone say Omar, Omar in trouble? I was like, oh, this dude clueless and had nothing to do with Hollywood light or who I was at my job, some human being, just basic human being stuff. And he and I have been joined at the hip ever since. One of his biggest sayings was, I’m going to love you till you learn to love yourself. And he just – he never judged.
He never, you know, he just nudged, you know. You know, Mike, you know, if you want to stop this pain, I could help you with this. But until you’re ready, man, I’m your brother. He never, you know, I’m not saying he accepted me in my dysfunctionalism (ph), but he loved me in it. And it worked. It worked for me, got me to want to become a grown man, to grow up and to stop acting foolish or at least make the attempt to stop acting foolish, you know.
GROSS: He went from prison guard to prisoner to reverend. So I assume there was some kind of, like, religious transformation along the way. Did – was there a religious transformation in your life? Did that figure into your life at all?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. It was more of a spiritual awakening than anything religious. You know, that was the first time I actually walked into a church and felt like it’s OK. I didn’t feel dirty. You know, I come from a, you know, there’s a lot of things in my past, some that I did, some that happened to me that, you know, caused, you know, a lot of scars, you know. One was, you know, the molestation that went on in my life early on. I’m a survivor of that.
GROSS: How old were you?
WILLIAMS: 12 or 13, 12, somewhere up in there. You know, things happen. But, you know, you move on. And I never would go into church. I always felt like, you know what? The whole – it made me question myself on every level, you know, those events happening so early on in my life. And I would go to church with this, like, you know, this secret, this weight, like, you know, I’m dirty. I’m dirty. God is never going to want me. I’m dirty, you know. You know, and then, you know, you mix that with the whole, you know, dark skin just became popular. I just had – I had a very low self-esteem coming up. And I just never felt like God loved me because I was dirty because, you know, I was damaged goods for whatever reasons, whatever that means, you know. And I wore that badge very early on in my life. And I didn’t let that go until I walked into Christian Love Baptist Church. You know, I saw other men who who said, yeah, me too – out loud, you know. And it doesn’t make you less of a man. It doesn’t make you dirty, you know. You know, how to forgive myself and how to forgive people, move on, I got all of that at Christian Love, you know.
GROSS: You know, in our first interview, you talked about how, when you were playing Omar, it was hard for you to summon up the kind of power that he had. I mean, he was a stick-up man. He used to hold up drug dealers and steal their money. He didn’t approve of drugs. He didn’t like dealers, so he’d take their money and have no qualms about it. And he was tough enough and brave enough to do it. So you said that you never thought of yourself as having that kind of power.
WILLIAMS: I don’t.
GROSS: In fact, the opposite. And so the thought of you playing that role made you laugh. And you even told me that in the first scenes that you played, you couldn’t stop laughing because you thought it was so absurd for you to be playing somebody with that kind of power.
WILLIAMS: Wow, Terry, you got a great memory (laughter). It was the scene when we was walking down the aisle, Omar coming, drop the drugs out the window. He turns his back. I’m like, no one in their right mind who knows me – I said, it’s over now. We’re going to ruin this character because people are going to go out there, they’re going to say, that’s not real. We know Mike. Mike is not that, like, you know.
WILLIAMS: And so for me to connect, you know, I, you know, again, the whole alpha male aspect, I don’t know how to know how to – I’m sorry. What did you want to say?
GROSS: I feel like maybe I understand a little bit more what you were saying, like, if you were molested, I could understand how you would feel like you didn’t have that kind of physical power.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I never felt like that. And, you know, I just wasn’t raised to have that violent side. So it kind of…
GROSS: Or to be physically intimidating.
WILLIAMS: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: You’re laughing.
WILLIAMS: I don’t have that. I don’t have that. It wasn’t accepted in my mom’s household to fight. It just was not the case. And so I just didn’t have that skill. But the anger, the emotions, I didn’t know what to do with those when people would, you know, create those emotions in me, what do I do with that? So as a result, I ended up hurting myself a lot, you know. You know, a lot of my anger was turned inward on me and where the drug addiction came from basically.
GROSS: So why do you think you started using drugs when – or started using them again, I’m not sure which – after “The Wire” was on, after you’d become successful?
WILLIAMS: A little bit of both.
GROSS: Because you’d think on the surface that that would be a period when your self-esteem would be, like, really good because you were so great in the role and people, like, loved you in it.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, see, that’s the trick. That’s the trick. It can’t be anything outward that makes you feel good about yourself. That is the trick. Those things don’t work. Feeling good – that’s got to come – it’s got to come from the inside out, not the outside in. And, you know, you know…
GROSS: Or you didn’t feel worthy.
WILLIAMS: No. Hell, no, I didn’t feel worthy of opportunity like that. And then, you know, when I was given this character as Omar, I could have used it as a nurturing tool for myself. It could have been cathartic for me. I decided to wear it as a Spider-Man suit, you know, just fly around, wee, look at me. I got web in my hands, you know. Instead of actually doing the work and finding out how I could, you know, use this character to make myself feel better about me, I just – I used it instead of me. It was, I, you know, like, it was like my crutch.
And so when “The Wire” and the character of Omar ended, I had zero tools, personally speaking, in how to deal with letting that go. I wasn’t going around robbing people or anything stupid like that. But I definitely wore that dark energy that Omar was. He was a dark soul, tortured soul. And I just worked all of that up and lived in that, so – and that’s what people was attracted to, his – whatever they were attracted to, I just didn’t know how to differentiate, OK, that is Omar’s love, and then you have Michael’s love. The lines got blurred. It was a little too close to the white meat at the time. It’s a old figure speech in the streets.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
WILLIAMS: …When you cut somebody to the white meat. It was a little too close to home, that character. And I didn’t equip myself with the tools of how to wash that off my psyche.
GROSS: So both in “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” your characters are shot to death. In “The Wire,” you’re shot by a kid. And “Boardwalk Empire,” it’s almost like a firing squad. And it’s like – there’s, like, I don’t know, five gangsters who just kind of line up and shoot you with it. And you die off camera. It kind of fades to black. Can I ask you what it’s like to experience your character’s death?
WILLIAMS: Oh, wow. That’s a first. That is the first time I’ve ever been asked that question. Well, with “The Wire,” we just – we’ve covered that. That was a very jagged pill to swallow – didn’t do well with that one. Chalky was a releasing, you know. I let go. I just released. When he closes his eyes and says, you know, nothing real anyway. You know, I went somewhere personally. It was a release. I left “Boardwalk” feeling lighter as I should, feeling in myself, in my mind, in my skin, feeling lighter like I had left some things there, you know. And I felt that my ancestors were proud of me. I walked off that set with my chest held high ’cause I gave it my best shot. I did the best I could. And I was around the best, some of the best talent this business has to offer. But, you know, so that’s what those two deaths felt like for me. They were complete polar opposites from what I got from them.
You know, now, having said – you mentioned who they got shot by, a young – a Black teen on the streets of Baltimore. Chalky White got shot by a firing squad – you know, ironically – of all Black men in Harlem. And it speaks to what’s happening today, you know, in our society. And so those images that you see on “The Wire” and Chalky – and in “Boardwalk Empire” and particularly with my character’s demise, I don’t take that lightly, you know. And anybody that was on the set that day when Idris Elba and I had to shoot the scene where Stringer Bell dies – I was shaking like a leaf and crying, you know, ’cause I did not want to do that. It just didn’t feel right. Like, how do you come to these two dark-skinned, strong-minded Black men, strong-willed Black men – as we say in the hood – these two kings? How is it always they got to come all – and, you know, and there’s a faceoff, and one of them got to die.
You know, I didn’t want to be a part of that. I didn’t know – at that point, I questioned, what am I doing? Am I telling the truth? Or am I perpetuating the problem? I suffer with that on “The Wire,” you know. And that weighed on me. And even though it’s fake, where I go in my psyche, it – trust me, it is very real. And it comes equipped with all those emotions that comes from having killed someone that looks like you. You know, how do you deal with that? Where do you go with that? That’s why I take it.
GROSS: It’s been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. And thank you for all the great work you’ve done.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for your time.
GROSS: My interview with Michael K. Williams was recorded in 2016. He died Monday at the age of 54. It’s tragic that he’s gone. It’s a great loss for the world of movies and TV and for his fans like me. Our sympathies to his friends and family.
After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new remake of “Doogie Howser, M.D.” The original starred Neil Patrick Harris. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN’S “WIGWAM”)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.