Every time he looks in a mirror, Michael K. Williams realizes how differently his life could have turned out.
The former star of The Wire and, more recently, Boardwalk Empire, admits there was a time when he ran with the wrong crowd on his home turf in Brooklyn – and the long, deep scar that winds down his forehead and right cheek serves as a reminder of bad decisions.
"If not for acting, I'd be rotting in my casket," says Williams, smoking a cigarette on a rooftop patio in Toronto. "The choices I was making as a young man and the lifestyle I was living were very risqué, let's say. Acting gave me an outlet, and new choices."
The scar, for the record, arrived on Williams's 25th birthday, when an assailant cut him with a razor in a bar fight. He's now 44 and came to terms with the event long ago. "It's not something I really think about much any more," he says, stubbing out his smoke, "but I always know it's there."
On this day, Williams is compact and natty in a white polo top, and far less imposing than the characters he's played on television. On the widely-praised The Wire, he created the indelible persona of Omar Little, an openly gay, shotgun-toting stickup artist who robbed drug dealers and sold their wares to other drug dealers. On Boardwalk Empire, he's menace personified as Chalky White, a bootlegger and de facto leader of Atlantic City's African-American community during the Prohibition era.
"I suppose there are some parallels between Omar and Chalky," he muses. "Both are men with a moral code they won't break. Both have street ethics they adhere to very closely. But Omar was a hunter, Chalky is a businessman. That's a big difference."
As for the actor: Williams is the youngest of 10 children from Brooklyn's tough East Flatbush neighbourhood. As a teenager, he sampled gang life and had a few brushes with the law. But the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever left a lasting impression.
"That was one of the first movies that really caught my attention," he says. "I remember identifying with the characters in the story and being impressed with the actors. It made me think, 'Wow, how cool would it be to do that for a living?'"
After high school, Williams studied business management and worked at a pharmaceutical company but left abruptly to pursue a dance career. He landed a job as a backup dancer on a tour with pop singer Kym Sims, which lead to appearances in music videos for Madonna, Shabba Ranks and other artists. It was while filming a video for George Michael that the dancer realized he could be an actor.
"The director was screaming at me – 'Emote! Give me pain!' Once I finally figured out how to do that, I knew I was onto something. It was like a light turning on in my head," says Williams.
His entry point into acting came in the 1996 feature Bullet, playing the younger brother of the late Tupac Shakur. Suddenly, Williams was a working actor with an agent and regularly going to auditions, including one for the dark 1999 feature Bringing Out the Dead, directed by Martin Scorsese.
"He was very nurturing to me as a young actor," recalls Williams, who played a drug dealer in the film. "I went in to audition for any one of three roles and I got the biggest one. Scorsese planted the early seeds that I had the ability to do this well. It made me feel good about myself."
Williams followed up with a steady stream of guest roles on TV series such as The Sopranos, Deadline and Third Watch before landing the role of Omar on HBO's The Wire in 2002. Series creator David Simon had originally booked the character for a seven-episode arc in the first season of the Baltimore-based drama. Instead, Omar stuck around for the show's entire five-season run, which was emotionally draining for Williams.
"I lived very deeply inside Omar for those five seasons," he says. "I drew on a lot of pain I had suffered over the years and I emulated the gangsters I grew up with in Brooklyn, the guys who terrorized our streets and our projects. I fused all that into Omar and it put me in a very dark place."
The Wire set a new standard for TV drama, and had more than a few high-profile fans. In early 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama made headlines when he told a reporter that The Wire was his favourite TV program, and Omar his favourite character ("He's the toughest, baddest guy on the show"). Williams is still reeling from the endorsement.
"That day stands out as a landmark in my life," he says with a smile. "The fact I had done something that had warranted the attention of the future President of the United States – and the feds were not after me – was very humbling. I felt like I did something right for a change."
Boardwalk Empire reunited Williams with Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode and serves as executive producer on the series. The show dramatizes events in Atlantic City during the 1920s, with most of the principals based on real people, including the power broker Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, and infamous figures such as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.
Williams's character Chalky does business with the mobsters, but has a decidedly different agenda. "Chalky's primary concern is making money, but he uses his business relationships to provide for his people," he says. "Unlike his bootlegging partners, he has to worry about the Ku Klux Klan, which makes him very cautious in his dealings. He don't trust nobody."
On a lighter note, Williams recently began a three-episode turn on the sitcom Community, where he plays Professor Kane, the new biology professor at Greendale Community College who has the students scared witless. The fact that Professor Kane earned his teaching degree in a correctional institute speaks volumes about his background .
"It's a nice break to appear on a comedy show, even if I'm still playing a scary guy," says Williams. "But I take every role at face value. They may be thugs in the eyes of society, but I approach each one as a human being, each with his own unique characteristics."
And when away from the camera, Williams is his own man. Home base is still Brooklyn, a stone's throw from the Boardwalk Empire set. Although he tweets incessantly (his handle, BKBMG stands for "Brooklyn Boy Makes Good"), Williams is the last person you'll see on a red carpet or in the tabloids. His private life remains private and he plans on keeping it that way.
"All the accolades and trappings of this business can be very seductive," says Williams firmly. "But for me it's easy to step outside it all. My whole life I felt like an outsider. Growing up, trying to fit in was a big part of my plight. Now all I have to worry about is trying to be myself. I stay in my lane."
Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada.