Michael K. Williams talks ‘Hap and Leonard,’ ‘The Wire,’ more
He’s undoubtedly best known as Omar Little, the gay stickup man robbing drug dealers in the classic TV series “The Wire,” but Michael K. Williams has been a ubiquitous presence on TV and in movies for years now. From “Boardwalk Empire” to “The Night Of,” “Gone Baby Gone” to “The Road,” the 51-year old Brooklyn native has exhibited both charisma and the kind of acting chops that makes for great character actors. Lately he’s been delighting audiences in Sundance TV’s “Hap and Leonard,” playing Leonard Pine, a gay Vietnam vet with anger issues. The third season of the series debuts Wednesday, March 7 at 10 p.m.
Leonard is quite an offbeat character. What interested you about him initially?
I’ll be honest, the first thing was it was my first opportunity to lead a show. The second was the writing, I loved the world it lived in, and Leonard seemed like a walking contradiction, all these things that didn’t match. The fact he’s black, Republican, openly gay, his best friend is a hetero hippie white man. I’d never heard of a world like that.
You’re a guy from Brooklyn, and the series takes place in the South. Did you learn anything about the region from being in the show?
My father is from the South, and I have visited my family in South Carolina. What I had to be reminded of is how deep racism ran, how deeply embedded it was in the South, and how much people hated Hap and Leonard based on their relationship.
This year of the series seems especially timely, since it involves Hap and Leonard dealing with a group of white supremacists.
The writing is great. We always manage to be right on time with the climate. But you can’t plan for it, this season with the white supremacy, all the stuff going on in Charlottesville.
You seem to have an affinity for playing gay characters. Any particular reason why?
The gay community has always been a part of my life. My best friend who taught me how to be a man was a lesbian, a very outspoken lesbian. Another one of my friends died of HIV, and he grew up in the projects at a time when that was not welcome. I always look at the gay community like “so what?” Ironically the only time I wasn’t called softy was when I was in the gay community.
Obviously, playing Omar in “The Wire” was a real step up, career-wise. What attracted you to the part?
It was the writing, the cast. Omar was a walking contradiction. I know real Omars, gay dudes who will knock you out. I based him on dudes I grew up with in New York. I like the non-normal, that challenged me, made me go deeper as an actor, this openly gay black man who robs drug dealers with a straight face. Never heard of that before. It was the opportunity to do something different. I like characters society would normally walk by or throw away.
You have a very visible facial scar from a drunken bar fight you got into when you were 25. When you started acting, were you worried that that would inhibit your career?
I was called Scarface on account of the scar. And at the beginning of my career I used to play that, people thought I was a thug. But I got bored with that really quick. I knew I would have to get some chops to keep this going. It was then I found the Off-Broadway theater community in New York, that’s where I got my chops. Now it’s like “Michael, where did you get that scar?” “What scar?”
Did you have any movie idols growing up?
A lot of the movies that shaped my life, like “Saturday Night Fever,” I couldn’t get enough of John Travolta, then Prince in “Purple Rain.” Those characters shaped me, and molded me. I believe favorite movies are movies that moved you the most. What Travolta and Prince did, at the age I saw those, I was a kid, those years were my most impressionable, and those movies helped me define how I wanted to dress, walk. The swagger of a man.
What are you working on now?
I’m filming a remake of “Superfly,” set in Atlanta, and starring Trevor Jackson from “Black-ish” and Jason Mitchell from “Mudbound.” I play a character named Scatter, he’s like the mentor to the lead character.
Other than updating the setting, any significant differences between this version and the 1972 original?
In the original version there was a character you couldn’t see but you heard, and that was the soundtrack music by Curtis Mayfield. The difference between the first version and this is hip-hop, and there is no better city to set it in than Atlanta.