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Michael Kenneth Williams’s High-Wire Act

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Michael Kenneth Williams is best known as Omar Little, the gay stickup man he played for five seasons on HBO’s The Wire (who Barack Obama named as his favorite TV character). There’s also some of Omar’s charmed rootlessness in him. Eating lunch at the Peruvian restaurant Coco Roco in Cobble Hill, he mentions we aren’t far from Westinghouse High School, his alma mater—Williams grew up in an East Flatbush housing project, but his mother “didn’t want me going to my zone school, so she doctored the address on my form.”

Williams is an enthusiastic person. During the meal, he is enraptured, in turn, with his avocado salad, the variety of sauces that come with his side of plantains, and, especially the sangria (at regular intervals, he blurts out, “Man, that sangria is rockin’!”). More than anything else, however, he’s excited about his biggest film role to date, as the Thief in the just-released The Road. He went Method for the role. “I followed Viggo [Mortensen]’s cues. We didn’t wash, we didn’t cut our hair. No grooming. I smelled. I reeked.”

In person, Williams’s trademark facial scar is surprisingly less jarring. He got it during a fight outside a Jamaica Avenue bar on his 25th birthday. At the time, he says, “I thought I was gonna die soon.” He had recently been arrested twice for grand theft auto. “My mother had taken out extra life insurance. She was like, ‘You ain’t gonna stick me with no bill, you feel me?’ ” That night in the hospital, half-conscious, he fought off nurses attempting to stitch him up, repeatedly demanding a plastic surgeon until he got one. Soon after the injury healed, he began booking modeling and music-video jobs.

Williams was 35 years old and still living in Flatbush when he landed Omar, in 2002. But he didn’t manage his money well—at the end of the second season, he was evicted from his apartment in the projects. He moved to L.A., where he began to be cast off Omar (primarily for television work) but again ran low on funds. “I spent the rest of my money on a party with my little friends. I was ready to go back and hang out on my mom’s couch till The Wire started up again. But then I got the call for Trapped in the Closet.” Williams flew to Chicago to play police officer Sergeant James in several chapters of R. Kelly’s mini-opera. He supported himself on this paycheck throughout the rest of The Wire’s off- season and has been working steadily since. Back in town, he recently signed a lease on an apartment in Greenpoint, where he lives blocks away from the set of Boardwalk Empire, the upcoming Martin Scorsese–produced HBO crime drama about twenties Atlantic City, in which Williams has been cast as a character named Chalky White.

But Omar is the role that saved him: “I’m not afraid of typecasting; I’m afraid of not eating.”

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