From writer/director/producer Emilio Estevez, the drama The Public documents an act of civil disobedience that turns into a dangerous stand-off with police when the homeless patrons of the downtown Cincinnati library seek shelter from the life-threatening cold. While the media rushes to judgment and politicians think about how it all makes them look, this David vs. Goliath story tackles the prevalent and challenging issues of homelessness and mental illness, and how just because you can’t afford to have a roof over your head, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less worthy or human.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael K. Williams talked about playing a homeless veteran in the film, the importance of the public library to a community, the special responsibility that comes with taking on a filmmaker’s passion project, the film’s big nude scene, and what he hopes audiences take from seeing The Public. He also talked about what got him to sign on for the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, being produced by Bad Robot and Monkeypaw Productions, and what it meant to him to be a part of When They See Us, for Ava DuVernay and Netflix.
Collider: We last spoke for Hap and Leonard, which will always have a special place in my heart. I loved that show!
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: I did, too.
I also really enjoyed this film and I think it’s an important story to be told.
WILLIAMS: I couldn’t agree more.
When this script and this role came your way, did you know what it was about? Did you have any idea what you’d be reading, when you read it?
WILLIAMS: I had no idea what it was, based on the title, The Public. After I read it, for me, it was about redemption. It was a very redeeming story for our homeless community, and it humanized them, in a way that I had never seen before. Then, simultaneously, it reminded me of how important and how vital the public library is to the community. I just fell in love with it. It was a very unique and different look at something that no one is really talking about.
The public library used to be a really important place for me. I read a lot, as a kid, and I’d go to the library, every week with my mother, so that we could pick out different books to read together. And now that she’s gone, those are some of the best memories that I have of her.
WILLIAMS: This is really pre the personal computer, and we forget that. I have the luxury of a laptop at home, so I don’t have to go to the library, if I don’t want to. However, there are still lots of people who rely on the library. People can go get a book and use free wifi, and there are clean bathrooms. It’s just a communal place for the community. It’s for all, and for everyone. There’s no judgment. There’s no fee. You don’t have to buy anything. You can go anywhere in the world for free, at the public library, and we forget that. People have gotten away from it. This movie reminded me of just how important the library is.
There’s something really cool about being in a place, where you could come across anybody, at any time.
WILLIAMS: Anybody at any time, from anywhere. You look at a place like that, for that to be the only place of refuge for the homeless community, it’s telling. Librarians, nowadays, are made to do things that are far beyond their job description. That’s just not fair to anybody.
This was a project Emilio Estevez worked on for over a decade.
WILLIAMS: It’s been 12 years. He first read the article, 12 years ago today, on April 1st, and that got the wheels in motion.
When you’re doing a passion project like that, does it take on special meaning for everyone? Especially for a movie like this, you’re not doing it for a big pay day, so does it create a real sense of everybody being there because telling the story is important to them?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely! Our work hours, every day, were 7pm to 7am because we had to work around the library hours. Because of that, no one was really running back to their trailer, so for 12 hours, we would sit together, take naps together, eat together, and play chess together. No one left the library for 12 hours, until it was time to wrap. That gave me a sense of how the community that goes in there does that. I got a glimpse of how the lives of the people we were portraying in the movie really folds out, over the course of the day, just being at the public library.
Who was the best chess player?
WILLIAMS: Oh, man, I think everybody got a little bit of a butt-whooping, just ‘cause of the hour of the morning it was. There was a few chess games in there, and a few card games. Homeless people are normal people. I got asked earlier today, “What did you do to prepare for the character?” There was nothing to prepare for. I just had to be human. All I had to do to prepare for this character was to read the script and be human. That’s all I had to do to prepare for this character. That’s all. Homeless people want to be acknowledged for being human and wanting the same things we all want – the basic necessities. There was nothing to prepare for, in regards to this.
It’s just a matter of circumstance that changes the geography for where we live.
WILLIAMS: You better tell that truth.
Not only do you have a big nude scene in this film, but there were a lot of you who were naked and singing. What was that scene like to shoot, and just how naked did everyone have to be?
WILLIAMS: Well, the nudity was 100%, but we were allowed to keep our shoes on. That was it. That was liberating because the stage for that scenario was set for disaster. You have a library full of homeless men, the police department, the politicians trying to spin it for their political gain, and the media trying to spin it for more clicks, or to stage a story, so that they can say they got the biggest scoop. And then, you have all of these men take off all of their clothes to level the playing field. The police officers, who were mostly male, were like, “I don’t wanna touch a homeless naked guy!” The naked scene was very redeeming. It was a very humble gesture to strip naked, but at the same token, it was very empowering. It was a huge statement, in my opinion.