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Interview: Michael Kenneth Williams

We chat with the former Wire actor about his appearance on Community and the return of Boardwalk Empire.

While he's permanently etched into pop culture history as Omar Little from The Wire, Michael Kenneth Williams continues to make a name for himself with several new projects. We sat down with the actor to discuss his guest appearance in the new season of Community, the return of Boardwalk Empire and everything else that's keeping him busy.

What can you tell us about your appearance on Community this season?
I am really psyched about Community. It's a rare chance I get to laugh at myself. I play Professor Kane, who's a biology professor. He got his degree while serving time in prison. So, he's very intense, to say the least. I'm really enjoying the cast: Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong. Amazing people.

Were you familiar with the show before you were offered the part?
Very little. I had seen it. I didn't even know the name of it. I kept getting hit on Twitter. The producers and the writers kept asking me, would I consider being part of their Community. And I was like, "Are you asking me to be part of a cult or something?" So, I Googled and I saw two things. I saw paintball and Chevy Chase and I said, "Where do I sign up?"

After being so well known for dramatic roles, what was it like enter the world of comedy?
My type of comedy is you have to laugh at my pain. I don't have that gift. That comedic timing is not part of my skills. I love it way too much to try to fake it. What the cast of Community has done and the writers, they allowed me to come in and do what I do and they kind of bounced off of me and make me appear to be funny. But really, I'm just in some awesome company.

How does a set like that compare to the Boardwalk Empire set?
The Community set is very different than the Boardwalk set. Number one, it's very intimate, it's very humble, it's nowhere near as elaborate. All my scenes are spent in the classroom. We sit around and we crack jokes with each other, buy each other cups of coffee. It's a lot more grassroots.

When creator Dan Harmon was first talking about your character on the show, he was talking about infusing a bit Omar into the world of Community. Do you feel like that character follows you wherever you go, because he's so iconic?
Yeah, Omar follows me and it's a good thing. What an awesome role to be known for. I don't mind a little bit of Omar. He's with me in spirit.

What are we going to see from Chalky White in season two of Boardwalk Empire?
This season we're gonna see his family life, how he deals with that.  His insecurities that arise in dealing with them.I call that his crack in the armor. We also see his alliance to Nucky challenged greatly behind the stuff that Nucky gets into. He has re-align himself and decide, "Do I really want to still work with this guy? Or do I want to cut my losses?" You're gonna hear the word "trust" come out of his mouth a lot this season. His loyalty to his community is greatly in question and he has to use his ties to Nucky as leverage to make sure that his people are sought after properly.

How is the dynamic between Chalky and Nucky going to change know that the election is over and that leverage is gone?
The catchphrase for this season is "Know Who's Behind You" and that's well put. Chalky always knew he couldn't trust anybody but himself and now Nucky realizes that and they realize they have more in common with each other than they do with their communities.

How much research have you done to approach this character?
When I first came to the job [Terence Winter] gave me a stack of papers, but it was very informative. He also gave me the book, Boardwalk Empire. He let me know that Chalky was a real person. He was actually a boxer. He goes down in history as one of the hundred greatest hitters of all-time. I got with Mike Tyson and he told me that Chalky was actually from California. I just took those and mixed it with what I do and there you have it.

Do you approach a historical character, someone who actually existed, differently than you would a fictional character?
Yes and no. You have to breathe life into the character whether it's fictional or not. It's gotta be believable. For Chalky, the fact that he was a boxer and a black man in 1920, that that was something for me to draw on. What was his mindset going into the ring? He probably was fighting for his life, his very existence. Whereas, it's not as permissible and glamorous as it is today.

How much does the wardrobe help in getting into the mind of Chalky?
Wardrobe is the key. It's all about the clothes. You put the gear on, you're immediately transported to 1920. It's not hard to fake it. You don't have to fake it.

With such a big cast, there are plenty of people in this show that you never get to share a scene with. Is there anyone, in particular, that you really wish you could share the camera with?
I really would not mind doing a scene with Michael Shannon. But then, I'm scared because I do not want him to drown me. He's like the Omar of Boardwalk Empire. When you're doing scenes with him, you're probably gonna die. I'm a huge fan of Michael Shannon, I'd like to one day get to work with him.

You're very active on Twitter (@BKBMG), what's it like to have that intimate connection to your fans?
For someone that is social media challenged, I feel like a king having mastered Twitter. I can't tell you how much I love it. There's just something about it.

You have a production company now, as well. What made you want to get into the producing side of entertainment?
I came into the field of acting with the desire to produce. I came in saying, "I have a concept for a show!" They're trying to audition me for "Drug Dealer #3." My company's name is Freedome Productions and I'm very excited about the projects that I have in development right now. Mark Wahlberg is a great template for how I see myself in the near future. I have a home at HBO that I plan to utilize in the near future. I'm very excited about it.

Can you talk a little bit about your nonprofit work?
I'm on the Creative Board of Directors for Urban Arts Partnership. Rosie Perez is the face. She was the one who coaxed me into becoming part of the family. Basically, what we do is, we keep arts in the inner city schools of New York City. We do workshops. We do 24-hour plays. We have master classes. We have scholarships that we give away. Recently, the Black Eyed Peas, they joined forces with us with their building of the first academy. I'm also part of Sonja Sohn's—who played Kima Greggs on The Wire—she has an organization called ReWired for Change. They're doing some incredible stuff. Right now we're working on a township meeting. We're going to go around the country and have these panels and we're looking into the possibility of turning it into a reality show, if you will. And then I decided to start my own organization, called MKW, which stands for "Making Kids Win" and we're gonna build community centers in the hood.

Community premieres Thursday 7pm on NBC. Boardwalk Empire returns for its second season Sunday 8pm.

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