Photo and Article by Dorri Olds
Michael Kenneth Williams is best known for his breakout role as Omar Little on TV’s “The Wire.” You might also know him as the 1920s bootlegger Chalky White on “Boardwalk Empire.” Now you’ll get to see him in “Kill the Messenger,” one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. Williams plays “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a cocaine trafficker in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Williams joins an amazing cast headed by Jeremy Renner who plays Gary Webb, an investigative journalist who broke the story that the CIA allowed Contras to smuggle cocaine from Nicaragua into the U.S. Webb accused the Ronald Reagan administration of protecting inner-city drug dealers to keep the money flowing to the Contras.
Michael Cuesta directs and Peter Landesman wrote the screenplay. The cast includes Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper and a Ray Liotta cameo.
Williams came from a tough background. There are a lot of drugs and alcohol in his story. When he was 25 he mouthed off to the wrong person and got his face slashed. He has said if he hadn’t been drunk he would’ve had better judgment. What’s interesting is that his scar helps him when he’s playing bad guys.
Williams likes to give back to the community to share his success. His company Fredome Productions has five films in the works and Williams said he is psyched about helping people who he thinks are talented. He has also created the nonprofit organization Making Kids Win whose mission is to create safe places for children to play in underprivileged neighborhoods.
It was exciting to sit down with Williams to talk about his role in “Kill the Messenger.”
Dorri Olds: Is it true that you became friends with drug kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross?
Michael K. Williams: I speak to him more than we hang out because he lives in L.A. I got a lot from him. When I first read the script and after speaking to him I wanted to fill his character out a little more. He is just the most nicest guy, well mannered and I spoke with the writer and director. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t come across as one noted because he’s not. This is a man who wanted to become a tennis player, very soft-spoken, friendly, warm, inviting. His persona that he’s known for doesn’t speak to any of that, but that’s really who he is.
Rick Ross may be an anomaly in terms of drug dealers. Do you think drugs dealers get a bad rap in movies?
Yes, I do actually. I think the drug dealer gets a bad rap in society. Last I checked they don’t grow cocoa leaves in the hood so where’s it coming from? So with Rick Ross, I’m not making excuses because at the end of the day we still have choices so I’m not doing that at all. But at the end of the day if you take a man like Rick Ross who was allowed to float through the Los Angeles school system without being taught to read or write. He clearly had a talent. He excelled in tennis and there were scholarships on the table. They were talking about scholarships for him to become a tennis player. When they found out that he was illiterate it was all snatched away. So you have an 18 year old young black male in the inner city, underserviced communities of Los Angeles, no education, no money, no job opportunities and then the streets are flooded with crack cocaine and crime, what would you do? That’s the real question. So, yeah, I think the drug dealer gets a bad rap all across the board. I’m not making excuses for them but I feel their pain. Like Jay Z said, “Whistling dimes because we ain’t doing fine.”
Have you ever been asked to play a film with Don Cheadle as his brother?
No, I have not but I would jump at the opportunity.
It would be a good match.
I think so. We’ve worked together in a film that Antoinne Fuqua did, “Brooklyn’s Finest.”
All the black men die in that movie!
You know, unfortunately, that’s the harsh reality of my community.
“Kill the Messenger” opens Fri., Oct. 10, 2014. Crime thriller. Rated R. 112 min.
Watch “Kill the Messenger” trailer:
Watch an excerpt from this interview: