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Michael K. Williams Is More Than Omar From ‘The Wire’
Mr. Williams has made a career of bringing nuance and contrast to his roles, inspired by the swaggering characters he grew up with in East Flatbush.
“The Wire,” HBO’s five-season epic of Baltimore life, is a perennial contender for the greatest television series ever, and Michael K. Williams, in his role as the stickup man Omar Little, its most memorable actor. But on the show’s first day of filming, when a prop person handed him his character’s signature shotgun, Mr. Williams clutched it with a look of sheer bewilderment.
“He didn’t know which end was which,” said David Simon, the creator and showrunner of “The Wire.” “Mike is a beautiful man, but a gangster he is not.”
Mr. Williams would not be deterred. Later that week, he left the set in Baltimore and returned home to East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and enlisted a local drug dealer to help hone his craft. Standing on the roof of the Vanderveer Estates, the man walked him through the particulars of firearms by spraying a hail of pellets into a steel door.
“Best acting lesson I ever had,” Mr. Williams said.
In the years since then, Mr. Williams, 50, has continued to draw inspiration for his characters from the world of Vanderveer, a housing complex now known as Flatbush Gardens, where he lived for much of his life.
Time and again, his work has returned to the complicated intersection of race, masculinity, crime and institutional failure. After Omar, he was Chalky White, an Atlantic City bootlegger in “Boardwalk Empire” who reminded Mr. Williams of his father; then, in “The Night Of,” Freddy Knight, a Rikers Island inmate like his nephew Dominic Dupont; and Ken Jones, a gay rights activist in “When We Rise,” whose battle with H.I.V. paralleled that of another nephew, who died.
Mr. Williams, as Omar, will forever be remembered for his scowl, his scar, his mordant wit and the sawed-off shotgun he held at the ready, but he has always wanted more. Even today, when a film like “Moonlight” wins the Oscar for best picture, typecasting is still woefully commonplace, and black actors are still forced into one-dimensional roles. Mr. Williams has made a mission of depicting his community in all of its nuance and variety.
Emmy nominations will be announced within a couple of weeks, but after years of snubs he is no longer counting on industry approval. Capitalizing on the continued relevance of “The Wire” and the rest of his catalog, Mr. Williams is now delving into film and television production, and deepening his activist role with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Vanderveer is 59 buildings, six floors high, with seven apartments on each level,” Mr. Williams said. “There are so many people here — beautiful and beautifully flawed people — and I want all of their stories to be told.”
Michael K. Williams with residents of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he grew up.
It was a warm Friday afternoon in June, the 15th anniversary of the premiere of “The Wire,” and Mr. Williams was back in East Flatbush to celebrate with some friends.
Though he lives in Williamsburg now, he goes back every few months to visit Vanderveer, a collection of red-brick buildings that stretches across 30 acres along Foster Avenue in the middle of Brooklyn.
(Despite its rechristening, it will always be Vanderveer to everyone in Mr. Williams’s orbit.) There, he walked down the street like a benign potentate, accepting compliments and memories, shaking hands and taking pictures with people on every corner.
Some of them were strangers familiar with his work, but many more were friends and longtime neighbors who knew him not as Omar from “The Wire” but Mike from Tower 3301. At one point, a young mother sheepishly stopped him to say she had named her child Omar in his honor.
“The way a lot of us from the neighborhood see it, Mike is like the prophet of the projects,” said Darrel Wilds, 50, who grew up with Mr. Williams in Vanderveer. “He’s representing the people of this neighborhood to the world.”
But even as he has worked to champion his community, Mr. Williams has often ended up falling victim to the perils he tried to elude there. Many of his roles have unearthed agonizing memories and plunged him into a serious drug addiction that he grapples with to this day. Indeed, the work that has vaulted him to fame has also nearly been his undoing.
“The characters that mean the most to me are the ones that damn near kill me,” he said, leaning back into a sidewalk bench on Foster Avenue. “It’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make.”
The Vanderveer of Mr. Williams’s childhood was often a landscape of drugs and violence. As he rode down the avenue, nearly every corner conjured a grisly memory. “That’s where I saw my first shooting,” he said, passing New York Avenue. Two blocks later: “That’s where I first got robbed.”
Born in 1966, Mr. Williams rarely envisioned a life beyond Brooklyn. His mother, an immigrant from the Bahamas, worked as a seamstress for much of her life before opening a small day care center that she ran out of Vanderveer. His father, who came from South Carolina, was a gregarious but wayward man who battled health problems.
Starved of opportunities, many in the community took their cues from local gangsters, who exuded a swaggering masculinity that Mr. Williams contorted himself to realize.
As a boy, he was sexually molested and the experience left him withdrawn and confused about his own sexuality. He never spoke of the abuse back then, but his peers seized on his vulnerability and tormented him relentlessly.
“They had two nicknames for me: Blackie and Faggot Mike,” Mr. Williams said. “I was very soft, very fragile.”
Though formal acting was not yet on the horizon, his life became a kind of delicate performance as he desperately tried to conform. He wore knockoff streetwear and learned to walk with a lean. As a favor to a friend, he smuggled balloons of marijuana into Rikers for a man he barely knew. He was 16. (The experience later helped inspire a plot point on “The Night Of.”) Before long, he developed a drug problem of his own, and by 19, he was cycling in and out of clinics. To finance his addiction, he tried his hand at carjacking and credit card fraud, though the schemes left him with little more than a thickening arrest record.
Alienated from his family and friends in Vanderveer, he found a sense of belonging at the gay bars of downtown Manhattan in the 1980s and ’90s. Though he did not identify as gay himself, Mr. Williams relished the sheer liberty of carousing around a space unencumbered. Many weekends, he would dance until the early morning at clubs like the Roxy, Sound Factory and Palladium. His nimble moves even landed him some work as a part-time backup dancer.
Then one night at a bar in Queens, on the eve of his 25th birthday, he stepped outside to find a group of men jumping his friend. When he tried to intervene, one of the muggers pulled out a razor blade and sliced him across his face and neck. One gash went straight through his jugular. The next day, his mother took out a second insurance policy on his life.
“She told me I’d never live to 30,” Mr. Williams recalled, “and I believed her.”
But the attack that almost killed him left an indelible mark that also revived his life: a scar trailing diagonally down his face, from the top of his forehead to the middle of his right cheek. It was impossible to ignore. And it radically transformed his image.
Mr. Williams at the Flatbush Gardens housing complex, formerly known as the Vanderveer Estates
“All my life I’m this cream puff, and next thing I know everyone sees me as some kind of gangster,” he said. “It almost made me laugh.”
Soon enough, he was dancing in music videos and on tour alongside artists such as George Michael and Madonna, inevitably cast in the part of a street tough. His first substantial acting role came courtesy of no less an authority than Tupac Shakur, who tapped Mr. Williams to play his brother in the 1996 film “Bullet.”
Three years later, he appeared as a drug dealer in Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead.” Then it was a brief cameo on “The Sopranos.” And finally, in 2002, “The Wire.”
Though his credentials were modest and his technique still unpolished, Mr. Williams immediately stood out in his audition. “His read was good, but it was the scar,” Ed Burns, the show’s producer and co-creator, said. “This battle wound on his face seemed to say so much about who he was, what he’d been through.”
In Omar Little, Mr. Williams saw versions of himself and many of his friends, in all their complexities and inner conflicts. The character was at once menacing and jocular, openly gay and privately tortured, a lawless vigilante and regular churchgoer.
“Omar is this dark-skinned outspoken man in the hood who didn’t care what anyone thought of him,” Mr. Williams said. “He is everything I wished I could be.”
He made a point of accentuating those contrasts. During the filming of a scene in the first season involving Omar and his boyfriend, Brandon, Mr. Williams improvised a kiss that had not been in the script.
“I remember somebody immediately saying, ‘There go our ratings,’” Mr. Burns recalled. “That sort of intimacy was not shown much then, but Mike insisted, and it breathed life into the character.”
When it came to technique, Mr. Williams relied on his own emotional acuity. Building off his experience in dance, he often made detailed musical playlists that corresponded with the mood of each episode. Before filming the scene when Omar was killed, for example, he listened to “Let There Be Light,” by the rapper Nas. To this day, he finds the song so affecting that the mere mention of it brings him to tears.
The show’s writers grew so enamored of Mr. Williams’s mastery of his character that they began to challenge him for sport. “We started writing these Britishisms for him just to see if he could pull it off,” Mr. Simon said.
Once, they included the word “constabulating” in the script as an inside joke they planned to cut. “That’s a word that hasn’t been said in the history of Baltimore, but he somehow made it work,” he said.
Even as “The Wire” staggered in the ratings — it was initially more admired than watched — Omar became its icon, the subject of tribute art and academic dissertations. Nowhere was the performance more beloved than in East Flatbush. When Mr. Williams moved back into his apartment in Vanderveer after the first season, in 2002, the neighborhood men who had harassed him for years were suddenly currying his favor. The attention was intoxicating, but he couldn’t help feeling unnerved.
“There was just one small thing,” he said. “No one was calling me Mike. They were calling me Omar. That’s when the lines got blurred.”
What followed was something of an existential crisis. Months removed from filming, Mr. Williams struggled to shake the grave psyche of his character. He was racked by doubts both personal and political: Had he lost hold of his identity? Was he glorifying the ills of his community, or exposing their roots? He couldn’t divine the answers, so he turned to cocaine.
Even weighed down by addiction, Mr. Williams’s acting was sharp — perhaps even more naturalistic — but off camera, his life was deteriorating. He blew most of his money on drugs and stopped paying rent until he was kicked out of Vanderveer. When he wasn’t staying in a hotel during filming, he lived out of a single suitcase, often spending nights on a drug house floor in Newark. There were days he showed up to set visibly high, but the show’s producers didn’t dare let him go.
“We worried that if he lost the work he’d become truly untethered,” Mr. Simon said.
Mr. Williams made it through the show’s run with the support of a church community he found in Newark, but his drug dependency lingered as he continued to question the impact of his work. During one particularly rough stretch in spring 2008, just after “The Wire” ended, he was on a three-day-long bender when his mother brought him to a rally for Barack Obama in Harrisburg, Pa.
Earlier during his campaign, Mr. Obama had declared “The Wire” the best show on television and Omar his favorite character. When the two men met privately after the event, Mr. Williams, lock-jawed and high on cocaine, could barely speak.
“Hearing my name come out of his mouth woke me up,” he said. “I realized that my work could actually make a difference.”
Mr. Williams resolved to continue pursuing similarly powerful roles, no matter how agonizing the demons they unleashed. During the filming of the HBO series “The Night Of,” he relapsed. For the role, he drew on the experience of his nephew Dominic, who was at Rikers awaiting trial in connection with a murder (and is now serving a sentence at the Green Haven Correctional Facility). Every day on the set forced him to confront the brutality of his nephew’s incarceration, and every night he escaped that mentality with cocaine.
“Addiction doesn’t go away,” he said. “It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m fighting.”
Along with taking more commercially viable roles in films such as a coming installment of the Star Wars series, Mr. Williams is expanding his work into production. Among his projects in development are a film called “Bishop,” which he describes as “a hip-hop coming-of-age cautionary love story set in the Fort Greene projects”; “Brooklyn Chronicles,” a television series examining the relationship between the West Indian immigrants and Orthodox Jews of East Flatbush; and an as-yet-unnamed documentary series about recovering from addiction.
His desire to produce follows a lifetime of frustrations with the racial politics of the film industry, of “feeling like us black actors are rabbits jumping for a dangling carrot.”
“While we’re wasting our energy being angry about a damn statue, the crime happened months ago in a boardroom,” said Mr. Williams, who has received hardly any award nominations. “There aren’t enough people of color behind the scenes, and that’s where real change happens.”
Most immediately, he is completing a documentary to be released this fall through Vice on HBO. The project intends to detail the dangers and inequities of the American criminal justice system, particularly the juvenile justice system, largely focusing on the stories of three people close to Mr. Williams: his cousin Niven, who is trying to reintegrate into society after more than a decade in prison; his nephew Dominic; and his friend and “Wire” co-star Felicia Pearson, who has cycled in and out of prison.
Matt Horowitz, a producer for Vice who is working on the film, said the choice to collaborate with Mr. Williams was easy: He could simply draw more from his subjects than a typical reporter could. “People know they can trust him with their stories because he’s coming from a place of personal understanding,” he said.
In one scene, Mr. Williams visits a middle school in Newark, where he speaks with a seventh grader named Mike. The boy had maintained a reticent facade during filming but eventually opened up at Mr. Williams’s coaxing, telling the harrowing story of his mother’s death along with his father’s abuse. “I was abused too when I was younger,” Mr. Williams tells the boy. “And I did a lot of stupid stuff to hurt myself.”
“We’ve been taught success means leaving the communities that made us,” Mr. Williams said, “but this is the only place in the world where I feel free.”
Flashbacks of those past tribulations came to Mr. Williams in waves as he ambled through East Flatbush that June day. Though the neighborhood is already seeing the onset of gentrification, the blocks around Vanderveer felt to him as if they were suspended in amber. Young kids played stickball on the concrete courtyards, while older ones loitered in packs on the corners. Afternoon turned to evening, and everyone seemed to assemble on the handball courts to share a bottle of Hennessy, as a team of cops glowered from the periphery and threatened citations, the same dramas playing out unresolved and unending.
“Man, why do you even stay coming out here?” a friend named Earl asked. “Why not Los Angeles?”Mr. Williams laughed. It’s a question he gets a lot. “I’m over that old-school thought that you got to get out the hood,” he said. Like many actors, he is prone to monologue and now the words were coming in a rush.
“We’ve been taught success means leaving the communities that made us, but this is the only place in the world where I feel free,” he said. Despite the difficulties of his youth in East Flatbush, he still feels at peace there. “Trust me, it gets lonely for a man like me in Brentwood, Calif.”
Satisfied with the answer, Earl passed Mr. Williams a shot of liquor. Cautiously, he raised the plastic cup to his lips and took a gulp.
Correction: June 30, 2017An earlier version of this article misstated a word inserted into Mr. Williams’s dialogue on “The Wire” as a joke. The word was “constabulating,” not “confabulate.”