The Michael K. Williams Story You Need to Read to Believe

Emmy-nominated actor from 'The Wire' talks about finding his life's purpose in the new profile.

September 2, 2017 5:00 am
Actor Michael K. Williams
Actor Michael Kenneth Williams arrives to HBO's New York premiere of 'The Wire' at Chelsea West Cinema in New York City on January 4, 2008. (Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic)

Michael K. Williams is best known for his parts on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. He spent the winter of 2015 commuting from Williamsburg to Yonkers for HBO’s seven-part drama The Night Of, in which Williams’ character Freddy, a powerful prisoner, takes a young inmate under his wing at Rikers Island.

But a new Vanity Fair profile notes that Williams had made a similar trip many times before he started working on the show, while driving to the Green Haven Correctional Facility — a maximum security prison. He went to go visit his nephew, Dominic Dupont, who is currently incarcerated, nearly 20 years after his conviction for murder.

Williams told Vanity Fair that the “eerily evocative journey was surreal.”  He would leave his character’s cement cell block at the end of the day and walk free, something his nephew has not done for nearly two decades.

In the Vanity Fair profile, Williams says he “realized how important it was to play characters that are in such pain,” after leaving The Wire. He also said that in a culture inundated with criminal-justice franchises and neat conclusions, Williams felt it was important to realistically depict the judicial system he had “seen swallow so many friends and family members.”

Vanity Fair also writes that Williams’ artistic awakening came courtesy of Janet Jackson. When Williams was in his early 20s, he had gotten his drug addiction under control, and had a stable job. Then he saw a music video for Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” He was stirred by how many different people he saw in the video, but all they all came together and moved like one.

So Williams quit his job and recorded all of Jackson’s music videos and learned how to count steps. He went on to dance in music videos and on tours for Madonna, Missy Elliott, Crystal Waters, and Ginuwine.

But then, the night before turning 25, he got into a bar fight in Queens. A stranger dragged a razor blade across his face and jugular.

Things changed immediately. “(Directors) wanted me to act out these thug roles, you know, like, ‘Mike, roll these—roll these dice in this video. Have this fight in this video,’” Williams has said, according to Vanity Fair.

Then, in 1996, for the crime-drama Bullet, Tupac Shakur cast him as his brother and six years later, Williams got the infamous role of Omar on The Wire. 

But Williams fell back into a downward spiral of drug addiction. This time, Williams credits Barack Obama with getting him out. Williams met Obama briefly after a rally in 2008, while “lock-jawed and high on cocaine.” Williams told The Times, “Hearing my name come out of his mouth woke me up. I realized that my work could actually make a difference.”

Now, with a new support system in place, Williams chooses roles with a purpose. He is an ACLU ambassador for ending mass incarceration, and recently finished a documentary about the criminal justice system. He also has plans for a high-fashion streetwear company.

And this past March, Williams reached the “Hollywood holy grail” when he was invited to join the Star Wars franchise for the Han Solo spin-off.

Next month, he will be heading to the Emmys with his mom as his date. But the actor has learned to look for life’s awards outside of these Hollywood ceremonies. He told Vanity Fair: “The arts gave me something that no amount of money, no statue could—a life, a voice, a purpose.”

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