Michael Kenneth Williams has been involved in some of the greatest dramatic shows in television history, starting with his role as fearsome stick-up man Omar in David Simon’s seminal show “The Wire,” and continuing through “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire” and many more.
And this year, Williams has an abundance of riches: He’s entered in the Emmy race for his performances in Dustin Lance Black’s miniseries “When We Rise” and the Sundance series “Hap and Leonard,” as well as for hosting and executive producing the Vice investigative show “Black Market With Michael K. Williams.”
But it’s unlikely that any of those projects hit home quite as hard as did Steve Zaillian’s HBO limited series “The Night Of,” in which Williams plays Freddy, the kingpin among Rikers Island prisoners. He spent what he called “nine months of hell” shooting his scenes, most of them with Riz Ahmed as a young Pakistani-American student accused of murder.
“The toughest part about shooting ‘The Night Of’ for me was putting myself in the state of mind that one has to be in when they realize they are trapped behind those prison walls for the rest of their life,” Williams said. “And then the horror I felt when I got a glimpse into what the world must have been like for my nephew, who I based the character on.”
His nephew, he said, has been in jail since the age of 18, and “all of that kind of came crashing down on me” when he began working on “The Night Of.” The character’s drug use also brought back Williams’ own drug use in the aftermath of “The Wire.” “It picked at some old wounds,” he admitted.
All of this has made for a remarkable career for the 50-year-old actor who got his start in show business as a dancer and choreographer. Asked how he made the transition into serious roles, Williams pointed at the scar that starts on his forehead and travels down across his nose, the product of a barroom fight on his 25th birthday.
“This is for real,” he said with a laugh.
Watch the video above.