Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2021

He has played Barack Obama's favorite T.V. character. He was listed by USA Today as one of the 10 reasons to still love television. He has garnered national acclaim for his portrayal of Omar Little on The Wire and now Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire.

He is Michael K. Williams, and he spent much of yesterday at the Hopkins campus.

Billed as the fourth speaker in the MSE Symposium, Williams spoke at the class, Baltimore and The Wire, and a subsequent seminar for film students in addition to the main event.

He spoke extensively on the subject of his life and the journey which he has taken to get to his current position of success within the television industry. He may be known for portraying one of the toughest characters in T.V. history, but the 44-year-old Brooklyn native is quick to point out that he wasn't anything close to Omar during childhood—despite growing up in the Brooklyn Projects.

"I was a soft kid when I was growing up, always trying to fit in where I could. One of my parents was Caribbean and one was American, and I would always try to dress like I was from one of those places," Williams said. "That was my problem, I was trying to fit in everywhere, but not trying to learn who the real Mike was."

In order to keep the ‘real' Mike at bay, Williams increasingly immersed himself in fantasy.

"That was my first addiction," he said. "An addiction to fantasy. To be anything but who I actually was. To be specific, I had a huge fixation on wanting to be Michael Jackson; I let my hair grow into a big afro and I tried to dance as much as I could.

"There was something in me that did not want to be real life."

When Williams hit his teenager years, his obsession with fantasy and need to feel accepted among his peer group in the projects led to a shift of interest to alcohol and drugs.

"I became the ‘party kid,'" he said. "When I was 13, I knew how to buy weed. They used to sell them in these little, like, manila envelopes. I still remember."

He skirted in and out of school, barely attending high school and spending many of his early teenage years high or drunk.

"Eventually, I realized how hard my mother was struggling, and how hard she worked. I didn't even know we were poor until I attend dance school and listened to my colleagues speak," Williams said. "That was when I decided to get my head together."

At 19, Williams decided to get his life back on track. He always had a knack for securing good jobs despite relatively little schooling and eventually landed work at Fisor Pharmaceutical.

"It was during this time, a relatively better part of my life that I saw this music video with Janet Jackson," Williams said. "This little nappy headed black kid running around this dark warehouse, totally lost. That was my life."

Inspired, Williams spent a year of his life "pounding the pavement," living in New York with no fixed home ("I slept a night in your house, a night on your couch," he said) and searching for any back-up dancing jobs he could find. He wound up working with Madonna and George Michael, among others, before he was noticed by Martin Scorcese.

"I got [the job] and I thought, Scorcese says I'm a good actor!" he said.

Much of Williams's tough guy appeal comes from his prominent facial scars which stretch over the right side of his nose and across half of his neck."This is called a smiley face," he said, point at the scar on his neck. "This is a half smiley face. If I got a full one I wouldn't be standing here right now."

He received the scars in a barroom brawl on his 25th birthday, when "I got involved in a conversation I'd usually stay away from," he said.

Omar Little, the Robin Hood of West Baltimore who appears in all five seasons of The Wire, is probably Williams's most prominent role.

"People get caught up in the character of Omar, but I wonder how many people actually stopped and put themselves in my shoes, and thought about how dark my state of mind must have been, to have made the role so believable," Williams said. "When I got the job, I thought to myself, Mike, get lost, it's Omar time!"

Throughout filming the first season of The Wire, Williams fell in love with Baltimore and moved down to the city for the shoot of the second season. But when season two had less of a focus than he expected on his character, he found himself lost and living a ‘double life' on and off the set.

"It's the grace of God that I didn't get arrested," he said. "I had idle time and too much time on my hands. I could have been dead. Several times over."

Although many of Williams's old problems began to resurface on and off the set as he "exorcised" some of his demons through his role as Baltimore's most famous stick-up boy, the actor realized just how desperate many kids in poorer socio-economic areas really are.

"I still remember that I was driving through Baltimore with a [cast member from The Wire shoot] and I saw this little kid all alone on a corner, holding this deflated basketball. The other guy in the car said, ‘This place has been redtaped,' he said. "I asked him, ‘what does that mean?' and he said, ‘this is the area that they don't care about.'"

This single incident sparked a desire in Williams to commit himself more towards service and helping the next generation.

"When the character of Omar died, I buried a lot of darkness with him, darkness that I hope is buried for good. But I don't want the next generation to have to deal with the demons that I had to face," Williams said. "How can we help the next generation? We don't want no more Omar."

To further his goal, Williams set up a charity called MKW (not, as he is quick to point out, an abbreviation of Michael K. Williams but instead short for Making Kids Win) where he advocates mentorship and betterment of kids from poor neighborhoods.

He began speaking to groups of kids, most of whom were in the same situation he was in as a child.

"Communication is the first step to progress. Getting these troubled kids to go through the pain and get past it is important. A Hopkins student can easily change the life of someone like that, just by listening to what he or she may have to say, and combining a Hopkins education with the experiences of a troubled youth," Williams said.These types of concrete baby steps are what he stresses as the most beneficial.

"Even just one Hopkins student taking an inner city student under their wing; that could make a major difference. The fact that a Hopkins student may not have had the same experience as this student makes no difference," Williams said in an interview after his speech. "The combination of experiences between the troubled child and educated Hopkins student can create a rewarding experience,"  

Williams's appeal for educated undergraduates to venture off campus and help with the community struck a cord with audience goers.

"Frankly, I had no idea what exactly to expect from his speech," senior Jonathon Mest said. "I hope that, after listening to his story and plea, that the student body is driven to action throughout the Baltimore community."

Freshman Anna Bellantoni agreed that Williams's story will resonate with her in the weeks following the speech. "I thought it was very interesting to learn that his character was drawn from real life experiences," she said. "I was not only impressed by his ability to create a character that was like a second skin to him but by the fact that it has become so loved by so many people."

Williams hopes that, over time, he can use the love for his iconic character to enact change in Baltimore and in all cities that suffer from wasteful urban crime.

"Baltimore is a beautiful city," Williams said. "But you got people in the hood who are dying.

"I'm not going to stop until there aren't anymore kids alone on street corners holding deflated basketballs."

 

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