Michael Kenneth Williams

Michael Kenneth Williams

"Omar!" It's more than a name, it's a salutation among devotees of the beloved, just-completed HBO dramatic series The Wire. Explaining the phenomenon to those unaware can be difficult, but try this: Over the course of The Wire's five seasons, Michael Kenneth Williams' complicated, violent character, Omar Little, somehow gained more love and respect from audiences than even the show's ostensible heroes in the Baltimore Police Department. Introduced in season one as a drug-dealer-robbing gay thief with a prominent facial scar (a real souvenir from a bar fight Williams had in his 20s), Omar quickly became a pivotal character—a surprisingly ethical thief and killer with a fierce devotion to the code of the streets. By the series' end, that devotion made Little the last of a dying breed. With The Wire's gritty, realistic portrayals of Baltimore street life, no cast member was guaranteed a happy ending. That went double for Omar Little, whose job—robbing drug dealers with a shotgun—routinely put a price on his head. By the time season five began in January, many Wire fans were so invested in Williams' character that each of his scenes felt heavy with dread. They wanted the murderous Omar to live through the series' conclusion, but most surely knew that the show wouldn't allow such a life to end happily. [Spoiler ahead, and many more in the interview.] Omar Little's strangely noble life met an ignoble end, shot by a child gunman in the back of the head while buying his usual pack of Newports. The scene disappointed many fans, but it stayed true to The Wire's almost impenetrable search for truth. Regardless, for Williams it was a happy ending. The Wire has provided a breakthrough, iconic role for the New Yorker, who started his career as a dancer-choreographer in the early '90s. He's currently involved in several projects, including Spike Lee's upcoming WWII drama, Miracle At St. Anna, and John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, co-starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. Just before The Wire ended, Williams spoke with The A.V. Club about life as Omar, The Wire's thematic arch, and R. Kelly's prolificacy.

The A.V. Club: Do you get called Omar a lot?

Michael Kenneth Williams: On the regular. It's like Omar is my alias name. I get called Omar more than I get called Michael—it's crazy.

AVC: When did you get the sense that people were getting attached to the character?

MKW: In the beginning people would come up and tell me how much they love the character, love the show. I didn't really believe it. I just took it as "Oh thanks, I'm just a guy on a TV show. I'm one of many people on this particular TV show doing as great a work as you think I'm doing." After a while I started to listen to what was being said. One lady, she grabs me and says, "No you don't understand. We needed this. This needed to be said. We needed The Wire, and we needed Omar." One time, this gentleman in L.A. at an audition, he grabbed me, and you could tell this man had been to hell and back—to hell and back. And he grabbed my hand, he looked in my eye, and he said: "I know you a real thug, nigga. I know!" I was like, "Dude, I've never even bust a gun before The Wire. I've never even held a gun before The Wire." I didn't have the heart to tell him. I realized then that when people see me, they really see this character.

It was a little scary in the beginning because I don't want people thinking I'm some… They start testing me and shit. But I see it like, "You know Mike, don't even think negatively about it. This is love." I'm going to embrace it for what it's for, which is love and admiration. I'm gonna look at it like that. I just started embracing it. And from that point, I listened to everything people said. They say, "I know you hear this a thousand times…" I don't treat it that way. I treat it like it's the first time I'm hearing it, and I take my time, and I listen to what they're saying, and I concur, and we have a real conversation. And I started realizing that this is something happening here. This is not just another television show. This is doing something to the community and for the community. People are responding in a way that I've never really seen people respond to other television shows.

AVC: So was it after the first season that you noticed?

MKW: I would say third season. First season I was oblivious. Second season I was too busy, worried at the fact that they had all these new actors in, white actors. I'd never seen that before in a television show. "What, you're gonna change the whole cast?! What is this?! After the great season we had last year, why would you not want to bring us back?" I realize, looking back, what they were doing. They had a story to tell, and had they not told that dock story, a big part of this puzzle would have been left out. Because we all know what brothers are doing in the 'hood, with the work. We all know who sold the drug, who used the drug. But what we never really focus on is where the work comes from. We're not on them docks or ports, you feel me? And then it opened up a bigger picture, like who's watching the docks? When you say there's a war on drugs, what the fuck is that? What is this war on drugs when the work comes in fresh off the water, right into the harbor, right into the city? So looking back I realize what was going on, that season two was very necessary. But I was too caught up in my own matrix of wanting to just work and stay working. But by the time season three came along, I started to get it.

AVC: The Wire has a reputation for springing plot developments on the cast at the last minute. How much time was there between when you found out Omar was going to be killed and when you shot the scene?

MKW: I think they gave me a call about a week or less before the scripts went out, then I got the script and read it to myself.

AVC: Did you make any special preparations, or were you trying to make it just like another day in Omar's life?

MKW: Just another day at the office. I'll tell you what was weird, though. That day on the set, everybody was trying to act like there wasn't an elephant in the room. Nobody really wanted to deal with the emotion of losing Omar. It was like: "We're not going to mourn this television character. We're not going to get that painful feeling because of a character." Everybody was in agreement, but it was clear everybody was trying not to go there. It was weird seeing me with the make-up. I could imagine what that did to people. We're a family down there in Baltimore. The cast of The Wire is a very communal cast. That scene represented a lot more than just a character leaving; it was the end of an era for the cast as a whole, for this television show, and for Omar.

AVC: Because you lost so many recurring characters over the course of the season, was there any sort of tradition for when somebody got killed off?

MKW: Nothing really special. We'd normally always be there. Like the time when Kima got shot in season one, I think the entire cast was there. That was the first big "Oh shit!" Excuse my language. We all were there for that. When D'Angelo went out, Larry [Gillard Jr.] got so many phone calls; everybody just went right to him. I think his phone was filling up that whole week. Everybody was like, "Are you all right? Need anything?" When Stringer Bell went, everybody was there. It was crazy. Same thing with Omar.

AVC: David Simon said that Omar's death wasn't so much the consequence of his actions, but fate. Did you see it more as Omar getting what was coming to him, or as something else?

MKW: Yeah, there's a little bit of karma in there. Revenge is not a positive state of mind or energy to indulge your self in. That clearly was what Omar was coming back for initially. The base of what he came back for was revenge, murder. Really more so than that was his fate, because they do say that "live by the gun, you die by the gun." But what I really think Omar's death represented is a message that those lifestyles, the roads, the choices you make have consequences. Omar's very popular with the youth. It's cool to love Omar. I love Omar, nobody love Omar more than me, but make no mistake: I pray to God nobody wants to be this dude, because I had to get inside of his mind, and it's a dark, dark vortex. Let's let Omar rest in peace, and let's remember him in a positive light. Let his legacy stand for something positive. We gotta do better. Omar was a smart dude with a good heart and a lot of common sense. Had he applied himself to other things, anything he would have applied himself to unquestionably would have been successful.

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AVC: How much did you interact with David Simon?

MKW: You know it wasn't so much interaction with David. I think [the creators] gave me a lot of trust. They trusted me and my decisions as an actor, and I trusted them and the decisions they made as writers and creators. I would say that Ed Burns was real adamant about being on the set to make sure… You know, we changed directors per episode, and they were really adamant about no one coming in and trying to stylize Omar, like, "It would be cool if he came in and both doors flew open." No, no, no, no, no. Omar would not do that. We know it's a sexy shot, but that's not what Omar would do. Omar's a thinking man, a little smarter than that. Someone could be behind that door and blow his head off. They would just be very adamant about doing not what's good for the camera but what looks good for the reality of this character.

AVC: It's interesting how strict they were with how Omar would be presented.

MKW: Oh very strict, very strict. Once it was established that Omar doesn't use profanity… One time a script got past David and Ed and it had profanity in some of Omar's lines. I was like, "I don't know, let me call this to David: You know Omar say shit, right?" He's like, "Aw fuck, it got by me! Mike, listen to me. I'm very busy. From now on in, if you see any scripts with a curse in it, you omit it. You take it out. Omar does not curse. That does not change."

AVC: The rumor was that they'd written "HE IS NOT EFFEMINATE" in giant letters on the original character breakdown.

MKW: They were clear about that. We just wanted to play the sexuality the way it should be in real life: matter-of-factly. We didn't want to harp on that or make that the main focal point of who or what he was. That clearly was not what you're going to remember this character for. That never changed. Stringer Bell or Marlo would call him a dicksucker or something like that—that was just rolling over his head like it weren't even said. "All right, I'm still going to stick this barrel down your throat. You're still going to suck this gun."

AVC: How did the final episode compare to how you thought the series was going to end?

MKW: It's quite accurate. I think it's spot-on. If you look at the way things have always ended at the end of the season, they never wrap up all the conclusions in a nice little ball and give it to you within your hour, which you expect with the normal television dramas. You can always expect that, by the end of the hour, the bad guy's gonna get caught, the good guy's gonna prevail, hunky dory. Doesn't work that way with The Wire, man. Sometimes the bad guy gets away, sometimes the good guy gets killed, and sometimes the gray guy just stays gray. The Wire always left some things out there. That was part of our solution. This ending has stayed true to the way all the other seasons ended. We didn't do anything special for this ending.

AVC: It seemed less bleak than it could've been.

MKW: Yeah, man, you gotta inject some hope. You can't X out all the hope. We leave it in your hands now. What would you have done? What could you if the situation presented itself in your community? How would you deal with this person that reminds you of one of those characters when they confront you, when you cross their path? That's all we wanted to do, man, was shed light on a situation and give voice to a people that go normally unheard from.

AVC: How will you get away from Omar's shadow?

MKW: I'm not interested in shaking that shadow. I don't believe in typecasting. I think it's a crock. You have to do what you do to get where you wanna go. I always tell everybody that asks me that question: When De Niro first started out, he was doing all those mafia movies. I'm sure Meet The Fockers was the furthest thing from his brain, or what's that other one?

AVC: Analyze This?

MKW: Yeah, he was doing Raging Bull and them groundbreaking films, he wasn't thinking about them roles. He was thinking about keeping it consistent, and keeping his level of respect. Because he knew those roles were closer to him at that point in his career. He stayed with them because that was his best side, and he kept them honest and true and authentic. He built his empire, he built his career, to the point that he could pick and choose and try something new. Right now, I was given an amazing character, an amazing platform, and I'm not interested in shaking the shadow of Omar. He's gonna always be in my heart and mind. And I love what that character and that show has done for me, and what it's shown me and given me the opportunity to do. It's all part of the game. It could be 20 years from now, and somebody could scream out "Omar!" and I'd still say "Yo!" You feel me? I never get tired of that.

AVC: Aside from Spike Lee, you're working with a couple of new directors like Joshua Goldin and Antonia Macia on upcoming projects. How much of a role does the director play in your decision to accept a part? MKW: My theater director, Mel Williams, always said, "Michael, come in with your choices. Be clear as crystal when you get on the set about the choices you have decided to make with this character, but willing to remain open. The director might want to just totally repaint the whole thing." So when I come to the set I try to remain a blank canvas, to give the director the opportunity to bend and shape me. I take myself out of the way and let the process happen, because you got to trust the people you're working with. I never look at the monitor, I never go watch the dailies, or any roll playbacks. If the director says "check the gate," [meaning the director's ready to move to the next shot —ed.] I do "ka-ching," and that's it. You ain't gotta tell me, "Great work, Mike," ain't gotta go and pat my back. Because I know for a fact you are not paid the big bucks to stroke my ego. And when you say "check the gate," it's because you got the shot. So that's my compliment. If you're checking the gate within one or two takes, that's a good feeling for me. That's my compliment, and that means I did a good job. So I just try to sit back and keep Michael Kenneth Williams out of the way.

AVC: Well, finally, do you know of any plans for the next chapters of R. Kelly's Trapped In The Closet?

MKW: Man, whenever Kels call me, I'm there, man. That's my brother. I love that too, man. I had so much fun working with him on that project. He's a classy dude. He's very talented, and I thought Trapped In The Closet was ingenious. I can't wait to go back out there and finish those chapters. I know for a fact he's working on more, but with his schedule and mine, when we get to do it, I don't know. But I know there's gonna be more chapters… Kels is crazy. Robert ain't wrapped too tight.

AVC: What do you think the talent-to-crazy ratio is on him? 50-50? 60-40? 30-70?

MKW: Let me tell you something: He's a muse. The stuff funnels through him, he shits it out like nothing. When we were doing Trapped In The Closet, we'd get there early in the morning, we'd shoot for nothing less than 12 to 15 hours, we'd wrap, and he would go straight to the basketball courts and play basketball for God knows how long. Then around 1, 2, 3 in the morning, he goes down to [his studio] the Chocolate Factory. As we were filming the chapters, he was writing and producing it. If he got an idea and wanted to tweak it, or a lot of times at night he gets a vibe for a song, he'll go down to Chocolate Factory and be in the studio for two or three hours. When he got finished with that, when he got tired, he would get on his tour bus and drive back to the set at like 4 or 5 in the morning, and he would sleep in front of the set on his bus because he knew if he slept in his bed, it might be a problem, know what I mean? He'd sleep on his tour bus right in front of the set, and when the crew and cast got there, they'd call his people and they'd wake him up on the bus. That's how he be, you feel me? The dude is crazy.

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