HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – Michael Kenneth Williams (Albert “Chalky” White)
Q: Did you ever think, back in Season 1, that Chalky would be in the position he is in? His ascendance has been quite remarkable.
MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS: I never go into any situation expecting anything. I just take it one day at a time, and I am very grateful to see where Terry Winter has taken the character. They have surrounded us with some awesome talent – this year, we have Jeffrey Wright too – I couldn’t be in better company. And, of course, Steve Buscemi – you get to see our character’s relationship over the span of four years, to where we are at now, with these characters, it’s amazing. Nucky said he’d help Chalky get this club, and he did, he kept his word, and it’s exciting.
Q: Would you say that Nucky is rather in Chalky’s debt now, after the events at the end of Season 3?
MKW: I don’t think that Chalky and Nucky look at it as him being in debt now – I think they view it as doing something for your friends. I think now they consider themselves as more than just business allies – they are friends now – and you want to help your friends. There was a scene when they were hiding out, and Nucky asks Chalky something, and Chalky says: ‘I will go with you down the road a mite further’, and that’s not just about the money.
This year, we see they talk to each other differently now – they don’t have to be dancing around on eggshells. If they are mad at each other, they are mad, and it’s all out there. One minute they are cussing each other, the next they are laughing. So we see that their friendship has definitely blossomed.
But what happens too that is that Dr Narcisse puts a terrible strain on that relationship. He comes to town with a tremendous amount of drama, and Chalky wants to go to war, but Nucky does not want any more problems, and that causes a strain on their friendship.
Q: What does Chalky want now? From the outside it looks like what he really wants is respectability.
MKW: Absolutely – that is Chalky’s biggest desire – he wants to be respected as a man, and he wants to be able to show his people, show his community, that yes, we can. They don’t call him the mayor of the black community for nothing.
He’s not just power-hungry or greedy for money – he wants respect for himself and for his community.
Q: It sounds like Narcisse does too, but perhaps has a very different way of going about it..?
MKW: Absolutely. Dr Narcisse has a different way – they do things differently. And the dynamic between Chalky and Dr Narcisse is very interesting, because it goes on in the black community.
Q: How much did you know about the time period before you started playing Chalky?
MKW: I knew a bit about it, but I wasn’t an expert, and I am definitely learning a lot. I didn’t know that the Klu Klux Klan was so prominent in the north, for example, which is something we dealt with in season 2. I always equated that with the South. It’s like a history lesson every day.
Q: Is Chalky based on anyone real who actually lived?
MKW: There was a real Chalky White, and he was a boxer. He was a black man from the West, and he goes down as one of the hundred greatest hitters of all time. He wasn’t a bootlegger or lived in Atlantic City, but we have his name.
Q: You are from Brooklyn originally; do you enjoy filming locally?
MKW: I live a whole ten blocks from the studio. But when they cast me, I was technically homeless. I was just living on friends’ couches all over the place, corporate apartments; sometimes I would stay with my kids. I was working so much that I didn’t take time to try to set up a foundation. So when Boardwalk came along, and I new it was going to be more stable, I was like: I’m going home. And I moved back to Brooklyn. I’m in Williamsburg now.
Boardwalk Empire is such a win-win, on so many different levels. It brought me back home – these streets raised me. And I am doing great work, and it’s steady.
I could not have asked for a better situation, not at this point in my career right now.
Q: What would you be doing right now, if acting hadn’t come along?
MKW: I would probably be in a lot of trouble. I was lost; I couldn’t focus on anything before this, before acting. There is a likelihood I would probably be dead – that’s the harsh reality. These scars are not make-up. I was out there, just lost, not grounded, I had all this energy and nothing to do with it.
Q: Do you ever find parts of the show a little difficult to play, because there are elements that resonate with your own life?
MKW: The things that are hard to play are when they write something that cuts close to home. And it can be the quietest scene, the most intimate scene. There is a funeral scene in this season, and we went for rehearsal, and it looked like my father’s funeral, and I started crying. I had to get up and leave. I am getting choked up just thinking about it right now. It was too much, and I didn’t expect it, I wasn’t ready for it. It was such an involuntary reaction – I was like, this s*** is too f***ing real. And I had to excuse myself and just drop some tears. Those quiet moments, when the writers ask me to pull on things from my past, that jolt me in a different direction, those are hard.
Q: How do you leave that sort of emotion behind at the end of the day, and leave Boardwalk Empire behind?
MKW: When I am doing the season, I don’t fully come out of character. It’s like I kind of leave one sock on. It just makes it easier for the next day at work. It might be something as simple as the fact that I will leave my moustache the way he wears it, I won’t grow my beard out. I will always leave some remnant of Chalky on when the show is in production.
But when it is time to unplug completely, it is getting around family – my kids – we laugh and talk about everything except Boardwalk Empire. It’s an intense show, and you need to release it. I had a hard time back on The Wire, because I didn’t know how to do that back then. And it wears on you.
Q: Do you ever get tired of people wanting to talk about The Wire?
MKW: Oh no, no, never. I will never get tired of talking about The Wire.
I will be proud of The Wire until they call me home, until they drop my casket.
Anyone wants to take my picture or call me Omar, I will always want to talk about it. It made my career.
Q: Is there anyone in particular that you would like to work with who you haven’t yet?
MKW: I would love to work with Quentin Tarantino. I was up for Django Unchained, but it was a scheduling thing. I would love to work with him one day, and the Coen Brothers.
Q: Why do you think audiences are so endlessly fascinated by the gangster genre?
MKW: America was built on violence – we created the gangster, and we have always been fascinated by the persona of the American gangster.
Q: What would you like for Chalky in seasons to come?
MKW: I would like Chalky to live to see what Atlantic City becomes in its heyday, pre Vegas. I would like for him to be around and be part of Atlantic City when it was popping.