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‘The Night Of’s’ Michael K. Williams is hard at work with featured roles and a relentless quest

Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams, who first came to prominence on HBO’s “The Wire, " seems to be everywhere on the cable network these days, from his role as a convict power broker in “The Night Of” to host of the new Viceland series “Black Market.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Omar comin’. Omar here. Omar everywhere.

Well, not really. It just seems that way.

As aficionados of the landmark HBO series “The Wire” know, Omar Little was the lethal stick-up man operating in the projects of Baltimore. Toting a shotgun and whistling “A-Hunting We Will Go,” Little was so feared by thugs and civilians alike that just walking down the block would prompt children to cry out a warning, “Omar comin’!,” that would instantly clear the streets.

As played by Michael Kenneth Williams, Little became a signature figure of the drama — a gay antihero with a craving for Honey Nut Cheerios and a Robin Hood-like moral code. The role was a breakthrough for the Brooklyn-born actor who could identify with much of Little’s hard life — a long scar near his eye is a souvenir from a barroom fight in which he was slashed with a razor.

Little came to a predictably deadly end in “The Wire,” but Williams’ blend of dark-toned dynamics and simmering charisma has won him featured roles in several projects, including HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the Oscar-winning “12 Years A Slave.”

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But lately, the actor has been in overdrive, landing in more than a dozen films and TV series. That trajectory includes biopics (HBO’s “Bessie”), buddy comedy-drama (Sundance’s “Hap & Leonard”), comedy (IFC’s “The Spoils Before Dying”) and guerilla journalism (his current hosting gig on Viceland’s docuseries “Black Market With Michael K. Williams” ). He even shows up in the new “Ghostbusters.”

On Sunday, Williams returns to his frequent home as his character Freddy is introduced in the third episode of HBO’s acclaimed new drama “The Night Of.” It chronicles the story of young Pakistani American, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), who is plunged into a nightmare when he is accused of killing the beautiful girl he had sex with after picking her up in his father’s cab. Williams plays a power broker who takes a liking to the imprisoned Naz and wants to protect him as he awaits trial.

The eight-episode series, costarring John Turturro and based on the BBC’s “Criminal Justice,” offered Williams, 49, a chance to model a character on one of his nephews who is serving time. “He is literally a model prisoner. He inspires me. He does service, he’s got a degree,” he said.

“Black Market With Michael K. Williams,” which he hosts and executive produces and which currently airs on Viceland at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, zeroes in on the practice of illicit trade. Its six episodes include interviews and interactions with New Jersey carjackers and poachers of abalone off the coast of South Africa.

God, Buddha, Allah, whatever — I believe that a higher power has spared my life because there’s a bigger purpose for me.

— Michael Kenneth Williams

Starring in two projects at the same time has given the actor a palpable uplift.

“I am blessed — I feel blessed today,” Williams declared, attired in a stylish green suit and nursing an iced coffee on the rooftop of a West Hollywood hotel. He appeared relaxed after just flying in from Vancouver following the wrap of “When We Rise,” an upcoming ABC miniseries about the early days of LGBT activism.

Like many of his endeavors, Williams can identify with some of the participants featured in “Black Market.” When he was growing up, his family, including his mother, a first-generation Bahamian, was struggling: “The things my parents had to do just to get by, to make ends meet. It wasn’t sex, drugs, trafficking and creepy stuff. It was about people trying to survive.”

Survival, rather than building up his resume, is the main motivator for the deluge of projects Williams has undertaken. He’s on a mission — a relentless quest for salvation after years of wrestling with low self-esteem and self-destructive choices, including recklessness and rampant drug use.

“When I got bitten by the bug of show business, I was so broken and so shattered,” said Williams. “I’ve been spared so many times in my life. Whatever you want to call the higher power — God, Buddha, Allah, whatever — I believe that a higher power has spared my life because there’s a bigger purpose for me.”

Off-camera, Williams is a combination of soft-spoken cool and calm, a far cry from his edgy personas on “The Wire” and “The Night Of.” He interrupted a photo session to retrieve his cellphone and provide his own personal soundtrack for the shoot, courtesy of Swedish songstress Snoh Aalegra. (“I just love this,” he said with a wide smile of the catchy R&B-flavored groove.)

Before “The Wire,” Williams was a professional dancer, appearing in videos and on concert tours for such artists as Madonna and George Michael. He was discovered by Tupac Shakur and made his feature debut in the late rapper’s 1996 film “Bullet.”

Omar was everything I couldn’t be in my hood.

— Michael Kenneth Williams

“The Wire,” which debuted in 2002, was a life-changer for Williams, both professionally and personally. He felt he understood the outlaw life.

“He was an alter ego for me in a sense,” Williams said. “Omar was everything I couldn’t be in my hood — me coming up with low self-esteem and a deep need to be accepted. When people were telling me they loved Omar, more than likely, nine out of 10 of those people would be the same ones that called me soft-ass, punk-ass Mike when I was growing up.”

The role bought him fame and stature, but it also plunged him into a bleak tailspin.

“That job was the most money I made in my life,” said Williams. “But the darkness of the character weighed on my psyche so much that when the show ended, I was completely unequipped [to cope with that darkness]. I was hurting myself in every possible way you could imagine.”

He continued, “And it wasn’t always about doing drugs. It was negative company, negative places. I was dark-minded, bad decisions one after another. But someone was looking out for me because I never stopped working. I stay blessed to be continuously working. Otherwise I would have had no place to escape from the (negativity). I would have slit my throat. The ability to put all of this into characters was a lifesaver.”

“I can work on myself — like free therapy,” he said with a chuckle.

There’s a sense of gravitas about him. There’s a power about him that says everything without words.

— Screenwriter Steven Zaillian on Michael Kenneth Williams

Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Schindler’s List” who wrote “The Night Of” with Richard Price (“Clockers”) and directed several episodes, was not previously familiar with Williams’ work but was impressed.

“Michael has a very quiet intelligence,” Zaillian said. “There’s a sense of gravitas about him. There’s a power about him that says everything without words.”

Matt Piedmont, the co-creator of “The Spoils Before Dying,” IFC’s noiri-sh spoof, featuring Williams as a pianist-turned-detective investigating a murder in the 1950s, said he had a gut feeling that he could hold his own against seasoned comics like Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell.

“It’s very difficult for a dramatic character to come into a comedy situation and try to be funny,” said Piedmont. “But Michael stepped right up to the plate. It was out of his comfort zone, but he was right in there.”

Of the cavalcade of characters Williams has portrayed in the last few years, none has touched him more deeply than gay activist Ken Jones in “When We Rise.” Jones was a Vietnam vet who joined the gay liberation movement in San Francisco only to discover and confront racism within the gay community. Jones, who is HIV positive, organized services for homeless youth as he faced the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.

“‘When We Rise’ is the first thing I’ve done where I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch it,” said Williams. “I went so dark. I pulled things out of myself I didn’t know were in me. This will be a milestone of my life.”

He worked closely with Jones in creating the character, who praised Williams for his dedication.

“It was very important for Michael K. to tell the story accurately. He is a man of integrity and compassion. He lost about 35 pounds to portray me when I was very, very sick,” added Jones, who has regained his health.

Williams said he is still learning how to take better care of himself, becoming more involved with religion and taking advice from mentors such as Louis Gossett Jr. and Wendell Pierce. He is optimistic about his future.

“I’m in the process of transformation. As far as me being at peace with myself, it’s coming. I’m less concerned about what people think about Michael. I’m aiming for a better Michael, a more secure and comfortable Michael. It’s within reach.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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