Actor Michael K. Williams on Addiction, Recovery and Surviving Omar

By Paul Gaita 08/01/16

Williams says the "dark energy" he channeled when playing Omar Little on The Wire eventually drove him to cocaine addiction. 

Actor Michael K. Williams on Addiction, Recovery and Surviving Omar

The HBO crime drama series The Wire featured an abundance of memorable characters, but few attracted such widespread attention as Omar Little. As played by Emmy-nominated actor Michael K. Williams, Omar was an avenging angel of the Baltimore streets, brazenly robbing a dense and dangerous network of drug dealers while always staying one step away from its foot soldiers. As Omar, Williams earned two NAACP Image Award nominations and praise from not only numerous media outlets but also President Barack Obama, who described Omar as “the toughest, baddest guy on the show.”

But as Williams shared in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, the moral complexities of the character—a dangerous criminal whose homosexuality offered a sharp contrast to accepted notions of street toughness—left Williams with a “dark energy” after the cameras stopped rolling, and drove him to an addiction to cocaine that he combated through faith.

Williams had first sought consolation in the church after being molested as an adolescent. “I had a very low self-esteem coming up, and I just never felt like God loved me because I was dirty,” he said. 

He found a sense of purpose in performance, first as a dancer for Madonna and George Michael, before Tupac Shakur gave him one of his first acting roles in the 1996 film Bullet.

In 2002, he took on his role as Omar Little on The Wire, which thrust him into national attention. Williams said that his casting left him emotionally unmoored: “I didn’t feel worthy of opportunity like [the role], and when I was given this character, Omar, I could’ve used it as a tool, as a nurturing tool for myself.” Instead, he said, he used the role as a crutch.

That lack of self-worth caused Williams to sink deeply into Omar’s moral ambiguity, blurring the lines between character and performer. “I wasn’t going around robbing people or anything stupid like that, but I definitely wore that dark energy that Omar was … I just lived in that and that’s what people was attracted to,” he explained.

While filming the third season of The Wire, Williams felt broken by his addiction and emotions. “I was in jeopardy of destroying everything I had worked so hard for,” he said. In desperation, Williams turned to his faith, delving deeply into the services at Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, New Jersey. There, he was counseled by the late Reverend Ronald Christian, who was unaware of his television fame. “He says, ‘Why does everybody say Omar, Omar’s in trouble?'” recalled Williams. Rev. Christian was crucial in giving the actor the tools he felt he had lacked his entire life: a sense of acceptance and forgiveness for the events of his past. “It got me to want to become a grown man, to grow up and to stop acting foolish.”

A combination of meditation and prayer allowed Williams to separate himself from the intensity of his work, which has flourished in the years since his recovery. He earned a Screen Actors Guild Award for his turn as the gangster Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, and an Emmy nod for the HBO biopic Bessie. The last two years have been exceptionally busy for Williams, who currently co-stars in the Sundance comedy-drama series Hap & Leonard and the miniseries The Night Of on HBO. He’s also featured in the Ghostbusters reboot and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed, and hosts Black Market with Michael K. Williams for Vice Media.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.