Michael Kenneth Williams on How His Roles Impact Him: “That energy’s gotta go somewhere”
The Wire star Michael Kenneth Williams has another role playing a criminal in an HBO show — this time playing a Rikers Island prisoner named Freddy on The Night Of. Though he’s best known for playing Omar on The Wire, it was a role that he got too involved in, as he explains to NPR in a revealing interview.
Williams speaks about how his roles effects him, saying, “When I wear these characters to the extent that I wear them to, that [energy’s] gotta go somewhere,” and he points out that Omar “was a little too close to home.”
Williams admits that a character like Freddy comes from a very familiar place, explaining, “I’m so familiar with people like Freddy from my childhood, from my personal life. I have family members that remind me of Freddy. You know, just all this potential, all this raw potential that just got misguided and led to bad decisions, and those bad decisions came with consequences. I know that all too well. So it wasn’t something where I needed to do research to understand that world. I still visit my family that’s incarcerated and I see the good days, I see the bad days, I see the growth. I see what they lost by being incarcerated, and I see the gains. So I just dove into that.”
The familiarity of the character lets Williams reflect on playing Omar, during which he struggled with drug addiction and even went by the name of his character when he engaged in drug binges. He reveals, “I didn’t feel worthy of opportunity like [the role on The Wire], and when I was given this character, Omar, I could’ve used it as a tool, as a nurturing tool for myself. It could’ve been cathartic for me, [but] I decided to wear it as a Spider-Man suit and just fly around and go, ‘Whee! Look at me! I got web in my hands!’ Instead of actually doing the work and finding out how I could use this character to make myself feel better about me, I used it instead of me. It was like my crutch. So [when] The Wire and the character of Omar ended, I had zero tools, personally speaking, in how to deal with letting that go. I wasn’t going around robbing people or anything stupid like that, but I definitely wore that dark energy that Omar was — he was a dark soul, a tortured soul — and I just … lived in that and that’s what people was attracted to. … The lines got blurred.”
Luckily, Williams was able to cope much better when his character Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire was killed off. He explains, “I let go; I just released. I released a lot of things. When [Chalky White] closes his eyes and says, ‘Nothing real anyway,’ I went somewhere personally. It was a release. You know? I left Boardwalk feeling lighter, as I should. Feeling in my self, in my mind, in my skin, feeling lighter, like I had left some things there and I felt that my ancestors were proud of me. I walked off that set with my chest held high because I gave it my best shot. I did the best I could and I was around some of the best talent this business has to offer.”
Since his days of playing Omar, Williams has learned how to separate himself from his characters better. He continues, “One of the main things that’s changed from when I was first on The Wire and to now — in, particularly, The Night Of — is I know how to differentiate myself from the character. … I still go in just as deep, but now I have the tools … to pull myself out of that.”