A Talk with Michael K. Williams
A Talk With Michael K. Williams

Actor Michael K. Williams is best known for his performance as Omar Little on the hit HBO drama The Wire.  It’s a role that brought him to the attention of none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama.  Now, he plays the small but crucial role of Thief in the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road.

In Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for a Weinstein Company press junket for The Road, I was fortunate to be part of a press roundtable that sat down with Williams.

Immediately upon entering the room, he was struck by a shirt worn by one of my fellow journalists.  Given his role in the film, there was one thing we had to get clear right off the bat.

My first question: is my shirt safe with you or not?

Michael K. Williams:  No, well, as long as it’s on your back.

I mean, I’ve seen you act, I know what you’re known for.

MKW: Oh please, I am so not that.

How did you prepare for the role?  Did you rehearse, or how did you get in the mindset of that character?

MKW:  It was pretty straightforward.  Cormac [McCarthy] had given notes to John [Hillcoat] what he wanted for the thief and I pretty much knew what I had to do.  John was very clear and very specific.  He’s a great director.  He knows what he wants and he has a great way of letting you know that. 

Normally, when I get into character, I bring different variations of music depending on the emotion I need to bring. For this role, I had a death in the family.  He was like my little brother.  He was gunned down and murdered in Newark, New Jersey on his way home; just random, robbery.  They shot him in the head and killed him.  That day was his funeral and it would have been a huge disaster for the production had I not worked that day to go home for the funeral, so I offered to stay.  A lot of that pain you see is me missing my little brother, my little friend there.  So that was pretty much what I used to get into character that day: a feeling of loss, not understanding what’s going on. Because he was a good boy, 25 years old, only child, give you the shirt of his back.  Good boy, just good kid, and I just did not understand why that had to happen to him.  Just like Thief didn’t understand why the world was like this right now.  Why?

What drew you to the story?

MKW:  The thing that got me was the talk about the fire.  That thing just broke my heart and I wanted to see if they were going to make it, and you kept turning the page to see.  But then you realize: make it to where?  It’s a wrap.  There’s no turning back. So, what is making it now?  Do you want to make it even?  That reality started hitting me towards the end part of the script. 

But the main thing that made me want to do it was, well… let’s keep it real, the cast was stellar!  A chance to work with… I’m a huge fan of Charlize [Theron].  So, that was number one, but when I read the script, [it was] the love affair between father and son, because I always kind of lacked that in my childhood growing up.  I didn’t have that relationship, so that whole thing of the father protecting his child and just the whole talk about the fire, the spirit, that thing kind of really got to me.

Could you elaborate on that a little bit?  What did that mean to you?  The conversation about the fire.

MKW:  That was a tough time for me; there was a lot of darkness around my personal life and even though things seem really bleak you have to remember we have a choice in life.  You have choices to choose the right path or the wrong path… and keeping the fire alive is hope, staying positive-minded and looking for the silver lining, I guess, with the fire; and I identified with that at that time.  I still do, but I was really identifying with it then because it was kind of a very dark time for me during that film.

Where do you think that scene fits in the larger story?  Why is it at the end?  What is the importance of the Thief interchange?

Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Kid in The Road

MKW:  I am not going to act like I know; that’s probably in Cormac’s mind, but I could give you my small opinion.  Everybody says that was the humanity scene.  I think that was boy-coming-of-age.  That was the first time we saw him act like a man.  ’Cause the tables turned.  For the first time Papa listened to the boy and did what the boy told, not asked him, told him what to do.  That scene to me represents the first glimpse of Boy’s manhood and that you think he’s going to be okay.  Because we knew that Papa was not going to be around long with that cough.  That’s what that scene represents to me the most.

And your appeal to the Boy was really significant: “Listen to the Boy.”

MKW:  Man!  That’s exactly where I’m going with it.  Listen to the boy!  This boy knows what he’s talking about. 

Plus he’s my only hope. 

MKW:  Yeah!  That, but also too, there’s goodness in the boy.  Listen to the boy.  You’ve raised a fine young man.  This kid’s going to be okay.  All that was kind of in there.

New York home for you?

MKW:  Yeah, born and raised, Brooklyn.

I moved here from New Jersey.

MKW:  What part?

North Jersey.

MKW:  Okay.  Me and my family, my same little brother Lucky, we call ourselves the Isabella Fellas who are from the Vailsburg section of Newark.  We park our boat in Tom’s Bay.  Great area.  We’re like the only black guys in the boat, we’re like, “Hi!”  It’s fun.  We have fun when we go out in the water.

A little side note; tell us about this note about Barack Obama, you being a favorite of his.  What’s the story there?

MKW:  Your guess is as good as mine.  The dude has great taste in television, I’ll tell you that much.  Yeah, he went on record saying that his two favorite T.V. shows at the time were M*A*S*H and The Wire.  And if I’m not mistaken, that was in one interview and by the time they went to another situation, that kind of got there and they were like, “We heard you just said [that The Wire is one of your favorite shows], so what’s your favorite character?”  And then he went on and said Omar. 

That whole thing is surreal for me.  I don’t come from an entertainment family.  Politics and education has always been the topic of conversation at the table.  So, the fact that I did something to warrant the attention of the potential president of the United States, my mother was through the roof!  And it’s funny how I watch these kinds of things, these dominoes kind of fall into place. It started with that, and then I was in Rhode Island shooting a film and my mom called me one Saturday night: “Hey,” she’s gloating now, “Guess who’s coming to town.  Guess who I’m going to see tomorrow.”  I’m like “Who?”  She’s goes “Obama!” 

So we got there that Sunday and I walked into the forum and somebody from his committee came outside to greet me and at the door; she goes, “Michael, listen, our volunteers have been working so hard; would you mind? We want to reward them at the end of the week. The person who makes the most phone calls we want to reward them with a phone call from them telling them congratulations.”  I said, “Sure, no problem.”  This lady goes on a stage in the forum full of at least close to a thousand people in this room, it was a huge venue, and announces that not only am I in the building, but I’ve decided to join the campaign and make this official statement. 

Sounds like a Seinfeld episode.

MKW:  It was crazy!  Everybody just found me and within like ten minutes I had a line of reporters down the stairs.  I had some of the Secret Service guys, they came in and had to come and get on me.  I said I want my family near me and my mom was down over there, my brother was over there, I had my cousin with me, my uncle and his wife was over there.  So I said, “I want my family sitting in this area with me,” so they did that for six of us. 

Toward the end of the speech, I said, “Well, I got this far, I might as well go all the way.  I want to meet the dude!”  So, I put the word out and I said that all of my family were going to meet him… So the woman took us to the back room and we waited for him to come in and as reality hit me, I got real nervous and I found myself slumping behind my brother a little bit… I was kind of behind him, my big brother. 

So, [Obama] walks in the room and my cousin’s wife, she greets him: “Hello, Senator, I’m Linda Dean.  It’s my understanding you said The Wire, yada yada.  He said, “Yes, that’s correct.”  “And Omar?”  He said, “Yes, that’s correct.”  “Well, Senator, Michael Williams is in the building.”  He said, “Where Omar at?! That’s my man!”  He fished through my family and sought me out, grabbed me up and, as my mother calls it, gave me the homeboy handshake.  I was speechless. 

But that was the first time I heard him speak live was that night.  And after having met him, I made the decision to take that announcement that happened to start this whole thing; I decided to take that seriously and do my part, and to campaign for him.  I did the primary in Gary, Indiana and then I went back to Gary and did the voter registration, back-to-school job.  You know, nothing big.  I did my part. I wasn’t trying to have his number in my speed dial, or to be able to hang out with the President.  You know, we have two different lifestyles.  I just wanted to do my part as an American.  From him making that statement, it made me so little kid about politics again.  It made me get involved in the election.  I hadn’t voted since Bill, prior to Obama and even worse, I just didn’t care about anything with the word politics involved in it.  It just didn’t speak to me, until this man came.  So, it made me grow up a little bit.  That one little statement he did made me grow up and be responsible for my country, for my part.

Any discussion about, after [Thief] was stripped of your clothes, any discussion [about] where is he?

MKW:  He probably got eaten, five minutes up that road.  It’s a wrap.  He dies.  There is no surviving.

I was just wondering if there was any discussion: Is that the way it should go?

MKW:  Yeah, it’s a wrap for him, which is why he says, “I won’t survive like this out here.”  And he won’t.  You know, he’s walking around, he’s either going to be a Happy Meal for somebody else, or he’s going to die from the elements.

Well, you saw how quickly the road gang gutted the boy that got shot.

MKW:  See that. Quick.  Quick.  Yeah, he wasn’t surviving that.  And the boy knew it. The boy knew: that’s why he kept saying, “Don’t do this, Papa.  Don’t do this.”  It’s like watching his father kill someone indirectly.

Yeah, because he does ask the question earlier, after the Eli dialogue, [Boy] says, “I think you don’t know the good guys from the bad guys.”

MKW:  Bingo!  Yes!  That was another sign of him coming into his own man and having his own feelings about certain things and not just listening to what Papa says all the time.  Which I thought was very interesting.  That was the first glimpse of his individuality.

We were talking this morning about how the boy’s buckets of good guys and bad guys, early on, was that good guys don’t eat people.

MKW:  Right.

But then, through their experience with [Thief], it became less about not eating than how you treat people.  When his dad didn’t treat you right, the question was: “Are we still the good guys?”

MKW:  Right.

Okay, so in one word, one sentence, whatever.  What effect did the story have on you?  How did it change you?

MKW:  In one word?

One sentence. One paragraph.

MKW:  It made me humble.  It made me reevaluate my family relationships.  It made me not ever waste a bottle of water again. I’m dead serious.

Cool.

MKW:  Let’s talk about this shirt, man!  Where did you get it?  The details, the collar, that shirt is crazy.

You know what, I feel like I’m in dangerous territory here.

The movie makes a big deal of who’s good versus evil.  Your character is a thief, but he doesn’t seem like a bad guy.  Did you approach the role thinking you were playing a good guy or a bad guy? Or does that not figure in at all?

MKW:  I definitely did not approach it as playing a bad guy.  In that world, no one is a hundred percent good and we don’t know who is a hundred percent bad.  But, I did know that this guy is just desperate, just trying to survive.  I felt that if he was a vicious-hearted person, he would have gutted that little boy, that little tender piece of young meat laying there defenseless.  Lamb chops! You know, but I think the fact that he just took what he needed and did not get greedy by abducting that little boy for whatever purposes; you know, who knows what could have been on his mind, the thief’s mind.  But he just took what he needed to survive and that’s where I played him from.  I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a bad guy.  He’s no angel, but I don’t know if that necessarily makes him bad.

Well, the code of ethics is pretty fuzzy.

MKW:  Yeah, definitely.  And it changes from incident to incident, from every person that they encounter along the road, those lines, they blur.

What’s next for you?

MKW:  I am back home in Brooklyn.  I’m working on this new show back at HBO.  Working on Boardwalk Empire.  It’s based in Atlantic City in the 1920s.  Scorsese is producing and directing.  Mark Wahlberg and Tim Van Patten and Dean Winters.  Actually, I got off set last night at two o’clock in the morning, four-thirty car pickup.  So, I’m a little delirious right now, but it’s a great project and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

I’ve heard some people respond to this movie initially that “Yeah, this movie’s great, but you’ll like it even more if you’re a father.”  I’ve heard that said more than once.  You said something interesting.  You said it connected with you especially because you didn’t really have that presence in your life.  Would you mind elaborating on that just a little bit?

MKW:  I suffered with abandonment issues with my father.  I’m not bitter with him, you know, he’s alive and you can only get what you have.  He left out of my life at an age when young men should be around their fathers, and so when I saw that, it kind of made me wish for that time with my dad.  There’s probably a part of me watching that movie that wished that the world was like that so me and my dad can be just me and dad against the world.  That made me look and reevaluate my relationship when I was with my dad as a child growing up… and not to make those mistakes with my kids when they’re growing up.

Is there a scene in the movie that you like the most?  Your personal favorite?

MKW:  Yeah, it’s right after the road gang, when [the road gang member]’s going to the bathroom and then they have that scene that Papa turns his head for one moment and [the gang member] grabs the boy.  After that, the state of mind that that little boy is in, up until the point where Papa is washing his hair, there is something in that young man in that scene—when that’s the first time you hear him cry—there was something in the pain that came out of his mouth.  Just to hear that boy cry. That touched the shit out of me.

I was speaking with John Hillcoat and he gave me some behind-the-scenes stuff about that; things that you’re not going to see in the film.  Kodi [Smit-McPhee] is not a huge fan of cold water in real life.  He’s a ten-, eleven-year-old kid and he had to have a stranger submerse his head in cold water, ice cold water.  And after they’ve got the scene and Papa washes his hair out, that cry you hear is so real; it is so real, and it just breaks my heart.  I felt it, but then when I heard the behind-the-scenes stuff when me and John were talking, it was like, that kid just let it go.  Even though that was a phobia of his, a fear of his, he doesn’t like cold water.

There’s a real bond there, a father-son bond there.

MKW:  It happened that day.  They had to wrap.  They had to cut for a little bit and Viggo [Mortenson] and Kodi went off somewhere and [Viggo] just held him.  Just held him and let him work it out and just stayed with him until he came back to a grounded place.  And then went back to work and right from that scene on, he and Viggo were like this and that father-son bond was just unbreakable.

Viggo is cool.  That dude is cool.  I have a lot of respect for him.  I’m a huge fan of his as a human being. I love his humbleness and I like his swagger a lot.  He has a way he approaches things and people and all of this Hollywood stuff.  It could really take you off your ground, off your footing, thinking in the clouds too much, but he seems to stay grounded in all this stuff that’s happening around him.  He and Kodi were working for a few months by the time I came in and it was just those two for so many days or weeks, so it was a very intimate set; and to invite a stranger in and given the story and everything, they made me feel so welcome.  Because, you know, I just had to just come in and drop my pants, there was no coaching.

But you’d done that before?  You knew how to do that right?

MKW:  Yeah, but you know, when you’ve got like thirty or forty people, and it’s my first day on the set, “Okay Mike, drop ’em!”  But, the world that Kodi and Viggo had created on set already was just so loving and so nurturing, that it lent itself to me.  And I came in on the first day and I just fit right in. They made a space for me.