While critics and viewers have already fallen in love with HBO’s violent period drama Boardwalk Empire—from executive producers Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese—Sunday night’s episode took the show to a new level of pathos, expanding the universe of the show while deepening the characters significantly.
Easily the best of Boardwalk’s short run thus far, the episode explored the false lure of fairy tales, examining the—many spoilers ahead—rumor of missing Russian princess Anastasia Romanoff as a way of depicting the dashed hopes of Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the stars-in-her-eyes Hollywood dreams of prostitute Pearl (Emily Meade), and the glittering charms Gillian (Gretchen Mol) exhibited for the confused Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza).
“[Omar] was strictly in it for the thrill of the hunt.”
But the exploration of these emblems of loss was best summed up in the tragic backstory of Chalky White, the flashily-dressed black bootlegger played by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, who delivered a show-stealing monologue as he confronted the chief suspect in the lynching of Chalky’s young driver. Chalky reveals his carpenter father’s own haunting fairy tale and its dark ending, as he unfurls his “daddy’s tools,” and prepares to make this man talk.
Williams—a former street dancer, choreographer and model turned actor—is best known for his scene-stealing turn as Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire. Omar, a gay stickup artist whose brutality and cunning made easy prey of Baltimore’s drug dealers, was so popular that he quickly became a fan and critics’ favorite, and was named by President Obama as his favorite television character. Williams himself was named one of USA Today’s “10 Best Reasons to Watch Television.” The Daily Beast spoke to Williams about preparing for Chalky’s pivotal scene, the differences between this character and The Wire’s Omar, and what lies ahead for Boardwalk Empire.
The Daily Beast: How much of Chalky’s backstory did you know ahead of time? Were you aware of the backstory that was revealed in last night’s episode?
Michael Kenneth Williams: I didn’t know anything about Chalky or the Atlantic City boardwalk ... I did all my research afterwards. All I knew was that Chalky was the unofficial mayor of Chickenbone Beach, the black community [of Atlantic City] and that he was the ally of Nucky Thompson.
The Daily Beast: In Sunday’s episode, Chalky sits down in front of the Ku Klux Klan Grand Cyclops and fills him and the audience in on the tragic backstory of his father, a master carpenter who was lynched in Texas. How did you prepare for that monologue?
Williams: I don’t know what it’s like these days to live in fear of the Ku Klux Klan. At least not in my everyday life, but I imagine what it must have been like to live in those days. I channeled my ancestors, basically. I’m quite sure—especially on my father’s side—that I have relatives that had to go through that horror, whether they were lynched or some of their loved ones had gotten lynched.
I didn’t want to come off as cocky… I wanted [the scene] to be not just based on revenge, but based in justice. It was… definitely something where I came from a place of pain, not so much from anger. It was just a deep-rooted pain that needed to be dealt with. It’s more of a righteous [act]… He felt like that was justice.
The Daily Beast: Does that scene define Chalky White as a character? Do you think his father’s death defined him as a man? After all, he’s the intended victim of last week’s lynching.
Williams: Absolutely. He carries that pain with him. He made it his duty to not only not let that happen to him, not to go out like that, but to make sure that he did everything in his power to obtain the American Dream.
The Daily Beast: You played another memorable breakout character, stick-up artist Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire. Do you see Chalky and Omar as being similar or different to one another?
Williams: They are both driven by their code of ethics and have a [strong] moral code that they live very closely to. You’re going to see that come out more of Chalky, his loyalty and the way he does business. He’s not a backstabbing, ‘shiesty’ businessman. He has a code of ethics in the way he deals with Nucky and that will be cleared up further on down the season. That’s what [Chalky and Omar] have in common. What they don’t share is their reasons for doing things. Chalky by all means is a businessman and he is in it for the money, the power, the prestige, and the status. Omar didn’t give a shit about that. He was strictly in it for the thrill of the hunt.
The Daily Beast: In exploring Chalky’s relationship with Nucky Thompson, do you think that these two have a mutually beneficial relationship or is it based on mutual respect?
Williams: There’s a little bit of both. They both have a respect for each other, but they also have a mutual benefit. Nucky needs Chalky because he knows that he has a major influence in Chickenbone Beach. He needs the black community because the black community back then was responsible for like 30 or 40 percent of the voting population. As you heard Nucky say, this is an election year. He is a politician. Sorry, he is a politician/businessman/gangster/bootlegger. Chalky needs Nucky because he wants into that world. He wants the status and he knows by aligning himself with Nucky and doing business with him that he will be granted these things.
The Daily Beast: Chalky’s story conjures up the magical realm contained within his father’s bookcases. Is he much more pragmatic now, looking the other way for a 50 percent partnership with Nucky?
Williams: Chalky’s a businessman. Omar would probably have been like, all bets are off, and would have just stepped away from the entire deal. But Chalky realizes that doing business or not doing business with Nucky is not going to bring his driver back… The beauty of their relationship is that Nucky presented to him the bigger picture.
The Daily Beast: What lies ahead for Chalky White this season?
Williams: He’s determined. Don’t count him out, don’t count him out. I know the odds are all stacked up against him and you think it could be over for him or it just might not be. You can expect to see him go all out to achieve his dream.
The Daily Beast: You’ve had a lot of roles between The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, but how do your experiences on the two productions stack up?
Williams: Steve Buscemi is such a fine actor. He’s a hell of a guy, and very humble. I just enjoy being around him. People don’t know this but he’s extremely funny. I always tell him he could have another career if he ever wanted to be a standup comedian… Mike Pitt and I pretty much became brothers. I call him my brother from a white mother. We have a lot in common personally, and where we’re at in our personal growth as men. We share a lot of things.
It’s just a real blessing for me, [this] early in my career [after] The Wire, because we formed a family down there in Baltimore. I hate to say it, but you get to be among a cast like that and on a show like that once in a lifetime. You don’t get many of those in your career and for me to get two back-to-back great shows with two great casts of co-workers to work with? Lightning struck twice for me in the same place.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.