Michael K: Williams: Omar Never Scares
During a conversation at the Czar Entertainment offices in Manhattan, Williams explores Omars psyche, analyzes his own approach to playing the part, and tells the stories behind some of the series most remarkable moments. Clearly a fan himself, the rising actor also offers valuable insight into The Wires depiction of the streets of Baltimore, and the importance of exposing other criminal worlds that have an impact on the inner city drug trade.
HipHopDX: Omar is both a gay character and, code or no code, a snitch. How do you manage to make him so loved?
Michael K. Williams: Well first of all hes not a snitch. [Laughs] Bubbles is a snitch. I dont know how I managed to pull that off, honestly. I know I didnt go into the character with any apprehensions. I embraced every aspect of the character, and honestly searched for the truth behind who and what he meant. I was on a mission to have him taken very seriously by the viewing audience.
DX: I know youre saying hes not a snitch, but does he really get off the hook because of his code?
MKW: Honestly, the only reason he went to the cops was he used them- it was a three way chess game in a sense. The Barksdale Clan was huge and had way too many people for him to go at them alone. They already killed his lover, so he was by himself and he wanted to kill Avon. Omar doesnt want to get caught up with your henchmen and who works for you. If youre the one whos the head of the organization and youre giving them orders, he goes after you. And he used the cops to help knock down the pawns so he can get a clear shot at his target. The only time he really ever went in court was when he testified against Bird, and the only reason he did that was to show them, once again, Fuck you, Im not scared. When the Detective Greggs character, played by Sonja Sohn, says, Youre not afraid to go in a Baltimore city court room and testify? he says Omar dont scare. While [Omar and the detectives] were in the interrogation room, he would give them just enough information to keep them busy while he would gather information from their bulletin board. A snitch gets paid, a snitch tries to go into witness protection. Omar was none of that.
DX: But he did get a little deal with the prosecutor
MKW: He got that get out of jail free card, of course.
DX: In terms of your past, both personal and with your acting career, what do you feel prepared you for the role of Omar, and what did you have to learn?
MKW: What prepared me was my relationship and my love for the underground off- Broadway theater companies in New York City. Ive been very fortunate to be around the likes of Ellen Stewart down at La MaMa Theater and Tunde Samuels up at the National Black Theater in Harlem. And when I got my own theater company which was Theater for a New Generation, directed by Mel Williams, he taught me the craft and how to use the tools of the Meisner Method to create characters and layer them properly, and that gave me the foundation to deal with a character like Omar. And what I had to learn was how to relax and just let things happen, because up until Omar I only had one time gigs- a little guest appearance here, or a feature there- I never had a reoccurring character. I did all this research, I had to learn how to speak like a Baltimorean from the inner city, because I didnt want Omar to sound like a Brooklyn kid, I didnt want him walking or talking or dressing like anyone except someone that came from Baltimore. So I had to learn all of that. When I came back the second season, it was kinda a weird feeling. I had to access my notes from the previous year, I had to learn how to relax and be consistent and build on what I had learned from season one, and just got stronger and stronger.
DX: I know that your character was based on some real stick up kids from Baltimore, and one of them Donnie Andrews, who actually shares some scenes with you on the show. Did you do a lot of talking to him and people who had lived that life?
MKW: You know I didnt have to really talk to people like that, cause Im from East Flatbush Brooklyn, theres nothing I really havent seen. But what I did do the culture is what I had to learn, and talking with Donnie- hes not a kid first of all, hes a grown man- and I didnt think it would be very respectful for me to start picking into his past. I think that he was brave enough to expose enough of himself through The Wire via my character, so I didnt want to have him hatch up all these old memories. It meant enough for me to have his energy and his essence around me on the set. I knew that he was not going to write anything retarded for me to do, and I knew that Ed Burns was not going to let any director tweak me in any retarded way. They were always on the set to make sure that Omar wouldnt go to the left, and Donnie just kept the content of the story that he gave them so authentic. So it was pretty much straightforward, I trusted what was on the paper and I just enjoyed him being on the set and being in scenes with me, that reads across film, and that says enough.
DX: Your role wasnt meant to last past seven episodes, and it was similar for other actors as well. Do you think that the actors had a big influence on the writing of the show?
MKW: I think the actors had something to do with it, I think its a combination of things. Cause these writers write as they go, no one knows if were shooting episode 1, they are writing 2 as were filming 1, so no one knows whats going to be on the next script. And they kept everything fresh, they would watch the dailies and write according to what they already had on their story board and according to what was coming to life on the dailies. I think the actors definitely had something to do with it, but I wouldnt say we were the sole reason. I dont think because I portrayed Omar is the sole reason it went from a 7 episode character to a series regular and one of the more memorable characters on the show.
DX: Are you just being modest?
MKW: No, Im serious, because if you see the way Ed Burns hes a real stickler, particularly when it comes to my scenes, hes always there. Either him or David [Simon] is always there, mostly Ed Burns. Ed Burns was a detective, he co-wrote The Wire with David and he arrested Donnie [Andrews] and little Melvin Williams 20 some years ago when The Wire was really going down in Baltimore. So he showed me how to hold a gun properly, and he told me what Omar would and would not do, things that were not in the script. He helped to make sure my character was taken seriously on screen, so it wasnt just me, I cant take all that credit.
DX: Omar also has a lot of the memorable one liners on the show. A big part of them is the delivery, but did you come up with some of those?
MKW: Not one, all of them are in the script. Maybe one little thing I could remember adding it was season one and they were trying to find Bird and they were in the Jeep with the cops hunting for them, and I said We can find Bird over here cause he likes to get high and he cops them over here, and they said, "Oh yeah, Bird gets high?" and I said, Yeah, but not while he working, 'cause Avon dont like to have his workers high. And thats another rule, never get high on your own supply. That little homage to Biggie, they let me get it in there. But thats the only time I threw something in.
DX: Omar kind of defies the stereotypes of gay men and how theyre portrayed, but a lot of his boyfriends dont. Does he go for weaker men?
MKW: Theyre called bottoms. [Laughs] I guess hes a top and he just likes bottom. [Laughs] I dont really know the whole pretty light skinned boy thing But really though I must say out of all the love interests that Omars had, there was one particular one that was played so beautifully and I thought that he matched my intensity immensely, which was Renaldo, who was played by Ramon Rodriguez, who is an amazing actor from New York City. The chemistry that he and I had was by far the strongest out of any of the other love interests, and if you noticed he had the most influence on Omar. He had Omar speaking Spanish, he took Omar to Puerto Rico, Omar let him use his team for that big score, and I thought he was really wonderfully executed. He was the strongest out of the three, and I had the most fun with him too I must say.
DX: How do you feel about rumors regarding your own sexual orientation?
MKW: [Laughs] I guess it comes with the territory, what you gonna do?
DX: The relationship between Omar and Bunk is an interesting one. Especially in that scene when they have that conversation on the bench and Bunk is talking about how they came up together and how things used to be in the community. Omar spits at the end of it. Is that supposed to mean that he is disrespecting everything Bunk has said?
MKW: That was my choice, first of all. Actually what was happening is Bunk started getting to Omar. Cause you know, Bunk and Omar, they share a lot of the same feelings and opinions about what Bunk was saying about how the community used to be. Omar feels a lot of that too in his own way. And he was also hurting that he had just lost his partner in crime, the young lady Keisha who got shot in her head, that took a heavy toll on him. He really hurts when he loses a friend, thats something he feels responsible for cause he trained these kids how to rob, he made them his team. So he was wearing that guilt on him when Bunk spoke to him and it was a soft spot. So that spit was just disgust and anger for himself, for the way things are. Yeah Bunk, what the fuck do you want? Youre right but what the fuck do you want from me? You feel me? And it was just like, Fuck everything, fuck the world, fuck this shit.
DX: Is he going to take the promise he made to Bunk to not kill anyone else seriously, after Bunk gets him out of jail?
MKW: We dont know, we have to wait and see. It doesnt look too promising though, especially after Marlo killed Butchie, it doesnt look too promising that hes going to honor that, but you never know.
DX: Through the seasons, Omar manages to outsmart everyone in the power game. He double crosses Prop Joe and Marlo, and he gets to Avon too. Is Omar the smartest of all the heroes on the show?
MKW: Thats a good question. I think everybody has their day, and everybody has their time. Of course I think theres going to be somebody whos going to be a little smarter, a little quicker than O. Thats the name of the game, thats how life is, nobody wears the crown forever. So I think thats a high possibility.
DX: Ive heard you defend season two on one of the documentaries and talk about how the story of the ports brought a bigger perspective on everything. But the reality is everyone whos a fan of The Wire loves following the streets more than anything
MKW: See thats where people in our community- in the urban city, in the hood- my people have a tendency not to want to deal with or learn about things we feel have nothing to do with us. And in all reality, season two had more to do with us, it was a window into the real scheme of things. Sometimes we get so bogged down in our lives and we get so beat up by society and everyday living and this hustle, that we forget that this is all a game and this has all been structured. If you think the drugs just plop down where did it come from? Why is the system the way it is? Why are the largest amount of incarcerated black males? Why? Theres a reason for that. They say theres a war on drugs. Like Seth Gilliams character said, who plays Carver, Wars end. Where is the shit coming from? We dont own no ports and boats, you dont see no black long shore men, thats that way for a reason and you got a window into that.
Just how upper society gets a window into our world through The Wire, season two is a way to get a window into their world. I wish that young African Americans would take that opportunity to watch season two and learn what the real scheme of things is going on. Thats real talk. Even me, Ive never looked at a dock the same since season two. If you look at those cans, every time I drive by a body of water and I see a port, whether it be Miami or when Im on the ferry going to Staten Island, I wonder What the fuck is going on over there? and I have season two to thank for that. We dont pay that shit no mind, not even just blacks but people who dont live that life. Those ports are where all our shit comes in, import/export, and right now thats one of the biggest soft spots in this war on terrorism, is our ports. Its a big issue in this war thing we got going on, so season two was a chance to learn about that. Now I will agree that season two did move a little slower and it maybe dived in a little too much into the personal lives of those characters, they couldve brought a little more of the street and mixed it in a little bit more, I feel you with that. But I really think that was an excellent opportunity to see what goes on in other worlds and see how that world affects your world, my world, and its all connected.
DX: In terms of how complex of a character Omar is, on the one hand he says Omar dont scare, but then we see him in jail and he looks really shook
MKW: Hell yeah, Hell yeah. [Laughs] Let me tell you something The line between fiction and reality is very thin. That was a real prison that we shot in and it was a room of 100 some odd extras banging on the walls saying they wanted to do all these evil things. At one point it just felt real, the cameras werent even there and a lot of energy was in the room, and it was just a weird feeling. Ive never been in a prison in my life, so for me to be in there and to have all these people who Ive maimed or robbed or hurt in some way, now they want to kill me. It was like putting a deer in a water full of alligators. And to have Donnie there and to look in his eyes and see something being brought to life in him Cause you know the scene after Omar shanks the dude in his ass and I leave the scene, right? So we did a couple takes of that, and I could feel it escalating. I would [usually] get off the set til they called me to tape it again, but one take I said Mike, just stop short and turn around and just embrace the scene, and I turned around and Donnie was sitting in the middle of all them dudes, a sea of lions, and he had that knife and he was picking his nails with the shank and he looked like, Ill eat all yall it was just a look, real cool, almost like when a tsunami hit and all the water disappears, that real calm moment? He had that look on his face, and I could see that I dont ever wanna go there, that look in his eyes was a very dark place. Hes a strong individual to be able to come back into that light from the darkness where hes been. So there was a lot of energy in that prison that day.
DX: If every actor was to have a perfect role that was made for them, would Omar be yours?
MKW: Omar is definitely my breakout character. I think everything I was doing up until The Wire was preparing me for The Wire. However, I would like to think that my best work is still in front of me. [Laughs] But Omar and The Wire and the cast members and especially the city of Baltimore will always have a very special place in my heart. I will never be mad or get tired of somebody calling me Omar down the street like Oh my God, Omar! Its a blessing, Ive been very fortunate to be a part of something that dynamic, and who am I to get tired of that? But I will say this much though, I think it will be a cold day in hell before I have a group of cast members, especially African American cast members, on a TV show, as much as we got along, and as much as we supported each other. There was never no drama, there will never be a behind the scenes The Real Wire, it was nothing but love from day one to the very end, and I dont think Ill get that level of love and family vibe on a set. Maybe, who knows, but it was real special.
DX: I heard you had a rap project in the works called Omar Comin
MKW: Yeah, I got permission from HBO. The late great Jam Master Jay, we had a mutual friend, and [JMJ] encouraged me to work on learning how to spit and I got with our mutual friend, a dude whos really heavy into music, and weve been working on it for the past five years. I think its ready now. Who knows what tomorrow holds, but I think its ready. I think the world is ready to hear Omars mind on wax. I dont want to take it out the box. Whatever Omars about on that TV show is what that music will reflect, Im not going to play to the radio, not going to be popping bottles and rims spinning and making it rain.
DX: Just toting the sawed off?
MKW: Bingo, sawed off and huntin. But you gonna also feel his heart the way you do on the show. I want this record to really reflect who this dude is, or at least my interpretation of who this dude is. He may not have had all the education, but hes extremely smart, and hes thoughtful, hes gentle at times, he has love for his people, all of that kind of comes out in different songs on this record that Im working on.
DX: What other projects do you have on the horizon?
MKW: I just came back from Tuscany, Italy where I working with Spike Lee on his new joint, The Miracle at St. Anna, its the story of the buffalo soldiers of the 92nd infantry, and has a star studded cast, a really great group of guys. Thats coming out sometime in 08. I just wrapped up The Hulk 2 with Ed Norton, who wrote it and starred in it, and I go in March to start working on this new project called The Road with Charlize Theron.