Interview With Michael Kenneth Williams
In Episode 4, Chalky interrogates the local Klan leader and we learn the story of his father's lynching. What were your thoughts when you first read that scene?
It was very powerful. I immediately wanted to figure out how I was going to approach it. I decided I didn't want to play Chalky as angry. Didn't want to play cocky. I wanted to play it from a place of pain. Chalky is a man that saw his father swinging from the tree. I can't imagine what it must have been to live in those times. And I wanted to play the scene from there: With that deep, deep, deep-rooted pain, when it crosses being angry into that dead calm.
In what ways do you think his father's lynching influenced who Chalky has become?
It absolutely drives him. I think from that point, he was determined to make sure that never happens to him, and to get his slice of the American Dream. He wants a slice of the pie.
Did you do anything different to prepare for this scene than for others?
I have my usual routine of things that I do, but for that scene, I tried to channel my ancestral energy. My father being from the South, I'm quite sure there are people in my bloodline that have experienced that and I basically wanted to channel that energy.
What is your usual routine?
It's spiritual. You have to be still. You gotta meditate. Listen to music. I call on my ancestors. It's a spiritual aspect for me to deal with something that deep.
You mention in one of our "Creating the Scene" videos from Episode 3 that you would sometimes sit in a corner on the set of Chalky's warehouse, taking in the details. Does that help you get into character?
Absolutely. It makes me one with the room. It puts me there. It's not a set anymore. It's my space. It's like you go through a time zone, if you will. If you be still long enough, you kind of absorb the room. You become part of it. You cross that line where it becomes real to you.
"I ain't building no book case" is such a great line, and moment.
The line brings home what I said earlier: You ain't gonna do me like you did my father. I'm not going down. In fact, I'm gonna do you like you did my father. The undertone I had definitely came from that. It was homage to his father.
How was it to shoot that scene?
It wasn't a lot of takes. I prepared with my theater director Mel Williams, and we beat that up for a few days. So when I walked on set I was pretty much there already. That's everybody in the cast - we come prepared but I wanted to be extra prepared because I was very excited about the scene. That's the biggest speech of my career thus far and I didn't want any bloops and blunders going on. And if there were, I didn't want 'em to be on my behalf.
Why does Chalky give Dinler's finger to Eli?
Chalky's not sneaky. You know - "Never throw a stone and hide your hand." He lets him know: It's what I did. He's not cowardly with his actions. He's basically telling Eli, I got my information - trust me, this man's telling the truth.
Chalky doesn't seem intimidated by Nucky - he drives a hard bargain. What do you think gives him the confidence to take on Atlantic City's most powerful guy?
I don't know that he's confident or cocky or anything of that nature. It's a drive more than confidence. Chalky's determined to have something in life and he will have no one get in the way. He's working with the tools that he's been given. He didn't go to the best colleges and that kind of stuff but he's got a great business edge and he's street smart. You put those two together and he's like a drug kingpin of today - like a Supreme from Queens. He sees a white man and says "Why do you just gotta have that? I want that too."
Chalky is a flashy dresser.
It speaks to his determination to be a part of the boys club. The men that he does business with, they all dress like that. Look at Nucky: He's dressed to the nines. Chalky does that but he does it as a black man. He's got a great sense of style. That red coat: He knows that's gonna look great on his skin. It's a little of that Harlem Renaissance flavor coming out of him. It's a determination to have the best.
Did you have any qualms or concerns about doing a period piece?
No qualms. No concerns. Period pieces have been my favorites. My first period piece was a film called 'Lakawanna Blues' and ever since I pretty much got bit by the bug. There's something magical about going back in time.
What is the magic?
You get to tell a slice of history. By doing the research you get to see what people were like at a time before we were here. It's revealing. It's special. It's like a history class. You get to learn and get paid doing it. I tend to like those old stories, especially the black stories. We've seen times change so much over the past 50-60 years with civil rights, and musically from jazz to hip hop, and how we've elevated as a people. It's good to go back and remember what it was like. It makes me humble and grateful for people who walked before me. I'm here on the shoulders of a lot of hard work, a lot of pain and blood, sweat and tears. It's paying respect.
Any predictions for Chalky?
Nah, it's early in the game. But don't count him out.