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Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Kenneth Williams on Working With Scorsese and the Joy of Cursing

He's best known as Omar Little, The Wire's whistle-happy, profanity-averse, dealer-robbing stickup man, one of history's greatest-ever TV characters. This Sunday night, Michael K. Williams returns to HBO in Terence Winter's Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire, about Atlantic City during Prohibition. On the show, Williams plays Chalky White, the impeccably suited veritable mayor of the city's African-American community and a rum-runner for Nucky Johnson (Steve Buscemi), Boardwalk's racketeer hero. We spoke with Williams by phone last week about the show, the differences between Chalky and Omar, and whether he'll follow his Wire co-stars to The Office.

Omar never swore on The Wire. Is it fun to curse so much on Boardwalk Empire?
Oh yeah. A lot of drinking, cursing, and killing.

As an actor, what are the differences between playing Omar and Chalky?
Omar was pretty much a hunter. He lived for the thrill of the hunt, whereas Chalky is a businessman. He’s a gangsta. He’s about that money. He plays a certain game that Omar just did not belong to.

How much research did you do into the time period?
I did some research. I read the book Boardwalk Empire. I did some research on my character and found out he was a boxer once upon a time, listed as one of the 100 greatest featherweights of all time, from the south. He had a hard life. I integrated that true-life story into the character.

The suits on Boardwalk Empire are awesome. It must be fun going to wardrobe every day.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Omar didn’t really care what he wore. He’d probably wear just a vest and a trench coat and a shotgun and a do-rag. Chalky definitely is a well-tailored man. All the suits are hand-tailored by Martin Greenfield. He’s an amazing tailor from Brooklyn. It’s a real honor to have him dress me. You put those clothes on and you walk on set, you’re definitely in character. You feel the clothes. It’s amazing.

How would you compare working with Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese to working with David Simon?
You really can’t compare the two, but I will say this — they both create their own little world that I seem to fit pretty good in. David Simon, he has this world, this like family order. Once you’re in, you’re family. There are no egos. Terry and Martin, they have the same environment. Martin was behind that monitor for every frame of the pilot. He’s got the sleeves rolled up, elbows in. He’ll run circles around the average teenager. He works hard. He still loves his job, which is beautiful to see, someone of his stature.

Did Simon offer you a part on Treme?
David and Anthony [Hemingway], they had reached out to me, but unfortunately my schedule with Boardwalk was too strict and we couldn’t make it happen. But there’s always room for next season, so we'll see.

You're very funny on Boardwalk, and even Omar had a certain way with a punchline. Why do you think you’re not cast in more comedies?
I’m at a stage in my career where my main goal is just to stay working, and hopefully do good work. But I would definitely love to do comedy. I’ve had a few chances at it with R. Kelly and "Trapped in the Closet," and I’ve worked with Chris Rock in I Think I Love My Wife. I’ve gotten enough of a taste of it that I would definitely love to do it again, if presented the chance.

Your Wire co-stars Amy Ryan and Idris Elba both have made guest appearances on The Office. Can you see yourself ever doing that?
I’m not going to turn it down, that’s for sure. I can be the disgruntled co-worker, the guy who goes postal. I’ll give it a shot if they make me an offer.

The show shoots in Greenpoint. You live in Brooklyn. Can you just take the train to work?
I walk to work. It’s nice to just roll out of bed. And if you have a long day, the last thing you want to do is be caught in the traffic jam. So it feels good to be home in five or ten minutes after a twelve-hour day. Being on the road working, you miss Brooklyn. It’s surreal to be able to come back home and have a job like this.

You walk to work? How often do you get stopped on the street by Wire fans?
A lot. It’s a blessing. I never get tired of people stopping me and saying how much they admire something I’m a part of. I’m just grateful that people admire something I did. It never gets old for me. It could be a lot worse. People could stop me for a lot worse reasons than to talk about The Wire. So I embrace it.

Do you know if there will be more chapters of "Trapped in the Closet"?
I don’t know what the future holds for more "Trapped in the Closet." You never know what Robert is cooking up over there in Chicago. But if he calls, I’m there. We don’t speak every day, but once in a while we catch each other. He’s busy, I’m busy. But whenever we see each other, it’s like we just saw each other yesterday.

Photo: Jimi Celeste/patrickmcmullan.com