It’s all business for Michael Kenneth Williams on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

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LOS ANGELES — None of the diners at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood dove under the tables as Michael Kenneth Williams strode past late last month. But startled gazes from more than a few
betrayed their recognition of the gravel-voiced actor who brought a
sinister sparkle to his role as the lethal gangster Omar Little in HBO’s critically lauded “The Wire.”

An upbeat Williams waved to a few diners, clearly
still enjoying the spotlight that “The Wire,” which is near the top of
many critics’ lists as one of the best TV shows, has brought him. That
shine of celebrity has taken on a brighter glow this fall thanks to his
current role as ruthless businessman Chalky White in HBO’s “Boardwalk
Empire,” a drama set in Atlantic City, N.J., during prohibition.

The reception has heightened the profile of the
44-year-old Williams, who vividly recalls the personal demons he
battled in the years before “The Wire” as a struggling New York actor so filled with despair and disillusion that he felt “like part of me was dead inside.”

A long scar near his eye — a souvenir from a barroom
fight in which his face was slashed with a razor — is a reminder of
that period. “I had a little too much of that liquor courage that
night,” he said with a chuckle. But the scar has also become an
instantly identifiable trademark that has made Williams’ expressive
face even more compelling.

Remembering those tough times has cemented his
connection to his darker roles: “I love my characters. I play them with
100 percent honesty; there’s no holding back. I understand where they
are coming from.”

Williams’ Omar Little was a
standout in “The Wire,” a gritty urban series that featured a web of
complex characters operating on both sides of the law. The hardcore,
much-feared character was a stick-up man operating in the Baltimore projects, but his principal targets were rival drug dealers, giving him a Robin Hood-like
moral code in a series with few heroes. His love of “the game” and “the
hunt” gave him an antihero charm, and he took pleasure in the havoc he
caused: children yelling “Omar comin'” when he approached would clear
the streets.

Omar, who was gay, was anything but the cookie-cutter villain. He announced his entrance by whistling “Farmer in the Dell.” He loved Honey Nut Cheerios.

“That show changed my life in so many ways,” said
Williams. “My career would have never been the same without it.” It
also was a bit of a stretch: “I was never a thug.”

Williams was drawn to acting and show business as a young man. He appeared in dozens of music videos with artists such as Madonna and Tupac Shakur, who was so impressed with Williams that he helped him land a costarring role in the 1996 film “Bullet.”

But though he went on to do guest shots in other TV
shows, his career stalled and he became despondent. “I was in a lot of
pain — drugs, alcohol, 9/11. I wound up working at my mother’s day-care center in Brooklyn.
I was coming from a dark place personally when I read for Omar. And
when I read it, I knew I could put that part of myself into that part.”

His main focus now is “Boardwalk Empire,” which
wraps up its first season Sunday and in which Williams is the only
African American in the main cast. And though the sharply dressed
Chalky is a supporting character, his fierce demeanor has demonstrated
that he bows to no man, even during a historical period when black men
were regarded as inferior to whites. In the pilot, Chalky is shown
impatiently waiting outside main character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson’s
office for a meeting, barking at an assistant, “Tell Nucky I ain’t got
all day.”

“That really set the tone for the character,”
Williams pointed out. “Imagine a black man acting like that in the
1920s. It wasn’t no ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.'”

In another of the series’ highlights, Chalky is
interrogating a Ku Klux Klan member whom he suspects of killing one of
his associates. Chalky calmly recites a tragic tale about how the death
of his carpenter father at the hands of racists shaped him into a man.
During the speech, he slowly unveils some strikingly sharp tools
(“These my daddy’s tools”) that he will later use to torture the man.

Said Williams: “Getting the whole tone of that scene
right was very important. I worked on it a long, long time.” He’s also
out to prove to audiences that all bad guys are not alike. “The most
challenging thing right now for me is showing that there’s a difference
between Omar and Chalky. There’s no Omar in Chalky. They are driven by
different things, different moral codes. Omar was driven by the hunt,
while Chalky is a straight-up-and-down businessman.”

Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of
“Boardwalk Empire,” had high praise for Williams: “Of course I was
familiar with Michael from ‘The Wire.’ It was important for this
character to establish himself with just a few words, and he nailed it
right off the bat. He can do more with his eyes than most actors can do
with a whole page of dialogue.”

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(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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