“I run this area.”
The claim sounds so natural coming out of Michael K. Williams’s mouth, almost to the point of self-parody. The 45-year-old Brooklyn native is best known for his portrayal of Omar Little, on The Wire, a series that wasn’t so much adored as it was studied, memorized, and proselytized on behalf of. Over five seasons, Omar became one of the most absorbing characters in TV history, a code-driven gang of one known for his novel income-redistribution schemes (he robbed drug dealers.) and unlikely affinities (he was gay.). So when you hear Williams assert ownership over a patch of the city, you believe him. You’re just surprised that “this area” is Williamsburg. When I point out the seeming incongruity of seeing Omar at East River State Park, with its luxury condos and weekend artisanal-food fair, he frowns. “Yeah. This is Mike. Mike livin’ his life.”
The Wire ended four years ago, but the series is more popular than ever thanks to a devout, DVD-lending fan base, college courses devoted to The Wire as sociology, and shout-outs from President Obama, whose favorite character happens to be Omar. Nobody has benefited from the series’ afterlife more than Williams, whose every move onscreen and in real life is suffused with a distinct Omar-ness. His fascinating post-Wire career has ranged from straight-to-cable action flicks to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (slated for 2013) and, possibly, the upcoming RoboCop remake. He was in talks for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but it conflicted with his current gig on HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, on which he portrays Albert “Chalky” White, the leader of Atlantic City’s African-American community. During his guest run last fall on the meta-mad sitcom Community, he played Marshall Kane, a humorless, prison-tested biology professor given to quoting … Omar from The Wire. (“A man’s gotta have a code.”) Perhaps the least Omar-esque thing he’s done was this year’s “The Wire: The Musical,” a Funny or Die video in which he reprised his signature role — only a singing, dancing (but still shotgun-wielding) version of it.
We’re sitting on a bench on the edge of the park, within walking distance of both his apartment and the set of Boardwalk, where Chalky’s relationship with those around him will be severely tested this season. “It feels good to be at a point in my life, coming from where I come from, to be able to enjoy something like that,” he says, pointing to the view of Manhattan. Williams moved to the neighborhood three years ago and comes to this park frequently in order to “be with Michael and reflect on the day’s events. Just decompress.”
Whenever Williams refers to “Michael,” it sounds like he’s talking about someone else. “I felt like I got a bum deal with the whole Michael K. Williams thing,” he explains. As an unhappy, oft-teased child growing up in Flatbush, he became “addicted” to the fantasy of escape. Weary of the street life, he reinvented himself as “the party kid. Knowing all the latest dances made me, in my mind, appear cool.”
After seeing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video, he quit school and got a steady job dancing full-time. Within a few years, he was working with George Michael and Madonna. Life changed again when Tupac Shakur encouraged him to act. Soon, he was impressing Martin Scorsese (who directed him in 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead) and, owing partly to the mesmeric scars across his face and neck — the result of a bar fight when he was 25 — getting cast on Law & Order: SVU and The Sopranos.
“Those triumphs, all they did was help me put things to the side and not deal with me,” he says. A dry spell coincided with 9/11; he grew morbidly depressed. He would drive around ground zero, listening to Tupac, downing Paxil “like they was Skittles.” Seeing himself on a late-night Sopranos rerun pushed him to pursue acting one last time. The next part he auditioned for was Omar.
Williams poured his own “brokenness” into a character that could have easily seemed preposterous. “Hard-core, gangsta, he robs drug dealers … Robin Hood. By the way — he’s openly gay.” While he didn’t initially understand how Omar’s sexuality would feature — “What, I just say ‘I’m gay!’ and bang out?” — he guessed correctly that his willingness to embrace it would distinguish him. “People been making assumptions about me way before The Wire,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I danced to house music.”
On a series that explored the similarities between the courthouse and the code of the streets, precinct tedium and gang bureaucracy, Omar stood alone. He was entrepreneurial, deeply ethical. “He was a stand-up dude,” Williams adds as we walk to Osteria Il Paiolo, one of his neighborhood favorites. “You could set your clock by what he would and would not do.”
Omar had been a lifeline, but Williams continued to flounder. “Omar took me further away from who I was. I think I crossed a line with that character. I was pulling from a lot of personal experiences, a lot of pain. I was hoping I would leave it there with him, but I was using it constantly to breathe life into him.” He ended up back in a Brooklyn housing project, only to get evicted during a hiatus after season two. It wasn’t until Omar’s demise in season five that he began reckoning with the self-destruction that had been required to sustain him.
“When the character died, I didn’t know how to let it go. When people screamed ‘Omar’ in the street, it sounded better to me than when they were screaming ‘Mike.’ I think what people need to realize is that I had to mourn that character just like everybody else.” On his last day as Omar, he sat alone in his trailer, staring at his gunshot wound in the mirror. “I couldn’t really see myself because I was so far in character. Who the hell am I gonna be after this? I didn’t see Mike. I didn’t know who Mike was.”
Had it not been for Boardwalk and his return to Brooklyn, Williams might never have discovered where Omar ended and Mike began. He framed Omar’s trench coat; he no longer listens to “the Omar playlist” on his iPod. Portraying Chalky allowed him to seek inspiration beyond his own darkness: “Chalky dresses like my father. He got that snarl, and he struts like my godfather. He’ll kill you like my Uncle Par. He sarcastic like my Uncle Tommy. And he loves his family like my Uncle Jay.”
“I think he has a switch on the back of his head that he can turn on and off,” Terence Winter, creator of Boardwalk, jokes over the phone. “He’s such a nice, gentle guy. And then he can flick that switch, the eyes go dead, and it’s like, Oh fuck. That’s the guy.”
Williams’s willingness to reprise Omar, onetime muse for his own self-loathing, can seem superhuman. Unlike those in The Wire’s Baltimore, Williamsburg’s residents rarely cross the street to avoid him. As he stands on North 6th Street after lunch, a cross-section of fans file by. They only know him as Omar. A middle-aged man more old Williamsburg than new sidles up for a photo, shocked to learn that Williams lives around here. “You’re a bona fide hipster,” he jokes. Williams smiles and shakes his head. He knows what he’s not.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.