Michael K. Williams (‘When They See Us’) on how the series ‘woke up a lot of my trauma’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Michael Kenneth Williams is one of many standout actors on “When They See Us,” Netflix’s limited series about the Central Park Five. Williams, a two-time Emmy nominee, plays Bobby McCray, father to one of the Central Park Five, Antron.

Williams recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about how close to home “When They See Us” felt, working with director Ava DuVernay and how he hopes people take action after watching the series.

Gold Derby: Michael, you’re a native New Yorker. Did you remember following this case closely as it was happening?

Michael Kenneth Williams: Yes, I do remember it. I don’t know how closely I followed it. I was living my own version of being an at-risk youth myself in Brooklyn. I do remember the tone in my household was, “Something is just not adding up.” I also remember the fear of not wanting to be lumped into that category. I didn’t wanna be generalized with them. I remember the fear of, “Am I gonna be next?”

GD: I think you were a few years older at the time you would’ve been than the actual Central Park Five were.

MKW: 21, 22 when that happened.

GD: Did that make it hit even closer to home, the idea that there but for the grace of God go I, that sort of thing?

MKW: It absolutely brought it closer to home. Again, I was not living my best life. I was very tormented at that point in my life, struggling. My family was just as uninformed about the process of how things worked within the system. That could’ve easily been my mom and me in that interrogation room. We were just as ignorant. We didn’t know what our rights were. I still don’t really have a full understanding of what that means. God forbid if that should happen to me and one of my children today.

GD: It’s one thing to empathize with these teenage children who were put in this terrible situation but you have to play one of their fathers who actually finds himself having to convince his own son to lie to the police ‘cause he feels like that’s the only way out of it, to tell them what they wanna hear. What was it like putting yourself in that mindset of that father who thought he was doing the right thing for his son and for his family to keep them all safe but it ended up turning against him?

MKW: That was a very painful place to be. Just for any human being, you don’t turn your back on people that you love who are struggling whether it’s your kid or not. They’re going through tough times. That’s the time when family should be there. Bobby McCray on paper looks like he made a really bad choice, like when the going got tough, he got going. That’s what he did. That’s what happened. However, I chose to dig deeper and find out what drove him away. I can’t believe that he just said, “Deuces.” I got to speak to his wife and Antron’s mom who just recently passed. She never got to see “When They See Us.” She spoke about her husband with such love and admiration and compassion. There wasn’t even any room, no need for forgiveness because she never even went to a place that warranted forgiveness. She just focused all her energy on bringing her son home. When everything was done and said, she went to look for her husband and she knew that he was sick and she insisted that he come back home. For her to exhibit that kind of love and compassion for him as a human being, what right do I have to play him so stereotypically? For me, I think when Bobby realized that he was used as a pawn, when he realized that he was the nail in the sealing of his son’s coffin, I think that guilt, that anger, that frustration, that shame, drove him away. I truly believe that he thought his family would be better off without him.

GD: The actual men who were convicted and exonerated, they have been speaking with the film, they were involved with the film. At what point did you meet the real Antron McCray? How closely did you work with him over the course of creating this character that’s so important to his life, his own father?

MKW: We had the pleasure of meeting these five men on the table read the first day of work. That was emotional for me. We read the first two parts, I think, and we were at the scene where the verdicts were being read and Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise, was erupting as he does in the courtroom. So he was giving such a convincing performance at the table read that I started to get emotional. I remember saying to myself, “Don’t be a punk. Don’t cry at the table read.” He was sitting to the left of me. I turned my head to the right to not look at him and I catch eyes with the real Korey Wise, who was just waiting for me as if he was waiting for me to turn around and look at him and he just sat there with tears streaming down his face, just stoic, and I just took my baseball cap and I sat back from the table and I did the same thing. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Antron, he’s not a very vocal person. He’s a firm believer, “If I can say it in three, then why use five?” As you can imagine it’s very painful for him to bring up. We spoke. I could tell right of the bat he would rather not really speak about it but he gave me what I needed to hear from him. He was very forthcoming as best as he could. It was his mom, Miss Linda, that I had the pleasure of speaking to her before she passed. I got most of my gold from her and the way she talked about him with all that love. It was very humbling. I chose to go with that.

GD: The way this story is told, you’re playing this character at two different time periods with two different actors playing Antron, Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo as an adult. What was it like developing that relationship onscreen with those two actors playing that one character and also for yourself trying to find that character in both different time periods, what has changed, how he’s grown, how he’s changed?

MKW: Most of my connection and scenes were with Caleel. The goal for me in regards to my scenes were with him. By the time… I’m blanking on the actor’s name, forgive me, we didn’t have that much time together to have that. The energy, the tension in the scene was Antron had already shut down in regard to his dad. However, with Caleel, there were multiple things happening. I saw myself in him. Some of the conversations that he and his dad were having in regards to finding the truth, it resembled conversations of my mom and I. I’m a product of a single-parent home. He just brought so much honesty and so much strength. That kid, Caleel, I told him the other day, I said, “I’ve been acting longer than you, I may know more than you, it doesn’t work like that. It’s about connection. It’s about finding the truth. Whoever gets to the truth first can bring your partner in and you share that.” That’s what this is about for me. It’s not about, “I’m older or I’ve been doing this longer.” He just brought it. I really enjoyed working with him and seeing myself in him. It was crazy, like a surreal type of experience.

GD: The two of you have one of the most emotional scenes in the series in the interrogation room where he’s trying to convince his son to lie and confess to the crime he didn’t commit. What was that scene like to film? Was that one of the most difficult scenes to shoot and how did you decompress after that?

MKW: Oh, please. Nothing hard at all. That was just the first day at work. I can do that. I almost freaked out. That was the first day of the production. I think that was the first scene of the first day of the production. A little pressure. Again, I couldn’t have gotten there without him, without Caleel and Ava’s tutelage. She’s a master at her craft and for that to be the first thing that she chose to crack the can open with, it said a lot about the rest of the journey. I said, “Okay, Mike, if this is Day 1, put your seatbelt on ‘cause you’re going down the rabbit hole of emotions,” and we did.

GD: Starting with that scene, once you had that under your belt, did it feel like you had gotten the hardest part out of the way?

MKW: No, not at all. In fact, it was the opposite. It’s the story content and what it brought up for me in my personal life. This journey woke up a lot of my trauma, trauma that I chose to forget and trauma I didn’t even know I had. It didn’t get easier. In fact, it got harder. I had to look at things I didn’t want to look at in my past and feel things I didn’t wanna feel from my past I’m still working through. It didn’t get easier.

GD: Ava DuVernay seems to have such care with her actors and especially with subject matter like this. I heard she had crisis counselors on-set to talk to the actors and crew if they needed. Was that something that you felt like you needed to take advantage of?

MKW: I probably still need a counselor. No, I didn’t use the grief counseling. That’s part of the sickness for my community. Men of color, we’re not allowed to go to therapy or talk about our feelings. “Just stuff it and move on.” I almost died doing that crap. I probably should’ve explored that and see what that looks like for my own personal reasons. However, I did pour into Ava. There would be scenes before she would call, “Action,” I’d be like, “Ava, come and talk to me for a minute. When I was 13 years old…. And I remember….” And she’d be like, “Okay, Mike, you okay?” I’d be like, “Yeah, man. It’s just bringing up all these memories.” And she would just hug me until it went away and then we’d go back to the set and we would hit it. I’m almost certain that I’m not the only one that was doing that with her. She took it all in. She wore it like a champion, like a warrior, and she just used it and put it right back into the filming. Genius, in my opinion.

GD: As emotional as something like this is to film, have you had a chance to watch the whole thing since it was completed and how were those emotions, how did they compare?

MKW: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me this question. Please don’t tell anybody but I have not finished watching yet. I’m trying to get somebody to watch it with me. It’s the last two episodes, particularly Korey and the trauma, what he went through, it wakes up a lot of old memories. I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’m going to. I have to for my peace of mind. I need to finish the journey.

GD: I ended up seeing it all in one day. I went to a screening of it.

MKW: In one day? One sitting?

GD: Not one sitting. First two episodes then a lunch break and then the last two episodes. It was a really emotionally intense experience. I’ve seen a lot of people on the day it came out, “I’ve seen the whole thing,” and they were raving about it. You need more time to process the emotions of it. A lot of people do and will. How do you feel is the ideal way to take this story in and try and process it?

MKW: For me, it’s about action. This process, this journey, has changed me forever. For me, it’s about going back to my community and being a part of the team that wants to make sure that this stops. I can’t say that it never happens again because it’s still happening. Right now someone is rotting away in prison because they don’t have money for a lawyer and they’re innocent of what they’ve been convicted for. I would hope that this will start action, that people that watch this, they’ll be moved to action and “When They See Us” has woke up a lot of anger, a lot of emotion, and the worst thing we can do with those emotions as a community is turn it into hate. It has to be about community and unity and not about us against them. It can’t be the police department against the community, black against white or white cops against the black community. They don’t work and in my opinion, if we allow ourselves to go there, we do a terrible disservice to what these men have went through and what they survived.

GD: One of the positive things that’s coming out of the series since it premiered, you have these people who were involved in perpetrating this miscarriage of justice against these boys, these children who had their childhoods taken away from them at the moment, and now Linda Fairstein, her publisher dropped her afterward. Are you encouraged that the people involved in these sorts of things will feel consequences or people who are currently prosecutors, police officers, will feel a greater sense of empathy or a greater sense of responsibility going forward?

MKW: Definitely the latter part of your statement, your question. I can say at least in New York, with the meetings that I’ve been having with law enforcement and prosecutors and the district attorney of Brooklyn, I’m that guy now. I’m in my community trying to make a difference. I seek change. I seek care. I see that people really want to make sure that this never happens at least in my city again. However, in regards to Miss Fairstein and all of these people on the other side of this story, taking away their things, that’s neither here nor there for me. No amount of money can give these five men back what was stolen from them. However, I would really love to see her and those team of officers start with a simple, “I apologize for what you went through.” You don’t even have to say, “I’m sorry for what I did.” Can we at least start with, “I apologize. I’m sorry for what you had to endure”? Can we start there and then we see where it goes? Until that happens, take her job away, take her money away, none of that is gonna give these men back what was stolen from them. It would be nice to hear a simple, “I’m sorry.”

GD: I wanna congratulate you on the series and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about it.

MKW: The last time we spoke was on “The Night Of,” correct?

GD: I think you might’ve spoken to one of my colleagues for “The Night Of” but you and I talked about “Bessie.”

MKW: It was “Bessie”! I know why I remember it ‘cause the shirt that I wore, it was a gift from my sister, Rosario Dawson. I remember that day. It was “Bessie.”

GD: It’s good luck ‘cause every time you talk to us you get an Emmy nomination and I’ve got my fingers crossed.

MKW: Thank you.

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