Michael K. Williams - Doesn't Kill the Messenger
Updated: Sep 22
Michael K. Williams
Doesn’t Kill the Messenger
By Brad Balfour
The new film Kill the Messenger provides a cautionary tale both for the public at large and journalists in particular. It fictionalizes the real experience of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb who stumbles onto a story that leads to how the crack exploded on to the nation's streets – particularly in urban ghettos.
As the San Jose Mercury's star reporter further investigated, he concluded that the CIA was not only aware of major dealers smuggling the cocaine into the U.S. but accused the agency of both encouraging it and siphoning off the profits to arm the contra rebels fighting Nicaragua's legally elected socialist government.
To dig out the conspiracy, Webb (played by twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner) shuttled between a high-security California prison – where he interviews top drug dealer Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams) – to one in Nicaragua to hidden smuggler airstrips to the offices of Washington, D.C. power brokers. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop, Webb kept on investigating to uncover a plot laden with explosive implications.
Once the story broke, it drew the kind of attention that not only awarded him global attention but threatened not only his career, his family and ultimately, his life.
Television work in such series as HBO's The Wire and Boardwalk Empire has made Michael Kenneth Williams an actor worthy of praise. But he has also stacked his biography with key character roles such as this one in Kill the Messenger as well as others in films such as 12 Years a Slave, The Road, I Think I Love My Wife, and Gone Baby Gone.
Trademarked by his facial scar and deep gravelly voice, this 47-year-old Brooklyn native developed well beyond his street-kid roots and snared an array of multi-media jobs that have made him an actor of consequence.
Born in Flatbush, Williams grew up in a local housing project, attended a technical high school and seemed destined for obscurity after a troubled youth. Then he enrolled in NYC's National Black Theatre and worked at a pharmaceutical company but he wanted more. Inspired by Janet Jackson, he left school, quit his job, and – against his family's wishes – tried making it as a dancer. From being virtually homeless, Williams became a background dancer in videos and on tours with George Michael, Madonna, as well as doing some modeling. He also choreographed Crystal Waters' 1994 single “100% Pure Love.”
After being discovered by Tupac Shakur, he landed his first part in 1996's Bullet as High Top – brother/henchman to Shakur's drug kingpin Tank. But it has been Williams' portrayal of the complex, gay crime figure Omar Little in The Wire (based on Baltimore's real life Donnie Andrews) that spotlighted him for global praise and attention.
From there he got roles in TV series such as Alias, Six Degrees, CSI, Boston Legal, The Sopranos, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU and Killpoint. And along the way got his part in The Wire. Then, his reputation as a must-have talented actor was further cemented by his work as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire.
Subsequently, Williams now pursues both his acting career and that as head of his own company, Freedome Productions, which has several projects underway. This Q&A is culled from both a one-on-one and roundtable at recent press sessions for the upcoming Kill The Messenger.
Do you feel a responsibility when a real person, whether now alive or dead, that's different from doing a character you're able to create, make up your own story?
There's a responsibility that comes with playing someone that was real, that lived or is living. There's a responsibility to the character, and then you have to also be responsible to the script, because it's adaptation. Sometimes it's never 100% accurate, there's always creative license. So you have to play true to both.
Are there any times when you feel you need to learn more, or are there times when you just want to shut yourself out and feel the character?
I'm a perfectionist; I always want to learn more. There's always something else I could tweak or I could have done better, I could have dug deeper. I'm cruel with my instrument like that. I need to be a little more gentle with my soul, my friend always tells me but so far I think it's been paying off. I love to tweak; I can always dig deeper.
Did you get to hang out with Ricky Ross?
He lives in LA, so I speak to him more than we hang out.
What insights did you get from that, or did you develop your insights into the character outside of him?
I got a lot from him. When I first read the script, and after speaking with him, I wanted to fill his character out a little more. He is the most nicest guy, mild-mannered. I spoke with the writers and the directors and I wanted to make sure that I didn't come across in my portrayal of him as being just one-noted, because he's not. This is a man that wanted to be a tennis player – very soft-spoken, friendly, warm, inviting. His persona that he's known for doesn't speak to any of that, but that's really who he is.
Ricky Ross may be an anomaly as far as drug dealers go, so do some drug dealers gets a bad rap in feature films?
Yes I do, actually. I think the drug dealer gets a bad rap in society. Last I checked, they don't grow cocoa leaves in the hood, so "Where's it coming from?" is my question. I'm not making excuses, because at the end of the day we still have choices. But if you take a man like Rick Ross, who was allowed to float through the Los Angeles school systems without being taught to read or write ... he clearly had a talent. He excelled in tennis and there were scholarships on the table for him to become a professional tennis player, and when they found out that he was illiterate, it was all snatched away.
You have a 17 or 18-year-old young black male in the inner-city, under-serviced communities of Los Angeles – no education, no money, no job opportunities – and then the streets are flooded with crack cocaine and crime. "What would you do?" is the real question. So I think that the drug dealer gets a bad rap all across the board. I'm not making excuses for them, but I feel their pain. Like Jay-Z said, "[We movin'] dimes 'cause we ain't doin' fine."
Where were you at when the awareness of crack came in?
I was a teenager, I was 17 years old and I was probably doing things that a 17-year-old shouldn't do. I was in clubs that I should not have been in, I was too young to get in, but it was New York. I remember seeing people – they didn't call it crack, it was freebasing. I saw people freebasing on the dance floor, you know? It looked glamorous and I wanted to do that. I wanted to wear leather and suede with fur on the collar and smoke pipes on the dance floor. It looked cool. That's what I saw. I had no idea it was so destructive.
It's hard to believe that you know about the revelations in this film – you look like you could be in your mid-30s...
I'll be 48 in November.
So you would know what was happening when the crack revelations came out.
You'd think I would but I was clueless. It wasn't really on my radar. I didn't know anything about this until I read the script. At first, I felt really dumb, and then I felt angry because I don't think it was a coincidence, the way the media handled the story. You had to be someone who sought after the news, and that was not where my mindset was. I was too busy being a victim of what was going on at the time. You know, drug addiction played a part in my coming up, so I was nowhere near a clear mind. I had no type of a clear head to look at what was going on in the news.
It's great that you look so young, so you can play characters at least 10 years younger yet you can inform them with your life knowledge. Have you found that it gives you an added advantage?
I'm slated to play in the Ol' Dirty Bastard story [Dirty Whiteboy]. He was younger than me when he passed, he was like 32. And then I have to go further back before he passed, so I'm about to take on a character that's late 20s, early 30s – like half my age. [laughs]
At this point in your career, do you want to play more characters that are color-neutral as well? You have such an interesting range, it shouldn't be an issue.
The first time I broke the color barrier on a character was on a small independent film, Life During Wartime. It was a Todd Solondz movie and he cast me in the [same] role of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He wanted another white man for that role, and after my audition with him, he saw me fit to play that role. It's happened again. I absolutely think I am ready to break the color line and just play a human being, as long as it's a grown man. It doesn't have to play to the African-American community or the white community, just any man. Once you're a man, Asian, white, black, Hispanic, you should understand this particular character. And those are the roles that I see myself playing in the later part of my career.
What about mythic figures, comic book characters?
Of course, yes!
Off the top of your head, Who would it be – Moses?
Moses! That would be really, really cool. I would love it. I would love a mythical role, I would love a comic book role.
There was the buzz about Anthony Mackie getting a part in Captain America as Falcon; there hasn't really been an film about an African-American superhero.
There's not enough. I think my little brother, Michael B. Jordan, is getting ready to play Flash – Flash, right? – in [the reboot of] Fantastic Four.
No, the Flash is DC Comics; he's doing The Human Torch – he's from Marvel Comics...
It's happening, the shift is changing. Going back to Moses, even – is it Exodus? – the trailers are in the theaters, there's not one black actor in those roles. Do we really have to make a movie about Biblical characters and can't put other races in it? I think we should be able to accept that now. I would think as a society we should be past that and just incorporate all races, you know? That topic is so sensitive when you start to depict Biblical characters. It's unfair to the rest of the society to have all white people play all the roles, all the major Biblical roles, and the Bible means so much to so many different races.
In all those areas – Egypt, Israel, Palestine – we don't know what their color was because after various dispora, there is a mixture of ethnicities.
Yes. So in particular I would love to play Moses as a black man. Not playing to the fact that I'm a black man, but just play Moses. To the kids, that means something. It's the image, it affects people. I went to watch the new Planet of the Apes with my friend Bryan [Greenberg], who was the lead in How To Make It In America – he's a good friend of mine. We're sitting in the theater, some of the trailers come on, he's like, "Man, that's going to be dope, you going to see that?" And I said nothing. He looked at me, "No black people, huh?" I said, "They could at least have met me halfway! Mulatto? No black people!"
It's also important for romantic characters to be color-neutral too, and that's often been an issue.
Everybody wants to feel love, you know? If the script is written well and it's performed properly, it shouldn't matter. There should be more diversity that shows that it doesn't matter.
Will you be doing a few heart-throbby romantic roles?
There's none on the [horizon]. Someone asked me that on my Twitter feed just this morning or yesterday. Someone asked me, "When are you going to play a lead romantic role?" And I would love the opportunity. When it comes to romance, It's important that I use my image to show black-on-black love because the family structure has been broken so bad in the black community. A grown black man loving a grown black woman – I have no issue with biracial – if you like it, I love it. I don't trip. But just that once in a while, can I see what happened between my mother and father?
And isn't dysfunctional.
Thank you! That isn't dysfunctional. I'm the product of a black man and a black woman, and once in a while I would love to see what that looks like on film. Just once in a while, it doesn't have to be all the time.
Black filmmakers enlighten people who don't live in New York and interact with people of color. Do you feel a responsibility as a result, that people are being turned on to a culture that they may not know when they're in Oklahoma or other places like that?
Absolutely, and I hope that when they do get turned on to whatever, they walk away with some understanding and maybe a little empathy, a little compassion, and maybe a little identification as a human being, if nothing else.
You have a great ability to convey emotion without speaking. How aware are you of that power and how much do you work to make sure that you have it?
First of all, thank you, I take it as a compliment, and I pay very close attention to that. You know, it's all about empathy and compassion, and a lot of times you could say a lot of things in just a look in [your] face. You could say a thousand words without having to say anything.
The characters that I play can be looked at as menacing and also, as one-noted. I like to bring compassion and humanity to these characters and give them diversity to make them each different. So the way I do that is by emotion and showing different arrays of emotion. I can tell you I'm hurt without saying a word right now. Everybody has those feelings no matter what you do in life. No one's perfect; we all have skeletons, but we all want to feel good; we all have been hurt before. We act out different ways from our pain, and I just try to put that into the character to humanize them.
You've done a great job playing a broad swath of characters. It's been a smart strategy not to turn down something just because it's a smaller role in crucial film. How do you make your decisions?
First of all, thank you for all that as well. I was taught very early on by one of my early theater coaches: There are no small parts, only small actors. No matter how many lines you may or may not have, you create a beginning, a middle, and an end, and so I take that into everything. I'm not at the point where I'm "choosing" my roles, I'm just grateful to be working consistently. You know, it's through the grace of God that these roles that I've been chosen to do are [what] people find interesting.
You make a lot of bad guys endearing, and make them so that you understand the motivations – why they got into these lives. Do you think that's really important to put out to the masses now?
First of all, there's nothing wrong with a cautionary tale. My mother always said, "Prevention is better than cure." And thank you, I take that responsibility ... it's very endearing to me. I feel that I've been given this blessing to be an actor, to be a voice for my community, for young men that I grew up with that are coming up, who society will look at as just a menace and want to disassociate with and just generalize, "Oh, they're all like that."
I feel grateful that I've been given the opportunity to make that grey [area]. I'm not saying that they made good choices in life, but let's look at what happened. Let's realize they're still human beings; they're still someone's child; that's someone's parent. Someone loved them, someone wants the best for them; and at their core, they want good for themselves. Not excusing their decisions, but everybody wants to be good in the center.
I think when President Obama made public that he thought my character [in The Wire] was his favorite, he got some flak for that, and had to quickly say: "No, I am not condoning his actions; I am just saying I respect his character. I understand this man and where he came from and the journey of how he got to where he is, and that's just it, but I don't condone his lifestyle." I think that sums it up.
What are your favorite roles?
Oh, man. Omar Little will always have a special place in my heart. That was my first of many types of things: my first recurring character. He was my breakout role. I did a lot of growing up personally on The Wire, learned the business on that show, and so Omar will probably be dearest to me – you know, like your firstborn.
So many huge franchises like The Wire have continued to maintain a cult following long after they're off TV; sometimes they come back as feature films. Would you like to see a Wire movie get made?
Absolutely. I believe [its creator] David Simon had said if there were to be, it would have to be a prequel, which I think is interesting, going back to what we talked about earlier. It's important to show the process of how people got to where they are. No one wakes up in the morning and says, "I've got it! I'm going to be a drug dealer!" or "I'm going to rob people for a living." Everybody wants to be proud of what they do or feel good about life and feel good about themselves. People are put in positions to make certain decisions that are not healthy, for whatever reasons, and it's important that we show that process, and that's what I attack my characters from.
I show the process of growing up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn; I [am a] witness to that. I saw the chain of events that led up to someone making bad decisions in life; I myself [did]. So, if we were to do a Wire movie, the prequel I think is important. We all know what these characters are, what they were known for, how they ended up. But to show the road to what led up to that, I think, is beautiful. [This] is what made Boardwalk Empire so special to me. We all know Lucky Luciano and Al Capone; we know them to be these infamous gangsters, but we've never seen them [growing up]. In Boardwalk Empire, we got to see a 19-year-old Al Capone, [as a] baby when he started wearing caps, and we saw him go from caps to hats, and wearing grown-man suits when he got his first suit made, and how that rise to [being infamous] came about.
Would you also like to see a Boardwalk Empire film?
Absolutely, I would love to see a Boardwalk Empire film. [Its writer/creator] Terry Winter said, "Leave them wanting more. It's the perfect time to say goodbye" – which is what we're doing. But personally, I think we could have gotten at least one or two more seasons. I would love to see some story lines closed out in a film.
Can you talk a little bit about your charity, Making Kids Win?
I started going to Harvard. Professor Ogletree – we call him "Tree" – was the first in the country to start the "Wire 101" classes, and he got the Wire cast to come and speak to his class, and that turned into us being honored. I got inducted into the National Lampoon Society; we did symposiums; and now I can call Tree my friend, [call] Skip Gates my friend. All along, Sonya Son had already had Rewired for Change; Jamie Hector had already had Moving Mountains. He would always pull me aside [and say], "So, Mike, what's happening with your nonprofit?" and I'm like, "No..." He kept cornering me about starting a nonprofit. He says, "No, Michael, I want you to start a nonprofit."
I kept dancing around it and dancing around it. Then one day he got these three young ladies – his students, they were all seniors in Harvard – and they cornered me one day in the hallway and said: "What's the problem? Tree told us to sit down and talk to you. What is preventing you from starting your nonprofit?" And I was actually moved to tears. I said: "I don't know enough. I don't know that world. That sounds sophisticated and you have to know too much. I didn't go to school. I don't know that stuff."
What did he say?
He looked at me and says: "Mike, you misunderstand. The only thing you need is what you have in spades." I'm like, "What's that?" "Passion!" And I was like, "Really?!" And they said, "Yeah!" They said, "You build a team around you, and we handle that stuff that you don't understand." When they told me that, I ran with it, and they kept true to their word. These three young ladies surrounded me, and they pulled the team together, and we got the lawyers for free, everything; the paperwork was processed. I'm registered in Delaware. No one charged me a dime, and I didn't get one grey hair.
Are there any music films that you'd like to make, characters you'd like to play, people you'd like to see have a movie made of them?
Oh yes. My dream role – which is actually in production – I have a Miles Davis story that I'm doing. I got cast by Rudy Langlais, who produced Hurricane with Denzel; he produced Redemption with Jamie [Foxx], Harlem Nights, Sugar Hill with Wesley [Snipes] and Michael Wright. He and his partner, Don Allen, approached me and they adapted the autobiography which is written by [writer/professor] Quincy Troupe Jr. He's an amazing poet, amazing poet. He and I are close. And they all got together and decided I was their Miles. The movie is called Miles and Me and it's based on the relationship between Quincy and Miles.
Does it make any demands on you to learn the instrument?
I've been in trumpet practice since last year, actually. Last November I started trumpet rehearsal. I have two trumpets in my house right now.
Do you get out and see everybody perform...?