No Longer Omar: Actor Michael K. Williams On Lucky Breaks And Letting Go Over the course of his career, Williams says he's learned to separate himself from his characters (like The Wire's Omar). In HBO's The Night Of, he plays a powerful prison inmate named Freddy.
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No Longer Omar: Actor Michael K. Williams On Lucky Breaks And Letting Go

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No Longer Omar: Actor Michael K. Williams On Lucky Breaks And Letting Go

No Longer Omar: Actor Michael K. Williams On Lucky Breaks And Letting Go

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Michael K. Williams, has co-starred in two great HBO crime series, and now he's in a third. In "The Wire," he was Omar, the fearless stick-up man who stole money from drug dealers. In "Boardwalk Empire," he was Chalky White, a bootlegger who runs a night club in Atlantic City. In the new HBO series "The Night Of," he plays an inmate in Rikers Island, the notorious jail in New York City.

The series, created by Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, is about a young man, Nassim (ph), or Nas, who makes a mistake of judgment and finds himself accused of murder and trapped in the criminal justice system. Nas is a college student living in Queens, N.Y, with his parents who are immigrants from Pakistan. Nas' father is a taxi driver. One night when Nas wants to go to a party, he takes his father's cab without permission. A woman gets into the taxi, in spite of Nas' protests that he's not on duty.

He ends up going home with her. And when he wakes up in a drugged stupor, he finds she's been stabbed to death. He seems to have no idea what happened and neither do we. But the evidence appears to be stacked against him, and neither he nor his parents know how to navigate within the judicial system. Bail is denied, and he's sent to Rikers Island where his prison block is controlled by an inmate named Freddy, played by Michael K. Williams. Freddy takes an interest in Nas and summons him to his cell.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT OF")

MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: (As Freddy) You see, us and the guards, we all from the same hood. Some of us even grew up together. They know our families, we know theirs. Look, family's everything, right? It is in a Muslim family.

RIZWAN AHMED: (As Nas) Yeah.

WILLIAMS: (As Freddy) I'll tell you something, man. See those brothers you pray with? The nation of Islam? They 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 and Cairo, Ill.

AHMED: (As Nas) I'm Pakistani, not Egyptian.

WILLIAMS: (As Freddy) Yeah, well, my ancestors came from Doheny (ph) and not the Congo. Who gives a [expletive], man? See, you're a celebrity in here. And I'm not talking the good kind. Dude kills four guys over some dope - OK. But murder a girl? Rape a girl?

AHMED: (As Nas) I didn't.

WILLIAMS: (As Freddy) It doesn't matter, makes no difference. See, there's a whole separate judicial system in here. And you've just been judged and juried. And it didn't come out good for you.

GROSS: Michael K. Williams, welcome back to FRESH AIR...

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you, Terry...

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 him. I'm so familiar with people like Freddy, you know, from my childhood and, you know, 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: You have family who's in jail now?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I have a nephew, Dominic, Dominic Dupont (ph), who I'm extremely proud of. If there were such a term as a model prisoner, he'd be the poster boy. You know, he went in at a very early age. He defended his twin brother in a fight, and they got jumped. And a gun went off, and someone lost their life at the hands of my nephew.

And I believe that had we had the proper money to hire the high-powered lawyers, his outcome probably would have been different. But, you know, did he do the crime? Yes. Did he do the time? Absolutely.

But his record, what he's shown society, how he's grown in there - we're talking got his education, got married in there - managed to find a good woman and got married in there. He mentors young men that comes in behind him, whether it's a HIV/AIDS program or Scared Straight program.

While doing all of this, he still managed to keep his respect and his dignity. And, as we all know, that's not easy to do in prison. You got to fight for your respect or you get run over. And he was able to ride that thin line.

GROSS: So your character is in jail in Rikers Island...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

GROSS: ...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 growing up?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, D-block. Yeah, House of Pain, or 4 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 lock your mind up. Just keep striving. Tomorrow's a better day.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael K. Williams, and he's now one of the stars of the new HBO series, "The Night Of." And now you have a new series on Viceland TV - that's the new Vice channel - and it's called "Black Market," where you go and report on underground markets, on black markets. And the first episode is 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.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

GROSS: And this was 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 percent, 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. You know, when...

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 on drugs, basically - keeping, you know, a 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. He 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. And I was like, bet.

So I wrote my full name down, Michael Kenneth Williams. And as he's leaving the office, he turns around. He says, so what 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 everybody saying Omar, Omar in trouble? And I was like, oh, this dude - clueless. And it had nothing to do with Hollywood light or who I was in 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 a love you 'til you learn to love yourself.

And he just - he never judged. He never, you know - he just nudged. You know - I could, you know - if you want to stop this pain, I can help you with this, but until you're ready, I'm your brother. He never - you know, I'm not saying he accepted me in my dysfunctionalism, but he loved me in it. And it worked. It worked for me. It got me to want to become a grown man to grow up and to stop acting foolish or at least to make the attempt to stop acting foolish, you know.

GROSS: Well, he had troubles in his own life. He had been a guard at a prison...

WILLIAMS: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: ...In New Jersey in Newark. And then he started using drugs, and he ends up having to serve time in prison for stealing from the prison...

WILLIAMS: ...That he was working at. Talk about fall from grace, huh, T? (Laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And he even tell - he tells you in the episode that he learned to drive on a carjacked car. So he knew something about the kinds of problems people came to him with...

WILLIAMS: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: ...Because he had had problems of his own. Did that help you knowing that he had transformed his life? Was that, like, helpful as an example?

WILLIAMS: That was a huge help to me, you know, and to not beating myself up so, so badly. It helped me to let go of the guilt and the shame of, you know, what I had done out there, what I was doing out there. Seeing him and to have him as an example of what it could be, it made my transition a lot smoother. He gave me - say he gave me a template, you know, basically like - OK, you know, and he - I'm not saying - I don't want to seem like I'm putting him up on a pedestal, you know, but, you know, his message and the way he delivered the word - he was about no judgment.

It was about the sin is not fallen down. The sin is staying on the ground. You got to pick yourself up. We're going to make mistakes. We've made mistakes. It's going to be a few more we make before this ride is over. You make your apologies to whoever you may have, you know - and then you try to pick yourself up, take it one day at a time. And that was his message.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael K. Williams, and he stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." He has a new Viceland series which is called "Black Market." He was Omar in "The Wire," and Chalky White in "Boardwalk Empire." We're going to take a short break and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Michael K. Williams who co-stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." Note to parents - in this section, Williams is going to reflect on something disturbing that happened to him related to a subject you might not want young children to hear about.

When we left off, we were talking about a new series Williams hosts and conducts interviews for called "Black Market." It's on the TV channel Viceland. We were talking about the episode about carjacking. You interview a minister Reverend Ronald Christian who ran the Christian Love Baptist Church.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

GROSS: And this was a church that was really important to you during a difficult period of your life. 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, a - 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: Twelve or 13 - 12 - somewhere up in there. You know, things happened. But, you know, you move on. And I never would go into church. I always felt like, you know, with 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 (laughter). 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 said, yeah, me too, out loud. Yeah, and it doesn't make you less of a man. It doesn't make you dirty, you know. You know, I had to forgive myself and had to forgive people, move on. I got all of that in Christian Love, you know.

GROSS: Can I just ask, you know - when you were playing Omar on "The Wire," Omar was gay. And I know that was challenging for you because you knew a lot of people who would be uncomfortable about you playing a gay man, and I think it was a little bit - you felt it was a little bit of a stretch, too, but you did it. You did it excellently. You were the person who suggested the kiss when (laughter) Omar...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...First kisses his boyfriend on camera. You said, like, let's do it. Let's do it now. You basically wrote that in. But when you were 12 and you were molested, did that make you, like, question what your sexual orientation was? Like what did that mean? And did that make you - do you know what I mean? Did that - did it make you unsure of yourself in new ways that made you...

WILLIAMS: It definitely...

GROSS: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...Made me question, you know, why me? You know, so that type of stuff could, you know, mess with my head a little bit. You know - just - those things you just did not talk about. You didn't talk about anything that made you feel sensitive or vulnerable. Those were not good character traits to have in my community.

So here comes Omar, you know, and he is so, you know, external. He doesn't hide who he is. You know, he is like the quintessential underdog. And, you know, in all senses of the word in my community, he's a dark skin, you know, openly gay black man, who's not effeminate, who, you know, walks around openly with his boyfriend, doesn't care about fancy clothes, jewelry, doesn't use drugs, doesn't sell drugs, doesn't want to live in a fancy home. To - he just - anything that was deemed as eye candy in my community, you know, he rebuked all of that and was still deemed as respectable.

He - you respected him, and, you know, and that was like a - how did you do that? How do you make people respect you for being you in my community? How do you not conform to what, you know, society has made men in my community deem as being a man? You know, how did you make it cool to just be yourself in an oppressed situation, in an oppressed community? I mean, it was just mind-boggling for me.

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 you never thought of yourself as having that kind of power...

WILLIAMS: I don't.

GROSS: ...You know, 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 to (laughter) - for you to be...

WILLIAMS: Wow, Terry. You got a great memory.

GROSS: ...Playing somebody with that kind of power. So...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter). It was the scene where he's walking down the aisle and they get - Omar coming and they drop the drugs out the window. And he turns his back. I'm like no one in their right mind who knows me, I said, is over there. We're going to ruin this character because people are going to go out then they're going to say that's not real. We know Mike. Mike is not that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And it was like, you know - and so for me to connect, you know, I - you know, again, the whole alpha-male aspect - I don't know how to - That's - I'm sorry. What do you want to say?

GROSS: Well, I feel like maybe I understand a little bit more what you were saying, like, if you are 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 (laughter).

WILLIAMS: I don't have that.

GROSS: Right.

WILLIAMS: I don't have that. It wasn't accepted in my mom's household to fight. That 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 that's what 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...

WILLIAMS: A little bit of both (laughter).

GROSS: ...After you'd become successful because you'd think on the surface that that would be a period when your self-esteem would be, like, really good 'cause 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, you know...

GROSS: Or you didn't feel worthy.

WILLIAMS: No, hell no, I didn't feel worthy of opportunity like that 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, and just fly around and go, wee, look at me. I got web in my hands, you know, and - 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, at 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 woke all of that up and lived in that so when - and that's what people was attracted to his - is 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 an old figure of speech in the streets...

GROSS: OK (laughter).

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: My guest is Michael K. Williams. He hosts the new Viceland series "Black Market" and co-stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." He also played Omar on HBO's "The Wire." We'll talk more after a short break. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review Maxwell's new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael K. Williams. On the HBO series "The Wire," he played Omar who robbed drug dealers. On "Boardwalk Empire," he was bootlegger Chalky White. In the new HBO series "The Night Of," he plays an inmate in the New York City jail Rikers Island. These are three very powerful, intimidating characters.

You know, we were talking about how you didn't feel powerful when you were young, and playing Omar felt like a real stretch for you. And you had this kind of dissonance between how you felt as a person and how you portrayed Omar. Something I know for sure that must've taken a lot of courage was - when you were, I guess, in your 20s? - when you decided to leave a job that you'd finally gotten with a pharmaceutical company to try to make it as a dancer, you know, and to try to have some kind of career as a performer.

And I think, you know, that always takes a lot of courage, to leave a secure job, even if it's not a job you especially like, and just kind of, you know, jump into the water not knowing if you'll float or not (laughter).

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

GROSS: So...

WILLIAMS: You know...

GROSS: ...What was that like for you to decide, you know, you're going to do it?

WILLIAMS: You know, Terry, I was being a bit of a butt [expletive] when I did that to my - that was a way to stick it to my family, especially my mom. You know, in my family, there are three things that you're taught to do. You either get an education or you go into the military or you get a trade with your hands. You know, the men in my family, that's what you do. And I kind of, like, failed at all three.

So, you know, when I came out of the first program, you know, for drugs - and yeah, so I went and got a job at Pfizer pharmaceuticals, like, I was a temp job. And I worked there for a year. They were about to make me a permanent when I saw this Janet Jackson video. And it was like - there was a combination of things that happened.

One was my spirit got stirred by the visual images that were shown in that video, the black and white images, the strength, you know. And just, like, you can see, like, these just different people, you know, some tall, some short, male, female, light-skinned, dark-skinned. It wasn't just this everybody was pretty with perfect teeth. You saw some jagged edges in that formation in "Rhythm Nation."

Yet when they all came together, they moved like one. I just - it's just the imagery mixed with the lyrics - and I'm a huge Janet Jackson fan. It's just - I couldn't run that fast. So it stirred my spirit. My spirit got awoken, my creative sources, energy got awoken the first time I saw that video. And it was a way to, like, you know, stick it to my mom, like, yeah, I'm going to do it my way, I got us some Frank Sinatra, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Nah, I think I'm going to do it my way, you know what I mean?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: So it was a combination of, like, you know, I don't want to get an education. I don't want to get a trade. I don't want to go to the army. I want to do this. I'm going to dance. And, you know, lo and behold, I got lucky 'cause I started getting work. And that wasn't in the plans to actually, you know, become something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: I just wanted to have fun and make a few dollars, you know (laughter)?

GROSS: What kind of dancing had you done before?

WILLIAMS: OK, now, when I say I used to be a dancer, I need you to know that I was a complete and utter hack.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: I, you know, I have way too much respect for dancers and real choreographers to really call myself one. I just had a real good way with rhythm. I love movement. I love music. And I am a good mimic. I could make it look like a pirouette, but if you really look at my form any real dancer could tell you, that's some garbage right there.

So, you know, I was just that club kid in the clubs in New York City with his, you know, with his suspenders on backwards, the loud floral shirt, the baggy jeans, the high-heel marshmallow shoes with the big platforms doing half splits in the club. I was that dude. And I got really blessed and was able to parlay it into a dance career being at the right place at the right time and surrounding myself by the right people.

GROSS: Let's talk about another turning point in your life. When you were 25, I think it was, like, the night of your 25th birthday, you got into a bar fight. That's when your face was slashed with a razor. And your - the scar that runs down the middle of your forehead - that's become almost like a signature. You know, it's almost like you're known for that. It's part of your look, in a way.

And you've managed to make it a strength instead of something horrible that you have to cover up that's going to hurt your career or anything like that. But when it happened, what did you think, assuming that you survived, because I think you were also cut in your throat that night?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, the second cut of that fight ends right at my jugular, yeah.

GROSS: How did you think that scar on your forehead, which is visible, was going to affect your career as a performer?

WILLIAMS: I didn't think at all, you know. When I first got that scar, when I got jumped that night, I was just beginning my dance career. And I was - I had just gotten a gig as a model, like a - there was this company called Rock Embassy that made tour jackets for, like, various recording artists that went on tour. And they would sell them at, you know, as merchandise. And I was the big - one the big spokesmodels for that company.

And so I think the - it went in all the magazines, the hip-hop magazines, there were like posters all in the subway stations, and that whole wave of press went out on November 20 or the 21. And then I get this big slash down my face on the 22. So immediately, I thought my modeling career - well, that's over. OK, we're going to, now, we're going to focus on the thing on your resume - dancing, yeah. Scratch model, OK, now we're just a dancer.

So, you know, and I just want to say, man, there are some good advantages that came out of growing up in my community. That whole, like, fake tough skin thing, it kind of worked for me in this instance because I refuse to look at myself as a victim. I didn't go through the whole breakdown and oh, my God, my life is over and any type of, like, shock and horror. I just put a couple of baseball caps in my face, I had that bacitracin ointment in my bag to keep them stitches all moisturized.

And I kept it moving. I didn't allow myself to feel weak over that incident because I knew that mentally I didn't have what it would have taken to really deal with what had just happened. So I didn't mentally go there. They wanted me to seek, like, therapy for trauma. I shut all of that down. I said, no, I'm good.

GROSS: What about the scar from your ear to your jugular? I don't think I've noticed that ever. Is that visible?

WILLIAMS: Because I purposely wear my beard - that's - people...

GROSS: Oh...

WILLIAMS: That's one of the reasons I wear the beard because it's gone down over the years. But if I tilt - turn my face to the right and showed you the side of my neck, you can see it. It's definitely there. And so I keep the beard. That's one of the reasons why I keep facial hair, just to kind of - just - it kind of just hides it back there.

GROSS: Did you think you weren't going to make it through that night?

WILLIAMS: You know, I think - yeah, I think a lot of people thought that I wasn't going to make it to see 30. You know, my mom didn't think I was going to see 30, you know.

GROSS: Does she watch your TV shows?

WILLIAMS: No, she liked "Boardwalk "Empire." Yeah, I think she liked "Hap And Leonard" a little bit. My mom has a peculiar taste. Like, one of her favorite things I've ever done is the R. Kelly videos "Trapped In The Closet." She's like - that's like her, like - I think she watched "Boardwalk Empire" more for the Nucky character. I keep telling - Steve, I think my mother has a crush on you. She - every time that character would come on, she (laughter) oh, Nucky (laughter) oh, Nucky. And I'm like, Ma, like Ma.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from "Boardwalk Empire."

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

GROSS: And "Boardwalk Empire" was HBO's series set during the Prohibition era in Atlantic City. And Steve Buscemi played Nucky, who was, like, the king of Atlantic City...

WILLIAMS: Atlantic City.

GROSS: ...Then and basically controlled politics, controlled the bootleg liquor. You play the most powerful African-American in the city, and you have a bootleg operation of your own. And then with Nucky's help, you run a very swank night club in Atlantic City. And so you've accumulated a lot of wealth.

And in this scene, you're at a dinner party at you're very well-appointed home with your wife and children. Your daughter's boyfriend, a medical student, is there, too. And you're feeling very self-conscious because you're from the South, you're from the country, and he's very urban. He's educated. He's refined. There's a sumptuous duck dinner on the table. Your wife asked the medical student to say grace. You're a little drunk, and you keep interrupting him and talking about how they should all be eaten hoppin' John - rice and black-eyed peas. Here's that scene around the dinner table, and it starts with the boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")

TY ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) Lord, we...

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) Is that a duck?

NATALIE WACHEN: (As Lenore White) Yes, Albert, of course it is. Please, Mr. Crawford.

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) Lord, we thank you...

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) I thought I asked for hoppin' John.

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) There's duck, peas, carrots, fresh-baked biscuits.

CHRISTINA JACKSON: (As Maybelle White) I made chocolate pudding for dessert.

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) We'd like to thank you for the...

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) I asked a question.

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) Albert, please. She made that putting all by herself.

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) It's very nice.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) Where the damn hoppin' John?

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) Albert, you know that's not proper food for a guest. Now, let's allow Samuel to finish.

WACHEN: (As Samuel Crawford) Lord, we come together to...

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) Well, maybe our guests would've liked some.

ROBINSON: (Samuel Crawford) Oh, I have always enjoyed that type of food, sir.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) What type of food?

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) My grandma would make it.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) I say something funny, son?

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) I beg your pardon?

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) You laughing. What's the joke?

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) Hoppin' Johns, Albert. You're being ridiculous.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) I've been eating rice and beans all my life. Tell me they ain't good enough.

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) You'll have to forgive my husband's country ways.

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) Oh, I completely understand.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White, slams table) This is my house, and my country always put the food on this damn table.

WACHEN: (As Lenore White) Albert, you're drunk.

ROBINSON: (As Samuel Crawford) Sir, I apologize. I'll leave.

WILLIAMS: (As Chalky White) You stay right where you are, son, right there inside the house. Pretty clear who the field [expletive] is.

GROSS: That was Michael K. Williams as Albert "Chalky" White on "Boardwalk Empire." So your character in "Boardwalk Empire" is from the South, from the country. You're very urban. You're from Brooklyn. What did you feel like you had to learn about the South and about Prohibition era to play Chalky White?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Terry, there wasn't - nothing I had to learn about the South. I'm first-generation Bahamanian from my mother, but my father is straight from a small town in South Carolina called Greeleyville. So I have full working knowledge of the South. What "Boardwalk" and portraying Chalky White did for me was it gave me time with my dad, who's no longer here, again. But not in this time frame, it allowed me to go back to hang out with him in his childhood, what he went through in coming up as a man, him and my Uncle Jayhu (ph), my Uncle Par, my godfather Junior, my Uncle Tommy, all these men are deceased. And Chalky White gave me time to hang out with them in their era when they were young men coming up. That's what they all went through. That's what they lived in.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael K. Williams. He co-stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." He has a new VICELAND series called "Black Market." He was Omar on "The Wire" and Chalky White on "Boardwalk Empire." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael K. Williams. He co-stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." He plays somebody who's incarcerated in Rikers Island in New York City. And he kind of, you know, runs the wing of the prison. And he also has a VICELAND series called "Black Market" in which he reports on underground markets. He was Omar on "The Wire" and on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." He was Chalky White.

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, this like - there's, like, I don't know, five gangsters who just kind of line up and shoot you, 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, "The Wire," 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, ain't 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 - you know, now having said - and you mentioned who they got shot by, 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've got to come on a show and there's a face off 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 suffered with that on "The Wire," you know, and it weighed on me. And even though it's fake, where I go in my psyche, it - trust me, (laughter) 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: Well, I'm thinking, you know, when you started on "The Wire" you weren't very experienced as an actor. You'd had small roles...

WILLIAMS: No, ma'am.

GROSS: ...Including a small role on "The Sopranos." You'd been in videos, but you hadn't had a major part like that and, you know, a recurring part in a major series. By the time you did "Boardwalk Empire," you were much more experienced. And now you've just done "The Night Of," and you're even more experienced. What are some of the ways your approach to acting has changed between "The Wire" and now, when you're such a more experienced actor?

WILLIAMS: One of the main things that's changed from when I was first on "The Wire" and to now, and particularly "The Night Of," is I know how to differentiate myself from the character. You know, I still go in just as deep, but I - now I have the tools, what was - which was not the case during the "Wire" days. I have the tools with which - how to pull myself out of that. You know, it starts number one with prayer and meditation. You know, you've got to wash that off your psyche. You've got to wash your brain, man. You've got to cleanse yourself.

I don't play fictitional (ph) characters, you know, where, you know, you can't look hard enough and find - there's never been a character that I haven't played where someone says, I know a guy just like that. So that's my lane. And so I honor that. I give thanks to the chance to be given the opportunity to tell someone's story and to have someone feel like it gives someone something to identify with. I take pride in that and I take gratitude in that.

So that begins the process to let me remind myself, Mike, it's not about you. You know, you've been given a job. You have a vessel in which you get to touch people through your art. That's a blessing. You know, I'm very humbled to be living this life and to have this job. But I have to protect myself. I've got to take care of my vessel. And it's a spiritual, mental and physical thing constantly.

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: Michael K. Williams co-stars in the new HBO series "The Night Of." And he hosts the new Viceland series "Black Market." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album by Maxwell. This is FRESH AIR.

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