How Michael K. Williams brought Omar and Leonard to life: "We're all just one big mess underneath"

The acclaimed actor sits down with Salon to discuss "Superfly," vulnerability and the school to prison pipeline

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 20, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Michael K. Williams (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Michael K. Williams (AP/Richard Shotwell)

Emmy-nominated actor Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on HBO's "The Wire," sat down with me in Salon's studio last week to talk about how he came into his latest role in the action thriller "SuperFly."

In the film, Williams plays Scatter, the wise mentor of the street game, not unlike the old school teachers he's played on-screen — Omar, Chalky White in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and Freddy Knight in HBO's "The Night Of." "I grew up idolizing brothers like that. I saw a lot of OGs and a lot of potential that got wasted," he said.

I've been to Germany and people ask, "Hey, where are you from?" I say, "Baltimore." They're like, "The Wire." It's a funny thing. "SuperFly" was fun, man. It was dope.

Thank you. Thank you.

It was ill. Do you think it would have the same impact as the original?

Well, that remains to be seen. I haven't seen it yet, personally. So that remains to be seen. I hope it does. I know personally going into "SuperFly" was a concern about the main character, and for me that was the music, the soundtrack, man, Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead," all those iconic songs. I was really concerned about if this version of "SuperFly" was going to have that same impact with the music being the main character. I believe it does.

You feel like they held it down in the music, too?

I believe they did. I met a few of the musicians and so — I'm blanking on his name right now. He's a very big gospel group. They've won several Grammys. And they're doing one of the scenes, and they're also a part of the music, produce some of the music for the soundtrack. Then you got the Director X behind it —

He's been making amazing videos for a long time, so you know he's going to stay.

Yeah. I would dare to imagine that his love of music is probably almost as freakish as mine is. I know that it's going to . . . the music that's in there, is going to be top notch. I'll see tomorrow.

What do you mean when you say his [love of music] is as freakish as yours is? Your playlist is like African folk music to '90s rap to like, Mahalia Jackson, or . . . ?

Yeah, I've got a little bit of everything within my arsenal. I forget how many, but I'm definitely into the thousands, maybe about 3,500 songs on my phone.

That's not including my CD collection that's in my storage. I'm addicted to music. I can't really go a day without it. I take it into my workspace. That's how I create my characters. One of the ingredients I use to create my characters, especially when it comes time to the finishing touches, like what emotions are these characters going through, it's music that helps me find that.

Tell us about Scatter, your character in "SuperFly."

Scatter is the teacher. He's the mentor. He also brought Priest into the game. Like an old, ancient story: at one point the student becomes the teacher and he wants to do things his way and there's a conflict of interest, the old way versus the new way, old school versus new school. That's pretty much who Scatter is. He was a mentor of Priest and yeah, Priest wants to do things on his way.

When I watch your films, like I watch your work, it always seems like with Scatter, with Omar, with Chalky White, with Freddy Knight, it's like you always give lessons, so it was like an OG talk. Somebody was going to just give you a real one liner and it just sums up all of the chaos into one line. Is that you as a person?

No, I'm far from that, you know what I'm saying? However, I grew up idolizing brothers like that and wanting to be like that. I'm from Flatbush, Vanderveer [Estates] in Brooklyn, and I saw a lot of OGs and I saw a lot of potential that got wasted, you know what I'm saying? A lot of my characters, the main ingredient I bring in I would say is compassion and empathy, and the human being aspect that you and I were talking about in regards to the doctor. We'll get into later. I bring that same aspect into my character makeup because I grew in the hood. I got to see the other side of those people, [not] how they may be depicted through their cases or on the news. I got to see the human being side growing up in the same community as them.

Could you be that person without those experiences?

Probably not. Probably not. I would not. All my characters have some of all my experiences growing up in Brooklyn. There's something from my childhood in each one of my characters. I'll never tell you who or what, but there is someone or something always from my childhood or my upbringing that I used in my characters. That's my little personal gift, my little trade with my characters. I bring something from my personal childhood.

But you got range, too, because then you play Leonard [on "Hap & Leonard"] who's a black gay Republican. How did you become or take on these different roles and become these different people? And do you feel like your fans receive them the same?

I can't really speak for them.

I can't really speak to how people receive the characters. I leave that, to be honest. Once I release it, it's up to each individual to feel how and respond how they respond. For Leonard, it was . . . I didn't really plug into all of that. All I saw was a black man who has been oppressed. A black man who was bucking against oppression in a white community in Texas.

I'm like an app on my phone. I'm being oppressed somewhere right now.

Come on, you see what I'm saying? I played Leonard from that aspect and everything else kind of fell into place.

You like projects that push the envelope on identity?

Absolutely, absolutely. I love, because I believe underneath all the prettiness, this nice suit and the nice haircut and all that shit, I'm a f**king mess inside here.

I believe we're all just one big mess underneath. So it's the messiness, it's the ugliness that I'm most interested in because that's where hopefully through my work I can give somebody freedom. That's what I like to do with my work as an actor. Hopefully, if I'm not afraid to be vulnerable in this character on screen, hopefully, that will give someone the strength to feel — to own whatever part of their life, if it's homosexuality, or having done things that land them in prison, or whatever it is. Being on the street homeless, robbing drug dealers for a living, whatever it is, I try to not get in my own way. Be vulnerable, be honest, be ugly, show that ugliness and hopefully through that someone will see that and find redemption.

As a writer, a lot of times I get liberation. As a writer, I get the luxury of just locking in all my ideas. I consider different worlds, but it's always my take on it, right? You have to go into these different worlds. How do you separate yourself from some of the characters you play? Is it like a battle?  I'm only asking because I heard you on another interview and you were talking about how you were shaken up when you had to kill Stringer Bell in that third season of "The Wire."

I was a puppy to the game and I went a little deep with Omar. I didn't realize the work. I didn't really realize the work that I was doing until it had the post effect on me. I was like, oh wait, I'm in the deep end of the pool, emotionally speaking, in regards to the character building that I had done over the span of eight years, between all the hiatuses and everything. That character still stayed with me. Omar was in my DNA. For about eight years I shared a space with this one person, who was this person within my own psyche. I didn't really know how to come out of that.

Today, my acting coach, Goldie Sammy, she introduced me to something called dream assignments and it's basically, I'm tapping my subconscious where I ask for the truth about a character to come to me. In that, my psyche gets put aside. I put my ego, Michael goes to the side and I ask for this character with love and respect to show me, reveal itself to me in however way it wants to. I speak to it, energetically speaking. It's just something, it's hocus pocus whatever, but you know what I'm saying? It works for me. It helps me to the process of the dream assignment, it helps me to consciously make a decision to get out of my way.

It's not about what Mike thinks this character is. I got to find out what is the truth for this character. What is that? If I'm playing John Brown, it's not about what Michael Williams thinks John Brown is. I want to get as close to that truth as possible without my interpretation of it and as much as little as that as possible as I could remove it from.

So many people love the characters that you're playing because they're always so real. I think you do a great job at showing the human side. We hear about people caught up in the drug game and mainstream media, but they gloss over the fact that this man had a family. This man had people that loved him. This man liked cupcakes. You know what I'm saying?


 You get knocked off the brick, you're not allowed to like cupcakes. You know what I mean? So I think you do a good job at showing that, but in "We're Raised in the System," you took it to a different level because you actually put us in front of real people who are not just being poisoned by the system but who figured out ways to make a bad situation positive and get up out of it while also challenging the country on what we need to be doing for prison reform. How did that project come about?

When I went to that party, I was ignorant, right? I got invited by my mentor and brother Michael Skolnik. He was the go-between for me to get to the White House. I was invited with about 30 other people, actors, artists, activists and politicians and we [were] called in a room adjacent to the Oval Office to speak with President, then President Obama, about criminal justice reform.

Trump just had one with [Kim] Kardashian.

Shout out to Ms. Alice Johnson, welcome home, sister. Again, God bless you and your family. I've been on social media just trying to fight back the tears seeing you run across that street. If anybody that knows Ms. Alice Johnson, please tell her that Michael Williams from Brooklyn was extremely proud to see her come home. I just want to wish her well. I left there and I had all these feelings in me. I was like, what was I just doing? I'm just a dude from Brooklyn. I didn't go to school.

What do I know about the criminal justice? But something inside of me was like, yes you do. Fuck you do, right? I linked up Michael and I said, "What am I doing here?" He said, "Well, Michael, usually the people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution." Boom, my light bulb went off. I said, yeah. I said, you know Mike, you've never been to jail. You've never been to prison. You never did hard time, but you've been visiting jails since you were 17 years old. My first visit was at Rikers Island. I was 17 years old and I'm still making visits, with respect to my brother Jimmy Roseman.

I took my family, my nephew Dominic. I took my cousin Nevin and I took my sister and coworker, Felicia. I took their stories and I said, what is this. I love these people. I have more people. My brother, Darryl. My brother from another mother, excuse me, Darryl. Why does this keep happening in my community so much? The producers from Vice, they took my stories of my friends and family and they started to weave this thread of, wait a minute, all of them were under a certain age when they committed their crimes and all of them have this income of families and this and that, and they came from these types of neighborhoods.

It was in that beginning of that research that I was introduced to this term called the school to prison pipeline. That made me scratch my head for a minute. I was like, I had heard it, school to prison or whatever. But then when I really sat down and meditated and digested exactly what the fuck that is, I said, school to prison pipeline. I said, what is this? It really is a camp. Is that really happening? It was on that journey that I began to go and that's pretty much how "Raised in the System" got born.

Who do you think really needs to see that film the most?

"Raised in the System" ended up being my love letter to my children, my brothers, my little brothers and sisters, the next generation coming up behind me. I call them all my kids and my brothers and sisters. You will never hear me call my young people goons and goblins. What's the thing? A predatorial —

Super predator.

You will never hear me refer to my children like that because I know what's going on now. This is my love letter to them, right? There are some facts, some coldhearted facts about our beloved America. Number one, we are number one in the world leading for locking up our young people. That is a fact. Second to us as Cyprus, right? We're number one in the world for locking up young people.

People always wonder what America's number one in, and I think it's like people who believe in God, people locking people up, and we spend the most on our military. This is not health care, not literacy.

No, we're way low on that. That's serious. I want you to know that that's the truth. We're way low on literacy and health care, way low, right? Number one, we lock up our young people. We're number one leading in the world with that. Prison in America is an $80 billion industry and it's like real estate. I want them to know this is real estate, right? It's like if you and I go to Manhattan and then on the harbor and build a retail, a real estate building, right? What are we going to want to do? Fill those apartments, right? It's the same thing with prisons, right? It's money, it's numbers. And they are filling those prisons with children that come from low-income communities, mostly black and brown kids. Lastly, I want young people to know that there is a difference between mistakes and bad choices.

With all that money being put in prisons, do you think reform can be a real thing? Because it's a lot of people getting excited when people go to jail.

Yeah, I think it could happen because see, I'm not a politician and I don't really know right now, I'm very green in this process. This is a new path in my life that I'm taking, so I don't fake no funk, right? I know that my elevator don't go that high — not just yet, right, to go and start talking about policy change? But what I can do is I can speak to my young people from my heart, tell them the bad choices that I've made, right, and let them know what's down the road. I want them to know that the game, there's a game being played on them and the rules are rigged for them to fail. Right? We are the only country in the world that criminalizes adolescent behavior. That's something I had to take a look at. What is adolescent? What does the word adolescent mean? What is that word? It is a nice pretty scientific word for dumb shit. I mean, it's crazy, adolescent. He's an adolescent. You're going to act like an ass. You're going to do some dumb shit.

That's why I asked you who needs to see it because I was thinking policymakers, because policymakers, if they really can understand, if they really can understand –

No, but they do. No, no, no. But they do understand.

They know this because why do you think car insurance is so expensive until you're 25?

They know that you're going to do some dumb shit. It's called the adolescent stage, right? The brain is not fully developed until you're 25. Right?

It's time for young people to know. Yes, I want everyone to see it, but this is my love letter to my children and again, my younger brothers and sisters coming behind me. Young people in my community who are being preyed upon. I want them to know that the game is on and they need to know that it's being played on them. They're being preyed upon and they don't have the luxury of making bad choices. Right? There are mistakes and there's bad choices. I want young people to understand that, right? A mistake is, I'm so excited, I'm talking with my hands that I accidentally knocked this cup and spill the water. Oh my bad. I made a mistake. A bad choice is taking this cuff and downstream because I'm your size. You probably knocked the fuck out. That would be a mistake to deliberately do something.

I want people to know that with young people, there are so many distractions between social media and everything, the internet. There is so many things being thrown at them. It's like there's no time for them to really be children. Our young people are dealing with massive trauma. I want them to know that. I'm not saying your life is, you don't have nothing to be stressed out over. Yes, you do. There's a lot of our young people that's living in really hard conditions.

We have to stop treating young people like adults because they're not. I think it's an amazing film and I feel like people are going to love it and it's going to change a lot.

I hope so, but again, this is my love letter to empower our young people. I want them to know that no matter what their situation looks like, no matter how dire it is, the power is still in their hands. You see someone like me. I never liked to be like, look at me. I did it, but look at me. I mean I made a lot of bad choices. Do you see these scars on my face? I didn't get this when I was selling Boy Scout cookies. I was out there acting making bad choices when I was young. I have a past that I could've been dead. I'm not saying that I don't understand what it is to make bad choices as a child, but what I am saying is, please wake up and smell the coffee. They are praying. They are hoping. There are people hoping and praying and banking on the fact that you will make a bad choice.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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