In the last five years, Michael Kenneth Williams has built the character of Omar Little from a minor recurring role to the heart of The Wire, HBO’s dramatic series about life in Baltimore. Omar was a lone ranger stick-up artist content to rob drug dealers, Robin Hood-style, until his boyfriend was murdered, setting into motion years of vengeance and power plays.
Three episodes before the end of the series, which critics have widely praised as the best show ever made for television, Omar met his end in a corner shop killing at the hands of a young kid. Now the actor behind Bodymore’s most feared cowboy tells Out how he fell in love with Omar, what Barack Obama can learn from The Wire and how you move on after playing the role of a lifetime.
Out: Take us through the life of Omar.
Michael Kenneth Williams: The way I see him from the way he started to the way he ended this past Sunday — I think it should be a testimony to the view of Omar’s world. Although it was well-received, it was a very ugly world, a very dark world filled with a lot of pain. We got to watch him grow up a little bit. We got to watch him fall in love, and then toward the end of this last season we got to really see what he’s about. In the beginning, he was avenging his first lover’s death, and then it became about robbing dudes and making money. Then he fell in love again with Renaldo last season, and he seemed like he was happy. He made that big score and left for Puerto Rico. If they didn’t want to bring Omar back this season, I would have been fine, because I was happy that he would have lived to grow old. But then when he came back to Baltimore, we got to see what he wanted from Marlo and them. He didn’t want to rob them. He didn’t want to have no big shoot outs and stuff. He wanted Marlo to come out into the street, put his guns down, and have an old fashioned fight. We just really got to see what that OG code was about. I think that was his legacy.
What has been the legacy for you?
It meant a lot to me that the gay community felt I did the character justice. It meant just as much to me that when I went home to my hood in Brooklyn that my dudes, my people felt like, “Hey Michael, you’re looking good.” It meant just as much that the gay community received Omar and respected him and loved him just as much. I’ve got nothing but love and admiration.
Even before his death, it was so heartbreaking to watch Omar literally hobbled, limping down the street and begging for a challenge that he clearly wasn’t going to get.
It was like back in those old Westerns — “Showdown at Noon,” no gang members, no tricks up the sleeve. Just take it back to the old school. He was the last of a dying breed, and that’s what that really represented. It was ironic that he did get killed by the younger generation, because that’s what it’s about — the next generation and where they’re at and where they stand and how cheap life is to them. I hope that the viewers and the fans of the show — especially the youth — really walk away with a clear view of Omar’s life as nothing to want to aspire to be like. I think we all fell in love with him, because he was honest, he was open, he made no excuses, no apologies for who or what he was. And he told you where he stood with things, and never crossed those lines for nothing or nobody. But by the same token, those are some really dark situations to have to live with. I hope that’s what the kids walk away with — knowing that we don’t need no more Omars. Let’s mourn his kind, put him to rest, and let’s try and fix what’s wrong in our communities so that doesn’t have to happen again.
Omar often comes from this testosterone-driven place of revenge. Is that related to how his masculinity is called into question by other characters?
I totally agree — that was one of the first things I noticed with the scenarios the writers had put him in. I immediately made a decision not to play it like an alpha male. What makes Omar so volatile is that he’s so vulnerable. He’s extremely sensitive — and that’s what he and I share in real life. I’m a sensitive guy. I played with Omar with the same sensitivity and when you mix that with the storyline and his temper and you get Omar. I never wanted to play him as an alpha male — just someone operating in an alpha male world. There’s a lot of testosterone around.
The other contrast to that alpha male world is his relationship with Butchie. I always saw Butchie as his gay uncle.
That’s exactly what Butchie represented to him. Whenever I talk about him I refer to him as Uncle Butchie — not on camera, but I actually thought about even writing that into the script that he was Omar’s uncle. In the hood growing up, with the majority of homes broken and no male figures, that’s very realistic that you have a non-blood member of the family that you consider to be like your uncle — and Butchie definitely was that for him.
HBO released one prequel vignette showing Omar as a kid, but there’s a lot of other backstory we didn’t see. Were there other parts of Omar’s history that you developed in conversation with the writers or on your own?
His mom was never really around. She might have been a dope fiend — if you notice, his grandma raised him. There definitely was no father. I don’t know if many people know that he has a brother — No Heart Tony was his older brother, which is in the prequel and established in season one.
Let’s talk about the death scene. Did you want a big dramatic showdown, something like what Stringer had at the end of the third season?
I guess I knew it was coming one day. I wasn’t really shocked at how it went. If you look at the way David [Simon] and Ed [Burns] write — they don’t give you what you want. Everybody wanted this huge showdown and shoot out — you know bang, bang, bang! And that’s not what they give you. If I had my wish, he’d have stayed in Puerto Rico! I know Uncle Butchie wouldn’t have wanted him to come back to get himself killed like that. Uncle Butchie would have been like “Boy, don’t worry about me. You coming down to avenge my death ain’t gonna bring me back no way, so stay down where you at.” But it did hurt, I’m not going to lie. It did hurt. My heart broke.
Even Barack Obama is talking about how he’s a fan of your character. Why does it matter if a presidential candidate thinks Omar has something important to teach us?
That’s groundbreaking for a number of reasons. The fact that he has the courage to publicly embrace someone who’s openly gay — it was a huge statement and a huge step in the right direction to closing up that gap in the community. What really made me feel good about that was seeing the pride in my mom’s eyes. My mom has no desire to watch The Wire, but if you go to her house every TV is on this presidential campaign. She is a huge Obama fan. When I walked in the house, the pride in her eyes knowing I’d done something to gain his admiration on any level — it made me really feel good. I felt proud.
The Wire is a very political show, and not just in its storylines about City Hall. What lessons should we take away from it in an election year?
What’s wrong in our cities. I think that Sen. Obama’s campaign, the issue he addresses and the way he talks about them, is a direct reflection on what The Wire wanted to do. Of it’s course entertainment, but also edu-tainment. To quote my co-worker and one of my best friends, Wendell Pierce, “If you walk away from The Wire not feeling uneasy and disturbed, then we didn’t do our job.” It was a look into a world that has a lot of issues and a lot of problems. It’s going on in all our cities — white and black. You got a little bit of The Wire going on all over our nation. And it gave a voice to a people that normally go unheard, that nobody wants to hear about. When someone like Sen. Obama takes the time to watch The Wire, it makes me really hopeful that we did our job, that the message is out there. This is what’s wrong on our streets, in our cities, in our school systems — and it’s time for change.
Where do you go from here as an actor? How will you avoid the limited choices Hollywood usually offers black men, one-dimensional gangbangers and the like?
I won’t go there, that’s for sure. I’m just very hopeful. I’ve been given an amazing platform just from that character and from a network like HBO. I’ve got some great things in the can. I’m very proud of this role I just did with Spike Lee out in Tuscany, Italy, about the buffalo soldiers called Miracle at St. Anna. I just signed on for a post-apocalyptic story with Charlize Theron and Viggo Mortensen [Cormac McCarthy’s The Road]. I’m being asked to be amongst beautiful people in good roles. I always tell people that The Wire was like my college years. I never got a chance to finish school — I robbed myself of that opportunity growing up — and so The Wire represented my school days. At the end of every season, we have a wrap party and we always have a theme for it. Ironically, the fourth season, because of all the young people on it, we had a graduation complete with class rings, prom pictures, all of that. That was very symbolic of where I felt I was at personally and professionally in my life. And I’m ready to go forward now.