Michael Kenneth Williams is making a habit of creating unforgettable characters in HBO series.
Williams is probably best known for his turn as gay stickup artist Omar Little on “The Wire.” But he’s currently burning up the small screen in “Boardwalk Empire” as Chalky White, the sharply dressed bootlegger who, in Season 1, delivered a show-stealing monologue as he confronted the main suspect in the lynching of of his driver. (Check out the video at the bottom of this post.)
The 45-year-old actor gets equally intense in Season 2 (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO; 4 stars). Williams was in Chicago Tuesday for a special screening of scenes from “Boardwalk Empire" and stopped by RedEye to talk about the new season, in which Chalky’s fortunes are tied more closely to those of crooked political boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who becomes the target of a federal investigation of former cronies he considered his closest allies. We couldn't not talk about Omar, too.
First of all, everyone I know freaked out when they heard I would be interviewing “Omar Little.”
Yeah, it’s a lot of love, a lot of admiration for the character. I’m very grateful.
Why has the popularity of the character endured so long after the show ended?
Who’da thunk it? I think it’s a combination of things, but the main thing that I would venture to say is Omar [has] his honesty, his lack of respect for material things, the whole thing of him being a man with a code and how strongly he adheres to it. You might not agree with everything he’s about, but at the end of the day, you got to respect him, because he pretty much wears his life on his sleeves.
And how would you compare him to Chalky White?
Ah, that is how I would compare them. They both are stand-up dudes; they both have a moral code that they live strongly to. Where they differ is what Omar did, he did for the thrill of the hunt. [He] didn’t care about anything, … he just wants to hear you squeal. Whereas Chalky’s a businessman, he’s more calculated in a different sense. We see that when they find his driver swinging from the light fixture [in Season 1]. Omar would’ve been, “All bets are off; I want blood.” Chalky’s like, “Remember that 30 percent deal we had, I want it to be 50 now, and I want blood.” So, that’s where they differ.
Do you feel Chalky reacts emotionally a little bit?
Absolutely, Chalky definitely has an emotional connection to his community, knowing his people and to his family that you’re going to see in this new season. We’re going to see a crack in his armor in this new season. He’s not as smooth and as ice cold as he would like you to perceive him. He has some issues that are going to come to light in Season 2.
I watched the first two episodes. The show dives right into that, no warm-up, doesn’t it?
Nope. No grease. [Just] bend over!
Why don’t you give us a little preview of what we can expect?
Season 2 is pretty much what the catch phrase says, “Know who’s behind you.” And pretty much that speaks to loyalty. Who can you trust? Who’s really in your corner? You’d be surprised the turn of events: Who you thought was your friend is actually your enemy and who you thought was your enemy is actually your friend.
Chalky finds out that he is in the crosshairs of someone who is gunning for Nucky, and it’s a very awkward position because No. 1, it has nothing to do with him. He doesn’t want to be involved with this; he just wants to make his money and keep it moving. But because of the events that happened, he’s forced to realign himself with Nucky and decide, "Do I still want to work with you? Do I still trust you? Can I trust you?” And they find that they have more in common with each other than they did with their own separate communities.
Chalky has another run in with the KKK this season. That’s the only time I kind of see in him actually look a bit scared.
It’s kind of hard to smile with a [shotgun] barrel in your mouth. [Laughs.] His life is in jeopardy right now, his life is in the hands of someone else holding a gun in his face. At that point it’s like, “Oh, well;” you got to make your peace, you know?
Right. Let’s talk about showing the Klan on the show. Some people don’t like it, but it is part of our history. How do you feel about that?
Absolutely [it’s part of history]. It’d be silly not to [show it]; it would the era a disservice. That is part of our story as a country, as a nation—the ugliness of racial divide. You have to show it, and I applaud Terry Winter for being as brave as he is to not even dance around it, but to dive into it and just show it. I’m a firm believer in those who forget are doomed to repeat.