Michael Kenneth Williams on ‘black men trying to make it’ in ‘Bessie,’ ‘Boardwalk Empire’ [Exclusive Video]

“Having played Chalky White definitely was instrumental in me getting into the mindset of Jack Gee,” says Michael Kenneth Williams about his respective roles in HBO’s series “Boardwalk Empire” and telefilm “Bessie.” “Their struggles were very similar: black men trying to make it in America. One was a bootlegger, and one decided that he was going to marry the woman of his dreams and use her as a vehicle to getting him a better way of life. In the same time-frame, it was do or die for both men.” (Watch our complete video chat below.)

Queen Latifah and Dee Rees

But “[blues singer Bessie Smith‘s] story is a little closer to the vest for me because she was an artist,” he adds. “Her pain, her struggle are definitely part of the reason that I stand here today. She opened doors for me.”

Queen Latifah plays Bessie in the biopic, and acting out scenes from Bessie and Jack Gee’s contentious marriage was especially challenging for Williams, especially a fight near the end of their relationship that “struck up a lot of memories of my past growing up, my childhood and my household, my mom and dad. Some of the arguments that Bessie and Jack would have were very similar in my household. So that particular scene was a portal for me, a time travel.”

Williams and Latifah’s relationship extends beyond the screen. They’ve been friends since they were teenagers. “I remember days when she would tell me, ‘One day, I’m going to get a record deal,’” he says. “I have those memories of her as kids, so to be working with her now in this space was definitely for me a dream come true.”

But success was far from guaranteed for the two of them: “We both come from very sordid pasts, her from Newark, New Jersey, me from Brooklyn. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to be here. A lot of people that we knew that we ran the streets with are either dead or incarcerated. So for us two to be at this juncture in our lives, on this level, this plateau, it’s truly humbling. I’m very grateful.”

Watch more exclusive Emmy interviews with
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Will Forte, Felicity Huffman, Finn Wittrock and more

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