When Michael Kenneth Williams calls from the South African set of his latest movie, The Red Sea Diving Resort, he’s about to head out to dinner with co-stars Sir Ben Kingsley and Chris Evans for what is presumably a much-needed night off in Williams’ extremely busy schedule. Currently Emmy nominated for his turn as long-term prisoner Freddy in HBO’s The Night Of, a role partly inspired by his nephew’s experiences in prison, Williams is also now in the process of putting together a documentary with the working title Diamonds in the Rough—a Vice project about criminal justice and the reality of incarceration in the U.S.—something he wanted to do to honor his nephew’s positive attitude toward a life sentence.
While there is much to look forward to for Williams’ fans, who still call him Omar after his legendary character in The Wire, they will be sorely disappointed to learn his role has been cut from the upcoming Young Han Solo movie, due to a re-shoot scheduling conflict after Ron Howard replaced directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Despite the loss of his work on the project, Williams is philosophical, and clearly grateful for the experience, calling it, “out of this world” and saying, “I felt great about what I created with the directors that I worked with. It is what it is.”
You started out as a dancer and a choreographer. How did you move from that into acting?
The music video scene in the early ’90s was a very viable way to start your career in whatever. So, me being a background dancer, I was already in that world. I was lucky to work with George Michael and Madonna in their music videos. I was on the George Michael set, and Marcus Nispel, the director, was screaming, “Emote, Michael! Give me pain! Emote!” All I could think was, “What the fuck does ’emote’ mean?” I’d never heard the word before. And I figured it out; you know, Wait a minute, Michael, that was acting. You were acting! So I took ‘model’ off my resume and replaced it with the word ‘actor.’ I was a dancer/choreographer/actor. Shortly thereafter, I got a call that Martin Scorsese wanted to meet me, and he cast me in a role in his movie called Bringing Out the Dead, with Nicolas Cage in New York City—that was in 1997, I think. That was the day I hung my dancer’s shoes up, and I focused on my acting.
You’ve said shooting The Night Of was hell. Did you anticipate it being so personally difficult?
Yes. Though again, I don’t think I’m ever really mentally prepared for how deep I’m going to go, until I’m actually in it. I never really know how deep the character’s going to take me, emotionally. Because things, emotions, arise in the moment, you’re never really prepared for it as it comes. I did know that it was dark, and it was heavy. I just didn’t know it was going to be that intense. It did move me, and I was a little taken aback by things I could never have planned for. The route to work is the exact same route that I take to go visit my nephew, up north in upstate New York. We would go to a location, and some of those shots were from real prisons in New York City. We shot in one of the coldest parts of the winter there. In December, January and February—it was brutal—and the locations were dark. Every day, gray, in these dark cells, these very cramped spaces. It wears on your psyche. Freddy, the character, being an addict of sorts, I’d be having to revisit those old feelings of what it’s like to do hard drugs. And in that setting, it was just a lot. It’s a heavy world to live in for so long.
After playing Omar in The Wire you got into drugs, then recovered through meditation and prayer. Has that helped you protect against losing yourself in these kinds of characters now?
Absolutely. I have strategies that I go to. Number one, I keep a very good, solid team of people around me when I’m doing these dark roles. I call them my lasso. Tie a little lasso around my ankle and they’re keeping me up. Now I practice new strategies for how to arrive at characters. I’m keeping good, healthy minded people around, and just protecting myself. Being responsible.
You brought some of your nephew’s experience into the role of Freddy. Has he been able to see it in prison? Have you discussed it?
Oh, yeah. I’m very much a part of his life. I visit him on a regular basis in prison. But to be clear, my nephew has never done drugs, and he’s been there for a very long time. It should have been involuntary manslaughter, but he got murder, and he was given 25-to-life for defending his twin brother against a mob of boys who jumped on him. It was over a girl. They were 18,19 years old when this happened. You know, we’re from the hood, where we’re taught you have to have a gun in the household, and he subscribed to that mentality, to that level of thinking. With Freddy, I had to figure out what it would take to prepare yourself for that amount of time they gave him in a confined situation. What do you need to tell yourself to get to that mind state? And it’s dark. It’s tough. Freddy was never going to see the light of day.
You’ve said we don’t really need a second season of The Night Of—why?
I think that all the people who want to see a second season of The Night Of should turn on the news. If you go to our communities you’ll see how many situations like the character Naz that was played by Riz Ahmed, are happening in real life. It is very unfortunate that [in The Night Of] we don’t know who took that young woman’s life, but what we do know is that that man’s life was totally destroyed because he did not have money to get the proper lawyers, and because he was of color. I get choked up because that’s what happened to my nephew, right? We didn’t have a way to pay for his lawyers properly. My nephew was in Bible college when that shit happened. Bible college. He was a good boy. We’re not talking about wayward kids here. You know, I was the wayward son. Uncle Mike was the idiot with the drugs. My nephews were good boys. That’s my neighborhood, that’s the shit I grew up in. And I’m not making excuses for it, but that’s the brutality. I don’t think that my nephew should have been given 25-to-life.
You’re making a Vice film on this topic right now?
I’m working with [producer] Matt Horowitz, and we’re telling a story about what happens when a young mind goes through the incarceration system without proper guidance. We want to tell my nephew’s story in this doc, and we’ve had a lot of flack; we’re getting a lot of pushback from the Bureau of Prisons in New York, because they don’t let cameras in. Matt didn’t want to just have the cameras and interview my nephew in the visiting room, because we’ve seen that already. The life that my nephew has made, the man he’s become in there, we want to go behind the prison walls and spend a day with him, and let him walk us through his day and how he came to be the man that he is there. I’m so proud of him. We got permission to do that on June 5th, which was 20 years to the date that he was incarcerated. I’m going to show the world the man he’s become. He’s owned up to his mistake, and he’s atoned for his mistake. Most importantly, he’s given back. Even in there, I see him giving back to young men that are coming in behind him, that he mentors, and I’ve got to document that.
What’s happening with the Young Han Solo movie? Any news on that?
Oh, well, the role was just out of this world. The set—if you’re jaded when you walk into a set like Star Wars, you need to get the hell out of this business. It’s just overwhelming to see that and think, This is my office. I’ll never lose that feeling. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson. To work with Woody again, because of that friendship. And Emilia Clarke, man, I think she’s amazing. I love what she does, what she brings. She’s a great human being, and we got along so well on set. Then the costume! I ate all that stuff up. But unfortunately, no one will ever get to see it. I feel pretty confident that I’ll be asked to go back into that galaxy, but it won’t be for Han Solo.
You were cut because of Ron Howard’s re-shoot schedule?
When Ron Howard got hired to finish out the film, there were some re-shoot issues that needed to be done in regards to my character, in order for it to match the new direction which the producers wanted Ron to carry the film in. And that would have required me on a plane a month ago to London, to Pinewood, to do re-shoots. But I’m here, on location in Africa. It’s scheduling. I’m not going to be back on the market until the end of November after Hap and Leonard, and for them to wait that long for me, that would have pushed back the release date, which I believe is in May 2018. They wanted me now; I couldn’t go. So they had to clip clip clip.
But I walked away with really an amazing experience. I really got stronger in my instrument. I had to create this character who was half-human, and half-animal, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever had to do before. I wanted to not have him look, feel, sound, or walk like anything I’ve ever done. I had to create something I’ve never seen myself do. I really got to go heavy into the dream assignment. We created a kick-ass character, in my opinion. I’m proud of it. I was a little bothered by it, but I don’t think anything in that galaxy is final, and I don’t think that me not being in the Star Wars family is final. I think something will transpire somewhere down the line. I left with a very good taste in my mouth about the whole family, and I hope that I left a good taste in their mouth. They’re a great group of people, the Lucas family.