From Backup Dancer To 'The Wire': How A Scar Transformed A Career
As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Before Michael Kenneth Williams played Chalky White on HBO's Boardwalk Empire and the infamous Baltimore stickup man Omar Little on The Wire, he was a dancer. He appeared in music videos starring artists like Madonna and George Michael.
Then, on his 25th birthday, everything changed.
"There was a popping party going on in Queens," Williams says. "I went outside to get some air, and I saw that two of my other friends were being surrounded by some dudes I didn't know."
Thinking his friends were about to get jumped, Williams told them it was time to go home.
That's when someone else approached Williams from behind.
"The dude wiped his hand across his mouth and ... smacked me," he says. "What he did was he spit a razor. He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get it between his middle finger and ring finger. And then he swiped me down my face."
That cut would leave a permanent scar.
"We managed to escape with our lives, barely, that night," he says.
After the attack, Williams' career took a different turn. Directors didn't want him to just dance in videos — they wanted him to act out thug roles.
"They were like, 'Mike, roll these dice in this video! Have this fight in this video!' I was like, 'All right!' " Williams remembers.
He was making a name for himself.
Then Tupac Shakur and Mickey Rourke were filming a movie in New York called Bullet. The production office happened to have a Polaroid picture of Williams, and Tupac himself selected Williams for the role of his little brother.
"I think he saw my pain, my struggle, my heart," Williams says. "I was starstruck. I was like, 'Wow, this is Tupac Shakur.' "
After filming Bullet, Williams booked roles on Law and Order and The Sopranos.
"I got a little high on the horse," he says. " 'I ain't going to LA, LA is going to send for me. My phone will be ringing any minute now.' "
But that never happened. Williams saw his acting career slipping away.
"I was down in the dumps. I got really depressed," he says. "Like, really depressed."
Then, months later, Williams received an unexpected fax outlining a character in a new show called The Wire.
It was the part for Omar Little.
"I got to grow with an amazing group of people that I consider my Wire family," Williams says. "That character changed my life. And that was my big break."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's time now for the latest installment of our series, My Big Break, about triumphs, big and small. You know Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" or stick-up man Omar Little on "The Wire." But before Williams was an actor, he was a dancer in music videos starring artists like Madonna and George Michael.
MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS: I was doing a bunch of videos. You know, just dancing background. But, then, on my birthday - on my 25th birthday, I got cut in my face in a barroom brawl. There was a popping party going on in Queens.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: Went outside to get some air, and I saw that two of my other friends were being surrounded by some dudes, who I didn't know. And it looked like they were get jumped. And I said, yo, I'm ready to leave. Let's go back. I want to go back home now. But this one dude kept pacing behind me. He kept walking behind me. He kept, like, (hissing). You know, like, sucking his teeth. And I'm looking - I'm like, yo, so what's up, dude? Yo, bro, what's your problem?
And the dude wiped his hand across his mouth and just - what I thought - it appeared to be to smack me. But what he did was he spit a razor. He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get it between his middle finger and his ring finger. And, then, he just went and swiped me down my face. And this cut in my face was actually the first hit of the fight. (Laughing). So we managed to escape with our lives barely that night.
Things changed immediately after that. Directors didn't want me just to dance in the videos anymore. They wanted me to act out these thug roles. You know, it is like, Mike, role these dice in this video. Have this fight in this video. I was like, all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: Tupac Shakur was filming a movie in New York called "Bullet," opposite Mickey Rourke. And the production office that they were working out of in New York happened to have a Polaroid picture of me from me going to audition for some various music video. So he happened to see a Polaroid picture of me and was like, yo, this dude looks thugged out enough that he could play my little brother. I think he saw my pain, my struggle, my heart. I was just, like - I was star-struck. You know? I was like, wow, that's Tupac Shakur.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BULLET")
TUPAC SHAKUR: ( As Tank) If you was half as smart as I thought you was, package boy, you'd be minding your (bleep) business right now.
MICKEY ROURKE: (As Bullet) Hey, we know all about your little hot-shot...
WILLIAMS: Tupac was larger than life. I spent a lot of time just listening to him and watching hi, 'cause I learned so much. He's that kind of person. Like encyclopedia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL EYEZ ON ME")
SHAKUR: (Singing) 'Cause all I want is cash and things. A five-double-oh Benz. Flaunting flashy rings.
WILLIAMS: I shot that movie still dancing, and I had booked a major supporting role on "Law And Order." I had booked a major supporting role on "The Sopranos." So, you know, I got a little high on the horse. You know, yeah, I'm cool. I ain't going to L.A. L.A. going to send for me. You know what I mean? So I, like, thinking, my phone will be ringing any minute now.
And it didn't happen, and I got really financially strapped. My mom opened up a daycare in the projects where we lived. So in 2000, she was like, why don't you come work in the daycare? You know, I'm paying your rent anyway. You might as well earn it. So I said, ma, you know, I want to give this acting thing one more shot. It doesn't work, I'm done. It's me and you. We're changing Pampers, baby.
My phone did not ring. And, man, I was down in the dumps. I got really depressed, like, really depressed. And, then, March came, and one day, she called me. She said, you've got a fax downstairs here. I went downstairs, in her office, and it was the breakdown for Omar from "The Wire" on HBO.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Lawyer) State your name for the record.
WILLIAMS: (As Omar) Omar Devone Little.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Lawyer) And what is your occupation?
WILLIAMS: (As Omar) I rip and run.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Lawyer) You...
WILLIAMS: (As Omar) I robs drug dealers.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Lawyer) Mr. Little, how does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it?
WILLIAMS: (As Omar) Day and time, I suppose.
I got to grow with an amazing group of people that I consider my "Wire" family. That character changed my life, and that was my big break.
RATH: That's actor Michael Kenneth Williams. We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at MyBigBreak@NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.