‘WHEN THEY SEE US’
Michael K. Williams Almost Didn’t Survive to Be This Angry
‘The Wire’ star on life’s second (and third) chances and why his role on the new Central Park Five series ‘When They See Us’ strikes a chord: ‘It easily could have been me.’
There’s a lot of anger that Michael K. Williams is dealing with right now. There’s excitement, too. He feels joy and even, dare he say it, hope. But the rage is there, inescapable. It’s a cyclone of forceful emotions that he’s been using to drive himself forward, siphoning energy from their churn. So it’s in the midst of all that chaos that we find ourselves at his sanctuary of calm.
When the former The Wire star invites me to lunch to discuss his role in Ava DuVernay’s searing, essential Netflix limited series When They See Us—which, due Friday, lends much-delayed dignity to the lives of the men known as the Central Park Five—he suggests his favorite spot in Williamsburg, down the road from where he’s lived in Brooklyn for the last four years.
There may as well be a wardrobe door leading from the street into the House of Small Wonder cafe, a lunchtime Narnia where 30-odd seats are carefully arranged around decades-old ash trees that climb to a greenhouse rooftop, allowing rays of late-spring sunshine to blanket diners with a cozy warmth. Dozens of different varieties of succulents hang from a tangle of exposed beams, like you’re in some magical woodland hut, the walls decorated with pine cones and antique mirrors.
It’s soothing, adorable, and bizarre. Williams is here so often that there are handshakes and hugs with the servers when he walks in. Omar Little having salmon and scrambled eggs in Williamsburg’s little Garden of Eden.
No one knows better than Williams that people tend to trade in stereotypes and extremes. His career has been built on excavating the layers in the types of characters usually seen as two-dimensional in Hollywood, bringing to them a heart and a vibrancy that demands they really be seen.
It’s fitting then to meet him here, at this point in time, to talk about this role. The restaurant is so precious, so twee, and so delicate that when his deep, gravelly voice erupts in a joyous cackle, sounding like a Mack truck speeding on a dirt road, there’s a fleeting fear that the serene little jewel box cafe might shatter into pieces. That’s precisely the point.
Our conversation ranges from hipsters to Star Wars, but heats up when talk moves to the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, lead paint poisoning in Baltimore, police reform, and the reality of how the events dramatized in When They See Us still happen today.
“My prayer is that the anger starts in my community,” Williams says. “I am over waiting for other people. We have the power to do things.”
Within seconds of meeting Williams, it’s impossible not to clock his most distinctive feature. A scar runs from the top of his forehead diagonally under his right eye, down his cheek, and down the side of his neck to his jugular, memorializing one of the lowest moments of his life. He got it when his face was slashed during a bar fight on Jamaica Avenue on his 25th birthday, at a time in his life when he thought, even before the incident, he was going to die.
He had been arrested twice recently for grand theft auto. His mother had taken out extra life insurance on him, certain he was soon going to leave her with a bill. That was before his career as a dancer, before Tupac got him into acting, and before he was cast as Omar on The Wire, got clean, and became, at 53 years old, one of modern television’s steadiest and most transfixing actors.
“I was a little older than them,” he says when we start talking about the Central Park Five, gesturing abstractly in the direction of the Vandeever Projects in East Flatbush, where he grew up. “The main thing I remember is the fear. I remember the fear of feeling that it easily could have been me.”
On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white banker living on the Upper East Side, was brutally attacked and raped while on a nighttime jog through Central Park. That same night, a group of black teenagers from Harlem were taken into custody for antagonizing and attacking strangers and bicyclists in the park, a raucous activity then known as “wilding.”
After a night of aggressive questioning, five of those teenagers—Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salam, and Korey Wise—confessed to taking part in the attack, each implicating another of the five in their statements.
It became one of the most publicized and divisive crime cases in New York City history, with the teens’ names and photos plastered all across the media. Donald Trump notoriously took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated in New York to punish them, embarking on his own racist publicity tour.
It would be revealed in court that the confessions were obtained under duress, in some cases without a guardian in the room, and after the teens were promised that if they said what the police told them to say, they would go free. Despite no DNA evidence linking any of the boys to Meili and logistical evidence of their whereabouts proving nearly impossible for them to have committed the crime, they were all found guilty and spent between six and 13 years in prison.
In 2001, 12 years after the incident, a convicted serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes confessed to being the one who raped and attacked Meili. Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salam, and Wise had their convictions vacated a year later. A settlement of $41 million was awarded to the men in 2014, the largest in New York City history.
When They See Us is must-see TV, and it is marching orders. Watching what happened to these boys is horrifying. It should also be galvanizing, no doubt DuVernay’s intent: Show us the truth where we told a lie, pop the bubbles we live in, burn the comfort blankets, get us fired up, and jar us into action.
“You can’t just hear this story and go back to your life,” Williams, who plays the father to Anton McCray in the series, says. “What is our power? What is our voice? What can we do as men from our community? How can we go back in our community and take some responsibility for our children? I’m sick of waiting for whoever they are to come in and fix what they think is broken in our community. I can do something. I hope that this strikes that conversation.”
We do the math together and figure out that he would have been 22 or 23 in 1989 when this was happening. “I was in rehab at 22,” he says. “I lived a very at-risk lifestyle. I know I dodged bullets.”
Williams was going to school for business management and working for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals when Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video came out. He quit school, began taking dance classes, and two years later began booking gigs, touring and appearing in videos for George Michael, Madonna, and Ginuwine.
His first acting gig came when Tupac Shakur saw his photo hanging in a production office. He had him come in for the 1996 film Bullet, and cast him as his little brother. His biggest break, playing Omar, the Robin Hood of Baltimore’s Westside projects, didn’t come until six years later, when he was 35 years old. Barack Obama would single out Omar as his favorite TV character ever.
In a 2012 interview with The New Jersey Star-Ledger, Williams revealed that, while shooting The Wire, he was living a double life as a cocaine addict, homeless on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Between seasons, he would disappear on days-long drug binges. “I was playing with fire,” Williams admitted. “It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead. When I look back on it now, I don’t know how I didn’t end up in a body bag.”
He got clean. And he got more work. Gone Baby Gone. The Road. Five seasons as Chalky on Boardwalk Empire. An Emmy nomination for starring opposite Queen Latifah in Bessie. Another for playing Freddie Knight in The Night Of. “I’m just hopping, dipping, and spinning my ass over from the dance club, and next thing you know I’m Omar from fucking The Wire,” he says. “I forgot that I put 20 years into this business. I feel like I just got here.”
The first time Williams and I talked was when he had just finished shooting The Night Of, the HBO limited series in which he played an intimidating prison kingpin. He talked about how his performance channeled the feelings he had while visiting his incarcerated nephew, who was more than 20 years into serving a 25-to-life sentence. “Shortly after that, things got real dark,” he says. “I just had to get my head together.”
He began taking meetings with other activists about criminal reform. He started work as an ambassador with The Innocence Project. He found himself in a conference room adjacent to the Oval Office, where he met with then-President Barack Obama about the American mass incarceration crisis. It was an awakening.
“President Obama cares about what I think?” he says. “Fuck-all what I do in Hollywood. I’m a recovering addict with a remedial education, you can’t possibly care what I think about things. President Obama is asking me shit? And not, ‘Oh, hey, Omar!’ But actually what do I think about shit? That blew me away.”
That led to working on Raised in the System, a documentary centered on criminal justice reform that was featured on HBO’s VICE news series. His nephew received clemency from Governor Andrew Cuomo and was released from jail. The two are now working together on a non-profit called Making Kids Win, to prove that his nephew is not “a unicorn” and that the formerly incarcerated could be invaluable outreach resources in communities where the school-to-prison pipeline is systemic.
“I learned what the world ‘adolescent’ really means,” Williams says. “‘Adolescent’ is a nice, pretty, scientific word for ‘dumb shit.’ You are expected to do dumb shit in your adolescent stage. Your brain ain’t fully developed. You’re supposed to be forgiven for your adolescence. But in my community they criminalize that.”
Williams is invigorated when he walks into the House of Small Wonder for lunch. He had just had a successful meeting with several judges downtown about the non-profit.
We talk about what’s ahead on the acting dance card, which includes a role in Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams’ upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country. For all the controversy surrounding the production’s decision to shoot in Georgia despite the state’s restrictive abortion bill, Williams is pleased that filming in the state will allow him to collaborate with Salam, who has become an activist since his release from jail and is based down there.
Before he heads to the U.S. South, though, he’s heading to south Brooklyn, coming to terms with the fact that he’s getting too old to keep up with his Williamsburg neighborhood. He brags about his nice South Side condo, before lamenting that it’s out of his price range. We joke that he needs to book a superhero movie to help pay for it, and he sighs as loud as he laughs.
“Man, every time I get in one they just flop!” he says, naming off RoboCop, Assassin’s Creed, and his initial work on Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which he filmed an entire role for but was recast for the final cut.
He had been cast by original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to play a motion-capture character named Dryden Vos. When Lord and Miller were fired and Ron Howard took over, Howard wanted to reconceive Williams’s performance, but Williams was tied up with another shoot and Paul Bettany was brought in.
He describes the performance as half-mountain lion, half-human, bragging that “he left no meat on the bones” chewing the scenery. He says his take on the character was part of a love triangle with Emilia Clarke’s character and Han Solo, describing the dynamic with a shocking lack of filter: “He was like, ‘She wasn’t sucking dick like that when she was with you. When she sucking that dick, I taught her that.’ That was my [character’s] thing.”
In the end, he says he doesn’t think the way the character ended up would have been good for him. “I’ll wait my time. There will be another spaceship.”
And before it arrives, he’s finding other ways to connect with the younger generation. It falls neatly in line with his activism work: setting an example by being an example.
“This awakening, it gave me purpose,” he says. “It gave me a better grade of life. I want to take better care of myself to be a better example to these kids.” He puffs out his chest with pride: “This is what 53 looks like.”