Michael Kenneth Williams is a smooth criminal

By Hannah Tattersall

In Boardwalk Empire, Michael Kenneth Williams of The Wire again plays a defining underworld character. He talks to Hannah Tattersall.

Michael Williams took inspiration for his Chalky White character from several of his relatives.
Michael Williams took inspiration for his Chalky White character from several of his relatives.

Michael Kenneth Williams walks into the room wearing a black leather jacket. He is relaxed, funny and exudes cool. Williams has just wrapped season four of award-winning series Boardwalk Empire in which he plays Albert "Chalky" White, a racketeer and unofficial leader of Atlantic City's African-American community.

With a bigger role in that show this season and with a host of movies set for release, the actor is in a good place.

A former dancer, Williams' career took off when he got fired from a music tour. He had good reason: he skipped the tour to appear in a music video for Madonna. That led to a George Michael music video in which he was asked to show pain and "emote".

"When I realised I was actually acting out words, the lightbulb went on and from that video I started calling myself an actor," he says. "And the rest is history."

He is best known for his dynamic turn as openly gay gangster Omar Little on The Wire. US President Barack Obama wasn't alone when he called Omar his favourite character on the show.

These days, it's Boardwalk Empire that Williams is getting recognition for. Williams' Chalky White, is an ally of gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and the runner of this own boardwalk nightspot, the Onyx Club.

Season four is set in 1924 with the Harlem Renaissance movement a new focus. If the theme of season three was women's rights, then this season the emphasis is on race relations.

"Racism is still very prominent," says Williams. "No blacks are allowed to patronise the club. You can only work there if you are a porter or an entertainer. "Chalky owns the club and is mostly living the dream. He had a vision and he got to see it through but he still has to play by a different set of rules because he's a black man."

The show also takes a look at the emergence of the first black Civil Rights leaders and friction between different classes of African Americans. New character Dr Valentin Narcisse from Harlem (Jeffrey Wright) poses a threat to Chalky by being a more educated player in the black community.

Williams says he looked to his own family for inspiration in developing Chalky - in particular, five men who are now deceased. "His swagger and the way he works a suit is like my Dad; when he's with his kids and his daughters, that's my Uncle Jay. He's sarcastic like my Uncle Tommy, he would kill you like my Uncle Par and that snarl, that take no nonsense attitude came from my godfather Junior ... I pulled from those things and I formed Chalky."

Williams has spoken openly about growing up in a violent neighbourhood rife with drug use and has admitted to being addicted to cocaine and marijuana while filming The Wire. He has a scar on his forehead from a barroom brawl on his 25th birthday which he says almost cost him his life. But these days he has found peace with himself and is looking forward to whatever is thrown his way.

"Right now I'm just riding the wave and I like the bad boys but my goal is to keep working," he says. "This project is good writing and the cast is great, I just want to constantly surround myself with good people and good writing."

Nevertheless, it's unlikely the Brooklyn native will ever shake his most famous role. "Out of 10 people that speak to me in the street, seven to eight of them say 'Omar'," the actor says, laughing. "Two to three of them say 'Chalky' and maybe every, like, leap year someone will say 'Michael Williams'."

Who: Michael Kenneth Williams as Albert "Chalky" White
What: Boardwalk Empire, series four
Where and when: SoHo Mondays 8.30pm

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