ELEVEN YEARS AGO, Michael K. Williams, an actor whose roiling menace has infused every kind of cutthroat character, thought his role of a lifetime might be as a babysitter. “I wasn’t getting calls or auditions,” he says of the days before being cast on The Wire, HBO’s graphic portrait of Baltimore corruption, drugs and decay. “I started working at my mother’s day care in Brooklyn. I was off the grid.”
Now 46, the man better known as Omar Little—the gay, shottie-toting bandit who was the embodiment of righteous wrath—is building a notable post-Wire reel en route to his big-screen breakthrough. He’s spent three seasons on Boardwalk Empire as Albert “Chalky” White, a 1920s gangster and community leader in Atlantic City. He’s in a slew of upcoming films: the RoboCop reboot (his first franchise); Twelve Years a Slave with Brad Pitt later this year; and Snitch, out today (Feb. 22), starring Susan Sarandon. In 2011, he produced Snow on tha Bluff, a jarring depiction of an Atlanta crime spree. “We were the 10th most watched on Netflix for the year,” he says. “When Diddy hit me, I was like, Something’s going on.”
Growing up in a West Indian household in the East Flatbush, the emphasis was on academia, not trivialities. “Aspiring to be an entertainer was frowned upon. It was: Get a real job, get an education, get a trade,” says Williams. He spent the ’90s as a professional dancer, haunting auditions to earn cameos in videos for Madonna, George Michael and Shabba Ranks. Comfortable on camera, acting didn’t seem a stretch. After being slashed in the face during a bar fight on his 25th birthday, he proved irresistible to casting directors seeking hard-edged characters.
Even Tupac Shakur believed Williams looked “thugged out enough” to play his brother in Bullet. On the set, ’Pac explained method acting. “He said, ‘I come to the set in character.’ That’s something I internalized,” says Williams. “If the character is in a dark place, I don’t talk to nobody, and I don’t look people in the eye.”
Maybe that’s why the edges separating Williams and his roles often blur. He’s set to revive rap’s misunderstood wild boy Ol’ Dirty Bastard in an upcoming biopic. But for the public, it’s Omar that lives on. “My name isn’t a household name, so people see me and scream ‘Omar!’ or ‘Chalky White!’” says Williams. “It still makes me happy.” —BEN DETRICK