Interview: Michael K Williams on playing Montrose in Lovecraft Country
Currently up for a 2021 Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Montrose Freeman in HBO’s acclaimed horror series Lovecraft Country, the late actor shared his thoughts on the show when it was released in 2020, and its relevance to racial identity in modern-day USA.
Based on the 2017 World Fantasy Award-nominated cult novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is exec produced by Oscar winner Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Emmy winner JJ Abrams (Star Wars, Super 8), with Misha Green (Underground) as the showrunner and co-creator.
In the 1950s, Atticus, a young African-American, sets out on a road trip with his childhood friend Letitia and his uncle George to find his missing father. This catapults the three into a struggle for survival against the dual terrors of Jim Crow-era America and terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a paperback written by pulpy horror author HP Lovecraft.
What drew you to this project?
The script. I loved the writing immediately.
Having JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele attached didn’t hurt, you know, and I must say I was really excited to be working again with Jonathan Majors. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Majors.
It was also a good opportunity to go back to HBO: I love the relationship that I have there.
You’ve worked with HBO many times before. What’s different about this particular project?
I don’t remember ever seeing this level of science fiction being told through the eyes of a Black family, a Black cast. What the experience of being Black does to this world is brilliant. I’ve never seen anything like it, that’s for sure.
What was it like working with this cast?
A lot of my dark and emotional scenes are with Jonathan and Jurnee. To have them there as human beings to hold hands, you know, after the camera cut was very monumental for me. These stories were often dark. We’re telling stories of Jim Crow America and sometimes, at least for me, I overlook the possibility that a lot of this horror is in my DNA.
I have this trauma in me from ancestors. How does telling these storylines wake up that trauma in my DNA? What gets awoken? How do I deal with it? And having Jurnee and Jonathan there, I would look across the room and look at their eyes and I can tell that they were in the same room as I was, you know, metaphorically speaking, and that was brilliant to have for me.
The premise of the show revolves around Atticus’s search for his father — not only is Montrose lost, he is at a loss with his identity. Is that something you recognised?
Yeah. Basically, the whole foundation of this show was his family trying to find who they are. What is their legacy? That’s in every family around the world. And just like every other family, there are dark
secrets and issues and things that we don’t want to talk about. And what do we do? We put them in the upper room, and no one discusses it, that dreadful act, you know, and we leave it there.
And Montrose was the main gatekeeper of those dark secrets, and then all of a sudden he wants to go into that room and to find out who they are.
Even though the show can get very dark, there’s also a glimpse of Black joy, and Black love — how did that make you feel, seeing those moments?
I loved it. The scenes between Aunjanue Ellis and Courtney B Vance, can we talk about grown Black love for a minute? Seeing that Black love, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Yeah, there’s a lot of beautiful moments in it. There’s a lot of beautiful moments of strength, beautiful moments of overcoming and beautiful moments of love.
The monsters on this show are terrifying, but one could say that racism is a metaphoric monster on Lovecraft Country. What did the monsters on the show represent to you?
The monsters represented everything that is messed up with our society. At least that was my first
response to it. When I read the pilot, I said oh, these monsters are dark and they are everything that’s systemically wrong. I’m not just talking about racism. I’m talking about sexism. You know, the phobias, the way we treat people or just everything, you name it, to me the monsters represent that.
What was your favourite element of the show?
This whole show is my favourite part of the show. I just love the family aspect of it, the way that this story is told through the eyes of an African-American family. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. I think that’s my most favourite part of the show: it’s not a Black story, it’s a story that’s being told by a Black family. That’s the brilliance of this show.
Let’s talk about Atticus and Montrose’s relationship, which is a bit distant.
Well, their relationship is definitely broken. However, they love each other, they love each other to the moon and back. There are some secrets that come out, as they start to go on this journey to find out what their legacy is. They have a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. We pass on our generational curses as humans, that’s something that I believe happens a lot, and Montrose is no different.
He came with a bag of trauma by the time Atticus was born. He did the best he could with his son and he tried to beat the ability to dream out of Atticus’s head. ‘Stay out of the clouds, boy. Don’t be a weak boy. Don’t be a soft boy’. And he was doing that because in his mind he was protecting Atticus. These are the things that got Montrose in trouble.
How do you think people are going to react while watching it?
People are either going to love it or hate it. I don’t think there will be any in-between for Lovecraft Country watchers. For Black men, in particular, I hope that watching Lovecraft will be some sort of freedom, some sort of release for a multitude of levels, from sexuality, to what it means to be a father, to what it means to be a friend, to what it means to be a brother. I hope that especially men of colour, when they watch this, that they will be inspired to redefine what those things mean.
Are you hoping to see more Black people in the sci-fi and horror genre?
I’m hoping to see more people of colour in the boardrooms. I would like to see more freedom for us to
tell all of our stories, through horror, through love, through Black love, through drama, through comedy. We know that there are many phases and many levels of the Black experience and I think that we should feel free to tell them all and we should have the ability and the resources to tell them all.