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Interview: Michael K. Williams on what 'Kill the Messenger' says about the drug war

Actor Michael K. Williams has a small role in "Kill the Messenger," but he took the job because of how it exposes the government's handling of the drug war.

Actor Michael K. Williams appears at the New York Film Festival premiere of "Inherent Vice." Credit: Getty Images Actor Michael K. Williams appears at the New York Film Festival premiere of "Inherent Vice."
Credit: Getty Images

Michael K. Williams made his name with “The Wire”’s Omar Little, the charismatic gangster who made drug lords’ lives hell. Since the show’s end he’s made sure to keep doing films that touch on important subjects, taking small roles in films as diverse as “12 Years a Slave” and “The Purge: Anarchy,” in which he played a rebel leader seeking to help the targeted downtrodden. He does the same in the docudrama “Kill the Messenger,” playing real-life drug kingpin Ricky Ross, who in the 1990s was instrumental in helping journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) shed light on alleged CIA involvement in shipping crack-cocaine into low income African American neighborhoods.

Had you ever heard this story before you got the script?

Never. I was really outraged at the fact that I was that dumb. My neighborhood was going through its own scandal. My neighborhood was being bombarded with crack-cocaine at the same time. I didn’t have time to worry about what was going on in L.A. And let’s face it: We don’t grow cocoa leaves in South Central L.A. or East Flatbush, Brooklyn. It’s coming from somewhere.

How did you prepare?

I got in contact with Rick. I consider him a friend today. He gave me a ton of homework to do. It becomes apparent in the film he’s more of a pawn in the situation. He was a fall guy — allegedly.

He comes across as not just another evil drug lord but as sympathetic.

That was very important that came across. [Director Michael Cuesta] supported me in wanting to make sure his voice was heard accurately. [Ross] didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to become the best drug dealer in the world.” He fell into it due to a lack of opportunities. I’m not condoning his choices. But his options were next to none. This is a man who was allowed to float through the school system uneducated. He aspired to be a tennis player. Where were the educators nurturing this man? Obviously he’s not stupid. To reach that level of infamy in the drug world, you have to be good at numbers. You have to be good at math to handle that level of flow. No one saw that potential in him? Sad.

Michael K Williams (behind Jeremy Renner) plays drug lord Ricky Ross in "Kill the Messenger." Credit: Chuck Zlotnick, Focus Features Michael K Williams (behind Jeremy Renner) plays drug lord Ricky Ross in "Kill the Messenger."
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick, Focus Features

Like “The Wire,” this criticizes the drug war, but from a different angle.

They put kids in jail, but then the coke still make it into the country. I don’t understand it. The war should be about keeping the drugs out of the country. How do drugs still get in here if you’re diligently fighting the war? And then you want to come after people in small communities? I’m not excusing anyone’s actions. I’m not saying it’s OK to sell drugs because you don’t have a job. Wrong is wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But let’s deal with the whole problem. Tax dollars shouldn’t be going towards the low-level drug dealer on the corner, screwing up his life so he can’t get a second chance in life. Less attention should be spent on that and more on where it’s coming from.

Webb called attention to this problem, and so have things like “The Wire.” Do you think it’s getting even a little better?

You can still buy crack. I can go buy crack right now if I wanted to. No problems. And I don’t have to go far.

With this and “The Purge: Anarchy,” you seem to be taking tiny roles in films on important social issues.

My goal as an actor is to invoke emotion, conversation, hopefully change, and to entertain at the end of the day. I don’t take myself too seriously. If I get people talking about a topic, my job is done.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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