A chance to be in a film costarring with Matthew Broderick? Michael Kenneth Williams figured someone was calling the wrong number.
So he blew off the first couple of phone messages from representatives of writer-director Joshua Goldin about the film Wonderful World, which opens Friday (1/8/10). It was only when Goldin himself reached Williams that the Brooklyn-born actor figured something might actually be up.
"I thought it was a mass call; I got intimidated because it was opposite Matthew Broderick," Williams recalls, adding that, when he first was notified of the audition, "I thought, I'm not going to waste my time. Then Josh called me back a few times and said he wanted me. So I went in."
In Wonderful World, Williams plays Ibou, Broderick's roommate, a Senegalese immigrant to whom the unhappily divorced Broderick regularly loses at chess. When Ibou suffers a health crisis, Broderick's character finds a purpose for his own confused life, fighting city hall on his roommate's behalf.
Williams worked on his character's accent while filming Spike Lee's Miracle of St. Ann in Tuscany two years ago: "I befriended a gentleman from Senegal. He taught me a lot about what sort of person this character was, how to pronounce the language. It was a lot of help. That accent was by far my biggest challenge."
The two characters seem unlikely friends, but, Williams says, "I guess that opposites attract. Plus Matthew's character needed a roommate, needed the money. They felt each other out and become friends over time."
And who is actually the superior chess player - him or Broderick?
"I'm a little rusty at chess," Williams says. "Matthew's got me by a hair."
Williams smiles at the memory - and seems tickled simply by the fact that he's a working actor. It was never part of the plan - not that Williams had a plan when he started. But a fortuitous bit of casting in a critically acclaimed HBO series changed all that.
"To me, that series was an actor's dream," Williams, 43, says of The Wire, on which he spent five seasons portraying rogue drug dealer Omar Little - a gay gangster with the smarts and the will to go up against the Baltimore drug gangs, carving himself out a piece of the action while building a fearsome rep. "It has increased my work. I'm very blessed."
That show, which aired from 2002-2008, launched Williams from being music-video background dancer and bit-part extra to establishing himself as an actor. He currently has two films in theaters (Wonderful World and The Road) and another awaiting release (Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime), with two others wending their way through post-production.
Yet Williams drifted into his 20s before he figured out what he wanted to do.
"I didn't really choose acting," he says. "Theater chose me. It's not about the money and I never thought I was all that talented."
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