Michael K. Williams won us over with The Wire, playing the indefatigable stick-em-up-boy Omar, the Robin Hood of the streets. On Boardwalk Empire, now in its fourth season, he's Chalky White, the voice and bootlegger of the black community in the Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) Atlantic City. Rolling Stone spoke with Williams about going down the rabbit hole with Chalky this season, appearing in MGMT's latest video for "Cool Song No. 2" as a witch doctor with a sweet ride and stalking Steve McQueen in New Orleans to get a part in 12 Years a Slave.
This feels like a big season for Chalky White on Boardwalk. It sort of feels like a big season for African-Americans in general on the show.
It's definitely a huge season for Chalky White. It's a huge season for me personally. I've never been this involved in a big storyline in anything that I've done.
You say you're more involved with the season. How so?
There are things that were promised to Chalky from Nucky Thompson that came through. Nucky told him that he would grant him his wish and give him his club on the boardwalk, so that happened. So you have a black man in 1924 with a major club on the boardwalk of Atlantic City – that's huge. And most of the storyline this year takes place from that club. All of the problems that occur happen from that club opening up and how Chalky deals with it. He makes a lot of bad choices, primarily over a woman. And we just pretty much watch him go down the rabbit hole.
How do you understand the struggle between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse?
The relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky is a very intense, very real relationship in the black community. You have the educated, fair-skinned Negro, you know, going up against the dark-skinned, un-academically educated Negro, and the friction of the light skin and dark skin, educated versus the non-educated. There's a friction there, you know, on many different levels. The house Negro versus the field Negro.
What was really important to you in creating this character?
The main thing I wanted to do was I wanted him not to feel like Omar. That was number one. The second thing I wanted to do was to not make him appear as just an angry black man. There are things that Chalky experienced that I have no understanding of. I don't know what it's like to see my father hang from a tree, or to be illiterate in America. I don't know what that feels like. So I wanted to bring dignity to him, in spite of all his flaws, and I wanted people to understand why he does the things that he does. And last but not least, I wanted to pay homage to my ancestors, to anybody who's alive today, any black men that are alive today.
I was just watching your MGMT video, "Cool Song No. 2." What sort of direction did you get for that?
The character I play, his best friend, is dying from the very thing that he sells. So it's a take on addiction. What they used was this plant, and apparently there's somewhere – I believe in the Philippines – where people get this rare disorder where their skin turns into tree bark and ultimately takes over their body. The character I play in this video was the cultivator of a particular tree that was killing one of his best friends. When he realized there was nothing else to do, he figured that he would let his friend die with dignity, and he took him to that house where they manufactured the stuff and just let him live out the rest of his days in happiness and bliss. And in doing so, he contracted the disease also. So it’s like a take on addiction and things of that nature.
Did you know the band’s music going into it?
I'm a huge fan of MGMT, and I love this director, Isaiah Seret. I'd never met him before, but I love the work he did on a Raphael Saadiq video called "Good Man," which starred Chad Coleman, who is one of my Wire brothers.
You hang out with your other Wire brothers?
Absolutely. We're very close. I consider us a family. Everybody from Sonja Sohn to Felicia Pearson to Jamie Hector to Andre Royo . . . Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, you know, we’re a very close-knit family.
You’re also in 12 Years a Slave. What was that set like?
That was another huge experience for me. Something along the lines of what it felt like for Boardwalk. That's another period piece dealing with my ancestral energy, once again, during the time when I have no idea what it must've been like to live in America, to be alive in that time. So it was a huge time-travel, and I got to really get a glimpse of what my ancestors would've gone through so that I could be here today. It was very humbling.
Did you audition for it in the traditional way?
It wasn’t quite the traditional path. I guess you could say I stalked him a bit? I waited outside of his casting office in New Orleans in the pouring rain for, like, an hour, because I heard he was in town, and I ran up on him, kind of Omar style, and I think he was a little taken aback. I was afraid I'd actually screwed up my chance of being in the project with that stuff that I pulled. But then about 45 minutes or so later, his assistant gave me a call and said "Steve McQueen wants to take you to dinner," and I sat down with him and Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. We sat all down and had dinner, and he pretty much made me the offer right there at the dinner table.
What made you really want the part?
Any opportunity to tell a story like that – any opportunity to tell African-American history, something of that nature, of that caliber, I will jump through leaps and bounds to get. Because it's based on a true story, it's American history, it's about my culture and my ancestors, and it's not just a typical film. It's a story that I can get in my heart as something to take seriously. I think 12 Years a Slave is that caliber. Any actor would’ve been proud to be in Schindler’s List, and I feel the same way about our film. This actually happened, and it's going to teach people how far we've come as a nation.