Known best for his portrayal of Omar, a stern-faced stick-up man with a strict moral compass on The Wire, Michael Kenneth Williams has made a career out of playing hard-edged characters you can’t help but root for. On Lovecraft Country, he plays Montrose Freeman, who we first meet as he bursts through the ground after being held captive by some racist assholes. He’s there looking for answers about his late wife’s heritage, but also because he’s fiercely committed to keeping his son out of the whole thing—something that becomes abundantly clear when he almost immediately shames his son for coming to save him. In Lovecraft Country’s most recent episode, “Strange Case,” we learn more about Montrose’s long term, ongoing, and mostly secret relationship with a man, see him hanging out with drag queens played by Shangela and Monet X Change, and eventually seem to watch him find some level of acceptance among the gay community.
But does that crowd-surfing moment mark a new beginning for Montrose, or is the old, hateful, controlling and controlled character still in there? The A.V. Club sat down with Williams to find out. Portions of that chat are in the video above, with a full transcript is below.
The A.V. Club: Your character in Lovecraft Country is a closeted gay Black man. This is not the first time you had to approach that type of scenario, but maybe the first time you’ve had to consider what it would have been like in the ’50s. How did you approach what it was like to be closeted at that time? Did you talk to anyone or read any source material in preparation?
Michael Kenneth Williams: No, no, no, no. I didn’t make his sexuality the thing that I went after. It was the fact that he never had the chance to identify as anything. By the time we meet Montrose, he is so traumatized. He survived a massacre that took place in Tulsa. He moves to the South Side of Chicago, which is like moving into a war zone within itself. And he’s doing this during the Jim Crow era. That’s how we meet him. He’s been so beaten into a box and told how to feel and what the definition of Black masculinity or Black sexuality feels like. He was made to feel so much that being soft or being soft spoken or being mild… that his demeanor was a sign of weakness by his father that I don’t think he really had a chance to define himself any which way. Thank God he had a friend in his wife who accepted him in his bewilderment or in his quest to explore himself.
So that’s the aspect I played him from. What is this man like? The self-hatred that must bring, not being able to even explore what I might want to be, and being told I have to be this way. “A man has to become a father. He has a son.” Not just children: “A man has a son.” He says that, you know. So I more or less dove into that and tried to unpack that.
AVC: So is what we’re seeing at the end of the episode him learning to fully embrace who he is, or is he still going to keep things secret? Or does he even know who he is?
MKW: He doesn’t know. I think at that point, what he was feeling in that room, in that clubhouse at that ballroom event was non-judgmental love. I think that’s probably the first time he didn’t feel judged, or that he was just loved and given a space to be a kid and to run free.
Montrose was very soft growing up. He was very afraid, fragile, and he was abused by his dad. So that demeanor that we see him have, that’s because he was battered and very traumatized. He’s not given a space to explore, so when you see him let down his guard, he’s going back to the little boy in him that was so severely scarred and thrown into this box. He let that kid out. That’s really what I saw in that scene.
AVC: When we first meet Montrose, he is bursting out of the ground like a character from his favorite book, The Count Of Monte Cristo. What do you think that says about his character?
MKW: Well, the fact that he even decided to go and investigate it, or find the dark magic in the family, is a turning point for him. He was always the one that said, “let that go.” So the fact that he went there on his own to search for the legacy was a turning point for him. I think he felt he was losing his son, because Tic goes to the army to get away from him. So I believe he looked at this as a way to find reconciliation with his son.
It’s also controlling, because Tic has always wanted to find out who his mama was, and his dad always said no. But all of a sudden now Montrose says, “Okay, I’ll get back to you and let you know the family legacy.”
When they come to get him because he got in trouble, his reaction to seeing them, it was a little heartbreaking for me. He broke Tic’s heart yelling at him like that. He had an urge to come find his father, and the first thing he says is “Why the hell did you come here?” It was a bit heartbreaking for me, but it let me know right then and there what I was up against with this guy. He was damaged.
AVC: So much of what he does is ostensibly to protect his son, but is it naive of Montrose to think that he can just walk away from this whole pursuit? It’s like he thinks, “Well, I burned the book. Tic’s safe now.” “This person’s dead. The end.” But that doesn’t seem like it will necessarily be the case, and I’m wondering why Montrose would seem to think that.
MKW: He wants Tic to let it go, but Tic is on a quest, which Montrose eventually realizes. It’s also in the dialogue, like “I don’t think you should go anymore, because I’ve seen enough, I went there, I seen them. This shit is really dangerous,” but his son has made the choice as a man to say, “Okay, dad, I heard you, but I’m a man. I’m going to go do this on my own.” Montrose is realizing that he’s forced to go with Tic because he doesn’t want anything to happen. But he goes very begrudgingly, because he doesn’t believe it’s the right way.